What makes a great portrait? The connection between photographer and subject is fleeting, just the length of a single click of the shutter, and yet the resulting image endures far beyond that encounter. For French photographer Maciek Pozoga, who has shot portraits of everyone from architect Rem Koolhaas to filmmaker David Cronenberg, the ineffable nature of that brief moment is key to his creative outlook.
“It’s always more about the encounter than about the person. I never try to show the psychology of the character”
“It’s always more about the encounter than about the person. I never try to show the psychology of the character,” he says. It is an approach typical of Pozoga’s idiosyncratic images, in which celebrities and passers-by alike are captured in vivid colour, with particular attention paid to playful, sometimes humorous details. His portraits are an ode to the messy reality of life, incidental asides and all.
In his portrait of artist Marina Abramović, shot outside the Royal Academy of Arts in London for the cover of Elephant’s latest Spring Summer 22 issue, she is caught in an exuberant, unguarded moment of playful expression. As one of the most well-known faces on the planet, having included her own image as a key part of her distinctive work for more than three decades, she has set the standard for the performance of the self. Pozoga sought to break beyond that, shooting her in a spontaneous series of poses as she has not been seen before.
Pozoga’s portraits are typically shot in natural daylight. “I hate to set up the artificial lights and try to make it spectacular,” he says, before adding, “It’s kind of risky because then if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.” His images embrace the beauty of the unexpected, visual connections and coincidences that cannot be planned. A shadow of Abramović’s hand falls across her face on Elephant’s cover, and her hands fly outwards towards the lens. Eyes widened, mouth open in mock surprise, it is an image that exemplifies Pozoga’s unpretentious style.
“If I meet someone for 15 minutes, I aim to stay as close as possible to what the reality is”
Wolfgang Tillmans’ celebrity portraits for the now-defunct cult New York-based Index magazine are an important reference for Pozoga. In these images, Tillmans photographs the rich and famous not as any different to the rest of us, but simply as ordinary people. “He would always include a lot of the context of the moment,” reflects Pozoga. “You feel the encounter. I really love these portraits. I think that’s what I’m trying to achieve, something that is very casual and not forced.”
For Pozoga, the most arresting portraits are those taken by the people close to the person, who know them well. “Family portraits, like the pictures my mum would take of me, or which I take of my son, those are the best,” he smiles. “If I meet someone for 15 minutes, I aim to stay as close as possible to what the reality is.”
On that note, his parting advice to photographers is simple: “Try not to overdo it.”
Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor
All images © Maciek Pozoga