Our photographer of the month is portrait photographer Beowulf Sheehan. Sheehan is an American photographer best known for his portraits of authors, artists, and celebrities. He has photographed a wide range of individuals including Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Oliver, J.K. Rowling, and many others.
What we most admire about his work is his focus on approaching everyone honestly, no matter how iconic they are. We go inside his humble beginnings as a shy child growing up. Learn more about how he approaches every session and what gear he prefers. Also, what it was like to work with and photograph President Biden. And lastly, we learn why photography is important to society as a whole.
Tell us how you got started in photography.
I started making pictures to overcome my shyness. I entered high school not having seen my dad for a few years, and knowing only two other students in my class.
My dad had a Konica T2 that fascinated me, and the other boys at school talked a lot about Miami Dolphins football games. I knew nothing about either, so I decided to learn about both.
I learned how to use the camera while getting reacquainted with my dad, and I attended and photographed Dolphins games, making prints and giving them to fellow students. My world began to grow.
What is it like photographing celebrities?
I’ve been fortunate to have photographed a good number of people who’ve done great things and made contributions to society.
My experience has taught me such people are usually quite busy. They need quality photographs but have little time to be photographed. When photographing someone of some renown, photograph that person as he/she/they wish to be seen, and be quick.
If “fame” is what the subject wants in the picture, great, but there’s a greater story to that person. Show you’re sincerely interested in your subject and their story, respecting the time you have, and you’ll have a chance to make a strong photograph.
How do you prepare for your shoots?
Each shoot is a test, so do your homework as you’d prepare for any test. Prepare your equipment. Check your setup. Research your subject. Read and watch interviews. See past performances, listen to the music. Try to get a sense of the person’s message and if it’s changed at all over time.
You recently photographed our newly elected President, Joe Biden. can you tell us what that shoot was like?
My first time with President Biden was very special. Within minutes of sitting down together, he was reciting his great grandfather’s poetry to me.
President Biden reminded me of the value of finding common ground quickly. Our early connection made our session comfortable and even a pleasure. Finding that something that connects all of us to one another, in photography and frankly whenever you meet someone new, will enrich the experience.
Do you have a favorite shoot? Why?
I have several: President Biden, for embodying endurance and empathy. Donna Tartt, for her spirit. Sharon Jones, for her positivity and her joy. (More on this later.)
What is your favorite thing about photographing people?
I get to learn something new each time.
How has your work changed over the years?
My sense of light and how to shape it to the subject have grown. I’ve worked to be a better vessel for the subject’s message, not mine. And I’ve grown increasingly interested in two photographs: one as minimal as possible to reveal the sheer wonder of the subject, and the other when on location, to show how the environment complements them (and vice versa).
Why is portrait photography important?
Though this might sound a bit morbid, I’m reminded of what the great photographer Duane Michals wrote on the wall at an exhibition of his years ago (and I’m paraphrasing here):
“Years from now, when our names will have been forgotten and our bodies will have turned to dust, the only proof of our having been here will be some old photographs in a drawer.”
I think we’d all like to be in those old photographs, and we’d like those photographs to be cherished. Portraiture can help people—by which I mean the subject—reveal parts of themselves they may not feel comfortable accessing everyday. And for the viewer, it can help them see a person differently—and as more than they perhaps assumed.
Do you have a favorite lens?
Has social media affected your work?
Yes. I’m impacted as we all are. The advent of smartphone cameras and apps for sharing pictures has seen photography explode across the globe, and introduced thousands and thousands of photographers to the marketplace. It’s increased competition.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
The aspect of my work that’s the worst when work doesn’t go well is also the best when work does go well: Communication. Intuiting or assuming what someone wants often leads to misunderstanding. Being human means encountering this challenge again and again. With a little grace, we can better communicate and better create together.
What is something you wish you could go back and tell your younger photographer self?
Stay humble. Kind. Prepared. Patient when it’s right to be patient. Quick (but not hurried) when it’s right to be quick. Open. Genuine. Curious. Don’t stop saying these things to yourself.
Top 3 pieces of advice for people who want to get into portrait photography?
1. In his autobiography, the photographer Helmut Newton wrote several times not to get into photography for money. I echo his advice. If you want to commit your life to portraiture (or any form of photography), be guided by your passion for it. Challenges will come, so be ready for them.
2. Photograph the most important people in your life. Make pictures that take who they are on the inside and put their being on the outside. As you meet and work with new people, ask questions to help get to their “being” so you can celebrate them in your pictures.
3. I’m sure you’ve heard the verses “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” Embrace every opportunity with love. This kind of love.
Talk about your book: AUTHOR: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan
As I approached having photographed about 900 writers from more than fifty countries, a literary agent and friend thought it was time to publish a book.
AUTHOR was published almost two years later. It was one of the hardest yet most rewarding experiences I’ve had. It built some empathy for the writer’s lot: Writing, rewriting, publishing, promoting, speaking. Salman Rushdie kindly wrote the book’s foreword, which was such a great gift.
It reminded me how so many people were tremendously generous in supporting my career. And what magic followed from that generosity: I had a wonderful book tour, along the way meeting so many people curious about photography and their favorite writers. For years and years of photography to culminate in those heartfelt moments was very moving.
Books and photographs can touch lives, inspire, connect and comfort us. I hope all who read this will get out there, make pictures, make art, and find ways to share their work. The world’s a better place when you do.
AUTHOR: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan is available at bookstores everywhere. To order a signed copy, please go to https://www.beowulfsheehan.com/author
Beowulf Sheehan will teach “Seeing You: Storytelling, Storyteller & Photographic Portraiture” May 17 to 21, 2021 at the Fine Arts Work Center. Enrollment announcement to come soon. Please write to Kelle Groom at [email protected] for details.
We hope you enjoyed our photographer of the month! If you want to learn how to take your own portraits as an amateur and gain insight into new projects for your next session, feel free to visit more of the courses on our website or drop us a comment below.