Sam McAdam-Cooper is a talented photographer based in Sydney Australia. She does both commercial and editorial work as well as portraits. She was recently among honorees from the National Gallery for a portrait of actor Nathan Page (DI Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher Murder Mystery Series) for a portrait called “The Chameleon.”
Sam kindly agreed to take part in this interview about her craft;1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts at what was then, the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. I went there straight from high school, and I was very focused on this throughout my teens. I had grown up in a house where the arts were celebrated and discussed all of the time, it was our ‘normal’. I
really feel for creatives that grow up in families that don’t understand their vocation, it must be so hard without that encouragement. The idea that we would develop our chosen creative paths was expected and encouraged in my family. I went to art school thinking I would be a practicing artist. It was a very academic degree, and I came out at the end of it, having researched my Honours thesis and receiving an excellent education in critical theory and art history, but with few technical skills. I didn’t really have a stigma about making commercial work, I couldn’t afford that luxury, so I set about learning how I could make a living using a camera.2. How did you get into photography, did you have a mentor?
I was lucky to have several interested and very cool art teachers in high school and they were important in
terms of translating my dreams into a practice. I first started shooting at 14, with an older school friend who was keen too, and we fed each other’s interest. There were so many incredible photographers working in fashion in the mid to late ’80s here in Australia such as Graham Shearer and Grant Matthews, and they influenced me enormously, as well as the explosion of clever, stylish music videos made by visionaries like Richard Lowenstein. Jean-Baptiste Mondino is a real hero of mine, some of my all time favourite campaigns and music videos have been shot or directed by him. I love that he’s still making visceral, passionate work now, though he’s well into his sixties.3. What inspires you?
To make work? Graphic, beautiful things. Usually something illicits a response from me, and I just have to explore it. It can be a beautifully designed piece of furniture, or something from nature. Something with form usually more than say, a sunset or the ambiance of a place. Shapes,
lines, sculptural elements. These can be in objects or people. More broadly speaking, I am inspired by random acts of kindness; great and moving works of art; people getting on with their lives whilst traversing extreme set backs. I think, in a nutshell though, humanity inspires me (and appalls me in equal measure).4. Can you share what goes into creating your shots?
That depends a lot on the nature of the shoot. In my editorial and commercial work, which is how I earn my living, I am working to a client’s brief and collaborating with a team that normally includes an art director, a stylist, assistants, hair and make up artists, maybe an editor or publisher, or an account manager and direct client. Many relationships to successfully
navigate. Someone, somewhere has written a brief for the story we need to create, it could be something a bit open ended that the stylist has been left to interpret, other times it will be exacting in the details we have to follow. Either way, there are always a set of expectations to fulfill, and hopefully exceed. Part of my job is to steer the visuals so that they work with the client’s brand, and that could be small things like questioning props or positioning of items to make sure that the narrative we are creating is the right one. I think my art school training helps with this- all those readings on semiotics and simulacra- as well as life experience. I’ll be given reference shots to describe the feel that everyone is going for, and I work with manipulating lighting and the editing process to play with this. It’s a collaboration between all the parties involved. With my personal, or uncommissioned work, it’s a similar collaborative process, but it’s my idea that we’re working to explore and resolve.5. A lot of your shots are in black and white, do the shadows of it inspire you?
Shadows are enhanced when an image is converted to black and white, and that is one of the reasons I might choose to edit an image that way. As I shoot almost exclusively in a digital format now, the images are automatically captured in colour and I then have the option of later processing the raw file in colour or black and white. Gone are the days of
committing to a roll of colour or black and white film. Textures change, and depending on how the filters are set, different colours brighten or recede in the conversion, and that is probably the biggest reason that would sway me to convert an image to BW. Often colours just get in the way of the narrative in a shot. Sometimes the lighting conditions aren’t ideal either, and it’s a way to pull something out of a shot that just wouldn’t make the cut had it been left in colour. Also, the colour treatment can really set in a viewer’s mind when it was taken. Like in the same way when you see a feature film made in the 1960’s, you can always tell from the film stock and styling. It’s not about replicating the past, or re-staging though many photographers embrace that as part of their practice. It’s more about being ambiguous and interrupting the train of thought in someone viewing a work, slowing down that process of interpreting and filing away an image. Having said that, I have no hard and fast rules in my work. Every situation requires something specific to that work.6. The wonderful actor Nathan Page is in a lot of your pictures, is he your muse? In the National Gallery Photo of Nathan you called him “The Chameleon,” do you like the challenge of that? That he never looks the same twice?
I was really compelled to photograph Nathan because having seen his work, I was quite simply fascinated by his physiognomy. As a photographer one tends to study someone in person or on film, and you are able to pretty quickly understand their bone structure, how best to light
them, what their flaws and features are, but I found myself unable to get a handle on what he actually looked like. That became an interesting idea to me: that I could see hours of someone on my television but still be left curious as to their attributes. Especially in this age of information overload, that someone in the public eye could be so ambiguous. That idea became the starting point of our collaboration. I wouldn’t say that Nathan is comfortable being photographed, it’s certainly not his natural comfort zone and he’s quite an un-actorly actor in that regard. It’s a lovely, unfolding process of trusting each other and being willing to play and explore things that wouldn’t otherwise sit so comfortably for either of us.7. How did your creative partnership with Nathan Page begin? Did it start as a process of experimentation for art (since he is an art lover) ?
It took me a good 18 months to get the courage to even approach Nathan, and though the initial response was positive, it took us almost another year to schedule the first shoot. We live in different states and both have young families, as well as work commitments. From the outset we discussed this as collaborative project, quite open ended in how it might develop and open to where it might go. There is a real generosity of spirit with him, and a natural willingness to have a play. I think that comes from him being an actor, and being open to new experiences. It was a bonus that we get on quite well with each other too.8. How do you balance work and family?Badly most of the time.9. Anything exciting coming up that would like others to know about?So many exciting things in the pipeline. In the next few weeks though, Nathan and I will release a new portrait, signed by him and in a limited print run. Still tweaking the details but we’ll let everyone know on his and my Instagram when it’s ready to go.
Sam’s work has regularly appeared in leading Australian and international lifestyle magazines. Some of these titles include Inside Out, Vogue Living, Country Style, Masterchef, and Delicious. Check out all her work at; http://www.sammcadam.com/
All photos copyright ©Sam McAdam-Cooper unless otherwise noted.