Two questions most frequently put to me concerning my portraits are: ‘What equipment do you use?’ and ‘How did you manage to get that expression?’

In reply to the first, I use a Hasselblad camera with a motor drive. I like the 2-1/4 inch square format, and the motor drive permits me greater freedom to concentrate on my subject. I also use a 12-foot extension cord on my shutter release. For lights, I use strobes equipped with modeling lights, well-diffused, so that the subject is not bothered by them. How many? One, two three – sometimes even four, depending on given conditions or an effect I am trying to achieve.

Yisrael Yeshayahu (1908-1979), His office, the Knesset, Jerusalem, 1976

The answer to the second question, although differing in detail in each case, is based on my prime principle in doing portraits: to know as much as possible about my sitter in advance, and from that knowledge discern what topics to discuss and what probing questions to ask – always trying to have him relate to me – always trying to elicit a natural, spontaneous gesture and expression.

Professor Ephraim Katzir (1916-2009), His office, Jerusalem, 1976

How, then, does one get to know someone before meeting him? With one or perhaps two exceptions, I had never met, prior to photographing them, any of the subjects in this book. But I did know for at the least a few days in advance that I was going to meet them. I did all research possible: read their biographies and autobiographies; read newspaper files concerning them which appeared over the past few years; studied pictures of them (from newspapers, secretaries, family snapshot albums – anywhere); read any (if possible, all) books they had written. I soon learned of likes and dislikes, interests, and both past and present activities. All of this can take time. In the spring of 1977 I spent four months taking over 80 portraits. A sitting nearly every day did not leave much time for forward research. But I feel the added effort is well worth it.

Whenever possible, I try to visit the location for the portrait in advance of the day of sitting. I arrive on the appointed day well before the subject, allowing ample time to set up my equipment. If possible I arrange to meet my subject before as well. I watch for his posture, gestures, habitual expressions. In any event, I try to sit and talk with him before starting to take pictures. 

The sitting takes the form of a visit. I never specifically pose my subject, or tell him where to look. I have my long cable release. As we talk, I get up from time to time and move about. I know that the subject’s eyes will follow me. If I want him to look straight into the camera, I get behind it. Above all, I endeavor to set up an in-depth relationship with the sitter. I question him about his concepts in relation to his activities and interests. I tell him mine. Often we are so deep in our discussion that our conversation lasts long after I have finished taking photographs. 

Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995), Office of the Prime Minister, the Knesset, Jerusalem, 1975

Although long interested in photography, it was not until five or six years ago that I began to divide my time between my career in industry and doing portraits. It was about then that I met Antony diGesu, long a prominent portrait photographer in New York, who taught me so much about portraiture lighting, among a host of other things. Later I met Philippe Halsman, who has to his credit more covers of Life magazine (101) than anyone. He taught me even more. He and his wife, Yvonne, remain my most severe and constructive critics. 

I like to take portraits, and enjoy all the prior research necessary. But there is a great deal of work to be done afterwards before the finished portrait is produced – over fifteen hours of work per sitting, we estimate. A part of this I do in conjunction with my wife, Ronny. We pore over proofs together and work out the crops. Ronny manages most of the rest, to free me to take more photographs. She spends hours with the laboratory people, checking on prints, having new ones made to fulfill requests, cataloguing and performing innumerable other tasks including acting as scribe and – when we are away from California (about half the year) – secretary for me. Ronny is very well-organized. This, along with her artistic abilities, makes her an invaluable partner.

I believe that there is nothing that keeps one feeling younger and more interested in living – nothing stimulates one more – than a second career. I am happy to have mine in photography. My goal is to create pictures that are true to the personality of each subject, and will stand the test of time, both for what the subjects have accomplished and because of the manner in which I have been able to present them by means of my camera.

Bern Schwartz, Self-Portrait, The study, Schwartz’s flat, Eaton Square, London, 1978

excerpted from:

Contemporaries: Portraits by Bern Schwartz, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, London, 1978
© The Royal Opera House Development Trust 1978