Ethan Hill On Photographing Roger Ebert

- - On Set, Photographers

A reader asked if I would query photographer Ethan Hill about his recent shoot of Roger Ebert for Esquire. You can read the story on the Esquire website (here) and Roger’s reaction on his blog (here). I asked Ethan to describe the assignment, preparation and shoot:

It was a lucky set of circumstances that I was able to do this shoot at all. I had a slow year last year like just about everyone did and had embarked on what was for me a pretty aggressive promo campaign to try to generate some new work. I think it was the right combination of timing and subject matter of the images on the mailer that I was able to do this shoot.

The difference between the portrait of Roger and most of the other editorial stories I get to work on was the obvious level of sensitivity that was required to how Roger and his wife would feel about having cameras in their home. I had a long conversation with my editor about what Esquire was looking for in getting out of the portrait and also a long conversation with the writer. Chris [writer] had spent two days with Roger and was able to describe the layout of the house, what the rooms looked like that Roger spends most of his time in, what some of his daily work routine’s are….descriptions of things that would be possible picture ideas. It was obvious to me that Chris had a great amount of admiration and love for Roger, and had come away from meeting him a changed man himself. The best stories you get to work on do that to you. What was different about this shoot was that I got to have such an in depth conversation with the writer prior to the shoot, and the feeling of care and protection that he has for Roger, the desire that the shoot with a photographer he’s never worked with before go smoothly was palpable. I personally find that level of admiration for ones subjects infectious. I already loved Roger….I’d watched his program with Gene Siskel on TV when I was a kid….but both Chris’ and Michael’s [my editor] enthusiasm just made me want to do this better than usual.

As far as just the nuts and bolts go…a date was set with the editor. After having the conversation with Chris I had a list of specific things to look at [for example, the library, the office, the living room, etc.] when I arrived at the house. I had a brief conversation with Roger’s wife on the phone about a week before the shoot was going to happen just to address any concerns that she might have. The shoot itself was done like any other shoot I’d do. I’ll look around and put a list together that I approve with the person I’m photographing. I find the list a helpful thing to do because it serves as a map for the day everyone involved knows EXACTLY how the shoot will go. I set up a shot with my assistant standing in place, and then I’ll go and get the person who is the subject of the piece to step in front of the camera. I’m slow on the set up but fast when I actually shoot, so I find it helpful on a day where there are many set ups [I think we did 5 with Roger] to try to leave people be as much as possible so that they can get their own work done while I set up the next shot. It allows you to stay and shoot longer and not have your subjects get irritated with you.

The pictures are only as good as the elusive dance of a subjects willingness to give something intimate and meaningful of themselves, and a photographers ability to recognize that at that very moment a gift is being given to them. Roger is undoubtedly a very generous person. It’s strange to me to think about being in Chicago in December, and drinking coffee with Roger and his wife, and the snow that had started early that morning that would make us miss the flight back home that we were meant to be on that same nite. This one in particular just felt like a personal shoot, something I was working on in collaboration with Roger, Chris, and Michael. Then the story runs and it takes on a life of it’s own….Rogers fans get to hear from him again and people have opinions and it becomes much bigger than that quiet snowy afternoon. I just feel really lucky that I got to be a part of this.

Ebert-hill

There Are 20 Comments On This Article.

  1. great quote . . .

    “The pictures are only as good as the elusive dance of a subjects willingness to give something intimate and meaningful of themselves, and a photographers ability to recognize that at that very moment a gift is being given to them.”

  2. Thanks for posting the interview, Rob.

    Ethan – it’s a warm and wonderful portrait of a warm and wonderful man. I met Roger in the past, when he was very helpful and generous to me and a project I was working on at the time.

    After seeing this photo last week, I looked up your website — you do beautiful work, it’s so refreshing to see what I think is a classic approach… just really strong photographs.

    Congrats on the pic of Rog, and good luch.

    A.F.

  3. The Esquire profile of Roger Ebert was amazing (a friend of mine posted a link to it on facebook last week; I don’t normally read Esquire mag otherwise).

    Thanks, Rob (and Ethan), for sharing this story about the shoot; I had been wondering about it myself after reading the piece as well as Roger’s reaction/blog post about it.

  4. West Coast Jim

    Yes, thank you both. Both for thinking to ask and for the lovely answers.
    The image is disquieting but truly amazing. What balls on the part of the subject. Good job Ethan!
    Good for him.
    Best.

  5. Wow, what a beautiful portrait. Ebert used to say, in regards to movies, “it’s not what it’s about but how it’s about it.” I think this photograph fits that quote so well. It’s so honest and dignified. Another “I wish I had shot it” moment.

  6. I assisted Ethan a few times a number of years ago. He’s an amazing photographer and he always went the extra distance to get to know his subjects before photographing them. Conducting a mini interview before the shoot made it possible for him to get to know his subjects and make them comfortable as well as make his images more insightful. Ethan really made the people that he shot feel safe and respected.

    Also, his careful planning made it possible to add the spontaneous extra shot without a hitch or much inconvenience to his subjects.

    Quick question, if Ethan is listening in or if Rob knows, does Ethan still shoot film whenever he can? Did he shoot film for this? Just curious since I know he was a die hard believer in film before. And if he is shooting digital, was it his choice to move in that direction or was it forced upon him by magazines?

    Thanks so much for this interview both of you!

  7. Great work by Ethan and Chris. I’ve always admired Ebert’s prose and the article was a great look at his recent life.

    There are a lot of terrific portraits out there but few really make you stop in your tracks. Honest and beautiful.

  8. It’s a wonderful shot and I love that he is smiling. That his cancer has attacked his appearance and voice makes it much more powerful in it’s significance. Of course there is a visceral reaction by viewers, the reality is not going to be pretty, but this is his reality now and he’s still Roger. There was no other way to portray this better.