A Battle of Britain Spitfire Pilot In A Registry Office Waiting Room About To Get Married
To be a truly great fashion photographer you have to be obsessed with at least one element of the process. And by obsessed I mean clinically obsessively compulsively obsessed. This obsession could fall under boys, girls, shoes, buttons, sexual availability, sexual unavailability and a whole other basket of neuroses and insecurities, aesthetic and social, including but not limited to, Miuccia Prada, other peoples style, silly dollies, front row seating at shows, collars, buttons, skirt lengths, modernity, the new black, hopeless prs, It bags, shoes, shoes, shoes, trench coats, the new lip, It scarves, botox, plastic surgery, size zero vs curves, fur, the weight of people and women that are made to look like little boys, at least according to a quick poll I did on Twitter anyway.
Boys, girls, you might not stay obsessed throughout your entire career but you will, without any doubt, do your greatest work whilst in the throes of that obsession.
I realised at an early point in my photographic career that I just didn’t have any of those obsessions. Maybe girls but not to a point where I thought it would ever result in a glittering journey of photographic achievement. I wonder sometimes how fashion photographers that are not shooting at the very top of the industry keep themselves going. I’m 41 and am married with 2 children. Where is the thrill in spending 4 or 5 months of the year away from home, in a hotel near a beach with people who are less than half your age?
I just believed that for me to take good photographs I needed to feel it. My best work is the work that I wanted to shoot whether I was being paid or not. I call it method photography, to get it you have to live it, or create a scenario in your head that you’re so convinced by it can only be this way because this is the way it was always meant to be.
And by the way? One subject I am kind of obsessed with is history and it’s role in providing the prologue for what’s happening today.
As for this post, I was asked by Patrick Grant of the Savile Row outfit, E.Tautz, who I recently met on another commission and who features in my previous post on the blog, if I would come to their spring/summer 2011 show at Somerset House in London and make portraits of the models backstage before the show.
He warned me that I would not have long with them, perhaps only the time between them finishing in hair and make up and the start of the show. However, I could shoot it as I saw it, no interference or direction from him, totally up to me. As soon as I saw the clothes I knew I could do something with them. They spoke to me on a personal level and when that happens it becomes a labour of love and an inspiration.
Patrick was right about the time constraints. In the end we shot about 15 outfits in less than an hour, all in the heat of a running show. As each model was fitted I had no more than 3 or 4 minutes to get the picture before he had to make his entrance to the room of assorted buyers and press.
One thing I did have in my favour though, was the perfect compatability of the location and the clothes. The Navy Board Rooms at Somerset House were a perfect match for the collection that Patrick had designed. In 1725 the Navy Board, which was responsible for the material condition of the naval fleet and the health and subsistence of seamen, moved into this part of the building. The swaggering confidence of Britain’s naval power in the period leading up to the victory over the French at Trafalgar in 1805 can be credited to the work of the Navy Board, which had endeavoured to get her dockyards and fleet into incredible condition, seems to flood the ambience of the rooms and can be summed up by this quote from Earl Saint Vincent, addressing The House of Lords in 1798:
“I do not say, my Lords, that the French cannot come. I only say they cannot come by sea.”
Which leads me to another, more recent chapter, in our island history and it’s role in the creation of some fashion photographs.
The feel that seemed to run through everything in the collection was that this was the wardrobe of an off duty, 1940, Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot. Patrick knew this too, obvs, and as a result, had cast his models to reflect that. They were all young boys, in their late teens/early twenties and had full heads of hair. Nothing shaven or cropped too close.
By the time the hair and make up people were finished and had vacated the room, I had the space to work quickly and quietly. All the chaos had now moved to the room next door, which held the rails of clothes and beyond, the show room itself. As each chap came in, because in my mind that’s what they were now, chaps, I explained to him that in here it was early September 1940, outside we could see the Thames and in a few moments he was going to go back out from here to the registry office next door to marry the girl that he had fallen in love with earlier this summer. We are in a fight for the survival of our country and he is in the vanguard of that defence with a life expectancy of perhaps three weeks. This is the chance for him to take a few moments of quiet and dignified contemplation before pushing forwards in love, life and possibly death.
The final element in this tableau of emotion, history and fashion was the serendipitous role of the sun. The morning of the shoot saw the most glorious early autumn light. In fact we shot this only a few days after the 70th anniversary of the peak day in the Battle of Britain, 15th September 1940, which gives rise to my earlier thoughts on the importance of ‘method’. It’s the sun that makes these pictures work. It provides the optimism and, with 70 years of hindsight, the sensation that we know, in the end, it will all be alright for us, but for these men we are not sure.
This slightly diffused, watery sun surges through the 18th century windows of the Navy Boardrooms and for an hour or so, as it mixes itself up with all the history in it and everything that can lay claim to the belief that all past is merely prologue, all I can see is a series of young men, both confident and reticent, wearing not only the clothes of E.Tautz but also the hopes of a pensive and expectant nation.
To see more of this work please visit www.chrisfloyd.com
Footnote: If you haven’t seen it then please watch the 1946 David Niven film ‘A Matter of Life & Death’ by Powell & Pressburger. All of these issues are wrapped up in one of the greatest films of all time.