By Larry Writer
His portraits have graced national and international glossies and news magazines alike. The National Portrait Gallery has been collecting his work for a decade, and in 2005 honored him with an exhibition of his works.
Peter, now 46, has come far from his roots in rural South Australia where, as a lonely and awkward 7-year-old he took solace in painting the local landscape with oils. “That has formed who I am now and the way I work,” he says. Studying landscape painting at the South Australian School of Art he did an elective in photography and promptly fell in love with it. On graduating, he came to Sydney to be a fashion photographer, working for various magazines. Then, in the early ’90s, another epiphany. “I realised I preferred portraiture to fashion and became a freelance portrait photographer, using elements of what I’d learned painting and shooting fashion. It’s just the way my brain works. I like to tell a person’s story, bring out the facets of their personality in my images.”
And, this being the dawn of the celebrity age, “I shot some wonderful and interesting people. We didn’t have hair and makeup and stylists in my early days, just me and my equipment, so it was really raw and that was what was beautiful. I found myself in demand from the glossy magazines, and often being invited to contribute to Good Weekend‘s weekly portrait page. My first image for them was of designer Peter Weiss.”
In Peter’s burgeoning portfolio are the photographs you see in this feature, as well as stunning and iconic images of such as Serena and Venus Williams, Bob Hawke, Mikhael Baryshnikov, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Oliver, Debbie Harry, Ashton Kutcher and Jack Black. His classic portrait of Naomi Watts, so ethereal and fragile, is a favorite with visitors to the National Portrait Gallery.
“It’s hard to explain what makes my images different,” he says. “But something definitely comes through. I research the person so I can find their essence, or part of it, and bring it out. It helps if I’ve worked with them before. I try to bring something fresh – a look, a feeling, a concept – to the shoot to interest and intrigue both the sitter and myself. I’m passionate. And I do my best to have empathy with the person so we’re collaborators in every sense. I work insanely hard to achieve and maintain my sitter’s trust.” Testimony to that are the enduring friendships he has made with many whom he has photographed.
A charming and articulate man, it’s easy to understand why his subjects respond. His warmth and genuine interest in his sitters puts them at ease. As one who recoils from negativity and conflict, he is known for his happy shoots. His humor, which he describes as self-deprecating, tends to make others relax and have a laugh.
That said, he insists, “I’m under no illusion that I’m not part of the celebrity industry, and my job is to produce a sitter’s public image. I strive to create something beautiful, a more polished version of themselves, enhancing their inner and outer qualities. I’m not into creating an image that is not them, just one that shows them at their very best.”
Peter shoots with a Canon 1DX and, for specialist shoots, the Hasselblad Phase One system – “My camera is who I am, an extension of me… it’s the format, it also is a factor in my look. It is a neutral element; the sitter has an opinion, I have an opinion, and the camera simply documents what’s going on between us. Rapid fire is how I talk through my camera, whatever dynamic is happening between the sitter and me is captured. Every rapid fire shot is unique. I edit within seconds, my gut tells me which shot is best.”
MY FIRST PORTRAIT
I shot this, my first portrait, in 1987 when I was at the South Australian School of Art and Design and had just fallen in love with the photographic process. From memory, I think it was from the second role of film I ever took. The sitter is a fellow student, and her name is lost to me. I was majoring in painting in those days and just starting with photography so this image is a crossover between the two mediums. You can clearly see elements of my later style. It’s very simple, very natural, very ’40s noir. My early influences were the classic portrait photographers of the 20th century such as the German Erwin Blumenfeld, who drew on his experience as a painter and froze his negatives to achieve crystallisation in his images, and Man Ray. My style most definitely developed from this.
BARRY OTTO: ACTOR & ARTIST
This photograph dates from 2008, when I was asked by the National Portrait Gallery to be one of the ambassadors to help promote the 2009 National Portrait Prize. To mark my new role, I was invited to photograph a portrait, and I chose Barry Otto. The entire creating of the image was filmed for an ABC-TV arts program, all the stages from concept through to the shooting of the portrait and ending with the finished framed image. The portrait depicts two Barrys – I use a lot of duality in my work to portray different facets of the sitter. “Dichotomia” shows Barry’s contrasting sides… the confident artist that he is, looking assuredly straight at the camera, and the ever-quizzical actor. The photograph is after the style of the paintings of Botticelli, who has influenced Barry’s paintings enormously. This is why I had him covered head to toe in kabuki paint, to give the look of a Botticelli pastel drawing. Barry had no qualms about showing his upper body, nothing is too much trouble. He will do anything to make a creative concept succeed and that is why I asked him to sit for this piece.
ANNA McGAHAN: ACTOR
This photo is from a shoot for Anna’s breakthrough TV series, Underbelly Razor, in 2011. Leading up to the assignment, I’d been hearing about this red-headed, alabaster-skinned amazing actress, and I was excited to work with her. She didn’t disappoint. Now, the first time an actor is in a serious photographic session, insecurity and nervousness can, understandably, turn the experience into a challenge. I’ve seen it happen many times. This girl walked into my studio and within the first three frames there was no stopping her. There was a calm and quiet and a deep intelligence about her, and my camera loved her. She is so very beautiful in a classic and timeless way, and as beautiful as she is in real life, her beauty goes to another level in the image. She became a sort of muse for a period, I just loved working with her.
JULIA GILLARD: PRIME MINISTER
I photographed Julia earlier this year, shortly after Kevin Rudd began his public smear campaign. Somehow, despite all the turmoil that was going on her life at the time, her natural warmth and sweetness shone through in the images. She exudes strength, too, the strength to shut out the negativity, the smears and the attacks that no man would ever have to deal with, and concentrate on the job at hand. If someone is faking, I can see it in their eyes, and look, hers are serene. The one possible concession to the pressure she was under is her hands, which are in a defensive positive. The light-bulb above her head symbolises that she is an ideas woman, the most innovative prime minister we’ve ever had, who introduced many tremendous policies. The background is chalk boards, which represents her passion for education. She is the bravest woman, and I have enormous respect for her.
RACHAEL FINCH: BEAUTY AND TV REPORTER; AND AMMO: STUNT HORSE
This was a challenging assignment. I had to photograph Rachael riding a rearing horse to publicise the Melbourne Cup festival, and it soon became evident we had a major challenge on our hands. Although we’d been told that Rachael had riding experience, it turned out that it wasn’t to the level we all thought. It’s a credit to her guts and professionalism, and the temperament of the amazing stunt horse Ammo, God rest his soul for he passed away six months ago, and Ammo’s trainer Steve Jeffries, that we achieved this dramatic image. Once the look of concern when she heard what she had to do had left Rachael’s face, she was so courageous, and in the photograph she seems not to have a care in the world, even though it’s long way for her to fall. Another challenge was getting Ammo used to Rachael’s prickly tulle dress. Not surprisingly, he’d never been ridden by anyone wearing tulle before! Steve gently rubbed the material on Ammo’s back and head till he was used to the feeling. After only 45 minutes of training with Steve, Rachael got on Ammo and the two seemed to have an instant trust and then magic happened! What I love about it is that by looking at the image, you think that Rachael is a seasoned rider!
KEITH URBAN: COUNTRY MUSIC STAR
Sometimes you do crazy things to shoot a cover. A magazine client assigned me to photograph Keith Urban for its 10th anniversary issue. All well and good… the only problem was that Keith was in remote Kununurra in WA’s Kimberley Region where he’d joined his wife Nicole Kidman on the location of her film Australia. This meant that to get to and home from the allotted four-hour photo shoot, my crew and I had to travel for a total of five days, carting ourselves and our gear from Sydney and Perth to Kununurra in planes and hire vehicles. Happily, Keith made it all worthwhile, as I think the image shows. He was a dream to work with, such a gentleman, responsive, appreciative, respectful… and so much fun. I rapid fire when I shoot because I like to capture what I call the pose on the end of a pose, and this approach paid off with Keith. Despite his tough stance, he still looks human and vulnerable. There were color shots, too, but I prefer the black and white because it gives a charcoal painterly effect which softens his masculine pose. I shot Keith in the reception foyer of a hotel, and thank goodness it was air conditioned because outside it was a furnace.
MANU FEILDEL: CHEF & RESTAURATEUR
I get a little restless on shoots when there’s a bit of downtime while the styling and grooming is happening, so I busy myself running around the set capturing candid images. Sometimes an impromptu behind-the-scenes shot of the sitter off-guard works better than the planned portrait. I’d been photographing Manu reclining on a chair in an ultra-stylised way in a magnificent old abandoned terrace house in Sydney’s The Rocks, and then as we paused so the stylist could step in and make final adjustments, I kept shooting so my operator could capture a grey card frame and suddenly, in the shot here, all the elements came together beautifully. Manu’s expression, while relaxed, captures his seriousness and natural assurance . My operator holding the grey card is oblivious to the camera and the stylist has spun around at just the right moment – her dress and overcoat is swinging and her hand is intriguingly-positioned. I think I love this image so much because elements within it remind me a classic Elliott Erwitt moment. There is both chaos and serenity.
MISSY HIGGINS: SINGER
I was commissioned last year by Good Weekend to shoot Missy for a cover story about how she had returned with a new album, The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle, after five years out of the public eye. She’d been in self-imposed exile because she wasn’t coping with the stresses of fame and had become depressed and fallen out of love with music, but now, rejuvenated and strong again, she was making a comeback. Missy and I go way back, so it was really nice to have an existing working relationship and so be able to collaborate on this concept. Missy wanted an origami element to tie in to her new single and I took the idea one step further and drew on the Japanese legend that if you fold one thousand origami cranes you are granted good luck, wellness, honor and respect. Folding one thousand cranes was out of the question, so I acquired that number of pieces or origami paper – red because it’s my favorite color and also symbolised Missy’s newfound passion and strength – and tacked them to the walls and floor to create a room of paper. In the twin portrait, we see the renewed Missy confident once more and embracing her talent, and also, on the right, the Missy who struggled and turned her back on music. Shooting her in both positions also allowed me to show how truly beautiful she is from all angles.
XAVIER SAMUEL: ACTOR
When I photographed Xavier a couple of years ago for a portfolio of new young Australian actors hitting Hollywood, I found his personality so multi-faceted that I created an image with him in four poses. When I shoot the young, I try to keep it informal, just like two mates on the set. I simply let them express themselves, shoot what they do and so document their personality. With Xavier, who is confident, quirky and has great energy, it’s organic. He and I didn’t share many words when shooting this particular set, we didn’t need to. We had a great vibe, and that shines through in the image. The shot where he has his head in hands… I think I said something self-deprecating (which I do a lot of the time) and that was his reaction. A really great kid to work with.
SAMARA AND MORGAN WEAVING: ACTORS
The client and I wanted to create a whimsical, ethereal portrait of the acting sisters. I took it one step further and created a modern interpretation of a Renaissance nymph painting. We made our “glade” in a garden in Sydney’s Hunters Hill. We brought in most of the plants and flowers from a garden supplier to create the perfect stylised setting. Samara (at right) and Morgan are very close, and they are happy and at peace in each other’s company, and their calmness completed the serene feel of this portrait. By just looking at this shot you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was just me and the girls, but the reality was that just out of shot there was an army of people and loads of lights and equipment surrounding them. It’s interesting – and good – that often when people see portraits like this they take them at face value and don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes.
JESSICA MAUBOY: SINGER & ACTOR
At the end of an editorial shoot to celebrate Jessica’s 2012 film The Sapphires, I tried something different. I wanted to portray her as the woman she had grown into. I’ve known her since her Australian Idol days and seen her evolve into Australia’s diva, in the true and positive sense of the word. I wanted to capture her under my big photec spot-light in a vast empty studio, standing statuesque and proud of who she is and how she looks. Her face, elbow and hand are lit to contribute to an iconic image. I referenced another great diva, Diana Ross. I had come across rare and unusual 1970s images of Diana in a similar pose and this is my modern version. The red drop canvas signifies the red ochre of the Northern Territory desert where Jess was born and grew up. She is one of the nicest, most gentle and caring people, and deserves all of her success.
BLACK CAVIAR: CHAMPION RACE HORSE
I grew to love horses, surrounded by them as a boy in rural South Australia, so to be asked to photograph the great Black Caviar for The Australian Women’s Weekly‘s 80th birthday issue was a dream assignment. There’s a nature about that horse. When she was being groomed and polished before being led onto the environment I’d created for her in her stable near Melbourne, I was advised by the people who look after her, “Peter, you won’t be dictating this shoot. Black Caviar will be dictating to you.” Well, Black Caviar, after all, is Black Caviar, and I was fine with that. Then Donna Fisher, who is Black Caviar’s strapper, was talking to her and gently encouraging her into poses and while I was shooting away rapid fire, this magnificent horse bowed to Donna, whose hand you can see in the image. I captured the moment, which was not repeated during the session. The image sums up Black Caviar’s gentleness and humility, which belies her incredible achievements and invincibility on the track. Usually she is depicted as huge, powerful and imposing – in fact the magazine ended up using one such shot from my shoot – but this photograph was so different, and to me, truer to her nature. It’s special. The co-ordinated blacks and browns of Black Caviar’s coat, the hay and the backdrop are down to my art training, my painter’s eye transferred to my photography.
RACHEL GRIFFITHS: ACTOR
Rachel and I have always had a rapport. I first shot her for the Australian and United States editions of Elle back in 1999 or 2000 when she was making it in America. We were in a Sydney hotel and my photo captured her quirkiness as she pulled her hair out of her pony tail and screamed. I’ve photographed her numerous times since, and this image was from our latest. I really wanted a retro vibe so to highlight her classic beauty which I have always felt is reminiscent of old Hollywood. She wore her hair up as she felt it was right for the vibe we were trying to achieve. Look at her expressive mouth and beautiful eyes. She’s sexy, but not in an overt way. When I want to create a “sexier” photograph of a woman I tend to do it in a rather non- sexual way, trying simply to create a more polished image of their beauty, subtle and classy, not overt and cheap. Rachel is so much fun, so Australian. She makes me laugh – A LOT.
TERESA PALMER: ACTOR
Very Bardot… Teresa had always done very polished shoots and I wanted to create a broken-down, raw, but still beautiful portrait of her. I wanted sea-salt-just-out-of-the-ocean hair, in a loose t shirt, looking casual. She appears to be speaking to the camera, and she probably was. It’s another of those poses on the end of the pose shots that truly reflect the nature of the sitter. I photographed Teresa in 2010, and she was then an up-and-coming actor, and when I work with someone who is beautiful but perhaps not yet recognisable to many, I prefer to shoot them in a neutral pose against a white background so the focus is on their face.
CONNIE MITCHELL: SINGER
At the publicity shoot for Sneaky Sound System’s last album, in the Hunky Dory Social Club, a bar in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, we had access to the entire three levels… and I decided to shoot in the toilet! I took one look at it, and I knew I’d found our location. There was a bare light globe, and I love bare light bulbs, and natural light streamed in through the window. There was a period-style Bakelite wash basin. A set like that would cost thousands to build from scratch. I wanted Connie to take on the persona of a 1940s jazz singer. Her hair glows and her thrust-out hip looks striking. She is sultry and knows how to pose and her being her brought that finality to the picture. The wall and floor are perfect, and see how the light shines off the basin. To think, Connie and I spent pretty much our entire shoot in the toilet. We loved it.
DAMI IM: SINGER
My job was to photograph all four X Factor finalists a couple of weeks before the final, so the photos of whoever won could appear ASAP. Four finalists in a single day, that’s tough. Yet when I shot Dami, the eventual winner, I decided to take a risk and experiment with light painting to portray simply her innate beauty and giving a style nod to the K Pop genre. If the concept had failed I would have wasted a couple of hours and been way behind schedule. To further complicate matters, it was the first shoot Dami had ever done, but she was insanely good. She had to sit stock still in a pitch-dark room, not moving her body or changing her expression, for the 30 second exposure while I ran around her, making light patterns in the air with my home made light wands while the camera was triggered remotely. Just painting her with light, basically. Once an artist… At first look, Dami seems to have a blank expression but look closer and there’s something there that is very real and human. She’s a super-lovely girl.
There’s not a lot to say about this photograph as I feel the image speaks volumes. I believe that Rose is one of the most beautiful women in film, so in 2007 when I was commissioned to do this shoot I wanted to create a simple, soulful portrait without any frills or tricks, that captures her mesmerising beauty. By styling to an absolute minimum, preferring bare skin over labels, I wanted to keep the focus fully on her stunning face. Rose and I go back to the beginning of her career, just after she made Two Hands in 1999. One of our first shoots took place in the kitchen of my Balmain house (shoots were a lot more simple back then!). Since, we’ve worked together on numerous occasions … It’s nice to witness the development of an actor first hand and to be able to capture them at their different stages.
MEL B: SINGER & TV STAR
My crew and I arrived at the house where Mel was staying in Sydney during X Factor, not knowing anything about the location. We looked over the balcony and below was a luminous swimming pool and it was so Palm Springs! I had a concept, California circa 1950s, Hollywood hostesses having cocktails around the pool. The color of the water and the curve of the pool and Mel’s voluptuous figure and her extraordinary costume and shoes and the way her hair is falling and how she is shielding herself from the glare came together beautifully in this image. While I was shooting, my assistant was hanging precariously over the balcony with the light, which was used to balance out with a glaring sun. Once the concept was in place, creating it took a lot of styling. Mel was a wonderful sitter through it all. This was the publicity machine at work.
JASON DERULO: SINGER & SONGWRITER
The clasped hands was Jason’s default pose. It was a frenetic 2011 publicity shoot and I took a number of shots of the rap and hip-hop performer and it wasn’t quite working. There was so much craziness and so many people buzzing around the set and it was proving difficult for me to get Jason, a lovely and intense kid, to focus. But after we finished, he went into this pose and it was just right. The hands, the open jacket, the elbows… such symmetry… and also capturing his intensity perfectly. To give it an urban R&B vibe, we simply made the bricks of the wall glisten by painting them gloss black, simple but very effective. Along with some super fine styling the image just came to life.
RICKY MARTIN: SINGER
My gauge of whether someone is genuine or not is how they engage with my crew. When Ricky Martin came into Sun Studios in Sydney’s Alexandria, he introduced himself to every person on the set, looking them straight in the eye, and I thought, “You’re one of the good ones.” Ricky was so charming and co-operative, and, this being his only editorial shoot in Sydney to promote his involvement with The Voice, it was frantic. All very standard in this day and age, many people wanted his attention because we were slotted in during the shooting of the TV promos for the show. We had just 90 minutes to make a set of great portraits. Ricky gave me his total focus and we totally clicked. He is the ultimate professional. I created and personally built the deconstructed, gritty set, and working closely with the stylist Jude Cook and Ricky’s creative director, Jose Luis Vega on the styling, we created this relaxed, rich, gritty portrait that seems to reference another era. Ricky looks every bit as handsome as he is. By keeping all the colors within the portrait the same tone, Ricky’s engaging presence shines through without distraction. I think this would have to be one of the calmest, genuinely happiest shoots I’ve done.
JESSICA MARAIS: ACTOR
Jessica is so engaging and so beautiful and I derive absolute pleasure from working with her. She is an artist in the true sense. Like Barry Otto, she will do anything to create the art. We understand each other’s aesthetic, and connect on a professional and personal level and I think this empathy comes out in the photographs I take of her. I hardly have to direct her. I’ve included two Jessica favorites here. In her first major editorial shoot, we were shooting at a magnificent historic house, and to introduce a quirky element I had her wear an incredible dress and stand on an old painter’s ladder positioned in the middle of a grand old room. The image works. There’s a funny story behind the second shot. I’d been commissioned to shoot the British pop star Katie Malua, and we had everything in place – the studio, the set, the hair and makeup people – and at the last moment Katie had to cancel her Australian visit. Not wanting to waste all this, I called Jess and said, “Hey, have you got time for a play?” and she came to the studio. We made her up and just had fun. There are about five exposure layers there to make it look as if I’d shot her through a kaleidoscope.
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