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Robert Wilson was firmly established as an in-demand commercial photographer when he was invited to join the British 52 Brigade serving in Helmand province, Afghanistan. As a war artist rather than a photojournalist, he etched out the fine details of his surroundings and his subject’s faces into his signature hyper-real digital images, employing the language of his commercial career to startling effect in this new landscape. He sat down with EIZO to talk about his enduring interest in photographing people and the technical craftsmanship that goes into creating his distinctive imagery.
What turned your focus towards portraiture and the human form?
The photography I am most drawn to always involves people. Even at college, the main focus of my work was people and faces. I like the intimacy and immediacy of working with people, you have to work quickly and assess the other person’s moods. In a very small amount of time, you have to develop a bond and gain people’s trust. I find it invigorating, trying to put people at ease, trying to coax out a response that will create a good photograph while constantly considering the technical aspects of the shot.
In your portraits, the face fills the frame, like a landscape. What makes you want to get so close and detailed?
Well getting close is not always the best thing, particularly if you're trying to flatter someone and the digital back you are using is 60 or 80 megapixels. However, I do like to get close. Much has been said about the eyes being the windows to the soul, and I have to agree. It's a magical thing looking into someone’s eyes and I've always tried to capture the intimacy that comes from strong direct eye contact. The rest of the face I treat, like you say, as a landscape. Much of the time with a subject is spent assessing their face structure and how best to light it to show it in its best light. I'm not one for lighting someone to intentionally make them look freakish or geeky. I generally want people to like the pictures I take of them.
And what’s the trick to making your subjects comfortable?
I think you get the best response if you're honest and open with people. Tell them what it is you are after, and go about it in a professional manner. If a sitter can see that you have a vision for something and you are working hard to achieve the best image possible I generally find the subject will be willing to put in the time and effort as the end result is certainly going to reflect well on them.
What challenges did you face having to adapt yourself to becoming a war artist in Afghanistan? What did you focus on as your role as a war artist?
There was the challenge of not knowing what I was going to see. Having to react and capture what I came across, working out of a camera bag with no assistant and no brief is actually one of the most fulfilling feelings of freedom a commercial photographer can have. The longer I was in Afghanistan and the deeper I went to front line positions the more intense the conditions, landscapes and faces became. In the end, the narrative I came back with was an easy one to put together. In the book Helmand, the journey the images take is almost a chronological diary of the journey I made.
What kind of post-production do you do to achieve your hyper-real look?
Firstly if the image requires complex compositing work I will tend to work on a mock-up and give the hi-res files to a retoucher to put together better than I can. Then once the image is how I want it I will grade it on my system. I always start by duplicating my background layer then I build up layers that generally start by adding contrast, then bring back lost detail in highlight and shadow areas. Sometimes this grading process can be done in a few layers but sometimes the layers can be many, it just depends on how the image changes as I go.
It sounds very delicate and precise.
When I add or take away adjustments through layer masks I tend to work almost like I was painting. With my pen, I use small brushstrokes building them up slowly. A lot of my work has a muted delicate colour palette so it is important for me to have a monitor that can precisely show the subtle colour adjustments I make. Since changing from CRT's many years ago I have always used EIZO monitors. I love the fact there is no glare and the image always appears correct no matter what angle you view it from. Also, the detail it shows in highlight and shadow areas and the colour rendition of the monitor is superb.
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