Betina la Plante’s black and white portraits are beautifully lit and composed, as anyone with an eye for photography could tell you. But there’s something deeper going on in her work, driven (I suspect) by the interesting life she’s led and the people she has met along the way. This is character driven photography at its best, the personality of her sitters captured in their expressions and the emotions conveyed by their eyes.
Betina la Plante interview
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and where are you from? How long has photography been a hobby or career of yours and what motivated you to get started?
I am Argentinian by birth but have lived most of my adult life between Europe and the United States. I started taking photos for fun when I was around 14.
How would you describe yourself and your personality? This may be bit of a deep question, but how does your personality affect the way you take photos?
I am a very private person, quite shy and reserved. But I love people and social interaction. I’m just better in a one-on-one situation than in a large group, where I happily become the observer for the most part. I suppose how I take photos depends largely on whether I know the person I’m shooting well or not at all. If we already have a relationship then the interaction is already relaxed, for both of us.
If I am shooting a stranger, I need to establish a relaxed environment for both of us. So I try to spend as much time getting to know them before even picking up the camera, giving me time to get my nerves in check too! It also gives me the opportunity to observe both their features and their body language, and ideas start to develop on how the shoot will progress. Even though one can afford the luxury of shooting hundreds of frames now with digital cameras, I still shoot as though I were using film – I tend to wait for spontaneous moments to develop during the interaction, for guards to be let down, and real emotion shown.
Who inspires you? Who are your three favourite photographers?
There is such a wealth of talent and inspiration out there, and for me it’s not just limited to photographers. I’m inspired by all art forms and mediums, from two dimensional to three dimensional to moving to interactive… As far as photographers go, it’s hard to narrow it down to just three. But off the top of my head:
Irving Penn. Not only one of my favourite portrait photographers, but he was a true artist in every genre of photography – portraiture, still life, fashion, beauty, black & white and colour… Astounding.
Erwin Blumenfeld. Such a feel for the female form, so innovative in his approach. I hope to one day be able to take an image like his, in emotion, vision and beauty.
Elliott Erwitt. Not only is he one of the great living photographers – his career has spanned seven decades! – he is also a dear friend. He’s delightfully charming and has a great sense of humour which translates into how he sees and captures the world around him, and he happens to be one of the most generous men I’ve met, with advice, encouragement and friendship. I’m a bit biased. I could name others, the list is long, and among that list there are a couple of very close friends, but we’ll leave it at three.
You work predominantly in black and white. Why is this? What’s the appeal of monochrome for you?
As humans we see the world in colour, it’s what we are used to. Stripping that element from a photograph forces us to look beyond the normal, what we take for granted, and see the essence, stripped bare, and made up of light, shadow, form and texture. For me, black and white photography has more dramatic and emotional impact, places more emphasis on the character of the subject matter, whether it be portraiture, landscape, street photography, still life, etc. Photography also started as a black and white medium, and it has endured through all the changes to the medium, so even if it may be considered more of a niche market now, for artistic purposes, it will always appeal to me.
You used film and printed your photos in a darkroom for many years, making the switch to digital recently. How has working in digital affected your creative process? What prompted you to make the change?
I always loved the whole process of photography, not just taking photos, so I taught myself to develop film and print photos in the darkroom by trial and lots of error. Part of the magic of photography for me was seeing the images materialise in the developing tray. It was as frustrating as it was exciting, and I’d easily lose track of time. I’d go in at 11:00 in the morning and when I got out, it was dark outside.
I got into digital photography in 2009, mainly for convenience, immediacy of results and, of course, reduced costs. I joined Flickr and made friends with some incredibly talented photographers, whose work inspired me to start taking photographs with more of a purpose, rather than just for fun.
The digital processing routine I have tends to mimic the results I was able to achieve in the darkroom for the most part. My skills are very basic, but enough for what I need to get the results I’m looking for. But every so often I do enjoy experimenting with other software and plug-ins that are available, as it can be very seductive. The trick, I think, is in not relying on the software and post-processing to ‘make’ the picture.
You once worked with Elliott Erwitt as a casting and location assistant. What did you learn from this and how has it affected your approach to photography?
I’ve known Elliott since 1997 and have seen him shoot on many occasions. The job I worked on was a big commercial shoot for Nissan. So I was working with the photographer fulfilling his client’s needs foremost, rather than the photographer shooting solely for his own pleasure. The shoot itself wasn’t easy – all exterior locations requiring permits which allowed you to shoot at specific times of the day and put you at the mercy of the weather, and the subjects were not models but passers-by on the street whom Elliott thought would be interesting and who we solicited to be photographed for a fee.
There were several set-ups per day, each one in a different location, etc. He knew what he wanted from the days but was always open to suggestions. He was in charge but made everyone feel their value and that the job was a team effort. He’s gracious, kind, patient, confident, exacting… and really loves what he does. I’ve worked on many shoots, before and since, where egos invariably get in the way of the job, tempers flare under pressure. I suppose the biggest lesson from is that you get the best from people if you show respect for their roles. Elliott’s a true professional, and a gentleman.
You seem to work with a mixture of natural light and flash. Which is your favourite, and how do you decide which one to use?
I predominantly shoot using natural light. Even though the eye sees light very differently to how film does – or a sensor – you know what the light is doing, how it affects your subject, etc. I feel much more in control with natural light. Flash takes a lot of practice, and even though I do experiment, I am still not completely comfortable shooting with it. One of the advantages of shooting flash with a digital camera is that you can see instantly if you are getting the balance correct, if it’s lighting the subject the way you want it, and make adjustments as you go. I would be a lot more nervous of shooting flash with film, even now. So I use flash only when there isn’t enough natural light to work with. I’m working on getting to the point where I will use flash because I want to, rather than because I have to…
How is photographing a portrait in black and white different to colour? For you, is there any truth to Canadian photojournalist Ted Grant’s words: “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”?
I’d like to think that he made that statement more as a metaphor than as a literal one. If he meant it literally I completely disagree. But I believe that shooting a portrait in colour is a true art. There is a different thought process involved due to the added element. If not well balanced within the frame, if there isn’t a harmony of sorts – where the colour enhances the mood or emotion – then it can absolutely become a distraction. When that balance IS achieved, then the portrait can be quite magical. However, I gravitate towards black & white for the reasons I mentioned above.
Your subjects include some well known people. How do you gain access to subjects like this? Do you approach them yourself or is done through mutual contacts or agents?
I haven’t used agents yet. Terence Stamp is an old family friend, and he has put me in touch with some of his close friends, his brother, etc. Peter Mayle is also a close family friend, who has introduced me to some of his friends. The more you do something, the wider the net gets spread. I have been very lucky with the people who have agreed to a portrait. I have also been lucky to have been asked too. And if you approach people with respect and humility, they seldom say no, and are more likely to recommend you to someone else. And so on…
How do you build a rapport with your models? What is the key to getting the best out of someone? Is your approach any different if the subject is well known?
Engaging with the subject in any way that brings down barriers on both sides of the camera is key to getting something special, I think. I don’t have a different approach when shooting someone well-known. Although, seeing as they have had far more experience with the medium than me, they are probably the ones who put me more at ease, rather than the other way around! I’ve been lucky not to have had to deal with egos so far. But with that experience comes a performance of sorts, so I look for the moments when the performance is absent. Patience, I’d say is a key element – if you have the luxury of time.
Behind the photo
In this section Betina gives us a deeper look into the process behind the creation of three of her portraits:
This is Brett Walker, exceptional photographer and close friend. His son Conor, who is at film school, had a video project to complete for which he needed Brett to play the lead role. I offered to assist (meaning I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to witness the transformation). It was not only fun but wonderful to witness the equal amounts of give and take from both during the whole process. I took snapshots of the various stages. Several hours later, when Conor got the footage he needed, Brett took off his suit and tie, the make up smeared as part of the script, and was standing under a naked bulb in the middle of the room, arms wrapped around himself. I shot a couple more frames and this was the last of them. It was a good one to end the day on.
Terence Stamp. Whenever Terence comes to visit we’ll have an informal shoot. This was taken in my back yard about three years ago. He was sitting in an armchair, we had already taken several frames, talked a bit. And then he started using his hands. This was one of those shots where I caught him in between consciously posing for the lens. I look at it now and while I love the mood and emotion of the moment, I think it’s too heavy handed on the processing. It doesn’t need it. One day I’ll get around to re-processing it.
The idea of people holding images to their faces is not a new one, by any means. People have photographed themselves replacing their own faces with shots from fashion magazines, album covers, etc. I had recently I seen the poster for the movie Ides of March, which shows half of Ryan Gosling’s face holding up a folded Time magazine with half George Clooney’s face on it to complete the “whole.” I thought that was a cool concept, but how much cooler would it be to use the same subject on both sides, depicting the passage of time on their face.
I’d been helping Terence go through many of his old photographs, in order to choose which ones to include in his new memoir, so I knew I had some great straight on shots to work with, from when he was in his 30s. It was a last minute idea before he went to shoot his then current movie in Canada, so I only had an hour to scan the best straight on photo, print several matches so as to have options to match the real life Terence’s face dimensions, and the shot. We took ten frames, this was frame nine.
Here are some more of Betina’s black and white portraits:
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