“I’m really nosy, and photography has served as this wonderful excuse to do things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise do—like go to Nicola Sturgeon’s to hang out for a few hours, or see Peter Blake’s studio, or go to UK Parliament, or to Tanzania with Richard E Grant. That’s the joy of it, you get to meet every different type of person, and it levels everyone out.” I’m talking to Benjamin McMahon—a British photographer who has worked extensively for Elephant over the years taking portraits for the print magazine—about his upcoming show at Elephant West.
The series that the exhibition centres around, Not Myself, has been an ongoing project for McMahon over the last four years, and is hooked on the simple premise of asking his subjects to take self-portraits of themselves in a reflective surface. “There’s about one hundred of them,” he tells me, “of almost everyone I’ve photographed over the last four years.” The cast of characters in this series is pretty monumental, spanning actors, musicians, politicians, artists, sports players and more, all photographed at the end of McMahon’s commissioned shoots for national newspapers and glossy magazines.
“Photography has served as this wonderful excuse to do things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise do”
“I was getting a bit sick of having ten or so minutes with someone,” he tells me. “You start to question, is the next photographer going to come in and do exactly the same job as you in the same space, the same light… You hope you can get something out of someone that no-one else can, but at some point, I decided to take my own pictures as well. I thought, they will give something more of themselves, they know how they look their best, if you give them a bit of control.”
In the exhibition, McMahon has brought together portraits of subjects from all walks of life. In one shot, Judi Dench looks intensely into the mirror with a steely gaze (McMahon happened to photograph her on his thirtieth birthday a few years ago, and she popped open some champagne for him), in another, French painter Fabienne Verdier is caught in a far-off mirror, a lone figure in intimate focus, almost engulfed by her surrounding studio. The images are all presented in inky black and white, and vary between spontaneous-looking shots and more formal arrangements.
“It’s a strange thing to be asked to do and it’s always on the end of a magazine shoot,” says McMahon. “You have to do a Columbo and ask for just one more thing. Some people, like Helena Bonham-Carter, have taken it really seriously. She spent a good half hour after we’d finished trying out different poses and walking around and figuring out what worked best. Other people stood there and looked confused.”
“I always asked them to be more considered with it: less selfie, more self-portrait”
The images are set up by McMahon, who then hides out of shot—in the case of footballer Gareth Bale, behind the wall of a changing room shower. He works with the subject to find the location and set up the camera, and helps them with focusing the manual camera and framing the shot. Some decide to show themselves seriously and intensely, while others throw a causal smile at their own reflection. “I always asked them to be more considered with it: less selfie, more self-portrait; less Kardashian, more Kahlo,” says McMahon.
“The first proper one was of Stellan Skarsgård, which was great,” the photographer shares. “I had been to my friend’s opening the night before so I wasn’t feeling too good. But he was wicked. We were listening to Springsteen because he really likes him. I was shooting on 4 x 5, which is pretty slow, so we were talking a lot. It got to the end and I thought, ‘I’ve just got to ask him.’ Weirdly, he said yes! It’s a strange thing to ask somebody, it’s extra-curricular, it’s nothing to do with the shoot, it’s a personal project for me. But most people have said yes.”
Having worked with McMahon over the years, I have frequently noticed his ability to get on with most people—even those who start out definitely not wanting to have their portrait taken. I wonder how much of the process is about the energy of the subject on the day, and how far ahead he likes to plan based on their public persona. “I used to look into them quite a lot beforehand,” he tells me. “But then you might find something you don’t like and it taints your vision. In the end, you turn up and you get what you get—you meet the person who turns up that day. They might be the nicest person in the world but they’re having a bad day, or the most famous person who treats you like an absolute hero.”
Out of all the people he has photographed for this series, I wonder who he would really like to still include. “Loads and loads!” he tells me. “All the people I photographed before having the idea…”
Benjamin McMahon: Not Myself
From 30 October to 17 November at Elephant West, LondonVISIT WEBSITE