Lasting portraits

“Money People Politics.” How apropos a title for a new photography book in this, the meanest and most absurd presidential election season.

In this latest book (teNeues Publishing Group, $125) by photographer Marco Grob, actors, politicians, musicians, former astronauts, warriors and victims of war all go under the harsh all-telling light that Grob has trained on their faces.

A camera never blinks. Its inability to look away lets a camera — and the photographer — capture the wrinkles, the twinkles, the smiles, the tears, the beauty, the deformities, the eyes and those whose eyes disintegrated on a battlefield.

The results often lead us to the very souls of people. For Grob’s photographs, it is up to us as observers to take in all that he has captured. The pride (Mike Tyson), the heartbreak (Gold Star Mother and antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan), the religiosity (Harry Belafonte), the vacuousness (Dick Cheney), the silliness (Alice Cooper), the wariness (Condoleezza Rice) and the ecstasy (Yo-Yo Ma.)

Grob’s photos are reminiscent of those by George Hurrell, who helped create the glamour look of Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s with portraits of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Dorothy Lamour and Errol Flynn.

Take a look at the shot of George Clooney on page 24 and see if it doesn’t remind you of Hurrell’s photo of Lon Chaney Jr. in Wolf Man make-up.

Grob’s lighting techniques are also reminiscent of Yousuf Karsh and his portraits of Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Ernest Hemingway, Jessye Norman and George Bernard Shaw.

But while the lighting techniques may be similar, Grob’s photos are much more grittier.

But as with everything, there are exceptions.

In his photo of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the color and light take on a chiaroscuro effect, similar to a Vermeer.

A surreal effect overtakes his photo of a Mundari man at a cattle camp near Juba, South Sudan.

I think his strengths are his straightforward portraits. The ones where he blurs or double exposes seem gimmicky.

The one exception is when he blurs Stephen Hawking, giving motion to a man who hasn’t experienced true unbridled movement in decades.

In reading the book, I would’ve liked to have found out more about his craft.

The only bit of insight comes from the director of photography at Time magazine, whom Grob in the book’s acknowledgments states: “I am grateful to Kira Pollack … for changing my life.”

Pollack writes in a section titled “Anatomy of a Portrait Sitting”:

“In an age when photographs are ephemeral, when a picture can be shot and shared in seconds, Marco’s signature is a lasting portrait of someone who for better or worse impacted the modern era. When he meets his subjects he plays off them. He harnesses their energy, transforms timidity into confidence and vulnerability into strength. He makes us see them as we hadn’t — couldn’t — before. He prides himself on efficiency and precision to make it happen.

“One of the great privileges of working with Marco is watching him on set. He choreographs his team to execute the perfect stage for each photo shoot; everyone has a role and no one is expendable. Organized cases of equipment have been hauled across the country or around the world, unloaded and set up in a hallway or conference room inside an office or a palace, for a shoot that may last all of five minutes and involve three different backdrops. He knows when he gets the picture.”

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is more succinct. Before his second sitting with Grob on the campaign trail in 2012, he said:

“You know why I like you?

You are the quickest son of a bitch, ahh — son of a gun I have ever dealt with!”

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