Photos by Eva Vermandel
My love for Eva Vermandel and her images began long ago, when a London cab took three wrong turns and brought myself and a friend to a wedding late.
Eva’s kind eyes spied our distress and she sought us out—a chance meeting that would unknowingly turn into a life-long friendship. It wasn’t until later, however, that I discovered the true magic of one of the world’s most prolific portrait photographers. Eva is as fun as she is fiercely talented and can certainly make a snap come to life. She shares with us her favourite portraits from her extensive archives, why she chooses to shoot primarily with film, and how she first got hooked on photography, below.
Tell us a bit about how you started out.
I started out as soon as I could pick up a camera. My father was an amateur photographer and he photographed me a lot as a child. He’d let me use his camera occasionally, taking one picture at a time as we weren’t well-off and film was expensive. When I was older, in my mid-teens, he’d let me use his camera more regularly and if you look at the pictures I took then, they have the same atmosphere and odd tension as my current work.
When was the moment when you knew you could do this for a career? Did you have any mentors?
I knew that early on, even when the quality of my work was still very up and down and my control of the medium limited. I knew there was an edge to my photographs and that I could dig deep and touch a nerve. In terms of mentors: Philippe Barbe, my photography tutor at the KASK (School of Art, Ghent, where I studied Graphic Design), gave me a good start, both in terms of thinking about photography as well as the technical side. Aside from that I’m mainly self-taught. Discovering William Eggleston in a bookshop around 2000 was cathartic and made me buy a Leica M6 which then led me to getting a Mamiya 7 which is the main camera I use. He’s still one of my favourite photographers and there aren’t many—I’m much more drawn to painting.
You started in the analogue era, have you had to compromise your practice in this digital world?
Not at all. I still shoot film and I get commissioned for the quality this brings to my work. I scan my negatives, which enables me to control the contrast and density more than in the dark room. I like the combination between analogue and digital, it suits me perfectly. I don’t tend to shoot on a digital camera – I don’t like the way it renders colours, especially certain reds, blues and greens. Highlights are always a problem and I can’t bear chromatic aberration. I don’t like them as cameras either – they’re so soulless, and with the picture showing at the back of the camera it keeps pulling you out of the situation you’re in, it breaks the flow and makes the people I photograph way too self-conscious.
You specialise in portraiture—what first got you hooked?
From when I was a very small child, as soon as I could walk, I’d go visit people, (neighbours initially, I couldn’t venture too far at age two), then eventually further and wider because I enjoyed it so much. Creating a connection with people drives me and that connection gets even deeper when you photograph someone. Sometimes I feel like I’m travelling inside someone’s head.
I feel you share a common love with classic painters and cinematographers, that of the single light source or use of natural light. How complicated is finding and working with this for you?
It’s actually quite easy, but heavily dependent on the situation. I always aim to use daylight and it’s all about seeing what’s there and using it well. Being dependent on daylight does make shooting at night or in dark spaces tricky—in those situations, I tend to use direct flash then and keep it simple. Or I use Kino-Flo/LED continuous lighting, which comes with the downside that it makes shooting much more complicated and less intimate; using these lights is impossible without assistants and I prefer to work on my own.
I have so many favourite portraits of yours, can you please share your thoughts on some of your faves?
The first one that springs to mind is my portrait of Joanna Newsom which I shot for the Sydney Festival 40 Portraits commission in 2015. I’d long wanted to photograph her, she’s been a source of inspiration for many years. The photograph was the last frame I shot that day, and I could feel we were building up towards something out of the ordinary. She walked up the tree, like a squirrel with the elegance of a ballerina, and then stood there moving her arms around until I pressed the shutter. It captures her music and character perfectly – she looks like a fairy, blended into her environment, with the interplay between the foliage and her dress creating a rhythm. I’m very proud of it.
Then there’s the portrait of Will Oldham which I shot for The Wire in 2009. Another moment of coincidental synergy, it was shot in the shed that friends of mine had built, around the corner from where I live in North London.
My portrait of Willem Dafoe was a bit of a turning point. This was taken early on in my practice in 2002 and I was still trying to find my way around using light, and this was a shot where it all fell into place.
The portrait of my friend, the artist Michaël Borremans, from 2014 is also a favourite. It was shot just before a major retrospective of his work opened in Bozar, Brussels. The canvasses behind him are works he didn’t like and destroyed, the cardigan is his partner Kaat’s—as soon as he walked in wearing it I knew the collar would become a vital part of the shoot.
PJ Harvey I’ve worked with many times over the years, the best shoot we’ve done is the one for The Wire in 2007. This was the cover image for that feature.
There’s many still I’d like to mention but I’ll end with the John Lydon portrait of 2002. It was created in an almost impossible situation, I’d been given 10 minutes in an uninspiring hotel room with no set-up time and John Lydon was playing up being the punk. I managed to get the situation under control regardless and did this shot using backlight, which knocked out the godawful room decoration. It was a battle of wills and I’m glad I won it.
What’s your favourite camera and film?
Mamiya 7 used with Portra 800 film.