Richard Ansett’s portraits don’t flatter to deceive.
An element of humour offsets the gritty realism of Richard Ansett’s portraits. He talks to Diane Smyth about how he has changed his style with the times.
In the last couple of years Richard Ansett has won nominations for the John Kobal and Schweppes Portrait prizes, an exhibition at the Tate modern and commissions from the Telegraph, FHM, Saatchi and Virgin. ‘The awards are good news. I entered the Kobal for five years without getting anywhere and my friends used to have to go with me to the exhibition because I was so vitriolic. I’d say that the photographs were rubbish, that I didn’t need the affirmation, but of course once I’d been shortlisted I thought it was all great.
Lighthearted as he is about his success, Ansett has worked hard to achieve it. Originally training at the Kent Institute, he spent only a couple of years assisting before going it alone. ‘I was arrogant. I wanted to get on with it and do it myself,’ he says. ‘I don’t regret it now but there was a time afew years ago when I did.’
Brief as it was, this period left a lasting impression on Ansett’s work. The quick move into professional work meant that he didn’t get much studio training, for example and he still prefers to shoot on location. Nevertheless, editorial work quickly came in, and Ansett shot Apple Farmer and Church Outing at that time, using fisheye lenses.
He quickly began to feel restricted my this type of work, however, around three years ago realised he would have to change. ‘I was getting pigeonholed as a producer of “wacky” stuff, which started to look really dated around the Millenium. Then the market dropped, and I started to get really depressed. I had to move the style on’
Ansett took direct action by knocking on the doors of London’s agents finding a long term home with Jo Clark. He rethought his portfolio and added an ironic edge, mocking his older, dated look. ‘I shot some knowingly-kitch pictures of Leslie Crowther’ he says ‘Virgin loved it’.
The end-of-the-pier animal photographs that Ansett shot also have attracted attention, winning him a commission to shoot the Christmas cover of the The Telegraph Magazine. This lead to a lasting relationship and Ansett shoots for the supplement on a regular basis. ‘They know just the sort of stuff to give me, it will always be something where I feel I can do what I want.’
Ansett now feels that he has a good balance between his advertising amd editorial work but control remains important to him. He prefers shoots where art directors allow him some freedom, for example, enjoying a recent shoot for Findus. ‘They had lots of ideas but were also willing to allow me some space to develop my angle on things’, says Ansett. ’With some other directors that’s just wishful thinking.’
This kind of understanding is essential for a photographer who, by his own admission, likes to break the rules. In his picture of Bernard Manning , for example, he breaks what he describes as the first rule of photography: ‘don’t photograph someone under a lamp.’
‘It’s one of my favourites,’ he says. ‘it was taken at Manning’s house but I moved a lot of furniture out to create an almost 2D studio set.’
Ansett enjoys photographing people in their homes, and has even phoned up model agencies to ask if he could photograph their models at home. He says that this approach is more difficult than it might first appear, however, adding that choosing what not to move is the key difficulty. ‘It’s a compromise between tidying and not tidying,’ he says. ‘If you start tidying it is difficult to know when to stop and the shot can end up looking overly contrived. I like to keep some of the details so that it’s not too clean. It’s like you deconstruct people’s homes to reconstruct a hyper-reality.’
Sometimes, he admits, leaving too much in can be distracting. However he is attracted to what he calls subversive grimy details. For his photographs of Las Vegas cage fighters, for example, Ansett blanked out all background detail altogether, in order to focus on the detail of the effects of the fight on the bodies of the men immediately after their bouts. Commissioned to photograph the actual fights, Ansett found himself wanting to concentrate on the boxers. ‘I took these shots as personal portraits, using a black felt background to make it just about the blood, the cuts and the dilated eyes. They all wanted to put their fists up in the classic boxing pose but I asked them to put them by their sides. I was aiming for a scientific approach, observing humans as animals.’
This aesthetic also underlies Ansett’s more humorous portraits, which take the classic ‘warts and all’ approach. His photograph of Bernard Manning, for example, captures the comedian’s seething resentment at missing the horse racing in his terse expression and clenched fist. Ansett is happy to trick his subjects into revealing more than they know, however, and rarely tells them what he is photographing. Manning, for example, wrongly assumed that he was posing for a head and shoulders shot, in which his lack of trousers and clenched fist would not be seen.
‘I like it if people are in a bad mood,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to force people into happy poses, I’ll go with the flow. I don’t do pretty very well and I won’t photograph friends. Sometimes I am asked to photograph their families or weddings and I say “No, why ask me? I’ll make you look awful,”’
Ansett sees this approach as honest rather than cruel. In his shots of gay couples he deliberately asked them not to dress up. ‘I’d go to check out their houses before the shoot, when they would be wearing their casual clothes. I invariably asked them to wear the same clothes when I came back. I wanted to get all the weird flip flops and slippers. I don’t want everything to be perfect and pc. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s there was this terrible period when there were all these bland, soulless photographs. Photography seems to have finally woken up.’
Unsurprisingly, Ansett refuses to edit out so-called unseemly details in post-production. His Bukkake Men shot, for example, was taken on location in a south London porn studio. ‘My retouchers asked me if I wanted to remove the yellow staining on the wall, but I wanted to keep it and the ventilation shaft to show that it was on location, adding a semblance of reality,’ says Ansett. ‘You can see that one of the men has a sun tan from where he’s been wearing a t-shirt, and the other is missing a toe. I don’t like to do too much post-production. I am quite a purist in wanting to capture as much as possible directly through the lens.’
Ansett keeps his photographic equipment simple, shooting on transparency with an RZ67. Ansett has these images scanned then prints nearly all of his shots on an Epsom 2100. ‘I’m very picky about the final product and sometimes it takes quite a few attempts to achieve the look I want’ he says. It’s about getting back in control and it reminds me of how I started, printing black and white photographs in a homemade darkroom in the bathroom of my parents’ house.’
Digital cameras have yet to tempt Ansett, though he accepts that he will probably have to move to digital. But, unsurprisingly for someone whose most successful personal images have been taken whilst on commission, he is wary of the control that digital could give his clients. ‘Using digital cameras means that clients can check on a shoots progress frame by frame’ he says. ‘With film, it allows for a greater interpretation of a brief, you can take great rolls of film and they don’t know what’s on any of them.’