Scott Council Brings Truth to Celebrity Portraiture

May 9, 2011

By Jacqui Palumbo

© Scott Council

Hip hop musician Lupe Fiasco

Back in April, Los Angeles-based photographer Scott Council got a call from XXL to shoot a cover and spread for their May issue. Five months before, Council had photographed Dr. Dre for Vibe, and the two had hit it off immediately. Two months later, when Dr. Dre was scheduled for a shoot with XXL, he personally requested Council as his photographer. This chain of events led to the call that would bring Council back in to shoot again for XXL, this time with hip hop star Lupe Fiasco.

So why did Dr. Dre, out of countless shoots spanning a 20-year music career,  personally request Scott Council for his feature in XXL? What is it about him that draws an impressive celebrity clientele list, including Will Smith, Stephen Colbert, Kristen Stewart, Steve Buscemi, Michael C. Hall, Eminem and Betty White? Besides his great skill for composition, lighting, and all technical aspects of photography, Council brings a humanistic approach to his work. In the limited amount of time he has to shoot, he reveals the inner-workings of his subjects in a still image. He does not create characters for them to play, but instead focuses on the individualism of each person.

For his shoot with Lupe Fiasco, Council built his concept around the core of the rapper’s personality. Lupe is a true artist within his genre, and the core of who he is is reflected within his music. He is enigmatic, introspective and spiritual. He is well-read, a black belt in karate, somewhat of an expert on guns (yet very anti-war) and a free-thinker. He believes he has a voice in his music and feels it is necessary to use it as a means of sending a message. He is also very conscious of the message he projects. Assembling all of these traits, Council, along with photo director Rebecca Fain and creative director Paul Scirecalavrisotto, based their concept around the ideas of balance and spirituality. 

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Lupe also contributed to the creative process by styling and helping to direct. He has a sincere interest in photography and presented ideas for individual shots. He liked a photo that was taken of him onstage where he was wearing Dracula teeth, so they recreated the image in the studio. He also wanted to emphasize the Chicago skyline, since the city is part of him. These two images were included among Council’s more abstract ideas – in one image, Lupe is surrounded by glowing orbs that represent balance and the birth of something new, like his music. In another, he sits in front of a mirror with a collection of objects that each reflect an aspect of his inner character and voice. The cover shot was requested to be a homage to an old Tupac photograph, paralleling the same spirituality imbued in Lupe’s music and his life.

It is often difficult for celebrity photographers to truly connect with their subjects due to time constraints. Council had barely any time to photograph Stephen Colbert a couple years back, and still managed to create a series that embodies the satirical patriotism he has built his humor around. Council also had a limited time to shoot film and television director John Rich. Rich, who has gone down in history for being one of the first men to start television after World War II, is now 85 and suffering from severe arthritis. Despite being unable to stand for more than a minute at a time, he and Council had a dynamic that resulted in simple but eloquent portraits. Council speaks highly of him, and says he still retains the “Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin charm” from his era. He was also cracking soldier jokes so dirty, they are not fit to print.

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His shoot with Dr. Dre has taken its place as one of his favorites. He was a great subject for Council, someone who doesn’t act or create a persona. He is who he is, and it is shown in timeless photos that don’t overstate. These images perhaps embody the beliefs that Council holds as a photographer: authenticity is internal, not external. He wants his viewers to feel real strength when looking at a strong image and not the illusion of strength.

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So what is his secret for getting inside the minds of the celebrities he photographs? He disregards any preconceived notions, public opinion or stereotypes. “Celebrities have become deities in Western culture,” he says, “but ultimately they are people.” He believes the only difference between them and the average person is that their public image is a commodity that can be bought and sold like a product. He empathizes with them, and doesn’t want to contribute to the superficiality they experience on a daily basis, but wants to create something truthful instead. He understands that having a camera pointed at someone is intrusive, and comments that “all portrait photographers have a natural empathy for people and that vulnerability.” It’s why he became a portrait photographer.

Another thing that Council emphasizes is having a plan beforehand. He always works out his ideas ahead of time, and presents sketches to his clients and subjects. It relaxes everyone and allows for better contribution when there is already a concrete idea to work with.

Ultimately though, he believes the greatest attribute a photographer can have is a point-of-view. It’s easy to get lost amongst client requests, or even under the standards and current trends of the fine art market. Council never wants to lose his own perspective, while being sensitive and intuitive to the needs of his clients and the personalities of his subjects. Underneath it all, he is a realist. He knows that while creating his art, he has to create a brand and cater to an audience. “My goal is to achieve a balance of vision for an eventual body of work that has a message and also makes a living,” he explains. “It’s a very difficult balance.”

To see more of Scott Council’s work, visit his Web site.