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What I’ve Learned from Albert Watson’s Iconic Portrait of Steve Jobs

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October 5th, 2011 was a Wednesday, and the Cache Valley Photographers were gathered at my studio for their weekly lunch time meeting to discuss Scott Kelby’s Guest Blog, and I remember the day well. The Guest Blogger was Jodi Cobb, who wrote about her project documenting modern slavery. Unfortunately, the group didn’t spend as much time discussing this as it deserved because it was also the day that Steve Jobs passed away.

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We did discuss this iconic image made by photographer Albert Watson. Watson’s work is varied and inspiring, and this photograph of Jobs has come to define an entire generation. It’s the cover of Steve Jobs’s Biography, it was the landing page of Apple.com for an entire month, and it hung billboard-sized at Apple’s campus. Few people have not seen this photograph. I’d like to share what I’ve learned from it, how it’s changed my life, and an idea for how it may be used to change others’ lives too.

Subject as Object

We examined this picture, making suppositions about how it was lit, the lens used, etc. But no matter how much you dissect it, it’s clear that the subject is the object of the image, and that’s a lesson I’ve tried to keep in mind in all my portraiture since. This picture isn’t about Watson—an internationally renowned photographer—and his fancy lighting knowledge and camera-craft. It’s all about Steve. Viewing it, you’d never think, “Man that’s a cool lighting technique,” or, “Interesting background,” or, “I bet he used a full frame camera.” Watson masterfully removed everything from this image that might distract from Steve, including himself.

After lunch, my buddy Justin Wasden and I set out to recreate the image, and that was fun. Then someone else came into the studio, so we invited them to make a portrait, too. That evening I invited any and all to come in to make a portrait similar to Steve Jobs, and you know what? 100 people came.

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You gotta understand, this was a small farming town in Northern Utah, so it was pretty cool to get so many people involved. Some people called it a tribute portrait, some didn’t like Steve but couldn’t deny his impact on the world, and several were teachers who talked about how wonderful it had been to have computers in their classrooms (I had Apples in school, and earning a few minutes to play Oregon Trail was a great incentive in my elementary school classrooms). It was fascinating to hear so many stories and perspectives on the man.

Since then, I’ve made similar portraits for hundreds of people, and every time is marvelous. I’ve shot in my studio, in businesses, at conferences, and in casinos in Vegas. When people use this portrait for their profile image, they get a big bump in traffic and attention, which helps them build their businesses. Maybe you could get good results from making similar portraits, too.

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Character vs. Person

When you make these portraits, it’s essential to remember that you’re working with a person, and people are shy of being photographed. Being photographed is hard! I know many of you have said, “I bought the camera so I don’t have to be in front of it,” and if you have, you’re missing out on a great opportunity. Being photographed helps you to empathize, and that will make you a better person and a better portraitist.

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On the other hand, the great thing about this picture is that it gives people a chance to be a character, like an actor. It’s as if they are freed from their self-consciousness and embarrassment. They usually open up and we have fun. “Channeling Steve” is liberating.

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Still, you’ve got a responsibility to help people look their best in your portraits. How? Start by watching Peter Hurley’s guest post videos. Besides helping people hide their extra chins, you’ll also notice that Peter has his camera on par with the person’s face, not shooting from above. In this portrait, it’s important that your lens be positioned level with your subject’s nose. This helps your viewer engage with the portrait from a respectful position. Shooting from above, as we may have been taught to do, is a mistake in this case. If you do, the viewer is now looking down on the person, and that’s the wrong relationship. We ought to present people as equals. Use Peter’s tip of pushing the forehead toward the lens. You’ve got to help people look their best. It’s not a picture of a guy with his thumb on his chin; it’s a portrait of a person.

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This video demonstrates a few key tips for making these portraits, including how to work with a person. You can see my setup with a beauty dish (though I often use a 26″ Rapid Box when I travel), and a 105mm lens. I strongly recommend you shoot these portraits at a minimum of 85mm.

The Steve Jobs Portrait Project

Watson’s portrait of Steve Jobs is iconic, which means this simple portrait represents something larger and more important than the picture or the man alone. Maybe this single image recapitulates the last four decades. Maybe it represents the Baby Boomers. Maybe it represents prosperity and ingenuity and determination and capitalism and whatever else you think of when you consider one of the most influential men of the last 100 years.

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As photographers, our place is to make photographs that mean more than the sum of their parts. Beautiful sunsets are great, and pictures of babies are cute. The value of those pictures, though, is in the power they have to stir emotions and move people to action even when they’ve never been to that place, or met that child. Scott Bourne has named us the High Priests of Memory Protection, and that’s a serious responsibility and it requires us to act. I mentioned Jodi Cobb’s post earlier, which is just one example of powerful imagery moving people to action.

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I’m trying to use this Steve Jobs Portrait Project to make photographs that mean something and move people to action. I’ve identified local organizations that do good things, and it seems that what they need most is more money to do more good things. We’re making Steve Jobs Portraits of the beneficiaries, and we’re making portraits of the benefactors who help make the good things happen. We invite people to a gallery reception (perhaps at a local business) where they may interact with the people of the organization, both the benefactors and the beneficiaries, and invite them to see how a little money can make a big impact. When we bring portraits and stories and people together, good things happen.

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These portraits aren’t mine. It’s clearly a tribute to Watson’s work, and Steve Jobs used the same pose in portraits many years ago. I’m having a blast, however, affecting people’s lives with it. Maybe it’d be fun for you, too. Maybe you can even use it for something good.

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One More Thing

I’ve always thought that being asked to be a guest blogger on Scott Kelby’s blog would be the biggest honor, and that only the big league players were invited. Well, I know I’m still just a newbie, but it is an honor, and I’ve realized that the big leagues are full of people who give more than their share to others, and I can’t imagine better company to be in. Thank you, Scott and Brad, for establishing a giving culture and letting me be a part.


About the author: Levi Sim is a passionate full-time photographer who is crazy about learning and helping others better their work. You can see more of his work on Photofocus, or by following him on Twitter and Google+. He is also teaching at the Out Of Chicago Conference next week if you’d like to meet him in person. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • OtterMatt

    I really don’t think there’s any way to make that pose look good while smiling. Given how Jobs rarely seemed to do that, I’d say the pose was more inspired by the subject. Copying it is just copying, and as the sample photos showed, very few people look good in that same pose.

  • Kris Moralee

    It’s just a picture of a guy who owned an IT company. No more and no less. Nothing iconic about him or this image. IMO

  • Lambert Schlumpf

    I agree, I almost didn’t know the guy until he died and (some) people seemed to be in despair over the social networks, crying for weeks (?).

  • http://www.outofchicago.com Chris Smith

    And Jobs was just an ordinary guy and Apple is an ordinary IT company.

  • adamnyholt

    I agree that the image is nothing special, except that it is a good portrayal of an influential man. To say that there is nothing iconic about Jobs, however, is quite ignorant. Not that I expect you to read his biography, but if you did you’d find that he single-handedly drove MAJOR paradigm shifts in four huge industries– PCs, music, film, and mobile computing — that for the most part meant great things for consumers at every corner of the globe. You can try to say you weren’t influenced by him, and that he hasn’t affected your life at all, but you’d be completely wrong. Even if you never bought an apple product in your life.

    PS- I’m not saying he was a hero or even a nice guy. He was simply a very influential one, and we consumers do have many things to thank him for.

  • Tzctplus -

    I find ironic the author talks about how important the subject is and then proceeds to show us how to do the same kind of portrait 100 times.
    He clearly learned something, but hot what he thought did …

  • OtterMatt

    I’d disagree on all fronts. Adamnyholt already covered why the man is influential, but this photo in particular might be one of the best matches of a technique to a subject. Jobs lived his life in an extremely minimalistic manner. The directional and contrasty lighting alludes to the way Jobs wasn’t afraid to upset people, and I’d have actually made it MORE stark and harsh. He was very frank, extremely demanding, and put a LOT of people into his shadow. There’s good and bad to be said about Jobs. He was almost two completely different people depending on who you ask. I’m reminded of Heisler’s portrait of Bush, actually.

  • Douglas Clarke

    On Steve Jobs the pose looks fitting, on others not so much. I think the pose has to fit the subjects personality.

  • exkeks

    I think, I won the Memory game! (Last set of photos)

  • Vin Weathermon

    Well thanks I now have a pose that I can never do again since I’ve just seen a thousand of them all in one place.

  • Vin Weathermon

    He was and thought he knew better on all fronts. “Despite his diagnosis, Jobs resisted his doctors’ recommendations for medical intervention for nine months,[176] instead consuming a pseudo-medicine diet in an attempt to thwart the disease. According to Harvard researcher Ramzi Amri, his choice of alternative treatment “led to an unnecessarily early death.” But many great people do crazy things.

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  • http://www.vincentmorretino.com/ fast eddie

    Hahaha :)

  • 1984admin

    This is one of the dumbest projects i’ve ever heard. Photography is not mandatory, nor people with cameras are forced to take picture by law.
    if a guy with camera has a lack of ideas, should rest, take it easy until something solid comes out.

    The portraiture work is fine, the kind of a guy with camera that took some lessons should take. But sharpness and good light, unluckily are not enough.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Unlike others here, I think this was a useful project and the resulting images work well. I’m not sure I’d go on so much about the image capturing Jobs’ soul (which was complex) but in my eyes, it’s a decent portrait of an iconic figure who was tough to photograph and didn’t work well with photographers (or many journalists). Mimicking that pose and technique is a useful exercise for sure (minimalism, good eye contact, a bit of intensity).

  • Mark_Ransom

    For the Halloween shortly after Steve Jobs died, I did a makeover to try to look like him. I took the self portrait you see here that evening, and I’ve been using it as my avatar ever since. The goal was to come as close to the iconic photograph as possible. My lighting and technique are nowhere near the original, but I thought it turned out all right.