A year in author portraits

It was harder than ever in 2020 to arrange photo shoots, but when we could, we made the absolute most of them. Here, Penguin staff photographer Stuart Simpson details 10 of his favourites.

Covid-19 made this a year of creative improvisation: for Penguin photographer Stuart Simpson, that often meant circumventing close-contact photo shoots in favour of outdoor sessions or, for the first time ever, shoots over Zoom.

Yet, the results speak for themselves. Here, Stuart reveals some of his favourite portraits of the year, both before and during the pandemic, and the stories behind them. Recognise anyone?

Avni Doshi

A portrait of Avni Doshi taken over Zoom.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

When Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, we wanted to celebrate her. But with Avni in Dubai, we couldn’t schedule a shoot at our studio.

We weren’t going to miss the opportunity, though: if Avni agreed, we decided, we could shoot over Zoom.

She agreed, as curious about what a Zoom shoot would be like as we were, and gave us a tour around her wonderful home as we directed her and photographed the computer screen. It was the first Zoom shoot we did at Penguin, and was a wonderful experience; Avni was a delight, and so good in front of the camera.

Bernardine Evaristo

A profile portrait of Bernardine Evaristo
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

On the topic of Booker Prize authors, we were lucky enough to get some time with was last year’s co-winner Bernardine Evaristo when she visited the Penguin office to be interviewed for a Shelf Life article.

Sometimes it can be difficult figuring out the aesthetic of a shoot for a well-known and celebrated author, but we ultimately decided it would be wonderful to match the vibrancy of the paperback cover of Girl, Woman, Other. We used coloured lighting to merge the aesthetic of the award-winning book with Bernardine herself.

Caleb Femi

An animated gif of photographs of Caleb Femi
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

In May, Penguin moved from its offices on The Strand to a new home in Nine Elms. The new office building is equipped with a new large photography studio, but for obvious reasons we have been unable to use it.

We had been arranging an outdoor location shoot with Caleb Femi to celebrate his poetry collection Poor, but the day of the shoot was howling with wind and rain – thankfully, that morning we received an email from the facilities team that we would now be allowed to use the new studio space. Caleb was the first person to be photographed there.

Without a clear road map of what we were going to accomplish for the shoot due to the last-minute change of plan, I asked Caleb to choose his favourite colours from our selection of backdrops, and we went from there.

Dolly Alderton

Dolly Alderton posed against a cocktail bar
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

When we interviewed Dolly Alderton before the release of her latest book Ghosts, we knew we wanted to do a creative location shoot with her, as we had a month to plan before the shoot happened.

Dolly’s book centres on themes of aging and the questions that accompany it. We felt the book shared the common ground with paintings of Edward Hopper and the feel of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, and decided to use these as the inspiration for the shoot. We found the perfect location right next to the Penguin office, which made transporting a lot of photographic kit much less stressful.

The final image was made of a composite of 10 different images in order to get the cinematic effect we wanted, but the result is worth it.

James O'Brien

James O'Brien holds a red phone, with other red phones hanging around him.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

We did a photo shoot with James O'Brien after he finished filming a video with us on the British government’s handling of the pandemic.

The idea was to draw on James' experience and exasperation with certain callers on his LBC radio show, to illustrate the central ideas of how to change your deeply held beliefs in his latest book, How Not To Be Wrong.

So, we surrounded James with telephones, to show him being bombarded with calls. Whenever we ask an author to do something that involves some creative roleplay for a photoshoot, there is usually a lot of direction that needs to be given. James is such a pro that he gave us everything we needed; we wrapped the shoot in about five minutes.

Peter Capaldi

Peter Capaldi looks into the camera lens
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

One of the most personally enjoyable shoots for me was photographing actor Peter Capaldi, as I'm Glaswegian and he is a bit of a hero of mine.

He was only meant to have around 15 or 20 minutes free, but ended up staying for two hours to get the shots right, as he discussed narrating audiobooks, Glasgow and the importance of good lighting for photographs and movies.

Sophie Mackintosh

Sophie Mackintosh amongst the trees.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

Photographing Sophie Mackintosh for the release of her latest book, Blue Ticket, was a memorable day: it was my first photo shoot in a couple of months, after returning from furlough leave during the first lockdown.

There was no access to the Penguin studio, so we decided to shoot in Epping Forest, where we conducted her interview, too – it's one of Sophie’s favourite places to walk and relax, as well as an inspiration for locations and scenery in Blue Ticket.

William Gibson

A photo of William Gibson, filtered through digital static.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

At the start of the year, just before Covid-19 struck the UK, we photographed science fiction luminary William Gibson for an interview feature about his latest novel, Agency. Being a very big fan of his work since my adolescent days, it was the only time in my career I have been starstruck and nervous.

The idea for this shoot centred on the glitchy digital inference of broken computer systems and displays, to mirror the dystopian themes of Gibson’s work. The effect worked nicely.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

A photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson looking ponderous.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

Neil deGrasse Tyson was in London for a live event (remember those?), and we were lucky enough to get some time with him for a video interview and photo shoot.

Our idea was to photograph Neil to look as though he were at the sunset at Cape Canaveral. We lit a blue paper background in a specific way to give it the glow of the setting sun, with the feel of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in mind. When we mentioned this during the shoot, we found out Neil wasn’t a big fan of the film; thankfully, he liked the photos.

Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon smiles in black and white.
Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

We had planned to do a Shelf Life feature with Nicola Sturgeon since 2019, but being that she’s the leader of a country, fate conspired to keep us rescheduling the shoot and interview until early this year.

We travelled from London to the First Minister’s residence in Edinburgh on 1 March: the date of the first official Covid case in Scotland. We thought for sure we’d missed our opportunity, but the First Minster said she would make sure we had time with her, as she didn’t want to reschedule again. Just weeks later, it would have been impossible.

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