Black Acting Talent
Donald MacLellan confronts under-representation in British film
Want to See More of Me? is a collaborative exhibition from portrait photographer, Donald MacLellan, and the UK Film Council, showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 7 September 2008. The exhibition confronts current debates over diversity in the entertainment business and opportunities for ethnic minorities. MacLellan has exhibited twice previously at the National Portrait Gallery with the Black Power showcase of authority figures such as writers, priests and barristers in 1998 and The Tartan Army, a celebration of Scottish actors in 2000.
The exhibition features a range of figures, both those embarking on television careers and more established names, including Mona Hammond, Colin Salmon and Chiwetel Ejiofor. MacLellan carefully selected the participants to enable a “good cross-section of male and female, well-established stars and ones coming up” to make the show truly representational. The studio-based images exude rich, opulent colours and are bathed in warm light. While a number of sitters confront the camera with a direct gaze, MacLellan maintains a variety of images, managing to capture a different aspect for each sitter.
Donald MacLellan began his career in Edinburgh with a foundation course in Photography and Film followed by a position as a hospital photographer at the Royal London hospital. This sparked his interest in portraiture — “I like the one-to-one, getting to know the person, lighting it, setting it up, getting the construction”. At the Royal London he was constantly faced with “trying to photograph someone in fairly miserable circumstances” and MacLellan feels he learnt primarily “how to deal with people”, an asset which contributes greatly to his success with portraits.
Photography was initially “the usual Christmas and birthdays type thing”, in the West Highland boy’s childhood, but after discovering the true realities and mechanics of the trade, MacLellan has cultivated a successful artistic and commercial career, with commissions for magazines and book covers as well as national exhibitions and pieces in permanent collections at the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Throughout his career, MacLellan has photographed a wealth of personalities from actors to chief executives, university professors to solicitors, and he relishes the challenge of pursuing an original take on a well-known face — “the more well-known the better for me because I enjoy that challenge.” He begins each shoot “trying to get that definitive picture of them” and as a result feels that “control is everything to me.” As an artist, MacLellan is very much commander of the shoot and finds his work with actors to provide the distinct advantage of heightened self-awareness, “the bigger the show-off the better to be frank,” because here he is best placed to instruct the sitter and construct the image most effectively.
Want to See More of Me? is the result of a happy accident of events. Having previously showcased Black Power at a conference for black and Asian solicitors and lawyers, MacLellan contacted, amongst others, the UK Film Council, and encountered Marsha who runs the Diversity Department and had helped him collate the conference exhibition ten years ago. Coincidentally the UK Film Council were also looking to commission a project “trying to promote people from all ethnic backgrounds to get into film” and so the two parties began working together to create Want to See More of Me?
In light of recent media comments on the overwhelming whiteness of the television industry, MacLellan is continuing to address issues of under-representation. When asked about the current debate he says, “it seems ludicrous to me because out of however many films are made a year there must be room in there for stories from a diverse background — they just can’t all be the rubbish that is basically produced by white middle-class producers producing white middle-class men effectively.” MacLellan believes the issue stands with a lack of investors willing to take a risk on a new project. “There’s definitely the talent out there, on all sides of the camera — writing, producing, directing and acting.” Furthermore on the rare occasions when sufficient promotions are available, the momentum often fails to carry through to the media so there is a subsequent lack of newspaper coverage “to get that word of mouth started.”
MacLellan’s continued work with black subjects highlights that the issues addressed by Black Power remain very real. Ten years ago his idea came about from watching an early 1990s television programme on the role models of young black teenagers where “their teachers were all white and the people who were around them who were black were dinner ladies and cleaners. Apart from sports people and musicians that was basically it, and you know there were top businessmen and lawyers and all that and these needed to be seen.” MacLellan’s Black Power exhibition went on to British High Commissions worldwide and was used throughout schools and colleges to raise awareness for diversity. Increasing and promoting diversity remains the top priority for MacLellan and the UK Film Council with the latest exhibition.
Future plans for MacLellan include a move out of the studio for a study of writers and their places of work and inspiration, while he also hopes to begin another project on critics. Meanwhile Want to See More of Me? has enjoyed a successful opening. www.npg.org.uk.