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How Brian Griffin's Innovative Portraits Upended Photography

Without Brian Griffin, the world of portrait photography would be vastly different. Born in Birmingham, England in 1948, Griffin studied at Manchester Polytechnic’s School of Photography before becoming a staff photographer for business magazine Management Today. Griffin's diverse influences — including Surrealism and Renaissance masters — and his innovative use of symbolism and film noir-style lighting upended the staid world of business photography and established him as one of the UK's most influential photographers. More than 30 years later, Griffin is still pushing the boundaries of portrait photography.

During the 1980s, Griffin became the go-to photographer for a vast number of corporate clients, as well as some of the era's most iconic musical acts, including the Clash, Devo, REM, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, and Queen’s Brian May. Griffin's photography can be seen on the covers of seminal albums like Echo and the Bunnymen's Ocean Rain and Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell. After a 14-year foray into commercials and videos, Griffin returned to still photography in 2003. Since then, he’s worked on a variety of portrait projects, producing books and exhibitions for high-profile events such as the London Olympics.

In 2013, he received the Centenary Medal from the Royal Photographic Society, in recognition of a lifetime achievement in photography. And in March of this year, he received an honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University for his lifetime contribution to the city. We caught up with Griffin to discuss his current projects, as well as his point of view on the state of photography today.

Image from Photo Canopy © Brian Griffin

Shutterstock: Your exhibition, Photo Canopy, has been showing in Burton on Trent. Could you talk a little bit about the project?

Brian Griffin: I was asked to do some lecturing at Burton College of Further Education and to get involved in a project on the National Forest. I came up with some ideas, but then came back to photographing the college itself.

I used the college’s equipment, alongside some of my own Elinchrom stuff. I started photographing different members of the staff. What happens these days is that everything I shoot has to be seen. The commissions I get demand this, so I had to shoot quite a lot — a good four portraits a day. Blooming hard work with Elinchroms! Following the exhibition, the work will be permanently hung in the college.

We saw a couple of the shots you put up as a sneak preview on Facebook. Did you have a theme for this shoot?

The purpose was to depict certain departments. For instance, with the shot for the first-aid department, I used the model baby they use for practice. There was a combination of students and staff in the portraits. It must be unique to have done that! I’m really proud of it.

Image from Photo Canopy © Brian Griffin

What would you say to those starting out now who want to stand out as a portrait photographer?

It’s a difficult question. Go and look at photographers’ work, but look at other mediums, as well. Your work has to look different from others, which is why it’s important to look at stuff outside of the photographic world.

Learn to use light, because light always has a personal flavor to it (the way you use it and the way you light things). It will always have a unique quality and cast, and that will help to make your work unique. I find using a tethered camera helps. One can make delicate nuances and change the lighting by fractions. Digital cameras have more fractions of a stop, which really helps with lighting. Half a stop was too brutal on analogue. I couldn’t replicate the tonal qualities of paintings, which really frustrated me. Now you have a real subtlety of stops.

But can you get the tonal depth of analogue on digital?

I hated colour film and love black-and-white! Hated the look of it, so I'm much happier with digital technology and don't mind the fact that it doesn't relate to film. I shot with black-and-white all through the '70s and '80s, so now I really love using color.

You resisted digital for a long time, though...

The demands of the client made me go digital — in particular working on the St Pancras HS1 project. The client demanded it, partly I think so they could see what I was shooting. The square black-and-whites were shot on an analogue Hasselblad, but the rectangular ones were shot on Mamiya’s first attempt at a digital camera. It was so hard to use that no one wanted to buy one!

Image from Derby Cathedral © Brian Griffin

What are you shooting with now?

After Phase One bought out Mamiya, the guys at Johnsons Photopia persuaded them to sponsor me. I got a Phase One 30+ and have been using it ever since. When I need bigger pieces of kit, I hire them in from the Flash Centre. I’m still using Mamiya lenses from that original digital camera. I use a telephoto Mamiya zoom that I inherited from the analogue days. I really like using a zoom.

That’s very unusual for a portrait photographer.

I like using it because of the optical effect it gives.

Do you use fixed lenses as well?

I’ve never really used a lot of lenses. I’ve now got a standard fixed lens and the zoom. I don’t need anything else. At my age, I can see my focal length by just using my eyes. And I don’t do advertising work anymore. I’d have to hire in lenses if I had to do things to a layout.

Image from Black Country © Brian Griffin

You did some work on one of the original Star Wars films — could you tell us a bit about that?

Yes! I shot some images for Return of the Jedi at Elstree Studios. They set me up with a studio and a backdrop near the set and the actors would come over to the studio on their lunch break, or when they weren’t on set. I didn’t get to photograph everyone and, in fact, I didn't achieve as many photos as I would have liked.

You got some great shots though. I always particularly liked the Harrison Ford shot.

I was a young gun then. I’d only got my first studio in 1980 and wasn’t very well equipped in those days. The shots seem a bit naive now. My studio was in Rotherhithe, and by sheer fluke, I was just around the corner from Roger Shaw, who did all the animatronics for Star Wars. And that’s how I got the job.

Would you want to shoot for the new movies?

I would love to. I had to keep the old photos under a bushel in a way. George Lucas is very controlling over images and I can’t commercially sell them. So if they paid me a good fee, I’d do it. And maybe some people will buy my pictures!

Keith Jeffrey, CEO of Quad Derby © Brian Griffin

On a different note, do you find it hard to photograph people you don’t feel a particular connection with?

No, I don’t care. I’m just after a good image. Like a hunter with the camera. I did a really good shot of Tony Benn, but found him boring. Helen Mirren was wonderful. Douglas Adams was great. Maggie Thatcher was fascinating. Thinking about it, though, it’s very rare that I’ve taken a good portrait of someone I haven’t found a way to connect with. Even with Tony Benn, we had politics in common.

I’ve always been fascinated by your corporate work in Management Today. How did you get away with that style of work?

I wouldn’t pick up the phone to people asking for other images, so they had to use my stuff! Then it started to become a demand, and people were expecting something different. People wanted my style and were buying into it. I don’t think the editor ever liked my style. He had a lot of trouble with how I depicted stuff. But I had supporters and people who believed in me.

If you were starting out again now, would you still have the creative freedom?

It’s really hard to find people who’ll give you creative freedom. There were lots of interesting people who were heads of marketing at that time. For instance, the marketing head of Hewlett Packard was really creative. I can’t imagine seeing that nowadays. You just don’t see the creativity in corporate work anymore. It’s so conservative — people aren’t giving things a go. After Maggie [Thatcher] came into power in 1979, corporate work flourished. The business world was exciting and I caught it at the right time.

Birmingham Workmen image © Brian Griffin

Digitization has created laziness — every single photo comes out. It’s made clients able to look at work in progress, and has led to a democratization of photography due to digitalization. And it has had a massive effect on the number of students doing photography and created an element of lethargy, because exposures don’t necessarily need light. My most modern assistant — who’s worked with me since 2006 on various occasions — has a terrible lack of feeling for light, but great capability in image creation.

What else are you working on at moment?

I’ve got a big show at the Lodz festival. I’m exhibiting music photography in a big industrial building. So that and the Canopy show are the two big things. Other than that, I’m just running the business. These days, I’m a brand, so I’m selling and also archiving the prints. Most of my income comes from selling these days.

On a lighter note, how do you feel about the fact that when you Google "Brian Griffin," the first thing that comes up is the dog from Family Guy?

I’m very bored with the Family Guy dog. It creates a bit of a yawn. When they killed him off, my website exploded — people thought it was the dog’s website! I hate it and I've never watched the show!

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