Photographer in Focus: Olivia Rose

Olivia Rose in Kingston, Jamaica by Jay Kirton, 2014 © Jay Kirton

Olivia Rose in Kingston, Jamaica by Jay Kirton, 2014 © Jay Kirton

When did you first start taking photographs?

I suppose it was really at university. I wasn’t one of those kids with a fascination for cameras. I did like darkrooms and labs when I was little though. I used to go with my dad to see Robin Bell and be fascinated with his studio. It felt like a proper artist’s studio, a magical place with chemistry and alchemy and a smell that stayed with me once I left.

What or who has influenced your work?

I’m influenced by my subjects more than other photographers, I would say. My favourite photographers, those whose work has really stuck with me, tend to be social documenters. Richard Avedon’s In The American West (1985) had a profound impact on me, as a body of work that opened my eyes to the beauty of removing context from a portrait, so the viewer could really hone in on the person in the image. I often say I am a sociologist before I am a photographer – I am endlessly interested in people and society and how one affects the other.

Did you always want to be a photographer?

No! I actually really didn’t want to be a photographer and tried everything in my power to follow a path that didn’t involve a camera. I was always completely turned off by technology! But try what I may, all roads seemed to lead back to photography and I suppose I eventually accepted my fate. I do still believe that I am an artist and that the camera is just a medium through which I achieve a final result. The photograph itself has felt, for a long time, like it’s not the end-goal for me and as I develop my art, I see myself working in to the print, or discovering new ways to print or frame work, that challenge the photograph itself as an object.

What is it about portraiture that attracts you? And how do you feel photography is particularly effective for portraiture?

People are the ultimate essence of life, they are the relationships that tie us to this world, they are the cultural forces, the differing perspectives, the representation of the human condition in all of its glory. I have always loved people, more than I’ve ever loved being a photographer. So, for me, to have been able to work amongst many different, talented, beautiful and inspiring people for the last ten years has been a great blessing. Photography and portraiture do go hand in hand. Creating that one still frame that can sum up a person through the expression on their face, or the minutiae of their pose, will always fascinate me. It’s become like an obsession, seeing just how far into authenticity and trust I can push my sitter, to achieve the greatest representation of them as a human being.

Which sitters have you most enjoyed photographing?

I most enjoy the sitters who challenge me in some way – the difficult artists or the nervous first timers. I think I like shooting people who want to trust me as a photographer, but still have their own insecurities to battle with on set – if someone demands on set: “I only want to be shot from the left” or tells me they don’t like their nose/ thighs/ arms, it motivates me as opposed to limits me. The more constraints we have on set, the better a framework we have to break! slowthai was a particular pleasure to shoot – his absolute comfort within himself and his pleasure at “doing it for the art” was really refreshing.

How do you prepare for a shoot? Do you research your sitters beforehand?

Not really! If I make a mood board for the vibe of the shoot, I will look into previous studio imagery or posed imagery of my sitter, but I do tend to prefer to go in blind, so to speak. I think you can cloud your judgement by delving too deep into the subject before you arrive. I also like to use the session to learn, genuinely, about the person and ask questions that don’t feel contrived. I always get a kick out of researching people post-shoot though! 

Is there an individual you would like to photograph in the future?

Kendrick Lamar! A well-known magazine robbed me of my opportunity to shoot him for a cover once upon a time many years ago and, since then, he’s taken on some sort of mythical status for me – like the one who got away!

Do you prefer using colour or black and white? Digital or analogue?

Analogue all the way, baby. I pretty much refuse to have a laptop on set. I don’t own a digital camera aside from the one on my smartphone and I like it that way! Partly, I am stubborn and superstitious and have no interest in bending my method of working just to please others, but partly, I am incredibly invested in the belief that digital photography, on a set where you are shooting portraiture, can be a massive detriment. The fact that the images stream live, asking everyone crowded around the laptop to “see the wood for the trees” and to understand an edit before it has been made, can really eliminate trust on set and, frankly, gives me the willies!!! Editing is such an important part of the creative process and I believe it should be done privately.

And don’t tell anyone, but black and white will ALWAYS be my favourite.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently playing in the darkroom with the outrageously talented Robin Bell, working with liquid emulsion to print onto glass. These objects are incredibly precious and I’d like to create a series to exhibit. I’m interested in working in to the glass and have been engraving, setting precious stones, gilding and smashing the work in order to reconstruct it. It’s a project in progress … watch this space!

Favourite works by the photographer in the National Portrait Gallery's Collection

by Olivia Rose
NPG x200706

My favourite image in the Collection is probably the photograph of Stormzy alone in his full Adidas. It was such an important time for him as an artist, just as he was on the cusp of his absolutely blinding career trajectory and I felt I captured a moment of calm before the storm.

Linford Christie
by Alistair Morrison
NPG x77036

I also love a portrait my dad (Alistair Morrison) took of Linford Christie’s thighs. It’s always stayed with me as such a poignant way of depicting a man with such power in his legs. It’s in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent Collection.

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