Sir David Attenborough stares piercingly into the camera lens—a thick snake draped about his shoulders and hands—serving just as much fierceness (we might argue, more) as Britney Spears in her classic 2001 VMA python performance. Here sits the king of the creatures, our conduit to the ever-more elusive natural world and, of course, we want to hear everything he has to say. In another image, Sir Anthony Hopkins, in the guise of King Lear, is shot from the shoulders up against a simple grey background, with his eyes facing down. His furrowed brow and the lines on his face conjure a mood that is far more complex than this pared back portrait might first suggest. It feels as though we are standing on the brink of a performance, perhaps just before this screen and stage legend transforms into Shakespeare’s tragic monarch.
“This doesn’t have to be hard work, it can be a captured moment or it could be meticulously pre-planned”
Both images are included in BBC Creative Photography‘s project at Elephant West, which opens this week and brings together promotional images created for drama, entertainment, comedy, factual, sport, children’s and radio programming across the BBC. This is a very specific kind of photography, that doesn’t begin and end with itself. So, what it is that makes these images so compelling?
“For me it’s about storytelling. A powerful image needs to go beyond being just a visual record of the subject being photographed, it needs to lead the viewer on a journey to understand the story of the person or people portrayed,” says Jane Record, co-manager of a team of fifteen or so photographers at the BBC. “This doesn’t have to be hard work, it can be a captured moment or it could be meticulously pre-planned—either way the best portraits are approached with intent and a thought to what narrative the image needs to tell.”
“I don’t think it’s rocket science to create a powerful image,” adds Record’s co-manager Jason Baron. “It can be a chance moment at the end of a tiring day or a rogue shot in amongst the planned ones. But powerful images are always about the truth, or they ask the question about whether the truth we thought we knew was actually real. So a good portrait for me has to have some sort of dichotomy to it, as that’s what brings out the humanity in the image.”
Among the photographers on show are Martin Parr, Richard Ansett and Steve Schofield. This kind of photography is required to perform at a high level—capturing the essence of an entire show into a still image that expresses its key themes and agendas, which also shows off the main talent and cuts through the proliferation of images we find on the Internet, in newspapers, on billboards and, of course, during the endless scrolls we do on various television platforms before settling on something that grabs our attention.
“We’re in an unusual position where we don’t control where or how our images are used in the media. Unlike an advertising campaign, where you buy the space and put in what you know will talk to your consumers, we have to persuade third party press and media outlets to use the images we’re creating,” says Record. “So it’s a fine line between pushing creative boundaries but not so far that they don’t get used by those organizations. That said, our remit is also to be bold and to progress the idea of what a promotional image can be, ensuring we’re at the forefront of our craft.”
Examining this selection of images, one of the immediate differences that can be spotted is the use of light and dark. Some images are dominated by pools of inky shadows, while others are riotously bright, hinting at the emotional pitching of their programme’s content.
“A good portrait for me has to have some sort of dichotomy to it, as that’s what brings out the humanity in the image”
“There seems to be a sweet spot in terms of an arresting shot of a face/faces quite close up with that face expressing an emotion giving a clue to the context of the show,” adds Baron. “For dramas, the audience need to know immediately what kind of world they’re going to enter into during the fiction. There’s something comforting about knowing where we are in the photo. Though obviously that means you can go against that to surprise the viewer.”
I wonder if there is one particular image that has been a highlight for the team. “It’s been a privilege to lead an amazing team of people at the very top of their field in terms of creative photography production,” says Baron. “I couldn’t possible single one of the team out over another, so I’ll say that as my background is factual and documentary, and my hero is wildlife guru presenter Chris Packham, and I commissioned it… the portrait of him that Richard Ansett shot. We had a brilliant day in Packham’s garden. They say never meet your heroes, but he was awesome.”
Portraits: The Art and Craft of Promotional Photography
From 10 May to 2 June at Elephant West, LondonVISIT WEBSITE