Every Face Tells A Story: A Conversation with Photographer, Beowulf Sheehan

formerly in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

Beowulf Sheehan

“This is the story right here,” says photographer Beowulf Sheehan, pointing to his face.

As we sit in the living room of Sheehan’s studio in New York City’s East Village with its modern furniture and hardwood floors, his photography equipment arranged carefully in front of a row of south-facing windows, I wonder about the story behind his thoughtful hazel eyes and wry smile—the astute charm of a man accustomed to formal photo shoots with famous models (Paris Hilton), musicians (Wynton Marsalis), and writers (Salman Rushdie).

Sheehan’s ever-curious gaze invites easy and lively conversation revealing his own desire to convey a deeper story in a multitude of layering and shade. The son of a linguist and a mariner, Sheehan is well traveled and multilingual. His work has appeared in publications such as Le Figaro, Harper’s Bazaar (Japan), Marie Claire(Japan), The New York Times, El País, Variety, Vogue Nippon, Vogue en Español, and Die Zeit, and he has worked for the likes of E!, Furla, and Microsoft.

Behind his face and story, there are some surprises. “I was really shy when I was little,” he says. “Photography helped me confront my shyness, and made it possible to meet and open up to people.”

I first met Sheehan at the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature (This is Sheehan’s fourth year as the Festival’s official photographer), a mecca for international writers where an open conversation about human rights and freedom of speech takes place at venues as diverse as Town Hall and The Moth. We were both rushing to cover the many events taking place all over New York City.

“I have a lot of 5 and 10 minute relationships,” laughs Sheehan. “I’ve been lucky to have photographed so many amazing literary faces with great mystery, beauty, and depth, both inside and out. I recently photographed Chris Abani, Chinua Achebe, Michael Cunningham, and Francine Prose, for example, and they all shared those qualities.

In Sheehan’s careful attention to every subject, there is a sense that time will stop for a moment (or at least slow down), as he focuses his camera and finds “the shot”.

WRR: You’ve had the opportunity to work with many well-known writers—as well as top fashion models, musicians, and artists…

I’ve been really fortunate in that what was a personal passion of mine became a professional passion over time. But it’s also been a conscious choice. Photographing still life is wonderful, and it pays very well in New York City, but I am drawn to human beings. And, as I write on my website (www.beowulfsheehan.com, I want to work with creative spirits. I learn and grow from each of those experiences and exchanges.

WRR: How did your relationship with PEN start and develop?

Well, it’s funny. That whole relationship started because a photographer friend of mine was unavailable to work for PEN. I had read that Salman Rushdie was the president and I thought, “Are you kidding? What an honor this would be!”

And it’s turned out to be great for all involved. Of course, I wholeheartedly support everything PEN does to foster free speech worldwide. And I sincerely hope that my photographs help spread the news of PEN’s invaluable work.

WRR: As a photographer, how do you view your role in supporting free speech and access to information/photos, etc.?

It’s my responsibility to champion it night and day and to condemn the defeat of it.

This country should be utopia as best as can be realized in this day and age. Because the ideals that are written down in the documents we hold so dear – if upheld and adhered to – are all we need in life. I’m very disappointed, concerned, and I suppose fearful that the events of recent years have done major damage to undermine all that is wonderful about our country.

Every single artist, every single person who is creative, or even anyone who has common sense should recognize that he or she, if not Native American, is an immigrant. And has a responsibility to protect what permitted that person or that person’s forebears to be an American, technically North American. But that’s not happening.

WRR: In working for PEN, you photograph so many famous writers. Talk about your process.

With a writer, I don’t necessarily have to worry about the backdrop or styling, which I might with a musician, where I have to speak to an aesthetic that people know by ear and must be represented in a picture. With a musician, there’s usually something added, props, clothing, location, makeup, etc.

A writer is really being himself or herself. For me to represent a writer’s aesthetic is a great challenge, with so many stories or a career full of complex characters involved. So, I almost throw all that out the window and say, “Here’s what I know of you, and here is what is renowned of you. Now let’s find those energies in your face. Your writing is mysterious, dark, your writing is gentle, your writing is for children, your writing is soft, your writing is lovely, your writing is erotic, your writing is romantic…”

WRR: Can you tell us the stories behind some of the other PEN photos you’ve taken? Dave Eggers and Valentino Deng.

Valentino Deng (Sudan/USA), the subject of Dave Eggers’ book What Is The What, photographed April 27, 2007, New York, New York.
© Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center/Retna

Well, I took this shot the day after Valentino Deng received his American citizenship, and he was all smiles. He was so charming and well-read for someone of his youth. Yet, when I raised the camera, that strength of who he had to be to have left his homeland and come to the US, suddenly filled his face so entirely. When I look at that picture, I don’t see the charming young man who gently gave me his hand to shake. I see the great strength that carried him so far.

© Beowulf Sheehan

Dave Eggers did not seem to like having his picture taken. I had been so forewarned by someone at McSweeney’s who told me he was nonetheless a very nice man. When I first took his picture, it was a very affronting image. His brow was down, his mouth was coarse. Of course I took the picture, but I wasn’t happy with it. The picture you see in front of you wasn’t made when I was formally engaged in shooting. That wall seemed too great to climb, as will happen sometimes.

The shot came when things weren’t formal. Dave resumed speaking with Valentino, and that’s when he revealed his character as I saw him to be before—very light, he was very happy. Of course, Dave was thrilled for Valentino because he’d just become a citizen. All of that vibrancy seemed to wash away when it came time to take the formal picture. But, when Dave let his guard down, he revealed himself again as I had initially seen him when he walked into the room and that’s when that picture was taken.

WRR: Zadie Smith?

Oh, yes, there’s a wonderful story there.

© Beowulf Sheehan

Zadie Smith is very elegant and refined, very much an “it” girl for the Vogue set, and a brilliant mind. She and I did not have the chance to arrange a photograph when she was preparing her presentation on behalf of PEN. I met her later at a PEN reception for writers. I caught her eye and her smile, introduced myself, and said, “Mrs. Durden, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

And she said, “Well, I’m glad someone finally noticed.”

She had a name tag on – everyone at this reception had a “Hello my name is” tag – and hers said, “Hello my name is Tyler Durden.” (Tyler Durden is one half of the multiple personality protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.)

I thought, wow, she’s smart, she’s witty, and she’s also ultra cool. I told her I missed a chance to take her picture earlier and asked if we could do so at some point that night. We actually made the picture on the street, outside the party.

WRR:How about Salman Rushdie?


© Beowulf Sheehan

Well, he gets two pictures in my book. Sir Rushdie and I have known each other for a few years now, and every time we work together it just gets easier and easier, more fluid. I remember after taking these particular pictures that I called my father and confessed that, while I loved my father, if I had grown up in foster care and had to choose from a room of 50 famous men, I would have chosen Salman Rushdie. He has such amazing wit, amazing charm, and his imagination can go from zero to sixty in no time. His wisdom is the kind where you feel elevated in speaking to him for five minutes.

In this image, he’s so warm. Both a strength and an ease there. It’s not anything haughty. There’s such luminosity about him.

WRR:What about the poet Alain Mabanckou, who you photographed in a similar pose?

Alain Mabanckou (Congo/USA), photographed April 25, 2007, New York, New York.
© Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center/Opale

Yes, the pose is the same. Alain is very much a gentle giant. He is so warm; I can’t imagine him having a single enemy on the planet. Without having to say anything, his smile will seduce anybody. But when a subject can undo me, for that to be a two way street, it’s a great, great thing.

WRR: Writers certainly try to dip into paradox and contrast because, in doing so, they can bring out the richest and perhaps truest stories. How do you use shades and contrast to convey meaning in your photos? I’m looking at Salman Rushdie with the leather jacket and yet there’s this gentleness.

Oh absolutely. Literally, metaphorically, technically, I love contrast. I love blacks that fade to absolute black, whites that fade to absolute white. There are 256 shades of gray. To capture the upper and bottom echelons is great, because you can show the whole depth of a person within contrast and see it in real life too, I can see it in your face and my own.

© Beowulf Sheehan

WRR:Talk about the whole process of taking Steve Martin’s photograph. What were you trying to draw out?

Well, my photography of Steve Martin came by way of working on behalf of PEN. It’s such an honor and a thrill, of course, to meet special human beings who aren’t necessarily household faces, but might be household names.

With Mr. Martin, it didn’t look to me as if he was in his element. He’s of course a powerful figure in Hollywood, and he’s been rightly acknowledged highly as a writer. But to be in the company of other writers must have been different for him. When I pulled him aside and asked if I could quickly set up a picture on behalf of PEN, it looked as if he had been at a loss for people to perhaps converse with, to engage on a level beyond “so tell me about the film you’ve been working on” or “I’m producing this” as the dialogue was different for him.

That’s one thought I had as to why the image looks a little different from how we all picture Steve Martin to be. He’s been photographed God knows how many times that this time I was the one who was surprised.

WRR: I think you captured almost a certain humility.

Yes, it’s as if he’s a bit of a fish out of water, and he’s accepted it. The Academy Awards are certainly not a dime a dozen, and to present them is one of the highest achievements in that world, of course. But to rub shoulders in another world, with people who perhaps are Nobel laureates, is really something special in a different way. And I think it’s probably not often that Steve Martin is in a room where he’s perhaps suddenly in awe of others.

WRR: The humanity you capture in Steve Martin makes me think of another question. Writers use words to create a magical space for the reader. Your story has to be told in one flash. How do you get to that opening in a photo?

Well, I’ll admit it’s tough because I have to think about which route to approach rather quickly. Of course, when I start I’m very gentle. But I’m also very open about what I want. And it depends on how much time I’m permitted with a subject. In what environment that photo is being made. All those things determine how much of a dialogue I can create.

It also depends on how much research I’ve been able to do on that person. With writers it isn’t always easy. No one has enough time to read every book that’s ever been written. So, I’ll be very cordial. But I want to get to that quiet place quickly, to where things are fluid without having to say anything at all. I aim to strike a chord with that subject in a personal, engaging way.

WRR: Can you give me an example of how you do this with limited time?

© Beowulf Sheehan

Well, I had to photograph Dita von Teese for Harper’s Bazaar Japan late last year. And I’m thinking, “What can I possibly say to a burlesque dancer?”

I mean I can’t exactly relate; I’ve never done anything of that nature. I saw her dance the night before. She finished her performance by being doused with water while spinning inside a human birdcage, and her performance was enough to make all the men present joke about needing a cold shower.

But then the obvious hit me: Marilyn Manson, her ex-husband, lived near my hometown, and I saw him in concert a few times when I was a little guy in the ‘80s. I approached her and said, “I saw you perform last night, and you were brilliant. I’m from Fort Lauderdale, where I saw your ex-husband play when he was getting started long ago, and he had something special, too.”

From there I had eight minutes to make two pictures, one for the magazine and the one that I wanted. I wanted the second picture to speak to her as a burlesque dancer. After I got the clean white-background shot for the magazine, I brought in a light with a snoot on it, a circular light, just like the spotlight that followed a burlesque dancer of yesteryear. I told her how I wanted to honor the traditions she was reinvigorating as the light was set up, and she gave me the shot I wanted right away. She knew exactly what I was aiming for. And the magazine ran my idea.

WRR: Tell me what initially led you to photography.

I was really shy when I was little. At some point, after drawing and painting, I started taking pictures for fun. I needed someone on the other side of the lens. Photography helped me confront my shyness, helped me meet and open up to people.

I grew up in a house where we weren’t allowed to watch much TV. And my dad’s favorite sport was sailing. You can’t talk to your five-year-old classmates about sailing. Sailing is wonderful. It’s a very beautiful thing, very photogenic, and there’s something very spiritual about it – but it’s not me. Surfing is my thing.

When I got to high school, all the guys in class were talking about the Miami Dolphins. Until then, I knew little about the sports team that was essentially down the street. I got a job as a bagboy at a supermarket, and I used all my money to buy season tickets to the Dolphins games. I took a different friend to each game…and snuck my camera in. There weren’t security concerns then as there are today, so I got close to the front row, set up my tripod, and shot away. And later I would share my photos with friends.

My father wasn’t fond of the idea of my becoming an artist because he believed that artists made money after they died. On some level, I suppose he was right. We all know Van Gogh suffered immensely and had only one patron, his brother Theo.

WRR: So, your dad wanted what most parents want: for their children to be financially secure?

Yes, and I had acquiesced to that. I got a degree in finance, which gave me the benefit of being able to get a job and having some income for a while. I did it for some time, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. So I came to New York. I had the idea of merging my passions with what I had experienced and learned. I thought of becoming a gallery owner. That way, I could promote other artists, be excited about what I saw, and apply my business experience.

I went for a graduate degree in visual arts management at New York University, pushing the gallery idea. In my last semester, though, I took a darkroom printing class – and fell in love. My dreams turned from promoting artists to being an artist. I was suddenly saddled with the burden of having to repay my graduate education, but I went right back to school, studying at The International Center of Photography at night while working full-time in the day.

WRR: Tell me about your first day job.

After I earned my finance degree, I had gone back home to Fort Lauderdale. I was in Miami, actually, interviewing with banks. While I was awaiting an interview with Barclays Bank, I read an article in a local business magazine about how photo productions were driving the resurgence of Miami Beach. I thought, “That sounds interesting, maybe I could be of use there.”

I ended up getting hired by the biggest modeling agency in Miami Beach. I knew numbers, but I was naïve, unprepared for the culture of the business. On my very first day, I went to a hotel to settle a shoot with a client. A striking lady I’d never met before gave me a huge hug and kiss – and $35,000 in cash.

She was a producer, and I was thinking, “This is great!” And then of course I’m walking down the street, seeing women in bikinis, thinking it was all too good to be true. It was an interesting first day. I was 21, still discovering who I was, soon to learn that fashion was in fact a business. And I stayed and grew in that business for some time.

WRR:Tell me about your first photography job.

At some point while at ICP, I asked a teacher when a photographer was considered professional. The answer was when you got paid, so that meant my first job grew out of school. Inspired by my father’s decade or so of having had his own tugboat business, I did a photo essay on tugboats as part of a class. Once or twice a week, I was on a boat leaving Staten Island at 6:00AM. We moved ships, pushed barges full of garbage, and did other glamorous things. My pictures became an exhibition, and I sold a few prints.

WRR: So, now reflecting back, who are your major influences as a photographer?

I’ve been really lucky to have met and learned from a lot of amazing photographers. Antonin Kratochvil, Greg Gorman, and Platon were great mentors to me.

My favorite photographers are Nigel Parry, Anton Corbijn, Philippe Halsman, and Storm Thorgerson. Parry is a classic portraitist. He deals with people who have almost no time and are not necessarily always in the mood to be photographed. He’s photographed a ton of captivating faces, like that of Christopher Walken, who I would love to photograph. Faces where the story is not necessarily what that person has done. Or is known for.

But rather the story is right here (points to face). Brilliant in black and white, and often very close. It’s not that everything is in focus or that it’s technically amazing but rather that it captures the essence of the person by going right there (touches face again).

WRR: What kind of camera do you use?

It depends on my work. If I’m in a studio environment, I work with the Canon 1Ds cameras for digital and the Contax 645 or Hasselblad 503CW for film. The Canon 1DS Mark III is amazing, but I’ll go with a digital back on the Contax or Hasselblad if an even bigger image size is needed. If the work is journalistic, I use either the Canon 1D cameras for digital or the Canon EOS 1-N for film. And, when I’m on the street and something strikes me, I pull the Ricoh GR-1s or Ricoh GR-Digital out of my bag.

In a perfect world, I’d shoot medium-format film, but I think the tragedy of this day and age is that very few people want it. People want the instant gratification of digital capture. Photography has changed significantly, the market has changed, and I’ve certainly changed how I work along with it.

My childhood hero was my late grandfather on my mother’s side. An engineer, a poet, a fencer, a pianist, and a photographer, his black and white photography was wonderful and helped inspire me to do what I do. When I finished digitally, there was always that wont of the unique tactile nature my grandfather’s prints had. In the last two or three years, though, digital printing also progressed dramatically, to the point where there’s little if any difference between film and digital print papers. The tools might change, but the artist remains.

WRR:From an ignorant point of view, how do you work things digitally? I know with film you have to develop it and work with f-stops.

Oh sure, and I should say, to be published, everything finishes digitally of course. Professional digital cameras work just as film cameras do, f-stops and all. Film is now a digital file, and the darkroom is a computer.

WRR:Would you choose one of your favorite recent photos from last year, and then describe it?

© Beowulf Sheehan

Well, for obvious reasons, my favorite photograph from last year is that of my niece. I just became an uncle, and I went to see my niece in Florida. To get a smile or a response out of someone who was a few months old was a bit of a challenge. I’d never photographed an infant before.

WRR:How did you approach photographing your three-month-old niece?

I went through the same methodology in that I didn’t take the picture for a while. I just watched, knowing that she can’t speak to me, but she can look at me and get accustomed to this machine between us. I gave her some time. That really came from I think just observing.

WRR:Can you elaborate on this picture?

It’s about paying close attention. I think a common thread among the most exceptional photographers and photographs is their ability to share a certain magic in that process of paying attention… Without anything beyond what was in front of them, they painted life into moments that made characters or scenery that much more lucid and interesting. And, in such photographs, we are able to see and enjoy stories that tell so much more than simply what happened.

© Beowulf Sheehan