• Foto Ruta Recommends: Mastering Michael Cooper

    Foto Ruta Recommends: Mastering Michael Cooper

    Michael Cooper‘s (1943-1971) ‘exclusive access’ photos of The Rolling Stones have marked him as one of the most highly-regarded celebrity portraitist of the 1960’s and early 70’s. Those currently in Buenos Aires are lucky. Adam Cooper, the son of the late Michael Cooper, has lent his father’s work to the Centro Cultural Borges. The exhibition is called ‘Stones 50’ and features some of their more candid moments.

    But what can we take away from Michael Cooper’s work to improve our own photography? Here are some thoughts from the Foto Ruta team.

    Photo courtesy of The Michael Cooper Collection

    As a personal friend of The Rolling Stones, Michael Cooper was right in the centre of the action. He had both context and subject matter on his side. After all, no one can get enough of the swinging 60’s and shooting the rich and famous is always a good idea. However, being able to capture the context and the personality of any subject is no easy feat. — Cooper clearly had a few tricks up his sleeve.

    The Role of Background

    Cooper’s subjects consisted primarily of eccentric musicians and other artists. Each photo provides us with clues into their idiosyncrasies. These clues appear in the form of instruments, clothes, cigarettes and the general surroundings. Photographing your subjects, with the background present, helps reveal their character and interests.

    Michael Cooper catches The Rolling Stones rehearsing

    Context in the form of props and background were central to Michael Cooper’s work.

    Photo courtesy of the The Michael Cooper Collection

    So much personality and context becomes transparent through this full body-shot of Keith Richards on a hat-shopping expedition.

    The Role of Props

    Michael Cooper was aware that he was documenting a special period. This is why context is central to each shot. Cooper even liked to make it ambiguous as to what was the centre of attention in the frame, breaking conventional rules of photography. In some pictures, props and objects appear more focused than the actual face of the subject. Consequently, it is often ambiguous as to which is more important to the shot — the person, or his or her boots!

    Notice the difference in focus between these two shots, (see below).


    ‘The Voice’  (c.1943)   Frank Sinatra photographed by Bill Dudas

    ‘Mick Jacket’ (1966)  Photo courtesy of The Michael Cooper Collection

    By naming the photograph ‘Mick Jacket’, Cooper gives us a hint about the real centre of focus. It is really just a re-vamped version of this portrait of Frank Sinatra in his “The Voice” hey-day (top image). But the change in focus, from face to jacket, is intriguing.

    Props not only give an idea of context, but also can help put your subject at ease.

    Notice below, the use of Marianne Faithfull’s hat as a prop. This is serving as a distraction from the camera’s lense. Cooper’s subjects have become natural, and almost childlike. Photographing people while they are preoccupied is a prime opportunity to grab your camera.

    Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull photographed by Cooper in the late 1960’s

    Photograph Your Amigos

    As a personal friend of The Stones, Cooper could photograph his subjects continuously, without organising a formal photo shoot. Marianne Faithfull referred to Cooper a “lay saint” who “hovered over the scene with single-lens-reflex-eye, invisibly ever present.” Photographing people that feel comfortable in your presence is a great start to capturing candid moments.

    Capturing Cooper’s Candidness

    Michael Cooper is ‘the king of candid’ because he was able to capture the personality of the subject, as well as the mood the moment. Perhaps we can all take notes from Cooper. When shooting people you find interesting or eccentric, include objects and surroundings that act to identify the subject’s profession or hobby. By doing so, their personality will become instantly apparent. Also, try out photographing people who feel comfortable with having you around.

    Many great photos are taken each week at our Foto Ruta Weekly Tours. Below are a sample taken by some of our Foto Ruta participants.

    Photo courtesy of Foto Ruta participant – A perfect example of capturing candidness and context.

    Photo courtesy of Foto Ruta participant – The subject is very calm and candid here because he is in his natural habitat, presumedly distracted by his own prop.

    Photo courtesy of Foto Ruta participant – Notice the use of the subject’s props have provided clues to her character.

    ‘Stones 50’

    1973, Michael Cooper died of a heroin overdose at just 31 years of age.  Leaving his life’s work to his son, Cooper wrote of his will, “In it I am putting everything I own and have, my work mostly.. [It] will eventually be worth something, I’m sure.”

    Stones 50’ is featuring at the Centro Culturo Borges in Buenos Aires until the 3rd March 2014.

    * Ticket Prices are $40  /  Concession $30 *

                                 Photo courtesy of Stones: Please Don’t Stop the Music  


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