Anderson & Low

The clock is ticking, the countdown has well and truly begun and the London Olympics is now so close you could almost reach out and touch it. For those charged with preparing for the largest sporting event in the country's history however, the planning started way back. The National Portrait Gallery (NPG), for example, has been busy putting together its own artistic response to the Olympics since 2009.

With major backing from BT, the 'Road to 2012' project consists of 100 portraits, and its brief is to welcome the Games and provide a lasting record of the people most closely involved in it. Right from the start photography played an important part, with Brian Griffin chosen to produce the first six portraits in the series. Now, with the Games upon us, the latest series of portraits is currently on display at the NPG and, fittingly, one of the artists commissioned for this final stage of the project is the duo of Anderson & Low.

The pair - Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low - first got together in 1990 and, after the Royal Academy of Arts exhibited their work, they decided to enter a long-term fine art photography partnership.

Recognised initially for exquisitely executed and printed black & white work in subjects ranging from nudes through to architectural studies, reportage and landscape, they quickly found that they had a natural affinity with those who were heavily involved in sport, attracted not so much by their physical beauty but by their character and ability to concentrate single-mindedly on their chosen area of expertise.

"There is always this paradox that you get with sportsmen and women," says Jonathan. "Simultaneously they are the most ordinary and yet the most extraordinary of people, and even if they're not particularly articulate, they are all highly intelligent. It's just a different expression of their intelligence: to see someone all day doing things that, by rights, should be impossible is quite exhilarating. It says a lot about the human condition, and it's very aspirational as well. As artists, we find that very interesting."

Edwin agrees: "We want to show something of the aspiration, dedication and sacrifice that people put into sport. It's not about showing the burst of energy, grimace or triumphal gestures. Our images in this project have a quietness and stillness. We want to capture the prowess, stillness and spirituality, with a physical, sensual quality; the people in our photographs are almost like those you might see in a religious painting."

In 1998 Anderson & Low showcased their project 'The Athlete' at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia for the Commonwealth Games and then at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Then came a commission from the US Olympic Committee for the American Athletes series in 2001. 'The Contenders' commissioned by the NPG followed to coincide with the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, and there was also a collaboration with the Danish Gymnastics team from 1998 to 2002, resulting in the series and book, Gymnasts. Another book, Athletes, also appeared in 2002 and other sporting projects have included 'Athlete/Warrior', a look at the classical concept of 'the hero, both on the sporting field and on the battlefield', and 'Champions', a series of portraits of top sporting stars to raise AIDS awareness and created by Anderson & Low for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Their most recent sporting work, published this year, is Endure: An Intimate Journey with the Chinese Gymnasts. For this project Anderson & Low have developed a specific visual language - their idea is, as they put it, "to find the truth in each image of these remarkable people'. Released in the summer, the works are clearly unusual: "The colour palette is not really naturalistic, but it is very truthful as a representation of what the gymnasts feel, and of what we felt watching them,' the pair say. "Everyone says that they are more like paintings than photographs."

The Olympic contenders

Against this background of involvement with sporting subjects the invitation to be a part of the Road to 2012 was entirely logical. "The National Portrait Gallery knows our work well, has acquired quite a number of our images, and we have had two solo exhibitions there," says Edwin. "It was always on the radar that we would be invited to work with them on this project: we were approached last September and started shooting in October."

"Obviously there were valid reasons why we weren't involved before," says Jonathan, "but it did make life a little complex, because there was less than 12 months to go before the Olympics and many athletes, not surprisingly, were tied up in their preparations so it wasn't too easy to find time with them. In terms of who we worked with, it was a collaboration between ourselves and the NPG: we discussed and agreed the subjects and then the administration for the shoot was done by the NPG in discussion with us. We normally try to do this ourselves but time was just too tight."

The shot of Beth Tweddle and three fellow gymnasts was set up at a training session in Liverpool and it was typical of the shoots that the team took on. "Beth was chosen for the series because she is just one of the great contenders," says Jonathan. "She's considered to be the most successful British gymnast of all time, and so it was fitting that she should be included."

"The other three girls pictured with her are also potential contenders," says Edwin, "and we wanted to show how Beth has served as an inspiration to young gymnasts everywhere. Our approach is not to try to catch athletes while they are performing in the way that a sports photographer might do. I think we're more interested when athletes are at rest and in this picture you can see that there's this amazing power but at the same time there's a stillness. We just love the feminine colours of the clothes that are hanging up behind the girls combined with the chalk, tape, bandages and grit of the foreground. Somehow that juxtaposition just seems so appropriate."

The fact that you can see the colours in this picture is evidence of the pair's changing style, and Jonathan is quick to point out that their past four projects have been finished in colour. "Although we were known for our expertise in the darkroom, there was never an artistic decision made not to work with colour. In fact many of our projects over the years were shot in both colour and black & white," he says. "We sometimes felt that the colour itself was getting in the way of what we wanted to say in the images, hence often the early projects released were in black & white.

"Digital came along and changed this, particularly in terms of output, and now we can do what we previously would have done in a darkroom through post-production. Now we have the control we'll work with whatever we feel best suits the project: we don't make a distinction between colour and black & white."

"Post-production is just a different kind of darkroom," adds Edwin. "It's just a different way of dodging and burning."

Artistic influences

Both photographers acknowledge the influence of traditional art in their methods. It helps to set their work apart from others and to give it a distinctively painterly feel at times. "Our knowledge of art history, colours and painting informs pretty much everything we do," says Edwin. "The lighting we use plays a big part in the feel we get in our pictures."

"There's an amazing book by the art historian Ernst Gombrich called The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art," says Jonathan, "and this traces how cast shadows have been depicted and sometimes removed in Western art through the centuries. That's had a big effect on us, and it's a wonderful guide to the use of light and the use of absences of light.

"We'll try to work where we can with ambient light but we do take some lighting along with us as well, which we'll use when necessary. It's almost to sculpt the figure: like we're trying to make something out of a block of marble."

It's practically impossible to get Anderson & Low to talk about equipment or about lighting technique and, aside from revealing that they used a Phase One back for the Road to 2012 work, they are more than happy to let their images do the talking. And it's clear, that although they've not come from a sporting background themselves, they have acquired an intimate understanding of the people appearing in front of their camera.

"When we showed our Athlete pictures we had an American athlete come along to see the work; after he saw our images he told us that before he didn't believe people who had never done what he did could understand what he goes through every day," says Jonathan. "Then he walked in and was stunned; he felt he could see his whole life on the walls around him. Of course that is hugely touching for us, to have an athlete praise our work in this way; it really shows that when we have this kind of access and can spend time on our projects, that's what we're able to do."

Since 1990, Jonathan Anderson and Edwin Low have been collaborating as Anderson & Low. Their photography covers a huge range of genres and has been exhibited around the world.

Taken from the August 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine