Photographing a Great Performance
Ruven Afanador, the photographer behind The New York Times Magazine’s Great Performers portfolio, shares how he made the photographs — even when he was halfway around the world.
By Kate Dwyer
Dec. 12, 2021
Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
The Great Performers issue, which traditionally celebrates movie stars, has been a New York Times Magazine tradition since 2004, when silver-screen icons such as Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray graced the pages. Last year, amid theater closures, the portfolio included faces from streaming shows and TikTok.
This year’s issue is “a return to Great Performers form,” said the magazine’s senior photo editor, Amy Kellner, who worked on the issue “nonstop for a month and a half” and organized shoots with the longtime Times Magazine photographer Ruven Afanador in Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Tokyo. The portfolio was published online this week and appears in this weekend.
“Ruven is wonderful with shapes,” Ms. Kellner said of Mr. Afanador’s approach. “He has a timeless style, where some of his photos look like they could be from a different era.” On set, among his German Expressionist-style angular backdrops, she said, Mr. Afanador is a “serene” presence who uses music to “get into a collaborative space with the actors.” On March 24, the Thursday before the Oscars, a show featuring these photos will open at the Los Angeles gallery Fahey/Klein.
In an interview, Mr. Afanador shared the role of music in his process, the challenges of shooting remotely and some favorite moments on set. His answers have been edited for clarity.
This is the Great Performers issue: When a subject is sitting for a photograph, they essentially perform both for the camera and for the photographer. How do you bring out the best performances?
I told most of them that I really wanted it to be sort of in between a moment and a feeling that would in some way reflect the roles that they’re representing in the film. Each one committed themselves to the experience, and it was amazing to direct them, but also to see what they would bring to it. It was such a beautiful group effort. Everything felt so honest and pure.
Why did you choose to play the film composer Max Richter’s music on a loop during the shoots?
Music, to me, is such an important aspect when I’m photographing someone. Listening to Max Richter’s music is like entering into a trance. When I’m getting ready to start, I always ask the subject that I’m photographing whether they would like to hear something else. It was so interesting that there was not one actor in this portfolio that said that they wanted to hear something else. I was amazed because they all loved the music. There was this beautiful, sort of cinematic feeling, and it was surprising that everybody felt the music in the same way that I was feeling it.
Was there anything surprising that happened on set?
When I photographed Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, the twins who appear in “Petite Maman,” it was truly mesmerizing to see their inner connection. To see how incredibly present they were at their age, and how incredibly professional they were, was a beautiful surprise. Everyone on set was so mesmerized by them.
You shot Hidetoshi Nishijima remotely in Tokyo. How is a remote shoot different?
Last year, I started hearing that remote shooting was happening, and I was seeing the results in some of the magazines and editorials, so I was skeptical about it. I felt I would never do something like that, because the images I saw felt absent. It felt that the photographer was not there with the subject. We decided to shoot remotely in Tokyo for scheduling reasons. It was the first time that I did this, and it was like swimming in the dark. It was fascinating. It was incredibly nerve-racking. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in my office in New York, late at night, working with a crew in Tokyo at a studio. We had two cameras: one that showed the whole space and one that I was going to shoot with. Just from my keyboard, I would click and immediately see the exposure, and I would give my instructions, so whether I wanted the camera placed in a different angle or height.
But I realized that when I’m in front of my subject, I’m not only projecting my energy to the subject but also my crew and my collaborators. I had to speak so much more, and so loudly, with much more intent, so that it would make up for the fact that we were not there. It was amazing that it could be done and that everything looked consistent with the other images that we did. But these are the elements that you always take for granted. If you don’t say, ‘Oh, this was done remotely,’ I think no one would notice.
Do you have a favorite photo from the portfolio?
From the first time that I saw Gaby Hoffmann on film, I was just mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she evokes everything. She was one of those subjects I’ve always wanted to photograph. On set, she was sort of like the ultimate muse: an incredible, beautiful person to photograph.