Making of a cover portrait

A roasting summer sun. An eye-popping colour palette. An opera singer diva. A ticking clock. This cover portrait shoot in Aix-en-Provence was a feisty one.

Page layout of cover of Kotiliesi, Finnish women's magazine, showing portrait of Karita Mattilia
Final cover portrait of Karita Mattila

Opera diva

The assignment was for Finland’s number one women’s magazine, Kotiliesi. I’d been chosen as photographer to take the portrait of world-famous Finnish opera singer Karita Mattila during her South of France tour. In 2001, the New York Times pronounced the soprano “the best singer of the year” and, nearly 20 years later, she doesn’t seem to have lost it: Karita’s performance at the Aix Festival was being applauded by international press as a “late-career renaissance“.

Karita rarely grants interviews, however, and the magazine’s journalist, Essi, who I met for lunch beforehand, seemed quite keyed up. As the singer would be performing that evening, Essi was only too aware that journalist and photographer would share a fairly short afternoon’s access. In my 1 hour slot, I was to photograph both a cover portrait and a mix of additional pictures in varied set-ups, for a 3 double-page feature. Apart from stressing I must not exceed my hour, Essi also seemed keen to warn me of Karita’s “strong character“.

Double-page magazine spread showing text and 2 photographs of Karita Mattila
Last of 3 double page spreads: working the South of France theme

Reconnaissance mission

No location had been pre-arranged for the photography. The magazine had asked me to choose our meeting spot, and to find places in the street to take Karita’s portrait. The photographer’s brief detailed a South of France ambiance but asked me to avoid busy backgrounds – which, in the centre of a very busy Aix-en-Provence, at the height of the summer holiday season, seemed unlikely to be straightforward. Whilst Aix is only a 2 hour drive from Nice, I know it less well than towns on the French Riviera, so would need plenty of time to recce.

My assistant, Pauline, and I criss-crossed our way through the heart of Aix that morning. With one eye on the sun to predict its location hours ahead, we searched the maze of tourist-packed streets for quiet, plain, shady spots. 2 pm, when we were due to start, is about the worst time for a photographer in the South of France. The sun at its zenith leaves little shade, and the furnace-fierce heat and harsh light generally make portrait subjects squinty, sweaty and unhappy.

As I hadn’t met Karita, and didn’t know what she would be wearing, I shortlisted several possible locations, and planned to make the final decision as to which would work best for her and her outfit as soon as we met. To avoid any delays or problems later on, I also made sure that I’d asked for permission to shoot where needed (fortunately this is easier to obtain in Aix than in Monaco, where I photographed another famous Finn recently) and I prepared waiters and neighbourhood commerçants for the photography whirlwind and “strong character” who might be passing through later…

Powder, camera, action…

Inner magazine spread showing double page photograph of Karita Mattila in a French bistro
First of 3 double page spreads: Karita was loosening up

When Karita arrived at our rendezvous, my first thought was that her blue dress and colourful jewellery would work perfectly in my ‘yellow, South of France-ey’ locations. My second thought, coming rapidly on the heels of the first, was a recognition of Essi’s concerns, as I observed the way Karita treated the waiter when he served water that wasn’t quite the right temperature. My first few moments of interaction with a portrait subject generally set the tone of the shoot: today I made a quick judgement that Karita would respond better to directness than to kid-glove handling, and this fortunately proved to be correct.

We were to start with a set of fluid, reportage-style photographs in a classic South of France café. Pauline had gone ahead, to grab the right table and wait, so that we could kick straight off once Karita arrived. However, having walked for 2 minutes (transport via an air-conditioned car simply wouldn’t have been possible – the centre of Aix is pedestrianised), Karita, whose skin was already reacting to the 37 degree heat, sat down, opened her deep bag and started to open pots of powder and mascara. My heart sank. I knew our schedule wouldn’t allow for touch-ups before every picture, yet I sensed an underlying anxiety in her that wasn’t going to be helped by rushing.

At 58, Karita is far from being a has-been. Yet people, women especially (sadly), can be sensitive to changes in their appearance as they begin to age. While she knows exactly what to do in front of a camera and is well aware of the importance of her image, it struck me that Karita is not primarily a Face, but a woman of Action. Swallowing my concerns about time, I put down the camera. I wanted her to forget, just a little, the eventual use of her picture and how people would see her. I wanted her just to Be. So we talked a little, laughed a little more, and sure enough, before I even realised, the make-up and the tension were quietly slipped back into her bag.

Breaking and entering

Portrait of opera singer Karita Mattila wearing a blue dress, posing in a hallway
World-famous soprano graces a stranger’s hallway

So far so good, I thought. My subject had warmed up, and I had some lovely frames of her laughing and being expressive in the café. Yet I knew these photographs would be for the inside of the article. I still didn’t have a single portrait for the magazine cover, and half of my hour had already passed. Things stuttered at the next spot. When searching earlier for a shady courtyard or similar, I’d nonchalantly leaned on the front doors of a few elegant, 19th century bourgeois buildings, and was happy to discover one that had a defective lock. The hallway leading to the various apartments inside offered a delightfully cool space, with beautiful light, and a hint of Provence in its colours.

However, less than 2 minutes before our little party arrived, Pauline, who’d run on ahead, texted to say that the building’s property maintenance man was right now fixing that lock. With little time for explanation, and certainly none to make an application for proper photographer permission, it was thanks to Lady Luck, or rather Karita’s aura (you couldn’t miss her, gliding regally down the street), that he decided it would be more interesting and glorious to have one of the world’s most famous sopranos posing in his hallway than to take issue with our breaking and entering.

Bouncing the sunshine

Photograph showing photographer Rebecca Marshall taking pictures of Karita Mattila seated at table
Thanks for the pic, Essi

Although I had brought mobile studio lights and battery packs with me from Nice, there simply wasn’t time to set them up in any of the locations. So I’d chosen instead to photograph Karita in places where I could work with ambient light only. The portrait finally chosen for the cover was taken, somewhat suitably, in the terrace ‘waiting area’ of a tiny neighbourhood beauty parlour. The yellow wall and colourful table and chairs had caught my eye earlier, and the beautician herself had been amenable to our moving everything and to her customers waiting temporarily inside. Pauline lit Karita by bouncing the sunlight off a giant reflector panel from a doorway opposite and, with careful framing, I was able to avoid the rather incongruous traffic bollard right next to the table.

Afterwards, as I handed over to Essi for the interview and prepared to melt away, Karita embraced me warmly. “I normally hate working with photographers, but you were really good. Thank you so much!!” I pondered privately that while it was nice to hear, there was no knowing whether she would actually like the resultant photographs. However, checking her Twitter page just now, I saw that she’d chosen one of these portraits for her profile picture, and smiled. This once, perhaps, I won’t take issue with unauthorised photographer copyright usage…

See the behind-the-scenes story of a different kind of photoshoot here: travel photography in Montpellier

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