There are few things more exciting in the entertainment industry than awards season. The spirit of the accolades—along with the anticipation of who will win—are reasons to look forward to them each new year. Photography offers us a valuable way to encapsulate their energy and emotion, and a skilled photographer snaps portraits that evoke these qualities while chronicling them for posterity. Renowned portrait photographer Charlie Clift did just that at the BAFTA Awards held on February 19, 2023. His stunning black-and-white images showcase the night in all its spirited glory.
Clift’s photographs are expertly composed and highlight the personality of each celebrity subject. With a minimalist backdrop and set-up, the chosen actor shines in an intimate portrait. In some instances, Clift cropped his compositions within the frame—as seen in the portrait of Eugene Levy. Other times, he allowed the set to breathe with a full-body shot of the actor interacting with the props, as was the case with Ke Huy Quan.
It makes the images all the more incredible when you learn that these photographs took place in the span of just a couple of minutes backstage. Clift had to not only shine his artistic eye onto the person but also navigate the fast-paced atmosphere and logistics that come with photographing one of the world’s most prestigious award nights.
We spoke with Clift about the 2023 BAFTA Awards and his previous times shooting the show. Scroll down to read My Modern Met’s exclusive interview.
Renowned portrait photographer Charlie Clift captured stunning black-and-white images of celebrities at the 2023 BAFTA Awards. Read our interview with him about the night.
Photographing the BAFTA Film Awards is exciting! How did this opportunity first come about?
I really love working with BAFTA, they are one of my favorite clients and together we have made so many of my favorite images. So I’ve got quite a history with Claire, Jordan, and the BAFTA photo team. They select their photographers very carefully for each assignment so it’s a huge honor to be asked to photograph one of the biggest moments of their year.
My relationship with BAFTA began in 2017 when Claire asked me to photograph their Breakthrough Brits, part of the many talent programs they run supporting new creatives. Since then, we’ve done all sorts of interesting projects together, from a series of winners’ portraits created during COVID (mainly outside), official portraits for the BAFTA TV Awards, and now the portraits at the Film Awards.
Photographing the Film Awards was a dream commission and something I’ve been eager to do for several years. It’s one of the biggest moments in the cultural calendar, and the portraits created at it contribute so much to the BAFTA archive. They play a huge role in telling the story of film and BAFTA at this moment. Plus, of course, I got to work with some of the most talented performers and creatives in the world on a night when they are full of emotion and excitement. You never quite know what will happen on a such a big night, but it’s amazing to be there and to be part of it.
The BAFTA team and I are so proud of the results, we can’t wait to put them up on the walls of 195 Piccadilly—BAFTA’s home in London.
You first photographed the portraits at the BAFTA TV Awards in 2019. How did you approach your first BAFTA Film Awards differently?
For my first Film Awards, I prepared myself for a night which I knew would be even more intense than the TV Awards. I had learned a lot from the TV awards, and certainly brought all that experience with me to this shoot. I wanted to make sure absolutely everything was in place and ready to go for the big day. The process began months in advance. To be honest, as soon as I was given the job in early January, I basically didn’t think about anything else. There were endless creative discussions with Claire and Jordan, days of testing lighting approaches, sourcing props, mood boarding, trying out different paints for the set, and changing my mind 20 times about everything.
What were some of the things you learned that you incorporated into the 2023 shoot?
I learned a huge amount from photographing at two BAFTA TV Awards. It’s vital to have a brilliant team and a versatile set so I can create an instantly exciting shooting environment the moment someone steps into my studio. I want them to be instantly on board and ready to make the most of our limited time together.
I’m also quite creatively restless, so I wanted to make this year’s set look a bit different to previous years. In 2019, I chose a classic Irving Penn look at the BAFTA TV Awards; in 2020, the pandemic meant we took the shoots on-location; then in 2021, I looked to the deep color palettes of Picasso and Mondrian. For my first shoot at the BAFTA Film Awards, I was inspired by Lucien Freud's studio, recreating the plastered walls, worn wooden floor, and tired furniture in the space I was given backstage in London’s Royal Festival Hall. We flooded with soft light and filled it with music, the perfect space for the emotions of the evening to take center stage.
You couldn't spend long with each individual. How did you make the most of that short amount of time?
It’s really crucial in a portrait shoot to make a genuine connection with your sitter. I’m full of energy and enthusiasm, which probably helps a lot. My top priority was for them to feel special from the moment they arrived at my studio, that they felt our shoot was something unique. I had as little as two minutes, so there’s no time to waste, I dive straight in, instantly introduce myself the moment they arrive, suggest a couple of ideas that we could play with and then see what happens. While I’m shooting, I’m always thinking how can I make this more interesting, more unusual, get something special here. Ultimately, I just have to trust myself and my instincts to guide these brilliant performers toward the most fascinating moments.
Having an adaptable set makes a huge difference to how much you can make of a few minutes. A bank of hundreds of reference images also meant in the moments between people I could fill my head with new ideas so I didn’t get stuck in a rut. I also had two brilliant assistants, Olly and Phil, who worked like a well-oiled machine with me, often moving before I even asked as they know my approach so well. Fortunately, actors are the most brilliant subjects to work with bringing a wonderful energy to all my ideas—I’m so proud of how much individualism we managed to create across the set.
What were some of the logistical challenges you faced that night?
Limited time is certainly a challenge—there is a lot to pack into the evening, and the BAFTA Photo Team do an amazing job coordinating back-to-back sittings and keeping on top of the schedule, so hats off to them. Space is also limited, and I therefore needed to carefully design a set according to strict proportions, which could be easily transported to and built inside the Royal Festival Hall.
However, I would say that the biggest logistical challenge actually comes after the night, and it’s the process of turning around my photographs almost immediately. This year the portraits went live only a couple of days after the event! I started at the crack of dawn the morning after the awards working on minimal sleep. At about lunchtime, I sent the BAFTA photo team my shortlist, and together we then sifted through the images to choose our final set. I can’t quite believe how many we managed to make in our final set this year, I think it was nearly 200 portraits, from one evening! I take a very minimal approach to retouching, most of the images you see are just graded, and the ones that have any retouching on them are done very lightly with a naturalistic approach only really required because events like this can be a bit hot and sweaty or because I framed an image a little beyond my small set. This is the first year BAFTA has been able to include so many shots in their final selection, which is amazing for their archive.
Can you describe the atmosphere of being a photographer at the awards show?
The atmosphere is incredible. In my experience, awards nights are absolutely buzzing with emotion, from elation to excitement, through to disappointment. It’s really important to distill these into my portraits—having all that emotion to play with is awesome.
How did that affect you as you snapped the photos?
[I encouraged] the actors to make use of their feelings through movement is really effective—jumping, dancing, and showing off their award. I’m quite direct, and having clear direction can cut through some of the chaos. I’m mentally prepared to make quick calls. Sometimes actors are delighted to be photographed, and sometimes they just want to get on with their night. My first vision for a portrait isn’t always met with enthusiasm, so I always have a few more ideas up my sleeve ready to rock—never lose that energy. It’s really exciting, but also really exhausting, both physically and emotionally—I ran on adrenaline for the whole night, and by the end I was completely drained. But it was totally worth it. So much fun.
You photographed a lot of A-listers that night. Who made the biggest impression on you, and why?
This is a tough one, as I was fortunate enough to meet so many amazing stars (including a bomb disposal cocker spaniel). Rami Malek seemed to fizz with energy, and after much persuasion gave me one beautiful jump, which has become one of my favorite images. Photographing award winners is always a highlight too, sharing in their post-win excitement. Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon both won their first BAFTAs this year so capturing their elation was really special. Austin Butler was as charming as you’d expect, but I don’t think could quite believe what was happening, he was, of course, still totally effortless in front of my lens. My last sitting was with Cate Blanchett, who had just received her fourth golden mask, that was quite a person to finish the night with, she has such a presence and I love the images we made together.
What's on the horizon for you?
This year I’ve been working on some fun editorial shoots and I’ve photographed an important mental health campaign that will be going live during Mental Health Awareness Week in May. I’m also collaborating closely with a TV production company making key art for a lot of their series—it’s great fun working with top costume designers, amazing actors, fabulous set builders, and producers full of creative ideas. The images are just starting to be released so keep your eyes peeled for them.