A Portrait Of Photographer Idil Sukan

By Ben Venables Last edited 30 months ago
A Portrait Of Photographer Idil Sukan
Muppets backstage with Idil Sukan herself. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Muppets backstage with Idil Sukan herself. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
by Idil Sukan, C-type colour print, 4 December 2011
Celia Imrie portrait recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Peter Capaldi. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Peter Capaldi. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Eddie Izzard. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Eddie Izzard. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Patrick Stewart. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Patrick Stewart. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Ruby Wax. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Ruby Wax. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
IdilSukan_JosieLong_02.jpg idilweb
Josie Long. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
From Idil Sukan's first professional shoot five years ago: the sketch group Pappy's.
From Idil Sukan's first professional shoot five years ago: the sketch group Pappy's.
Olly Murs and Miss Piggy. Photo credit Idil Sukan.
Olly Murs and Miss Piggy. Photo credit Idil Sukan.

First, a confession: we liked Idil Sukan before we even knew her name.

Once, when decamped from London to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, we were moseying around the Old Town there looking for good comedy gigs. Staring back were hundreds of posters that managed to actually put us off the shows they intended to promote. The comedians looked like kids' TV presenters taken hostage and made to clown around at gunpoint. But then, every so often, there'd be a rogue image that was actually attentive to the artist. We started seeking these out and noticed the same photo credit kept coming up: Idil Sukan.

It's only five years since Sukan bought her first professional camera. Nevertheless, she's since been the official photographer at both the Edinburgh Festival's Fringe and the British Independent Film Awards. Her portfolio is a who's who of comedy, film and TV personalities — and includes a few Muppets too. Her work has also been recognised recently by the National Portrait Gallery, which purchased a print of her portrait of actor Celia Imrie.

We met Sukan close to her Richmond studio where she's busy preparing for her debut exhibition — This Comedian — opening in Southwark's Embassy Tea Gallery in February. She explained that the hallmark of a good portrait is the trust built up between the photographer and sitter.

"You have to look people in the eye... If you don't have that, it's like the paparazzi firing a camera into someone's face. That's stealing photography." For Sukan, artistry and ethics work in tandem, one cannot exist without the other.

Surprisingly, it wasn't Sukan's childhood dream to be a photographer. She'd been working in the comedy industry for some time and found she couldn't bare the images she saw advertising shows: "Women were set-up with the same generic expression, as if there was only one kind of female comedian. And grown men were dressed-up like teenagers, with hands in pockets and a shrug of their shoulders." Sukan decided to step in, borrowed a semi-professional camera and "pissed around" until its limitations became frustrating. (We suspect 'pissing around' for Sukan is something more akin to endurance training for the rest of us).

"It's still a big deal for me saying I'm a photographer," she says. "I don't think you learn until you're under pressure... when you see a photo of your own, on a flyer, soaked and trodden in the rain — and it still looks good." There's a flicker of a smile, it's not arrogance, but the maturity of someone who can judge their own work.

Despite the intense dedication, her studio sounds a fun place to go. We heard a rumour that she plied difficult sitters with biscuits. "Actually, biscuits crumble," she smiles, "which isn't good for the shoot. But my innovative sister, Julia, suggested we switch to popcorn. It's not calorific but good to snack on and it doesn't stick."

Henry Paker by Idil Sukan | Draw HQ

She picks out a photo of comedian Henry Paker to describe what can go on behind the scenes. Paker is wearing a pair of antlers, the detail and realism of which are remarkable: "But there's someone else in the photo," she says, "You can't see him, but he's there."

"Henry had bought the antlers from a taxidermists," she says. As they weren't a costume he couldn't easily wear them. Sukan knew the obvious option was to take a separate image of the antlers before merging them, but also knew it probably wouldn't look right. She called in help — in the form of Father Sukan, who is concealed behind, holding the antlers aloft. Hopefully he got some popcorn for his efforts.

Idil Sukan's chief characteristic is surely respect. It's in her awareness of the power dynamics between photographer and sitter, in her determination to tailor each of her shoots to the idiosyncrasies of a particular show, and even in being the first to offer a handshake at the end of an interview. While the show This Comedian is a retrospective of her work over the last five years, as she walks back towards her studio in Richmond, it's clear she's an artist of this moment, the here and now.

Idil Sukan: This Comedian runs at the Embassy Tea Gallery, 195-205 Union Street, London SE1 0LN from 20 February - 2 March 2015. Free entry. Her prints will also be available to buy online for the first time.

Last Updated 18 April 2016