Photographer Norman Jean Roy shoots for two of the world’s most high-profile clients, Vogue and Vanity Fair. And whether on set with Hilary Swank and Joan Smalls or producing more personal, socially conscious work with the Somaly Mam Foundation, Jean Roy captures engaging, highly memorable shots of his subjects.
Though primarily identified as a fashion photographer, Jean Roy describes his work as portraiture. “A great portrait needs to first grab you and then let you sit in there and continue to draw you in. [Whereas] with a lot of fashion photography, it really hits you hard and then it slowly fades away,” he told the Cut. “To me, that’s the fundamental difference between a great photograph and a great picture.” When we stopped by Jean Roy’s West Village studio to speak about sixteen of his most iconic works, he added, “It’s a real wrestling match always [having to] work and make a living in one of, quite possibly, the most self-absorbed industries in the world.” In the slideshow ahead, Jean Roy talks about making portraits of George W. Bush, Cate Blanchett, Florence Welch, and others.
There seems to be a connection between portrait photography and psychology because photographers need to be perceptive with their subject’s body language, mood, and eye contact.
I’m a photographer as a means to record the events of my life. The psychology involved in understanding human emotions and character is deeply attractive to me. It changes every single time from one minute to the next and you can never harness it.
What role does the camera play in the relationship between the photographer and the subject?
The camera is a very neutral prism, if you will. The camera has no opinion, no emotion, it just renders — and so the emotional components of a photograph live on each side of the camera. When you have a discussion with someone, there’s nothing to neutralize the situation; the camera does that. It’s really how, for example, most photojournalists can go into war or famine or atrocities and witness it through the eye of a lens and stay very natural in that moment.
Then, isn’t the camera a photographer’s shield?
Oh, absolutely. There’s no question. I am not interested — at all — in revealing myself to my subjects. That’s not the purpose of what I’m doing. This is also why I absolutely enjoy the process of being photographed by another photographer.
When you shoot for fashion versus more of your traditional portraiture, do you ever become annoyed having to work with a team of stylists, beauty, and production people?
Working with stylists and beauty team has its function. I’m not necessarily frustrated with that part, as much as I am with the current state of fashion photography. I think, with the advent of digital photography, the dictatorship aspect of photography became democratized and over time became a group effort, which I think is bullshit. I’m sorry, but photography is a dictatorship; it’s not a democracy. At the end of the day, I don’t sit here and tell the hairstylist to move the hair a little bit this way when they’re working. I’m sure as fuck not going to have someone tell me what to do with photography. With that said, as a photographer it’s your responsibility to fulfill the needs of your client. You don’t want to be a dick about it; there are plenty of people who do that, which, I think, is equally bullshit.
What has been the result of a more democratized world of photography?
If you look back even fifteen years ago, fashion photography was fun, lively, and full of humanity. I’m hoping to God the younger generation coming out now is going to be able to recapture that. It’s where creativity lives. It’s certainly not in the digital process, and it’s certainly not in the team effort. The team effort works when all of the people come together in assembling an image.
And you usually shoot on film.
When you shoot film, you don’t have the luxury of seeing every single image coming out. And because of that, you stay very focused. Everything [becomes] hyperreal, so when you get it, you get it another time, and another time after that just to make sure you got it. As a result, you have a much better version of, I think, the moment. That’s much more real, honest, and broken, too.
Part of a perfect image is that it is imperfect. With digital photography, it’s very easy to perfect the image. You kill the image when you perfect it. You basically suck the life out of it. An image, to me, lives when you can look at it and it’s just slightly off. Like, when you put a primary red and primary green together, you have that vibrancy between the two. A great photograph, not a great picture, needs to have that vibration. It would be very easy to take any one of my photographs and I can tell you where I could have fixed this and fixed that.
There are many fashion photographers working today who perfect their subjects to an inhuman degree.
Oh, yeah. Any photographer can do that. And the ones that do that are the ones who destroy their image. There are lots of fashion photographers who destroy their image. Again, I’m not dissing it; to me, that is what I think is fundamentally wrong with fashion photography. It really is directly because of digital capture.
So you never shoot digital?
If and when I have to shoot digitally, I always shoot to card and never show anyone. I usually give myself a day or two before I look at the session. It’s the same thing you would do with film, you shoot your film, it goes to the lab the next morning and you get it back that afternoon. That space in time between [taking the photograph] and looking at it after is a really important thing. It’s kind of like counting to ten when someone makes you really mad. If I said something awful to you and you just counted to ten, your reaction would be different than just [snaps fingers]. We’re in such a hurry to make sure we “got it” that in the process I genuinely think the results today are infinitely inferior than where they were ten years ago.