7 questions for… David Ellis
You might not realise it, but you already know David’s work. He’s one of Britain’s foremost photographers and is responsible for some of the most memorable advertising campaigns, magazine covers and celebrity portraits of the past 20 years, having worked with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Stanley Tucci to Justin Timberlake.
Tell us about your work and how you got started…
I never wanted to be a photographer and I actually studied A Level art at college, but I hated it. A friend urged me to switch to photography instead and I just loved it. From there, I built a darkroom in my bedroom and then went to do a foundation course (which was way better than my degree, as it turns out) and I ended up in Brighton, where I got into the music scene, photographing the likes of Fatboy Slim, Carol Craig and Carl Cox. I started showing my portfolio around London and that was it, really. I began working with magazines such as Q, Sunday Times Magazine and NME and I’ve never stopped working since. It took me around the world.
What’s been your most challenging project to date?
Challenging is tricky as there are so many things that can be challenging on a shoot and in a way that’s what makes it interesting because you’re always learning and reacting to situations. One shoot that does spring to mind is Janelle Monae, where I had set up lighting in a hotel room and on the first shot I blew the power in the whole floor. I knew I only had 10 minutes with her, so I moved a large soft box to reflect the daylight from a dull London window, clamped the camera to a stand and started shooting. That said, she is a true pro in front of the camera so it’s very hard not to take a great picture of her…
And the one you’re most proud of?
Well, the number one person in the whole world I wanted to shoot has always been Sir David Attenborough and one day my ambition came true. I squealed down the phone and literally fell to my knees when I got the job. When it came to the shoot, I made it as quick as possible for him because I knew he didn’t like it, but he invited us into his house, showed us some of his mementos from travelling the globe and had a personal wander around; it was one of the fondest few hours of my life.
Nice. How has your job changed over the years?
Technically, it has changed drastically with the shift from analogue to digital, but artistically, I am always changing and evolving. I don’t feel like I follow fashion or ‘fit in’ and I just do what I do and hope that there’s a market for it so that I can eat. I don’t know if that’s the easiest route. It’s just how I am.
Tell us about the process involved in creating one of your shoots…
I tend to create a story around the subject. This can involve a setting or props or whatever and I often collaborate with the subject to achieve this. In the old days, working on editorial projects, I would have the luxury of proposing two or three of these stories to a picture editor and the scope of the vision and the artistry came down to the rapport between me and them and the budget available. Those budgets got smaller over time, so it’s only really when I’m working with brands or advertising that I get to work in this creative way nowadays. You’d be surprised how much creativity goes into that kind of work.
Which creative people inspire you and why?
I would have to say that, when it comes to photography, I could probably name a few hundred people who’ve inspired me over the years. But I think the real answer is that lots of people from all sorts of different crafts have inspired me – music, film, theatre, dance, lighting artists – and it can be just a flash of brilliance and creativity that stays with you.
And there’s always travel, of course. That’s probably one thing that does it for me as well.
What would be your dream project?
What I have found over the years is that my skills are best applied to brand or to companies that I can adapt and move with. Whether it is through film or photography or art and design, it’s more about what we can achieve together. I love working collaboratively and using my skills to convey the story, which is really well suited to my creative agency, Visual Matter – “Where we find the story behind the story for our clients”.
Equally, it’s quite nice when Adidas want me to shoot a global campaign for the next World Cup!