A Portrait of Britain: Charlie Clift on the story behind his selected portrait

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London-based Charlie Clift has worked on commissions for a range of editorial and commercial clients including The BBC and The Sunday Times Magazine, and regularly works on campaigns for charities and not-for-profits. He is also committed to producing personal work, recently creating a collective portrait of British emigrants and a documentation of the individuals who worked to tackle the UK winter floods of 2013 & 14. His work has been included in numerous Awards, such as the Taylor Wessing Photo Prize, the Association of Photographers and Portrait of Britain.
Clift’s selected image for Portrait of Britain 2017 depicts the esteemed British literary editor, novelist and memoirist, Diana Athill OBE, at home on her 98th birthday. Photographing Athill with her eye’s closed was, for Clift, a way to capture the reflective side of Athill’s character.

How did you create your selected portrait (above) and what is the story behind it?

I always research people before photographing them and the more I read about Diana Athill the more fascinating I found her. I photographed the famous literary editor, novelist and memoirist for The Sunday Times Magazine at her residential home in North London. It was actually her 98th birthday the day we met, so we had some cake and champagne to celebrate.
After chatting about all the famous photographers who have shot her over the years, I thought I better prove myself worthy of her time. I spent an hour or so photographing Athill all over the house and we finally ended up in the library, where I had set up a little studio with a white backdrop.
Although I was commissioned to photograph Diana with her nephew Philip, I also wanted to capture a few images of her alone for myself. Diana is a wise and interesting woman to talk to, but she is also quite contemplative, so I thought it would be appropriate to ask her to close her eyes for a portrait. That is the photograph you see here – a fascinating woman in a moment of reflection.

© Charlie Clift
Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?
It’s so difficult to choose your best work. I would say go with your gut feeling to start with. Choose the pictures you are most pleased with as the more you try to please others the less likely you are to choose the most unique work you’ve created. Once you have a narrow selection of photos ask someone whose taste you trust to help you make your final selection.
My advice to people getting into portrait photography is to shoot a lot of subjects. It might sound simple, but the more you do it the better you get. I must have taken millions of photographs of thousands of people and I’m still rarely happy with what I create.
Also, make time to shoot personal work, lots of it. I spend a great deal of time seeking out interesting people to photograph for my personal projects. Doing this has let me experiment with new ways of making images and given me the freedom to develop a personal style and approach.
Generally speaking, no one will commission you to do something until you’ve already done it, so get out there and make the images that you want to make. It’s only then that you’ll be asked to make more like them.
© Charlie Clift
What do you think makes for a compelling portrait?
A great portrait captures the subject’s personality and allows you to connect with that person. A portrait is strongest when it makes the viewer feel like they know the person in it. The most compelling portraits for me also capture the interaction between the photographer and their subject. A photo shoot is like a performance for both the sitter and photographer; I love it when you can feel that energy in the final image.
Can you tell us about any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had whilst shooting portraits?
You never quite know what’s going to happen on a portrait shoot. However much advance planning you do, everything changes when you meet the person you are there to photograph. I love that element of spontaneity.
I photographed a lawyer called Raymond Tooth a little while back, I expected him to be very prim and proper and a bit boring to shoot. However, because I had read that he was a shark in the negotiating room I turned up with a silicone shark hat. I never thought he’d wear it, but he did and I made an amazing portrait of him in it.
Raymond Tooth, divorce lawyer, photographed in Mayfair, London © Charlie Clift
What do you think about the Portrait of Britain project?
Portrait of Britain is a wonderful idea. I love the fact that you’ve made art so public and put it on display for everyone to see. I also like how it shows the huge variety of people who live in Britain and celebrates that diversity through beautiful portraits.
© Charlie Clift
Portrait of Britain 2019 will launch on 14 February 2019. More details to be revealed soon.
© Charlie Clift
Future generations will look to Portrait of Britain 2019 to see the face of the nation in a historic moment. What will it look like? Enter your work today!