Finding theatre in portrait photography

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits by Stanley Tucci with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

Images of celebrities are ubiquitous. When you see a portrait picture that captures a still moment of a familiar face, it speaks in a unique way. There are some portrait photographers that have a gift for realizing that special ‘look’ that catches a wordless message in an intimate moment. It’s in these captures that fleeting gazes, eternalized in photographs, captivate audiences.

For Jay Brooks, it started with a passion for theatre and a college interest in the magic he found in darkrooms. He originally intended to be a set designer for film and theatre, taking a degree in the subject, until his interest in photography took over. He finished his studies and began working as a photographer assistant, and so began Jay’s career. A career that still reflects the lessons and disciplines learned in theatre.

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

“There is a kind of theatre that goes on in every portrait session, a kind of dance between the photographer and the subject. I like dancing, and I like faces, I don’t think I could shoot anything that doesn’t talk back.”

We spoke with Jay Brooks about his style, influences and to hear his opinion on what it takes to be a professional portrait photographer.

What is it about your portrait style that makes it so unique?

“I think it’s more the storytelling aspect. There is a narrative in my work that people like, more often than not a slightly dark seam of humour too. I like images that feel like you have walked in on a moment unfolding. I guess that’s the theatrical background too. I still sketch and storyboard all my images the same way I did when designing sets.

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

I shoot a lot of actors, and they always respond best when given direction or background stories to inform their performance. They want to play characters even in stills and having a narrative idea helps get the best out of them. I think theatre also taught me to think more globally about costumes, props, tension, etc. and how they all collide to tell the story.”

“Don’t just look at photography for ideas. Some of my best ideas have come from seeing a painting, watching a film or seeing something in real life that I can translate somehow in my work.”

Aside from your background in theatre, from where is your distinct style influenced?

“I would say a lot from great film directors, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, etc. So many of their films could be paused at almost any point to create amazing photographs. I look at fashion photography a lot too, not particularly for the styling but more the storytelling and their often obscure vision of the world; I love Guy Bourdin, Erwin Blumenfeld, and Helmut Newton. I love looking at album art from the 70’s and 80’s too, design groups like Hipgnosis just made so many crazy and inspiring images.”

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

Can you tell us about taking these celebrity portraits in this series?

“These portraits were all shot in makeshift studio backstage at the British Independent Film Awards. We had plenty of time to set up and get the limited space working as a pop-up portrait studio. I have done quite a few of these awards set-ups, and you never get more than a couple of minutes with each person. My assistant and I had prepared about 3 or 4 angles, and slight changes to the light that we knew would work, and we just hit the ground running as each person arrived in the studio.

We took cues instantly perhaps by what they were wearing or how tall they were as to what would work best and just got going. It can be quite surreal when you are shooting, for example, Stanley Tucci and Maxine Peake is waiting quietly next in line, I have to pinch myself sometimes!”

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

Is there a particular portrait shoot that sticks out in your mind as a special experience?

“I had an afternoon a while back shooting Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones. Just me and my assistant at his house in London, a few lights and some great background music. He was a total gent and gave us everything we needed and more. I remember thinking, this is why I wanted to be a photographer.”

If someone asked for your top tips on becoming a professional portrait photographer, what would you tell them?

“We are all trying to master photography every day, and it never gets any easier, perhaps that’s why we love it so much, mastering it always seems just out of reach!

I would say when you start out, focus on those around you and things you love. Ideas will come flooding out of you when you shoot these things, and it’s here that you can learn what works for you photographically. I had a 35mm Contax T2 in my pocket night and day for about 15 years. I mostly shot my friends, but I learnt so many ways of dividing up that 35mm frame, shooting in direct sun, in fluorescent light, on cloudy days, on rainy days, people in groups, people alone, etc. So many of those images went on to become the inspiration for my more set-up portraits later on, almost like a sketchbook or reference library.”

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

I would also say that at some point you need to decide what it is you do best and what makes your work stand out. If you can identify these things and then focus your work even more in this direction, it will become stronger and more identifiable. This process should be ongoing too. Every 3 or 4 years I sit down and make a big list of all my favourite photographers or painters and filmmakers and what exactly it is I like about their work. I then take all the words that appear most often and write a brief for myself that all my future work should try and satisfy.”

Can you talk us through your standard workflow for a portrait shoot?

“Once we are getting close with lighting, I usually start shooting a few test shots straight to CF card. Trying out angles or different poses. When I think we are almost there, we tether up the camera to a laptop and start looking at the image in closer detail, checking the hair and make-up and the styling. We then start looking at the grade and applying the kind of feel we think works for the session. I try not to focus the crew too much on the laptop as it can become a distraction, but it’s nice for everyone to see what we are aiming towards and it’s great for me to be able to try out ideas and instantly see if they are worth pursuing.”

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, shooting celebrity portraits with Phase One IQ2 50MP Digital Back

Filed under: Portrait


Jay Brooks

Portrait photographer, Jay Brooks, originally studied Film & TV Set Design at Wimbledon School of Art but truly fell for photography after a road trip across America in the mid 90’s. His original theatrical studies have, however, left a lasting impression on his photographic style and method of working. Jay’s keen interest in location and acute attention to detail, storyboarding and props combine, often with a dark seam of humour, to create unique environments for his portraits.