I never set anyone at ease. I always thought it was their problem. Either they were at ease or they weren’t. That was part of what was interesting about a picture. Setting people at ease is not part of what I do. The question assumes that one is looking for a “nice” picture, but a good portrait photographer is looking for something else. It might be a nice picture and it might not. I know, however, that I do set people at ease because I’m very direct. I’m there simply to take the picture and that’s it.
Most people don’t like having their picture taken. It’s a stressful, self-confrontational moment. Some people are better at it than others. I work best with people who can project themselves, but many people can’t do that. Or they don’t want to. They don’t feel good about themselves. Or they feel too good about themselves. I’m not very accomplished at talking to people, and I certainly can’t talk to people and take pictures at the same time. For one thing, I look through a viewfinder when I work. Richard Avedon seduced his subjects with conversation. He had a Rolleiflex that he would look down at and then up from. It was never in front of his face. Most of the great portrait photographers didn’t have a camera in front of their faces. It was next to them while they talked.
The classic anecdote about Avedon getting what he wanted from a sitter is the one about him going to photograph the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They were great animal lovers. They doted on their pugs. Avedon set up the portrait, talking all the while, and just before he took the picture he told them a story, completely untrue, about how on the way to the sitting his taxi had run over a little dog. That broke their composure. He got the famous portrait of them looking anguished.
Maybe if I live another 50 years I could do that. You have to admire it, though. I think the only form of seduction I’m capable of is the assurance that I’m a good photographer and that we’re going to do something interesting. I’ve never asked anyone to do something that didn’t seem right for them. And I don’t ask them to do something for no reason. There’s always some thought behind my pictures. I throw out several ideas and see what the subject wants to do. When I photographed the performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, for instance, I gave her three or four ideas. The last one was about being buried in the sand in the desert. That’s the one she got excited about. I also sometimes ask a subject if they have ideas. The portrait of Cindy Sherman was her idea. I just brought it to life. Realised it.
It’s a collaboration. Especially if you’re working with an entertainer, an actor or a comedian. I never make people do anything. But I’m the photographer. It’s a photo session. A lot of it is about play. Painting the Blues Brothers blue, for instance. Or giving a subject a role, a fantasy, to act out. I’m interested in getting something unpredictable, something you don’t normally see. Even so, when the picture starts to happen, it’s often a surprise.