Painting through the lens
Wondering what it takes to capture a truly memorable image, Isabel Carmichael talks to Lorenzo Agius, portrait photographer for a generation.
Fine artist turned international photographer Lorenzo Agius probably doesn’t see himself as a maker of iconic moments, although that is of course his goal, and he tells me this early on in our interview. Down to earth and not interested in airs and graces, Agius isn’t necessarily the long term photographer to the stars you would expect. With a career spanning several decades during which he has captured the mood of a nation and spirit of an age, he is responsible for some of the most talked about images in popular culture. Working as an assistant photographer for six years learning his trade, prior to this he started out as a fine artist but three years later, following influential advice from fellow artists, he was steered away from the fine art world, deciding to invest his energy into photography. No better decision made, ever perhaps, as early on Agius was given the chance by a small independent film company to take the shoot for their next film. Deemed as a relatively unimportant poster by both Agius and the film’s director, the rest is of course history. Said film, Trainspotting, was a groundbreaking statement for the time, for which Agius took some of the most iconic film images ever and unsurprisingly, his phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.
It was a statement; the whole drug scene was going out of control and we were not trying to glamorise it. We were saying choose life, not drugs
Talking me through his career with funny anecdotes about each shoot and subject, referencing strange and fantastical moments from the world of celebrity with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Jared Leto, Will Smith and Jack Nicholson, it is hard to imagine how you can stay sane amongst the uncompromising rich and famous. He is quick to point out that he doesn’t like ego and rarely tries to prove anything to anyone, clearly the only way to survive in the egocentric world of on screen beauty. His subjects respond to his honesty and this respect is communicated in his images. Carving out a career on a resolutely low key basis and managing to remain friends with many of his globally famous subjects, he reminds me that in fact “these people are human beings themselves”, something which of course works in his favour when undertaking the largely impossible task of capturing the ‘real’ essence of that person through the lens. Some shoots, he tells me, are for making the person appear in a certain way: fashion campaigns and film characters, where the subject needs to appear heroic or cool, this is part of the day job, but capturing the raw ‘truth’ via a portrait is however another skill, just like actually painting a portrait. Something between in-house psychologist, artist and cultural observer, Agius often uses music on his shoots to help set the tone or get “the right energy” out of those in front of him. His personality is present in much if his portrait works and there is often an overriding emphasis on fun, as if he is painting a picture in his own innovative and spirited style. He says if the subjects aren’t feeling it then he might even send them home, as he did once during one of his first shoots with Angelina Jolie. You need to find the right balance of energy after all.
Photographing some of the world’s most photographed people comes easy to a rare type of person; perhaps it is the mix of artistic talent, sense of humour, understanding of light, composition and technique that differentiates Lorenzo Agius’s work from the rest, making it distinctive and genuine. He tells me that one day he would like to photograph artist David Hockney. When that day comes I think we already know that the result is going to make a pretty big statement.
Lorenzo Agius is exhibited by Alon Zakaim Fine Art Gallery, London and features as part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery. He is represented in the UK by Terrie Tanaka Management. Terrietanaka.com / lorenzo-agius.com
December 1st 2016