Annabel Williams Profile

Social photography’s former rebel now teaches other photographers how to reject the advice she was given when she was starting out, discovers Nigel Atherton

Annabel Williams
Annabel Williams Annabel-Williams

If one person can be credited with dragging commercial portraiture away from the purgatory of canvas backgrounds and gold-rimmed brown slip folders, it’s Annabel Williams. Now one of the UK’s most successful social photographers, the contemporary style she pioneered has now become almost mainstream, vindicating her years of battling against the staid conventions of the photographic establishment.

Her style is often called ‘lifestyle’ portraiture, which is a term she’s happy to be associated with, though she also describes it as ‘fashion photography for ordinary people’.

‘When I started out, there were only two ways women could be photographed,’ Annabel recalls. ‘You either looked like your mother, with a string of pearls round your neck, or you took your clothes off.’ Realising instinctively that women wanted to look glamorous and beautiful, like the models they admired in the glossy magazines, Annabel co-founded Cover Girl in the 1980s with her make-up artist sister, and it became a runaway success.

‘In effect, we invented makeover photography,’ she adds, ‘and of course since then it’s been widely copied.’ The style, however, has evolved. ‘Back in the Eighties it was about big hair, make-up and big shoulder pads because that was the look then. Now the look is more natural, but just as much work goes into styling.’

Annabel’s service is a million miles from the half-hour session down at the local studio. It’s a totally bespoke service, which starts way before the event with a detailed consultation and includes a full-day shoot at the client’s home (which often extends to favourite haunts and walks in the area) and even covers shooting a tailor-made portrait for a specific space in the client’s home, with clothes and backgrounds chosen to complement the décor. ‘I’m not just there to take their portrait,’ she insists. ‘I’m there to take the best portraits they’ve ever had,’

This approach obviously caters to the top end of the market, and Annabel travels far and wide from her Cumbrian base – Annabel was even flown over to Geneva to photograph one family, whose wedding she had done years before.