Through the Lens

Five Questions with Celebrity Portrait Photographer Beowulf Sheehan

Sheehan comes to Sarasota on Dec. 12 to promote his new book AUTHOR.

By Jonathan Goodman December 6, 2018

Beowulf Sheehan photographing former Vice President Joe Biden

Photographer Beowulf Sheehan has photographed cultural icons, artistic masterminds and global political leaders—Hugh Jackman, Margaret Atwood and Joe Biden have all sat in front of his camera. But he has a love for the written word, too, and in his new book, AUTHOR: The Portraits of Beowulf, Sheehan turns the lens on writers, journalists, poets and playwrights, from Roxane Gay to Toni Morrison to J.K. Rowling. The book was released on October 9, 2018, and has already received considerable buzz—the Los Angeles Times lauded AUTHOR in its fall 2018 book preview, the only photography book to make the list.

And this month, Sheehan is coming to New College of Florida to promote AUTHOR. The event is free and open to the public; ahead of his visit, we asked Sheehan to share more about AUTHOR and his glittering career.  

What inspired you to start a career in photography?

I was a shy child and wanted to make friends. I grew up with asthma, which kept me from playing sports, so I had to do other things, like reading comic books and drawing. I went to a magnet program for high school between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. When I got there, I didn’t know anyone, and the other boys talked about the Miami Dolphins and girls. I wasn’t nearly as experienced talking with girls, but I thought I could make connections with people through photography using my father’s camera.

Working at Publix gave me enough cash to buy seats to Miami Dolphins games. I took pictures of the games, made prints, and distributed them at school so that I could connect with my peers and have something to share.

In what ways has your access to world leaders and cultural icons shaped your worldview?

I am very fortunate to have made a career with what I do, but my aim is not celebrity.  I’m not as interested in the notoriety of someone as I am the story that someone has to tell. I’m more focused on great storytellers I can photograph, and whose stories I can share.

Are there any especially memorable moments from any of your shoots?

I remember photographing Tony Blair and thinking to myself, “This is my first head of state!” I was terribly excited and nervous and could feel my heart racing. I opened the door, and he shook my hand—he was very kind and charming, and all of my nerves disappeared.

The lesson in this is that we are all human beings. I know some people of renown do want to be treated as such, and while I will work to match that energy, meeting Tony Blair taught me how to be open and let go of fear. 

Beowulf Sheehan

What secrets of the industry do you wish someone would have shared with you at the beginning of your career? 

Duane Michals, one of the most creative photographic voices of the last century, said, “If this is what you want to do with your life, you have to do a few things: be great at it, prove you’re great at it, love it, share that love with as many people as you can, and repeat it again and again and again.” That applies to anything you do in life. If you’re wonderful at something and no one knows, rock every opportunity you get, tell everyone how excited you are. That will be infectious, and the phone will ring again. 

Tell us a little more about your new book. What are you hoping that your readers will take away from it? 

As people read the book, I hope there will be some curiosity inspired in the reader. I want the reader to say, “What an interesting face, I wonder what stories that person has to tell,” and then look into their work. Books are some of the most vital ways we can preserve our society—our trials, our failures, our triumphs. Any story you want to read is out there in a book. My job is to help you discover people’s stories. AUTHOR is my thank you to the community that has given me such a wonderful professional life.

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