Philip Habib: Starting With A Blank Canvas

Though New York-based photographer Philip Habib has been plying his trade for three decades, his style is cutting-edge contemporary while retaining a classic elegance. It’s youthful without being adolescent. Habib’s work is polished and stylized, and when people are his subject matter, the resulting portraits reveal his ability to tap into the inner souls of the sitters or standers before his lens.

In the spirit of Irving Penn, with a splash of Andy Warhol’s colors thrown in, Habib’s unique ability to create award-winning imagery in both people and still-life photography has been used effectively in the fine-art and commercial worlds with clients ranging from Smirnoff and Schweppes to Canon and Sony.

I like very simple and graphic images, and I like strong color. I love the work of Andy Warhol. Bill Brandt was a huge influence on me at one stage. Jeanloup Sieff, as wel

DPP: You were educated in London, Paris and Milan. How does that play into your style?

Philip Habib: My work is quite eclectic. Also, the subject matter I choose for personal projects is influenced by my European background, for example, my series "The Future of America" on sororities and fraternities here in the United States. I came here and saw this phenomenon that doesn’t exist in Europe. It’s an American institution. I was really interested in it because it’s this little gap between leaving home and the workplace. It’s a place where teenagers develop and find themselves. The only rule is that they keep their grades up. I kind of feel like I missed out on that experience in Europe. By documenting it, I’m getting a sense of it. The only thing I knew about the subject up until then was from the movie Animal House with John Belushi. I discovered that a lot of the fraternity houses are pretty much just like that.

DPP: What are you going to do with this body of work?

Habib: I would like to create a book and a touring exhibition. In 10 years’ time, I would like to document the same students in their homes or work environments, which is going to be very different than their school ones.

DPP: In a sense, you’ll be creating 10-year college reunions for these students with themselves. From a technical standpoint, how are you creating the images for this series?

Habib: In two parts. During the daytime, when the kids are in class, I photograph their rooms with a pretty basic lighting setup. I began the series using Broncolor strobes, but over time switched to Canon 600EX flashes for the room shots because the technology for these flashes has improved so much. I then photograph the students themselves on a gray seamless in a common room in the evening so I can capture the spontaneity of them goofing around, that energy of being a part of a fraternity or sorority. I use my Broncolor lights and put the music on. The students egg each other on to get in front of the camera so it’s more like a party. It’s a lot of fun. I draw on the youth from this series; they give me a lot of good energy.

DPP: Do you think personal projects like this play a major role in helping you land commercial assignments?

Habib: I’ve always gotten commercial work from my personal projects. When I present my portfolio for a commercial job, 70% of it is made up of personal work up front with the tearsheets in the back. The commercial 30% of the portfolio is to show art buyers that I’m a professional.

DPP: And that you can execute a commercial project. One of the great European photographers who’s not extremely well known here was the late Jeanloup Sieff. He refused to be categorized into being an advertising photographer, a fashion photographer, a fine-art photographer, a landscape photographer or any other label. You seem to have established yourself in a variety of photographic genres without confusing art buyers.

The key is to get people to not be conscious of the camera. The biggest trick is to get them relaxed.

Habib: Within the commercial work, you tend to get more pigeonholed, and I was during the first two decades of my career. It’s only since the digital revolution that I’ve evolved a lot more and started doing all sorts of stuff.


The photographer has an almost graphic design approach to his work, as you can see from this minimalist portrait of digital tech writer Evgeny Morozov (above), which ran on the cover of Columbia Journalism Review.

DPP: It’s impressive that you can be such a strong still-life photographer and people photographer, for instance, at the same time. That’s a rarity in the photography world. The common thread in all your work, be it portraits or food photography or still lifes, is the very graphic nature of the images.

Habib: I like very simple and graphic images, and I like strong color. I love the work of Andy Warhol. Bill Brandt was a huge influence on me at one stage. Jeanloup Sieff, as well. Irving Penn had a huge influence on me. Chuck Close—I love his portraits. Very graphic and powerful.

DPP: Like your image of chopsticks in a takeout container set in a red background. It’s a great example of a graphic photo with strong Warhol-type colors. How do you create these types of images?

Habib: A lot of them are shot separately. I shot the chopsticks and container on a neutral background, then created the red background and the shadowing in Photoshop. There’s a bit of refining to do, but it’s pretty straightforward.

I loved the idea of starting with a blank canvas. I found that my studio in London was bogging me down more than anything. I just let go of it and haven’t had a studio since. I love the freedom of it.

DPP: How did you learn the craft of photography?

Habib: I went to Mallinson’s School of Photography on the Isle of Wight. That was a two-year course. It was basically black-and-white fine-art photography. We did landscapes and printing. Then I went to the New England School of Photography in Boston for two years. That was very commercially oriented. Their goal was for you to come out of the program with a commercial portfolio so you could go out and get work. That’s where I learned the 8×10 and 4×5 cameras. I then assisted for about a year in Boston before opening my studio there in 1983. Then I went back to Europe in 1986 and opened a studio in London. In 1994, I based myself in Paris until 1997 when I came back to the States and settled in New York. I was shooting mostly 8×10 for the still lifes in Europe, but when I came here they seemed to prefer the 4×5, basically because it’s quicker.

DPP: Working in large format tends to create very disciplined photographers. There’s no motordrive button to hold down.

Habib: Even now for my portrait work, with my Canon 5D Mark III, I don’t shoot that much. You know when you’ve got it, and usually it’s within the first few frames
. It’s strange; it always seems to work that way.

DPP: How do you work with people to get them into the right mood for what you’re trying to convey in a photograph?

Habib: The key is to get people to not be conscious of the camera. The biggest trick is to get them relaxed. I meet them and we’re just chatting about whatever before we get on set, and then when on set, the conversation continues. Sometimes I’m pressing the trigger without looking through the viewfinder. They’re looking at me and we’re talking with each other. Within those few moments, I also take some more serious ones. I’m handholding the camera, looking through the viewfinder, then back out. It’s just a chat. I’ve always been interested in people. I love meeting people and chatting with them.


Taken at the Zeta Beta Xi fraternity in Geneseo, New York, this college student is part of Habib’s "The Future of America" series, which concentrates on the "Animal House" antics of U.S. dorms. The room may look like a mess, but Habib’s compositions are anything but.

DPP: Like the late Irving Penn, who you cite as an influence, you do extremely well with people and still lifes. It’s a tribute to your shared graphic sensibilities and people skills.

Habib: I really like the graphic nature of still lifes, but if I were always in a studio shooting them, it would get boring for me. Things have changed a lot. I had a studio in London for many years, then I started shooting a lot of still lifes in rented studios in Paris. At the time, it was unusual because it seemed like still-life photographers had to have their own studios. That got me thinking that I shouldn’t get stuck to one place. I liked the idea of traveling, even for still lifes, then packing my stuff up at the end of a shoot. I loved the idea of starting with a blank canvas. I found that my studio in London was bogging me down more than anything. I just let go of it and haven’t had a studio since. I love the freedom of it.

You can see more of Philip Habib’s work at philiphabib.com.

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