Benjamin McMahon photographs famous people for a living. For five years now, he’s asked each person at the end of a shoot if they wouldn’t mind taking a quick self portrait in a mirror using his Leica. Most of them agreed, and Ben now has over 100 photographs of celebrities being vulnerable, silly, or self-aware. Liv Siddall speaks to him about his charming study into how the world’s most photographed people actually want to be seen.
As far as 30th birthdays go, photographer Benjamin McMahon had an absolute blinder. On a shoot with Judi Dench all day in a house outside of London, he thanked her for making his birthday so special. Upon hearing this, the legend that is Dame Judi nipped out for a bottle of champagne and returned, insisting they drink it together. When she left the room, Ben texted his mum saying she would never believe what he was up to.
When you’ve got a job as great as Ben’s which involves travelling around the world photographing celebrities for newspapers and magazines, something-to-tell-the-grandchildren moments like these are naturally more commonplace than they are for you and I. But they also come with a good deal of stress. On a good day, it’s a glass of bubbly with Dame Judi. On a bad day, it can be the panic of a three hour shoot cut down to just 20 minutes in which to get the perfect portrait.
Helena Bonham Carter
“Helena Bonham Carter took ages doing her portrait and then invited me to her home to do another one (which obviously never happened) but she was really into it. She was taking it really seriously, testing out different angles and running around and moving mirrors.”
“We were meant to have three hours with Gareth Bale to do a whole shoot, and they crushed it down to 20 minutes. At the end I went up to the manager and said, ‘right, you screwed me on time today, there’s one more picture we really need, it’s for a personal project. I’m going to ask Gareth to take his own picture in a mirror and we’ll be quick.’ He said: ‘I can give you 10 seconds’ and he stood there and actually counted down. 10, nine, eight…and then dragged him away.”
Dame Judi Dench
“They all spark little memories for me. The one of Judi Dench was amazing because it was taken on my birthday. We were in a house outside of London for a shoot and at the end I thanked her for making my 30th birthday so special. She said ‘Oh my god it’s your birthday!’ and went out to get a bottle of champagne which we sat and drank together. It was nuts. It was one of those moments. I texted my mum like, ‘you will not believe what is going on!’"
In 2014, Ben had a cunning idea that would utilise his star-studded access for a personal project. He decided to start asking his subjects to take a self portrait using one of his Leica cameras at the end of each shoot. His first was actor Stellan Skarsgård, in a hotel. “We kind of got on and we were listening to Bruce Springsteen,” Ben recalls. “At the end I said ‘look, have you got an extra couple of minutes? I’ve got this thing I'm trying to work on. I'm asking people to make their own pictures using a mirror and a Leica, I can set it up for you, I just want to leave you to choose how you are photographed.” There was a mirror nearby so Stellan stood there, did his thing and said, “there you go.”
From then on, Ben was hooked. Every shoot became an opportunity to add a self portrait to his collection. He even found himself saying yes to jobs he’d normally turn down, just so he could get access to someone he wanted for his personal project. It was the same each time: once the shoot was over, he’d approach them, find a mirror and set them up with the camera. It took Ben over a year to figure out the famously complex nature of a Leica, so he’d spend a long time setting up each person’s shot to ensure the photo would actually come out. “They’re not all in focus, some of them are a bit soft because people move,” he says. “We’d find a spot – quite often in somebody's bathroom or in the toilet, which was always a bit weird – I’d stand and pre-focus the camera for them and then kind of step out of the way and then jump back in if they moved.”
Kristin Scott Thomas
“Most of the photos were made in weird toilets. I had to ask Kristin Scott Thomas to do the photo while she was on the toilet. That was a weird one. We did the shoot with her for Vogue and at the end of it I turned around and said, ‘there's one more thing I really want to ask you about, this picture for a project I've been working on…’ She was like, ‘that's fine, but come with me, I really need the toilet.’ So I just had to kind of run into the toilet with her while she had a pee and explain the story to the closed door with my ears covered up.”
Gilbert and George
“With the Gilbert and George picture, I brought them both a Leica and both of them took it. Because they both dress the same and do the same things, I wanted to make sure I had two cameras on the day so both of them would go in together. I’m pretty certain the one who took this image is holding the silver camera. It was taken in their studio in Brick Lane. I was thrilled that they did it.”
The funny thing about this is the fact that Ben actually is in almost all of these photos, you just can’t see him. He’ll be crouched behind a wall, bent down on the floor or standing on a toilet out of shot. After setting up the camera for them, Ben would instruct them to think of the photo as more of a self-portrait than a selfie, or as Ben put it to them, “more Frida Kahlo than Kim Kardashian.”
Many of us can relate to the thrill of popping to the lab to pick up a batch of film photos. The anticipation of the images lurking within the camera is palpable. Imagine this sensation for Ben: knowing that within the camera was a photo of an iconic public figure that a) may or may not have come out, and b) can’t be taken again. Luckily, most of the time the images came out, and Ben now has over 100 of them.
It’s a wonder, really, that so many of his subjects agreed in the first place. Why would a celebrity let Ben own a photo of them that they would likely never get to see, let alone sign off? “Most people who did this were kind of happy and excited by it,” Ben says. “I was always so surprised that anybody would do it.” He had already learned that people quite like to be photographed, despite how much they can protest the idea. Ben sometimes goes out into the street and takes portraits of members of the public, and they too agree to it. “Nine times out of 10 people would say yes,” says Ben. “When photographer Bruce Davidson was shooting portraits in Harlem – obviously a very different situation to my own series – he always said that people just seemed glad that you were there, and you were paying attention.
Sir Peter Blake
“If you can ever get to his studio...it is incredible. He's got so much weird stuff upstairs. He has Tom Thumb’s boots and Ian Dury’s rhythm stick.”
“I asked Kazuo Ishiguro if he had a mirror in the house. He replied, ‘hmm...there’s one in the bathroom! Let’s go there!’ People were weirdly open to standing in the bathroom with me hiding on the floor. There’s loads of photos where I’m sitting on the toilet floor, or crouching down, or hiding just out of shot somewhere so nobody can see me. I’m usually just next to them, or just underneath them.”
“I explained the project to him and all he said was; ‘I know what you want.’ He took the camera, pointed at the mirror and took one of my favorite images in the series. He looks amazing. He's got that incredible face. It’s such a great thing, I think, how an actor can immediately make an arresting image because they know how to. They know how to turn it on. It's funny because in some of them, like this one, it's almost like he’s just turning on his drama face. And you want that, of course, but at the same time, you also maybe want something that shows more vulnerability. The real him.”