Archive: Jun 2010
These little films from my shoots, I’m doing it more and more, but this is about the way I like to do it and this one is a good example. I’ll shoot pictures but every now and then, when I feel the urge take me, I’ll just hit that little button on the back of the camera that switches it to video mode. Then I take 10-15 seconds of footage, sometimes I tell the subject and sometimes I don’t. In the end, though, I always tell them and check to make sure that they don’t mind. In this case, with the actress Emilia Fox, she didn’t mind at all and embraced the situation by sliding into this enigmatic, langourous performance. I knew what music I would put on this as I was shooting it. I could hear it in my head as she lay in that sumptuous English meadow and let the wind carry her dreams on it’s back – Isfahan by Duke Ellington.
In the original 60′s Star Trek series there was an occasional episode where Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and other members of the USS Enterprise’s crew would find themselves on a planet that looked like earth and with inhabitants that initially behaved like humans. Of course it would always end up with the aliens shedding their human skins and manners before taking on the real humans in some kind of struggle for the future of the galaxy. The one I remember most is from 1968 and is entitled “A Piece of the Action.” The crew are on a planet that resembles 1920′s era Chicago. The inhabitants carry Tommy guns and are engaged in a textbook replica of the prohibition wars of the time. They even refer to Kirk’s phaser as ‘a heater.’
This is the closest I can get to describing, then, my recent 3 day visit to Moscow. It didn’t involve Tommy guns but at one point we did find ourselves in a restaurant at which 2 rival groups, with what we might call questionable business methods, were partaking of what looked like a quite sensational lunch on opposite sides of the room to each other. On suggesting to my host that being seated in the middle of the room might not be the best place for us to be located in the event of any action breaking out, I was reassured with these kind and practical words:
“Well, to be honest, it’s better than being stuck in the corner…if you’re there you’ll never get out. As long as you lie flat on the floor and make yourself as low to the ground as possible you’ll probably be alright.”
I had been invited to hold an outdoor exhibition in the Bond Street of Moscow, Stoleshnikov Lane, a pedestrian street in the heart of old Moscow. It was to be sponsored by Jaguar, Hennessey and Russian GQ and, in exchange for 32 pictures, I would be paid a fee and flown over there for an all expenses paid visit to coincide with the opening of the show. It sounded like I’d hit the jackpot on Sale of the Century so I jumped at it with both legs wide open. This is what makes me get up in the morning and it’s why I do what I do. Photography was always a conduit by which I could visit places and meet people I would never ever get to meet in any other life. It was never the end in itself, merely a means to another end, the feeding of one’s curiosity. Never been to Russia before either, so double bonus.
I was expecting to arrive to a polite little cheese and wine function attended by a bunch of people dragged along by the sponsors. However, and this is where it gets all Star Trek, what I actually arrived to was a full on coming out ball in my honour, with a greeting party consisting of 5 pre-event television interviews and another 5 press/print interviews. On Planet Moscow, for 3 days, I was wined, dined, papped, filmed and photographed with it’s inhabitants.
I’ve been a photographer for almost 20 years and I HATE having my picture taken. There are virtually no pictures of me in existence, I find the act of being photographed excruciating and I cannot relax into the process in the same way that I try and bring to my own subjects. In my three days there I probably had my picture taken more times than I have in the rest of my life combined.
What was interesting about this trip was that somewhere in it is an essay on the nature of celebrity and the influence of perception within the overall equation.
I find the word ‘celebrity’ a tricky one to deal with. It elevates those who are undeserving of it and it cheapens those who’s work or role is above it. My work, in the context of this show, is as a celebrity photographer but I really don’t want to be a ‘celebrity photographer.’ I’d just like to be a photographer. Yet, in every interview I gave before the show opened, it was the subject of my work as a ‘celebrity photographer’ that was the main course on the table for discussion. A considerable part of my work has been, however, photographing what we could also call ‘persons of note.’ But that just sounds dry, self aggrandising and frigid so what else? I don’t know. Portrait photographer? No, I’d still like to be “a photographer.”
One of the main motivating factors over the years has been the trite but effective mantra, “If they’re interesting then I’m interested.” That mantra has encompassed, off the top of my head, one American president, three British prime ministers, the chief engineer of BP (a man with a very interesting job these days), some blacklisted American screenwriters, Paul McCartney, Robert Altman, an American General,the London Symphony Orchestra, a family of buffalo farmers, the buffalo themselves, Andy Goldsworthy, Christopher Reeve and some abducted Ugandan child soldiers. Are they all celebrities? No, some are if you go by the accepted modern understanding of the word, but others are not, yet they are still persons of note, which still sounds dry, self aggrandising and frigid. So what then? I still don’t know.
On Planet Moscow, because I arrived with 32 portraits of bona fide western celebrities and because, apart from one, none of them had ever publicly shown their face in Russia, by default or by association, I was perceived as one of them and in lieu of any of my subjects, it was to me that the attention was turned for the duration of my stay. The strangest part of this trip, and this is why I used the Star Trek analogy, was that it all looked like Earth and sort of sounded like Earth but where it differed from Earth was in the topsy turvy nature of the treatment I received.
On the normal, everyday Earth that I live on, I go to work and this work often involves making portraits of persons of note. Quite often, these persons will be promoting some new product or book or film or political ideology or war and my time with them will be an allotted part of their day, in which several other people like me – journalists, tv interviewers, other photographers – will also feature. These persons have handlers, managers, agents and pretty much most of the time they regard people like me as an irritant or necessary, but unpleasant inconvenience. If only they could just mainline the product directly into the bloodstream of the consumers and draw out the cash simultaneously. In conclusion, they don’t give a flying one how I would like to photograph their client or the fact that I’m working really hard to generate the illusion of intimacy from a situation that is absolutely and fundamentally artifical. It’s a snap, a picture for the paper, a page in a magazine, just do your picture and get out. Unless, of course, the subject needs to take some time out, in which case, I am welcome to wait around in a small ante-chamber and help myself to the dried out and crusted over hoummus and bread. These people, these Blackberry wielding flaks, run the show and control the whole process. Why is it always the same three hotels? They don’t even have iPhones, they have Blackberrys – that’s how unlike us they are. I mean who, ever in the history of the world, would elect to photograph somebody at the end of a long narrow corridor, through several sets of unco-operative swing doors on the 5th floor of The Dorchester Hotel, London. Even the hotel porters hate us. When they see a photographer arrive with a load of equipment they get to treat us in the way everybody treats them but we don’t even get a tip.
So, on Planet Moscow I am the one staying in the hotel and I am the one being interviewed and photographed. I only had to go down one floor from my room to where my incredibly considerate, efficient and professional Russian PR agent Alina was waiting for me with a selection of sparkling & still mineral waters, fresh coffee and juices. Ten interviews in 6 hours ensued and, Oh!, how wonderful to be able to return to my suite for a short lie down in between invitations to muse on the subjects of life, travel, photography & women. Alina had also scheduled in some time for me to escape the hotel and take a walk to Red Square. On my return the next Tv crew were all set up and ready for me. So sweet of them to wait!
I experienced this treatment for 2 days and, honestly, it was enough. Talking about yourself in such quantities to people you’ve never met is not natural and I can see how this kind of life would, over time, render almost anyone incapable of finding other people interesting when you spend so much time surrounded by people who are interested in you. I would call it an ego imbalance and I have seen it in plenty of ‘persons of note’, but it was brilliant, amazing and enlightening to spend a couple of days on a planet where every word I had to say was recorded and written down with such earnestness and clarity of purpose.
On balance, however, I’d rather be on this planet here because at the age I’m at I know that my raison d’etre is to document and record those that I find interesting or curious and having some other people be too interested and curious about me would just get in the way too damn much.
For the record though, I would very much like to throw a big shout out to all those Muscovites who made me so welcome and who showed me such a fantastic time. Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich, The Three Alinas – Alina Biel, Alina Ulanova & Alina Kippasto and Maxim Pakhomov, without whom no one would have understood a word I said.
And this here short film, is what it was like to be stared at, photographed, listened to and perceived as wise, interesting and funny for 3 days of my life.
Photographed this on a 5×4 Zone V1 field camera on Thursday 20th May 2010. You should see the 40×30″ print I made of it. Delicious.
When there’s no sick pay, no holiday pay, no relaxitimes to be had in the life of a self employed creative artist who needs to support a family, it can be difficult to tear yourself away from the treadmill of survival even when the wife & kids demand it. I’ve often found myself on holiday sitting to one side , urgently & nervously fiddling with my iPhone, wondering where to find a wireless signal, obsessing about work, bills, career and the future while the rest of the family get on with the act of living life.
One way of dealing with this is to remind myself that even on holiday I’m a creative artist and the best thing for curing myself of the worry is to just be exactly that. After all, life is work and work is life. This is a little bit of mine.