Portrait of an Artist

Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts
© Peter Brew-Bevan. All Rights Reserved.

Peter Brew-Bevan is known for his celebrity portraiture, having been commissioned to shoot show business and sporting celebrities from Australia and abroad. His success has been overwhelming – on a personal level, almost literally. His work is sumptuous and theatrical. It has an attention to detail that allows you to linger and enjoy. It’s commonly revealing and consistently impressive. So how does a boy from modest origins in rural South Australia, who set out to study Fine Arts at university end up being one of the most prolific Australian celebrity photographers?

Tim Anger sat down to lunch with Brew-Bevan when he was in Canberra to speak at a National Portrait Gallery (NPG) event for young members, tracing the photographic history of the magazine celebrity vehicle, Vanity Fair. The NPG, which is charged with creating and maintaining a pictorial history of the Australian story, holds six of Brew-Bevan’s portraits in its collection.

Background

Peter Brew-Bevan

Peter Brew-Bevan
© Tim Anger. All Rights Reserved.

While Brew-Bevan is now one of Australia’s most successful portrait photographers, his serious endeavours with a camera only started during his first year of studying Fine Arts at the University of South Australia. The honesty and sincerity of Brew-Bevan’s mentors at university established for him the cliché of the starving artist. With the commercial imperative reinforced, in combination with Brew-Bevan’s determination to move beyond the humble circumstances of his upbringing, he looked for another outlet for his artistic passion and abilities and found it in photography.

As a painter, he had indulged his interest in figurative landscapes – “painting feverishly” from childhood. His talent lay in the Impressionist style, but in his mind, excellence was represented by photo-realism – something he struggled to achieve with paint and brush. With photography, however, he found he could reach this standard with greater ease. So, while he was driven by his long-held passion for fine art, it was pragmatism which guided him away from painting and into photography. Brew-Bevan says that it was the immediacy and the process of producing prints in the darkroom which sparked the artistic love affair that sustained him. Watching the potential of his art developing as it swayed back and forth in the processing chemicals, and his ability to influence its form and personality, excited him.

As a result, Brew-Bevan was late to migrate from film to digital. He was fearful of losing the personal connection to his work, but he now uses digital almost exclusively – “99%” – achieving a similar, if not bigger, high out of processing the 1s and 0s. He feels that the digital process gives him even greater freedom, flexibility and creativity – it reflects the melding of his love of painting and photography.

Influences and Support

Given his background in Fine Arts and painting, it’s not surprising that many painters figure as influences on Brew-Bevan’s creativity: Edgar Degas, Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams (interestingly all more impressionistic than photo-realistic). But equally he rattles off many photographers whose work has inspired him and helped him to reach goals; Irving Penn, Albert Watson, Erwin Blumenfeld and naturally given his penchant for celebrity photography, Annie Leibovitz.

Tim Freedman

Tim Freedman
© Peter Brew-Bevan. All Rights Reserved.

Browsing through Brew-Bevan’s catalogue there’s one face which repeats. That face belongs to Barry Otto. Having won an AFI award for Best Supporting Actor for Strictly Ballroom and various other nominations, Otto is best known for his acting. However, his love of visual arts is wide and includes, like Brew-Bevan, an interest in painting. He entered the prestigious Archibald Prize in 2000 with a portrait of his daughter and fellow thespian, Miranda Otto.

And, it was Barry Otto who was asked to pen the foreword to Brew-Bevan’s acclaimed book of photography, Shoot: Studio Sessions, a collection of portraits and insights into the rendering of his art. Listening to Brew-Bevan explain what a mammoth project it evolved into and what a personal toll it exacted, leaving him at a point of creative crisis, it’s almost as though Otto is something of a emotional benefactor. “Yes,” says Brew-Bevan, “Barry and I have a bit of a connection…(and)…he’s always been very supportive.”

How does he work?

Brew-Bevan’s portraits are rich, revealing and enticing. There’s a theatrical element in many of his photographs, a description he happily embraces. Is it because so many of his celebrity subjects are actors? “Yes…a lot of my shoots are collaborative with the subject, they will suggest things and we’ll try them.” He likes to open up the process, “especially when you’re dealing with artists, musicians and actors – we all work in visuals. The more ideas the better”, he adds.

Andrew Wilkie

Andrew Wilkie
© Peter Brew-Bevan. All Rights Reserved.

But Brew-Bevan also explains that his background in Fine Arts, his appreciation and knowledge of painters like Delacriox have informed his eye and thinking on elements of drama, composition and aesthetics.
Brew-Bevan points out that the time he has on shoots is often limited – at most a few hours, often less – in some cases much less. He’s often shooting big name celebrities who are used to dealing with media and public attention. Many are actors, whose job it is to play someone else and in what’s often, for them, the uncomfortable act of promoting their work, they may adopt a character. Brew-Bevan always tries to spend a little time up front chatting to the subject informally in an attempt to glimpse the person behind the mask, even if it’s only to peek through a crack. He believes that his skills lie in connecting with people. “If I can get a sitter to share a laugh with me in the first five minutes, I’m happy”, he says.

Annie Liebovitz often had unprecedented access to subjects when she was at Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s and 80s, once going on tour with the band, Rolling Stones. Some really classic revelatory images, telling the story of life on the road as a rock and roll band resulted. But it’s also no secret that so completely immersing herself in the ‘subject’, lead to drug and alcohol addiction for Liebovitz.
With this in mind, I ask Brew-Bevan whether he’d had opportunities to spend longer periods with subjects and whether the greater exposure led to even better images? “No” he answers, but adds that he finds it easier to tease out a little insight into his subjects in the first hour or two of a shoot. He offers up as an example that he dislikes shooting his family because, “I know them too well”. I wonder aloud whether it is the challenge of discovering someone under the deadline pressure that he enjoys most. “Yes” says Brew-Bevan, “I think it is.”

What is a Portrait?

What is a portrait? It’s a vexed concept I explored in the July edition of Prophoto with NPG curator and National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) judge Dr Chris Chapman. It was evident that a clear definition is difficult. And, based on the chatter around the NPPP 2009 it’s clearly open to interpretation. When I ask Brew-Bevan for his definition, he pauses and reflects deeply on the question. He lives on the other side of the process from curators and judges. His images grace the covers of many well known Australian and international magazines. His success speaks for itself and his experience amply qualifies him to comment.

I’m very passionate about portraiture”, he finally offers.I’m looking for the person…even if it’s just a glimpse of their true personality or essence.

His ultimate aim is to have a portrait stop a viewer, invite them to linger, study the subject and maybe even learn a little about them.

Diachotomia

Diachotomia
© Peter Brew-Bevan. All Rights Reserved.

In chatting on the theme of what makes a portrait, we fall into discussion about the NPPP. Brew-Bevan was an ambassador for this prestigious competition in 2009, a promotional role which saw an ABC film crew follow him around on set. His entry, Dichotomia, is Brew-Bevan par excellence. It features Barry Otto as two halves of the one character. While it’s loaded with sub-text it’s visually simple and classical, inspired by the chalk drawings of Otto’s favourite artist, Sandro Botticelli. It is revealing of Otto, enticing you to linger and study and wonder, leaving you with a greater appreciation and understanding of the man.

However, in 2009 the NPPP caused somewhat of a stir in art circles and beyond. The main criticism being that some finalist’s portraits were unworthy of inclusion. Brew-Bevan agrees that “…several images in the exhibition…were snapshots and fall outside of the parameters of portraiture.” “A portrait is to me…something that moves you, (it) has to have an emotional quality, a connection, drama or tension or something within the shot which draws a person in.” He continues that a portrait should, “…capture some formal quality of that person”, whereas, “a snapshot is just a point and shoot – recording memories.” He believes that it’s important to stick to the basic rules of art.

Should a portrait tell a story? Brew-Bevan believes that good portraiture can and should tell a story. This is another delineation between a portrait and a snapshot he adds.

We swing back to celebrity portraiture and particularly the heavily staged work coming out of the USA. He concedes that it has a place but is concerned that as portraits they don’t tell you very much about the subject. He predicts that over time, such productions may become a genre of their own.

Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi
© Peter Brew-Bevan. All Rights Reserved.

I ask Brew-Bevan whether portraiture is art, then correct myself, narrowing the scope to photographic portraiture. He smiles wryly and comments that it’s interesting that I felt the need to differentiate the mediums. He replies with a question of his own, adding that nobody would hesitate to call a painted portrait art, so why is it different? In discussing the acceptance of photography as art, Brew-Bevan notes that Andrew Sayers, Director of the National Portrait Gallery for over a decade, has been very supportive of the photographic medium and is leading the Australian pack in his acceptance of photography into the privileged world of high art.

However, Brew-Bevan’s work is not without its critics, whether it’s his concentration on celebrity portraiture or the influence and intentional referencing of pop-culture in his work. In answering this pop-culture criticism, he returns to his definition of a portrait as capturing a defining moment in time. It’s within this context that Brew-Bevan acknowledges some portraits will date with time, but like any artwork, whether it be by Botticelli, Van Gough or Ansel Adams, if it isn’t considered in the time and atmosphere in which it was produced, we lose a big part of the story.

Shoot: Studio Sessions

In 2007, a long and exhausting process concluded with the launch of a collection of Brew-Bevan’s work in, Shoot: Studio Sessions. The award winning book runs to around 400 pages. It’s a weighty tome and in keeping with Brew-Bevan’s style, it is luscious – both in design and content. Other than just showcasing his art, the book also gives a glimpse into Brew-Bevan’s processes, including facsimiles of contact sheets showing the selection of images and notes about lighting setups and background on his subjects. He says that Shoot will not be his last book. But, it will be a while before the next and it won’t be on the same scale. He explains that Shoot expanded throughout the process, “it was exhausting.” Although, he says he was “stoked” with the final product.

Success can be a two-edged sword

Semaphore

Semaphore
© Peter Brew-Bevan. All Rights Reserved.

Given the tight time constraints and need for outcomes on his shoots, I ask whether the right brain often wins out by necessity. Brew-Bevan offers that he has learnt to balance the two sides but goes on to explain that it was a pitched battle which almost brought him unstruck in the past. The need to deliver placed unrelenting restrictions on his passion to the point that he found himself in a “bad place”. Ironically it was his success which threatened to extinguish the flame of passion which had driven him to paint originally. It was after the release of his book, Shoot: Studio Session, at the pinnacle of his career, that Brew-Bevan found himself at his lowest ebb, struggling to recall what motivated him to pick up a camera in the first place. But it was his pragmatic side which came to the rescue in his hour of despair. Brew-Bevan committed to producing one personal exhibition each year to satisfy the urges of his left brain. With this work he gives himself over to his passion and artistic instincts – they become the sole drivers. Compromise is banished from the room; there are no editors or commercially driven clients to satisfy – just his camera and a blank palette.

With his therapy plan in place, Brew-Bevan has reunited with his artistic roots. Another part of this plan is painting. While he’d painted constantly throughout his younger years, when he transferred his passion to the photographic medium at university, he didn’t even pick up a paint brush in the ensuing years. It was a combination of the unrelenting pressure of his commercial success and the “emotional shock” around the events of September 11th, 2001 which saw him open his paints and daub the canvas once again. The commonplace stories in the aftermath of the New York attacks were of people adjusting their priorities, stepping back and looking to experience more joy in their lives. In reconnecting with painting, Brew-Bevan says he realised “there’s more to life than making money and satisfying others”. In this dilemma we find Brew-Bevan has come full circle, from his original dream of painting for art’s sake, then being convinced that he would likely die a starving artist, to producing, almost robotically, art at the behest of rigid commissions. His solace is now to be found in the personal projects and maybe even more so in his painting – the products of which are not for sale – not even for general public consumption. What then does he do with the produce of his ‘therapy’? “Most of them are stored under my bed” he laughs. But he adds that he does give the odd one away to friends. Through these processes he is recharged and his passion is renewed.

Advice to Young Photographers

His advice to aspiring photographers is simple. Shoot! Shoot as much as you can, the more you shoot, the more experience you get.

To see more of Peter Brew-Bevan’s work go to www.peterbrew-bevan.com

Extra Info

  • An edited version of “Portrait of an Artist” was first published in Prophoto magazine in September 2010.
  • Like Peter Brew-Bevan on Facebook
  • Follow Peter Brew-Bevan on Twitter
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