Color, courage and clarity are the key notes for the covers of the TIME 100 Most Influential People issue. Photographer Miles Aldridge, who created the portraits, knew immediately that they had to pop and clash with as much vitality as a Mozart concerto. “I wanted the pictures to be bright; bright being almost an adjective for sound rather than for image,” says Aldridge. “In a way, I’m talking about Matisse; the way his colors were always juxtaposed so beautifully. There was a sort of visual stimulation, that almost felt like music.”
Aldridge, a seasoned fashion photographer, decided early on that color would be his unifying tempo, marking a clear departure from previous year’s more muted tones. But the people and personalities were still the beating heart of the photos. The pioneers, titans, artists, leaders and icons – of whom Riz Ahmed, Melinda Gates, John Legend, Jeff Bezos and Viola Davis made the covers – are giants in their field. It was important then, that they held their own against the boldness of Aldridge’s palette.
Though his shoots are heavily constructed, photographing strong personalities such as Viola Davis, mean the subjects’ energy becomes part of the stimulus. The result for Davis was an incredibly warm and joyous burst of laughter – sparked from a conversation about her Oscar win – which Aldridge then asked her to repeat over and over again. “[The smile’s] essence is from the real world,” he explains. “But its actual construction is completely artificial.” Aldridge’s contact sheets are the antithesis of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment.’ “It’s not like a lucky moment. It’s very controlled,” he adds. “But therein one can be expressive with the rules.”
Aldridge often references other master photographers in his work, as he did in this shoot with the work of Richard Avedon. “I’m always able in my head to say, ‘What would Avedon do? What would Penn do? What would Newton do?’, as a starting point to trigger a conversation in my own head,” he says. “Avedon was a really obvious touchstone to go to [for this project]. Much more obvious to me than Penn in that respect, because Penn’s work was too stoic and sober for what I wanted to do.”
Aldridge is known for conjuring up vivid unrealities. But with TIME 100, he brought this approach into the real world. “Because these are not fashion pictures, it really required them to wear colors or shapes that gave me something to kick off with,” he says. All of the subjects played ball. Jeff Bezos brought a bright checked jacket that gave Aldridge the idea to shoot him on an orange background and John Legend was open to any direction or wardrobe suggestion. “They all really left it in my hands. And that’s from Oscar award-winning actresses to one of the wealthiest men and most brilliant minds in the world,” he says. “I don’t know if it was because of me or because of TIME, but I really had no sense that anyone was anxious about what I might ask them to do.”
Aldridge still shoots on film, specifically a Hasselblad 503CW with Kodak Ektar, using Broncolor lighting. The rigor and discipline that analogue engenders, helps structure his approach but also allows for a more dynamic shoot. “You photograph in a more intense way because you are realistically worried that you won’t get [the picture],” he says. “You are really focused on trying to capture this moment in its explosiveness – but at the right point.”
Yet, the results are not entirely left to chance. Aldridge also uses Polaroids to get a sense of whether the picture is worth pursuing; essential for a shoot like TIME 100, where time is limited and there’s a lot at stake. “You are given incredible license to show these important, influential people to the world,” he says. “It’s an honor to work for TIME, but it is the responsibility that really weighs on you, not the honor, to really get it right.”