Moments Captured: Photographer Francine Fleischer on Portraiture


By Annette Hinkle

Photographer Francine Fleischer cut her teeth by assisting in the studios of Annie Liebovitz and Michel Comte. Her portrait, interior and travel work have appeared in publications such as Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveler, Esquire and Italian Vogue. She was also a regular contributor to House and Garden Magazine.

Fleischer, who divides her time between New York City and Sag Harbor, recently sat down to talk about the nature of portrait photography — the difference between shooting people of note vs. candid portraits while offering a unique perspective on a third form of portraiture.

You’ve taken portraits of both people of note and everyday folks. Is there a big difference between shooting the two?

The only difference is people of note have more experience in front of the camera. They are a little more camera aware, whereas people who are not used to being photographed are more self conscious. Each subject is a collaboration and each person brings something different to the sitting.

When photographing someone well known, how do you decide on the set up?

It’s different with each person. Sometimes you come to it with a preconceived idea, sometimes you have the luxury of brainstorming with the subject ahead of time, and sometimes you have very little time. Usually the more well known they are, the less time you have. You may have 15 minutes to come up with something.

Time is the luxury more than anything. As a photographer I want to try as many different things as I can. I never shoot them in one way.

What are some of the other things you need to be aware of in a shoot like this?

It’s not just the concept, there are also a ton of technical things to consider. When I was assisting Annie Liebowitz, there’d be huge lighting set-ups outdoors and truck loads of lights on the beach because you can’t say to Elizabeth Taylor to wait for that cloud to pass.

It’s about control and you have to have that. The team has to be ace, there’s really no room for error.

A portrait of Sarah Jessica Parker by Francine Fleischer.

A portrait of Sarah Jessica Parker by Francine Fleischer.

How much do you learn about your subjects prior to taking their photographs?

I want to know what the person looks like and what environment they’re comfortable being in. Usually the more homework I do going in, the easier the shoot is going to be. I think that’s true for anyone. I’m always learning something.

The other thing that’s important is having a conversation with the person before the shoot. It initiates the connection and a photo shoot is really just a conversation — a visual conversation. We’ll talk about how they want to be photographed. If it’s a photo that’s accompanying a story, the magazine will often send me the story beforehand.

For me, the biggest thing is to be open to all possibilities. My challenge is to come up with something different that works. I’m not interested in making someone look awkward or uncomfortable.

How important are the visuals and how is that decided upon?

If the shoot’s at someone’s home and there’s limited time, I do with what’s there. If I have a stylist to do hair and make up, we can pow wow ahead of time and come up with ideas, props and wardrobe. I try to not be too contrived. Many times the stylist will have the conversation ahead of time and sometimes I just show up and the stylist and whoever I’m photographing have it set.

How much control does the subject have or want in the set up of the image?

Some people really like direction, and some like to direct. I’m not a huge ego photographer. I come in with concepts but I’m open to how the subject wants to be photographed.

What’s your process for coming up with a composition that’s different from what’s been offered before?

I put them in different environments. It’s not my thing to tie people up and make them go too much out of their element. I photograph people in their homes a lot. Some people want to get out of the house. I’m not about dangling people from cliffs.

For me the big thing is light.

Who decides what they’ll wear?

Usually we’ll have a conversation about wardrobe. It’s different between men and women and also age-wise. It’s great to work with a great stylist. They’re artists too and really good at what they do. They have access to ideas, props and designers. A stylist can make or break a shoot.

Sometimes it all just comes together. I photographed John Updike years ago, but didn’t have a chance to have a conversation with him or pre-shoot contact. He showed up in a spectacular pin striped suit. He was camera ready and it was perfect.

Has your portraiture of people of note been primarily for magazine stories?

Historically, I have done mostly editorial portraits. I have photographed a lot of writers over the years, so I’m approaching people to expand that portfolio.

Your personal work of late has centered around a secret out-of-the-country location where you’ve taken photographs of subjects swimming. Tell me about this spot and why you like it as a subject.

It’s a sink hole and it’s an interesting spot. It was used for thousands of years as a place of sacrifice — so virgins were tossed down this hole and it’s hundreds of feet deep. Today hundreds of tourists go there and it’s a very interesting spot.

When I came upon this location, it was just a beautiful marriage of people and water. We actually went there on a tour and as soon as I looked down, I was like “I have work to do.” It was so painterly with people swimming. I went back a few times.

In this instance, the subjects are the people who happen to be swimming there that day. When you’re there how aware are they of your presence?

It’s almost like street photography. I’m shooting it anonymously — it’s the choreography of bodies and the earth.

The biggest thing is for someone to be comfortable. Some photographers want people to be uncomfortable. That’s not my thing. When someone is not used to being in front of the camera, you have to establish trust.

I tried putting people I knew in those pictures, but it didn’t work. Part of the beauty was capturing these moments and they’re not contrived.

Your work doesn’t always have people in it, does it?

The other personal work I do is landscapes and still life or seascapes. Sometimes it’s nice to compliment what I do by shooting images with no people. For Condé Nast Traveler, a story could be about a place — a portrait of a town or city.

That’s interesting, I never thought of the notion of “portrait of place.” What’s your process for capturing the essence of a location?

I’ll usually do a sun up to sun down to shoot a portrait of a town. It’s very long days and you want to scout ahead of time. That’s where you have to do a lot of research. Research the place, research the light. Sometimes it’s nice to go in cold to discover it — which you do anyway even if you’re doing research.

It’s really about finding the texture of the place — giving an overall view and then coming in to focus on the texture of the walls and the food to where you can practically smell it — the color of the place.

Most travel magazines will give you the long shot, then the up close — the color, the light, the flowers, the food.

That’s what makes it.

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