Kwaku Alston on photographing celebrities

Professional Photographer magazine recently published an interview with Kwaku Alston in which he talks about photographing celebrities and other public figures. Below, an excerpt:

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Kwaku Alston’s portrait of Jennifer Aniston was the cover of Professional Photographer magazine’s November 2013 issue.

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Over the past 20 years, Alston has photographed dozens of celebrities and other prominent figures, from entertainers to business people to high-octane politicians. They all have one thing in common, he says: “They’re just people. Yes, the president of the United States is different than Betty White. But at the end of the day, everyone wants to look good and be represented well. They’re trusting you. So I approach them all the same.”

Alston doesn’t rely solely on his gregarious nature. He does his homework, pays attention to the details, carefully prepares his sets, all to help him build rapport quickly with the subjects, so many of whom grant him only a few minutes of their over- scheduled time. He researches his subjects to find out what their interests are, what’s going on in their lives, and what kind of music they like so that he can connect with them about something personal instead of just making small talk. “It’s really about creating an atmosphere,” he says. “When these people walk into your set, you have to get them instantly out of their head space. If you don’t break through what they’re thinking about, you can’t get the portrait.”

It’s like being a good host, says Alston. “Like I’m having this great dinner party and
I want to make sure all my guests are taken care of,” he says. “I like to make sure that my stylist is happy, hair and makeup are happy, everyone is comfortable—because it’s all about the mood of the set. You are the captain of that ship, and if you have good energy on set, it trickles all the way down. When the celebrity walks in, they feel a good energy in the room, and that’s how you get them to open up.”

Creating a specific ambiance supports Alston’s efforts in crafting fresh, distinctive portraits of subjects who have been photo- graphed many times. “One way of dealing with people who are image savvy or are always being photographed is to change the mood,” he says. “When the talent walks on set, you have a vibe ready to go that will make them feel it’s not just a run-of- the-mill photo shoot. And if they start slipping into routine poses or expressions on set, you can change the music. Music is huge.”

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Kwaku Alston Professional Photographer

Drew Barrymore (left) and Anjelica Huston. Photos by Kwaku Alston.

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Robert Downey Jr. Photo by Kwaku Alston.

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Janelle Monae (left) and Oprah’s Legends. Photos by Kwaku Alston.

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Nelson Mandela, Brad Pitt, Lenny Kravitz, and Kate Hudson. Photos by Kwaku Alston.

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President Barack Obama. Photo by Kwaku Alston.

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