Australian-born, London-adopted portrait photographer Samuel McElwee has travelled the world capturing the streets, photographing celebrities, and bringing to life captivating personal projects. He has worked with the likes of Carrie Fisher, Maxine Peake, and gained access-all-areas photography rights to Lionel Richie's shows in Melbourne and Sydney in 2014 and 2015. A recipient of The British Journal of Photography – Portrait of Britain 2018 award, his recent work, the Pablo project, has been turning heads with its element of surprise. Find out more below!
Hello, Samuel! Welcome to the Lomography Magazine. Please tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into photography?
Hey Martha, Thank you for having me be a part of the magazine! I’m an Australian photographer now based in London, working in commercial and portrait photography. I grew up in rural Aus, but somehow now you’re more likely to find me holding a camera, swimming in the Icelandic ocean, onstage surprised by 40,000 people or in a studio trying to convince someone to put mustard through their beard. I’m always pinching myself to see if this is all real, photography has been such an important part of my life.
You take such beautiful shots of people – whether they’re staged studio shots or candid moments on the streets. What is it that draws you to portraiture?
Thank you. Naturally, we are a curious bunch, people are generally interested in people and everyone has a story to tell. A look away from the camera can show or tell something so different to when the subject is looking down the lens, which I find fascinating. Whether it be a studio shot or a snap on the street, I love that people can look at a portrait and create, in their own mind, a story of what was captured. There’s nothing more important than that split second after the shutter release when time was stopped. It gives us a lot of opportunities to reflect, share or just crack up. In a sense, I believe that portraiture brings people together.
We love the Pablo project! The video is 97 seconds of pure joy. Where did you get the idea? And – we’re dying to know – who is Pablo? Is he yours? Can we keep him?
The million dollar question! – Who is Pablo? Ha. For those who haven’t seen the project or video, it’s worth watching before reading the next bit.
Pablo is my best friend Jake’s little pug puppy, a very adorable ball of fur. When Pablo was 9 weeks old, Jake and I were at a cafe and every single person who passed by just melted when they saw him (Pablo, not Jake). I knew I had to try and capture these genuine reactions in the studio. I had a very small window to make the project work as I had travel jobs and Pablo had a pretty demanding schedule. I organised a studio, put a call out to my colleagues, friends, and friends of friends to be a part of my project – codenamed Picasso, which was my little white lie. I told everyone to sit and close their eyes as I was attempting an abstract portrait inspired by Picasso. When their eyes were closed we popped the little puppy in front of them. The split second they opened their eyes, the shoot began. I had the whole gamut of emotions from tears to people praying to the gods. It was a really fun day seeing how people responded. The project has to be some of my favourite work I’ve done, as it brings a lot of joy to people. The cherry on top was the portrait of Shannon being selected as a winning image for The British Journal of Photography – Portrait of Britain 2018, an incredible honour.
You’ve taken gorgeous pictures of some really famous faces. What’s it like to work with celebrities like Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake? Any stories you’d like to share?
Working with famous faces or celebrities is always a challenge and forever nerve-racking. I find the best approach is to be as technically prepared as possible and to focus on the actual time we have together because we are two people in a room, meeting for the first time and I may only have 30 seconds to build a relationship. I’ll go into the shoot with a fairly strong idea of how I want the photo to come out (but always open to happy accidents). I’ll have tested a few lighting setups earlier in the week and on the day have it all pre-lit so no one is waiting around. It sounds a little cliché, but I’ll always greet everyone with a “G’day mate”, a warm smile & a handshake. There is something about the Australian accent that disarms people.
A fun story to share... In saying all that stuff about being prepared for everything, sometimes it’s impossible. There was a moment when I was with Lionel Richie as his personal photographer for the Melbourne Tour. After getting my brief “wherever Lionel is, you are”, I followed Lionel backstage where it was nearly pitch black. A torch lit the way and I had no idea where I was, nor what was happening. When he stopped I stopped, music began to play, curtains dropped, Lionel’s arms went up and the spotlights came on. I took one frame then realised where I was. On stage in front of a screaming stadium. I remember looking at the massive LCD screen and seeing my mug thinking this is absolutely mad.
Many of your portraits are captured against carefully crafted backdrops – Carrie Fisher sits among robots, Jarvis Cocker stands on the banks of a river with a crew working behind him. How do you decide what to include in your frame?
Carrie’s shot was a commercial shot so it was more of a judgment of composition. Jarvis’ shot was down on the Thames at low tide. We had to get a studio shot but I didn’t have a studio or the time, so I decided to take the studio to the beach. This may have been a terrible idea due to the weather conditions, but it turned out to be a fun shot. A gust of wind took off the clip and the paper roll started to fly off in the wind. Often it’s a case of circumstance rather than choice and trying to be creative with what is available. You’ll know when something feels right. That quirky, uncontrollable nature of the location really complimented Jarvis’ personality and made the photo what it is. I try to stay true to my environment and always think about the background as much as the talent.
When you photographed Lionel Richie, he was busy greeting fans and playing shows. What challenges did this present when seeking the perfect shot? Would you like to do more live music photography in the future?
With Lionel, I had the dream brief – to be wherever he was, so this removed a lot of the challenges and red tape that I may have faced otherwise. The main challenge I found that night was to cover as much as I could. I was sprinting to the back of the stadium to get a wide shot of the crowd, then down to the pit to join the magazine photographers, then jumping onstage to get every angle I could. It was a job I’ll never forget. Music is my other love – I played in a band all the way through high school and into university, so I’ve always enjoyed the stage and working with artists. I prefer portraits to live music photography, so if I’m up front at a concert, it’s as a punter, not photographer.
From Cuba to France, you’ve snapped stunning shots of people pacing the pavements. How do you find taking pictures of people on the street?
With great secrecy, ha. When I’m out and about, I don’t like to bother people too much. I like documenting people in a way that shows where everything is, exactly as is. A lot of my travel/street photography is just me with my camera, walking around looking for a photo, whether I’m between shots on a job or on holiday. If I see some interesting light or I have an idea that something might happen in the space, I’ll wait around to see. Sometimes I get a photo, a lot of the time I don’t.
Do you have a favourite photo from your portfolio? Could you tell us a little about how it came to be, and why you like it so much?
I don’t think I have a favourite – each shoot I do has its highs and lows, and they all mean a lot to me personally. I may love a photo purely for the fact that it was a technical win. Or, because I was able to spend an incredible day with someone who I’d normally never meet. One that comes to mind, which is more for the memory than the photo, is the photo of Lionel pointing at me after a show. He was saying “Sam, you’re kickin’ ass.”
Could you tell us a little about your latest Tech-NO project? The photos are so dynamic!
This one was a load of fun. We experimented with capturing the emotions we all go through when using technology that doesn’t want to play ball. For caricature work, I find it a lot easier to actually do the motion myself so the talent can see where I want them to go, then let them put their own twist on it. So I end up screaming just as much as the performers themselves. It would have been a pretty funny scene to walk in on!
What’s next for Samuel McElwee? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
I have four projects on the go at the moment. One is a lovely series on Venice shot in a very abstract way. I’ve really enjoyed working on this series because it’s a different style of shooting to my normal aesthetic. Another project is… how do I say this without giving too much away? A beautifully grotesque portrait series, that includes food. Hopefully, it’ll make people laugh… or cringe, we’ll see how that goes! There are a couple more but they’re still in pre-production at the moment. I really want to shoot more personal work and get my work out there, while always learning along the way, and – more importantly – having fun while doing it all. It’s a really exciting time!