Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2005

THE 2005 FILM FESTIVAL WAS A BIT OF A MILESTONE FOR ME. It proved that the previous year and its festival shooting wasn't a fluke, and that I'd resumed taking photos seriously. I still wasn't able to call myself a professional photographer again, but I hesitantly allowed myself the luxury of comparing what I was doing then with the best work I'd done a decade previous, when I made my living from photos.

My shoot with Forest Whitaker was, at the time, the one that allowed me to imagine that I could still take an interesting portrait. He was, alongside Anthony Hopkins, the most interesting actor I shot that year, a performer with an unusual intensity that often seems introspective onscreen; he gives a remarkable impression of internal life in almost everything he does.

He's been interesting in everything he's played, beginning (for me) with his portrayal of jazz legend Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's unfortunately unsatisfying biopic Bird. (This is no fault of Whitaker, or Eastwood, probably, but just another example of the fact that, on evidence, it's probably impossible to make a good movie about jazz.)

Forest Whitaker, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2005

This was all in my mind when I sat him down in a chair by the wall in a suite at the Intercontinental on Bloor. I had one picture I wanted to take, and when I was lucky enough to find the right light, saw my luck hold out when he took my minimal direction happily and struck the pose I wanted, with the window light behind his shoulder and just enough light bouncing back from the walls to fill in the shadows on his face. He even gave me a look that didn't disguise, but even featured, the ptosis in his left eye that makes him distinctive as an actor.

These were never easy shots to process for print, and I've only recently been able to give them the depth of tone that I saw in that hotel room over a decade ago. The frame below is a particular success; I've insisted for years to other photographers that a really genre-pushing example of portrait photography is one where the subject's face is obscured or invisible but still conveys something essential and recognizable. This shot is as far as I'd pushed that idea until then, and seeing it again made me realize that I was still ambitious about my work, even if it seemed like I was well past the point of having an audience to prove it to any more.

Forest Whitaker, Toronto, Sept. 14, 2005

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