The Telling Black and White Portraiture of David Drake

Photographer David Drake has a style to his portraiture. A Je ne sais quoi.

Photographer David Drake is not only the man behind the vycra presets for Lightroom, but he’s also a fantastic film photographer. “My step-father was at ground zero in NYC on September 11th 2001, and was photographed by the Magnum photographer Larry Towell,” he tells us. “It was published in the Magnum September 11th book. I was 15 years old at the time, and the fact the a photo of one of my parents was being exhibited and published really interested me.” After getting a copy of the book and a Minolta XG7 from his step-father, he started shooting in black and white film. And according to him, it was probably because of that photograph.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

David: The way I got in to photography as a career is a little bit more long winded. I (barely) graduated high school and for numerous familial reasons I was being encouraged to become an electrician rather than going into higher education. I pulled an audible and moved away to Ireland when I was 18 and worked in Dublin as a window cleaner… this is where I met my wife there (who is from England… which we’ll come back to shortly) . I moved back to New York when I was around 20 and I kind of bounced around factory and retail jobs for a number of years. I’d been building up a portfolio of photography work in my free time and sending it off to agents, magazines, newspapers, etc. I got a call back from a well respected agent who gave me loads of encouragement and advice. That was a real boost for me. Shortly thereafter I got a call back from a photo editor at a newspaper and he offered regular freelance work. That was my first paid gig and it allowed me to quit my day job. When I was 24 my daughter was born and my wife and I decided to move back to her hometown in England. Right before that move I won a contest to photograph Julian Casablancas (of the Strokes) on his first solo show in NYC. So I had that in my portfolio when I moved to the UK. Once over here I sent of a ton of emails and met with tons of people the first month or two and managed to get shoots for a couple bands who went on to win Mercury awards (which boosted my profile). That’s how I got in to working as a photographer. Now I’m sort of a photographer/director hybrid mostly working with record labels. I also regularly shoot advertising and some editorial.

Phoblographer: You’re a photographer that does a lot more than just portraits; but what made you get into them to begin with?

David: MyI started shooting as a teenager in a small city in Upstate New York called Poughkeepsie. There wasn’t much going on in my neighborhood, and without a car all I could really photograph at first was my friends and family, and I think thats how I started photographing people. I had a pretty strange upbringing, and think I used to walk around with a camera because it was easier to engage certain family members with the buffer zone of a camera between us. I did a small photobook using photos from my mid-teens called A Burning Cloud, which you can see on my personal website.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about what fascinates you with black and white. Do you feel that you create in a different way as a result of it?

David: I learned in b&w. I think that’s the best way to learn because it makes you focus more on light and shapes instead of the superfluous. With b&w you are looking at what you are photographing first and foremost: how light hits things, how it bounces around, where the shadows are, and how things are shaping up compositionally. I find that lots of photographers (especially new ones) get really hung up on the punchiness of colour as if that is some sort of replacement for everything else. It isn’t. The colour of somebody’s eyes, the vibrancy of foliage, the softness of a sunset… all of that is bonus material. Those things enhance an image, they don’t make it. I always start with the light and the shapes. That’s what you learn shooting exclusively in b&w. When I’ve been shooting a lot of jobs on my digital camera I sometimes get out my Minolta or Fuji GW and put a few rolls of b&w through them over a week or so just to reset my eye.

Phoblographer:  Walk us through a shoot with you. When you enter the studio with a subject, what’s it like? How do you direct them? What’s the interaction like with folks?

David: I’m super low key on a shoot. I don’t really engage all that much during a shoot, I sort of let the subject feel uncomfortable initially because thats natural in a portrait sitting. I’m always friendly, professional, and polite for starters, but I don’t really tell them how to stand, sit, or where to look. I have always preferred to observe how people act rather than interfering. I usually just stand there with my finger on the shutter waiting for that split second when their eyes move a certain way or their expression shifts, perhaps the light falls in a more pleasing manner. That’s when I take the photo. I don’t know much about guns except from video games, but I guess a camera should handle more like a sniper rifle than a machine gun, at least in my opinion. Anyway, I try to stay casual and let people act how they want to act.

“I learned in b&w. I think that’s the best way to learn because it makes you focus more on light and shapes instead of the superfluous.”

Phoblographer: What films do you like?

David: I assume you don’t mean movies haha! I mostly shoot on Portra for colour. For b&w I’ve been shooting on Bergger Pancro recently (its really nice), but I also use Ilford HP5 or Delta sometimes depending on the shoot, and I’ve also shot on Fomapan a little bit too. I develop all my own stuff. I’ve got a darkroom that I run with some friends here in Norwich called Obscura. Its a community organisation, we’re trying to get more people back in to shooting, developing, and printing. We’re also hosting Q&A’s with documentary, fashion, and editorial photographers.

But if you did mean movies… I like most films by Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, Paul Schrader, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Cassavetes… lots of stuff from the 70s and 80s (and quite a lot of recent stuff too, but no tent pole stuff really). Much like with photography, I don’t like that overtly digital look that you get in all those super hero or star wars films. Its like movies are currently in the HDR hole and need to work their way out of it. I just directed my first short film Party Wall, and lo-and-behold its in b&w.

Phoblographer: Do you find yourself to be more of a documenter or a creator when it comes to photography?

David: MyI don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. All good photography is highly subjective and unique to the eye of that particular photographer. You’re creating something, even if you’re documenting it as well.