Mentorship and the Illusion of Uniqueness: An Interview with the Master Portrait Painter Ivan Weiss

I had the good fortune to sit down recently with a photographer in London Ivan Weiss, who I consider to be one of the great portrait artists of our time. Weiss’ unique work has been featured by Canon UK, Affinity Photo, Vogue, BBC, Forbes and others, and he also leads the Portrait Watch Group in Peter Hurley’s Headshot Crew, where he mentors other photographers. Our conversation focused on the illusion of artistic originality, mentorship, and why you need to be “on the bus” to reach your full potential.

Find your own voice

One of the biggest challenges for artists in any field is the process of finding our own voice, creating work that we are instantly recognisable. Most artists will struggle with this at different stages of their careers and, as Weiss explains, the process of creating our own aesthetic can seem counterintuitive. However, this process is necessary and begins with identifying a speaking style that is powerful to us on an internal level.

Weiss begins our interview by discussing one of his biggest influences, Dan Winters, whom he discovered in his work while reading Wired Magazine. Even before Weiss knew the pictures were Winters’ work, the pictures spoke to his power. It wasn’t until much later that he made the connection between photographer Winters and Wired images, realizing that he was drawn to the work before starting his career as a photographer. Later, while on vacation in Italy, Weiss visited the Uffizi Gallery, where he decided to spend time studying portraits of a few lesser-known Renaissance artists. Looking at portraits created by Cristofano dell’Altissimo, Weiss noticed many similarities between the painting and Winters’ portrait. At this point he began to understand that originality was more complicated than it appeared, and as he delved deeper into the history of dell’Altissimo paintings, he discovered that even this was a copy of the style. the way of an earlier painter. Then Weiss recognized the originality and emulated the work of others:

You realize, at that point, we’re all scams in that sense, but it doesn’t really matter. It matters how you feel about it. I didn’t start copying Dan Winters, but I’ve consumed so much of his work that a lot of his picture carvings come naturally to me.

He further clarified this concept by comparing architectural photography with portrait photography. When one person is photographing a building, says Weiss, one person is photographing someone else’s work, which is inherently against the concept of originality, as the image we create is a replica of the ant’s building. architect. As a portrait artist, he realized that photographing people is, in fact, very similar, in the sense that you, as a photographer, have no claim to the unique face you want. shooting. You didn’t create the face, and in the end your image is inherently a kind of copy, so in this sense we are all just copying.

You realize that there’s no such thing as, in a sense, original, but on the other hand, there’s how I see something, and how I decide to present it and when I decide to click. into the Shutter. It’s something of value.

Seen this way, surviving or being original doesn’t seem like an impossible task, although Weiss doesn’t stress when he discusses the amount of work involved in the process, simply simply encourages struggling people to “earn more pictures.” More on that later.

Stay on the bus

The concept of staying on the bus came from photographer Arno Minkkinen’s 2004 graduation speech, and it was explained by writer Oliver Burkeman. In theory, the secret to finding your unique and successful path lies in the Helsinki Bus Terminal. While all lines from the station start with identical stops out of the city, going forward there are many different paths to choose from, representing the many paths we can take. as an artist. Unfortunately, after spending some time on a particular route, we realize, or perhaps others painfully, tell us that we are just clones of another artist who was once on the same path. this road before. Depressed, we took a taxi back to the station and started over. Two years later, we are right at the same stop as before, feeling like a copy of someone else again. Minkkinen’s solution to this is simply “stay on the f-ing bus!” Just by sitting on the bus, you will discover Helsinki’s varied and varied bus routes, eventually discovering the less traveled streets. In other words, by staying committed to the path, your work will eventually become the reality of your singular vision.

In Weiss’ view, being on the bus is key to discovering your creative voice. An important part of this process is not being afraid to copy another artist’s work, as long as their style has a strong meaning to you. He believes that our tastes are not something we can intellectually decide, but “they are just things that come naturally to you”. While we may make a conscious decision to try to copy another photographer, it is only through practice and repetition that we can create work that suits our tastes. mine. In other words, as Weiss puts it, “you realize it’s looking backwards.”

While that may seem counterintuitive to those who haven’t been on the bus for long, he also believes that deliberately trying to be different is a mistake. “It’s not about consciously trying to be different. When people consciously try to be different, it’s always seen as fake, it’s like novelty stuff.” In his own journey, inspired by Winters, Weiss discovered that, “[Winters’] Style, or part of it, just comes from within me and I don’t know where they come from. “

Go and make some pictures

Before this starts to seem too much of an existential journey, it’s important to note that the only way to achieve this ideal is through a lot of photography, learning, and mentoring. As I mentioned, Weiss encourages us to take more pictures. And this sounds easy, but it really is the essence of what we need to do to reach our full potential as artists. When he advised us to take more pictures, he told us to get the work done, although he wanted to avoid the term “work”, as he felt that the photographer’s job Ours should be rooted in passion and love and esteem. Therefore, “work” is not hard work or something scary, but something worth welcoming at every turn. Weiss adds, “Your technician should be good enough to follow the rules, but if your artist decides not to, that’s okay,” reminding us that the technical level is good. Technique is a necessary part of the process. In other words, you cannot cut corners.


Our conversation eventually turned to the subject of mentoring, which Weiss deeply believes has been an invaluable part of fast-tracking our growth as portrait artists. While many photographers value sharing their techniques, he believes, “Mentoring works for the mentee and benefits the mentee” and encourages photographers to Photographers looking for mentoring relationships. If you have access to someone whose work you like and you can study directly with, that is the fastest and surest way to grow.

Weiss quotes master of headshot Peter Hurley as his advisor. When mentoring with Hurley, he said, “The more time I spend emulating Peter’s style, the more it becomes me.” For Weiss, Hurley represents the ideal of what a mentor should be, as he is an open book when it comes to his process, from the equipment he uses, to coaching, to setting up. camera and business strategy. Of course, this is also Weiss’ philosophy as a mentor, simply saying: “I don’t think having a secret is a good way to move things forward.”

Inspire others

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I have had the good fortune of mentoring Ivan Weiss himself, and I consider him to be the single most influential person in my portrait photography. I can attest that he shares passion and joy, and his relentless pursuit of the perfect portrait is inspirational as well as contagious. I think he summed up our conversation best when he told me:

There’s no problem that can’t be solved by going and creating some images. If you’re not motivated, if you’re having a hard time being creative, if you need to grow technically, go and make some pictures.

Image used with permission.

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