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One Shot Portraits – Interview with Tim Willcocks

Marianne Stenger
13th August 2019

Digital photography has made it possible for us to shoot a nearly unlimited number of photographs until we capture one we’re happy with. But what if you could only take one photograph? What would you do differently?

It’s this question that portrait photographer Tim Willcocks explored when he deliberately limited himself to taking a single shot of each subject while shooting a series of film portraits of creative people like artists, designers and musicians on the Sussex coast.

Willcocks trained in Advertising and Editorial Photography at what is now known as the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, Kent. He says it was the only outcome for him in terms of higher education, because as a child and teenager he was obsessed with photography.

Although like many photographers, he initially moved from analogue to digital, he now works primarily with medium and large format film. We asked him a few questions about his intriguing One Shot series as well as his unique approach to photography in general.

Can you tell us about ‘One Shot?’ Why did you choose to shoot this way and what was the story you wanted to tell with this series?

Like a lot of photographers, I moved from analogue to digital, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the process. It isn't 'alive' for me. So I decided to get back into analogue.  

I've always loved the portraits by Alvedon, Bailey, Beaton and so many others, so it was logical to me to re-enter the field with an old Rolleiflex, because of the unique 'look' of the lenses.  

I decided to shoot portraits simply because it presented a huge challenge. I'd always photographed 'things' before, and my people shots were largely records of family and friend events.  Creative people were a natural draw because I understand the mindset.  

Executing the portraits in one shot was deliberate because it's a self limiting approach. It’s partly a reaction against the digital scattergun and edit approach, but mostly, for me, it's because it's so much more intimate and the process itself creates a conversation.

When you know you’ll only be able to take one shot, does it affect the way you prepare?

Absolutely!  I prepare in depth, I research my subject as much as I can, and I go in to each shoot with a pretty clear idea of what I want to achieve. The unknown is the location because it's previously unseen, but I try to imagine what I will find and work out different scenarios in my head. It's then a case of finding the 'situation' which will best match one of those scenarios.  

I also spend quite some time talking to my subject before I get the camera out of the bag. Of course in a commercial sense this may not happen, but for me it helps establish the trust between the subject and the photographer, which is so essential.

You like making portraits of people in their own environment. What’s the idea behind this?

It's about context and narrative, plain and simple. The environment adds clues which I play with compositionally to add to the narrative, hopefully not in an overt way.

I try not to change anything unless it really does jar, and if I do, I try not to make it obvious, unless there's a gag to be had. For example, with my portrait of the Artist Rowan Corkill holding a skeleton on his lap, it was just too good an opportunity to miss and I am a sucker for humour if I think I can get away with it. Of course, with that said, it's also important to be an observer and to not be too obvious in the photograph.

If you could give one piece of advice for creating more compelling portraits, what would it be?

I remember reading an interview with Elvis Costello. He was asked what he did when he wasn't making music, and he said “I'm listening to it.”  Nothing exists in a vacuum and it's essential for any creative person to absorb as much as they possibly can, whether it’s photographs, paintings, books, sculptures or music.  

The best photographers are those who are well informed visually; they steep themselves in other photographers work for a start. I spend easily a couple of hours a day looking at photographs, whether they’re in books, newspapers, or online, it doesn't matter. I evaluate what I see in terms of the message, the narrative, the composition, and the technical side, such as where the light is coming from, whether there any use of reflection, etc.

It's about having a clear idea of what you want to achieve. What story do you want to tell?  How do you like the lines to work? How do you want the viewer’s eye to move around the composition? How will you use light, colour, shade and tone to emphasise or put things in the background?  How is any of this altered by the aspect ratio of the camera you're using? 

Also, remember that the only way to achieve your own style is to take as many photographs as possible. This might seem at odds with the one shot approach, but it's not. I just take a lot more photographs of different things.  I'm also very selective about what I photograph, and if I don't feel that a shot will work, I won't bother taking it.

Photos are copyright Tim Willcocks. If you’d like to see more of his work, you can visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram