Category Archive: American Photography
In October 2000 I went to New York for a 3 week visit to take my portfolio to magazines and record companies. It was a heady time and I had been working in London for a great bunch of American mags, including Spin, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Detour and Flaunt among others. I had the sofa of a friend to sleep on so I could afford to spend some time over there cementing my relationships with these people, as well as make some new connections too. It was an itchy, too short sofa but a trip to New York was never something that would allow a thing like an itchy, too short sofa to get in the way. The meetings went well and in the 3rd week of the trip I started to get calls from people I’d been to see in the first 2 weeks, asking if I was still in New York and was I interested in shooting something for them over there.
My 3 week trip became an open ended one with only Christmas to book end it. In a short time I discovered the joy of the layover on trips to Oklahoma City, Houston, Fargo, Washington DC and Jacksonville. I loved being sent off on assignments that were, by English standards, over huge distances, requiring hotel stays and odd, late night experiences in small town bars where my accent and demeanour were something to point at and ask questions of. I also remember a day spent with Joel Schumacher in Times Square while he was directing some external scenes for the Colin Farrell movie ‘Phone Booth’. Although the entire film is set inside a Times Square phone booth, everything of Farrell inside the phone booth was shot in Hollywood and only the long shots of him from outside the booth were done in NY.
Christmas arrived all too quickly and already I had begun to think of myself as living in New York. I came home determined to go straight back in the new year of 2001.
It took a while because I had to find a place to stay and the Christmas break had taken some of the momentum out of it all but in March 2001 I sorted a room with a friend of a friend, who was a musician, in a house in Dumbo, Brooklyn. On Sunday 25th I boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK airport and arrived to an empty house. My new housemate was away on tour in Europe so I went down to the nearest bar and sat there while the Oscars ceremony played out on the TV. I realised that I had never felt so lonely as I did at that moment. When I had been there before Christmas everything that had gone my way had been a bonus. It was only supposed to be a 3 week fishing trip, everything else had been luck. This time I had made an actual commitment, I had rent to pay and a ticket with a return flight that was 3 months away, the maximum stay allowed on a green tourist visa waiver. The main part of my plan was to find an agent. With an agent I could then secure a visa to live and work there properly. Now there was a target to meet it suddenly didn’t seem so free and easy. All this was running through my head as the world’s most glamourous ceremonial celebration of success rolled in front of me on the telly in the bar. The cheeseburger was really good though.
The very next morning, however, I woke to a gorgeous spring day and a phone call from Catriona Ni Aolain, the deputy photo editor at Esquire Magazine. She had an assignment for me down in Florida to do a portrait of the New York Yankees’ closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera, aka ‘The Hammer of God’. I don’t know anything about baseball and my 15 minutes with Rivera didn’t add to that knowledge in any way whatsoever but at least the job allowed me to build up a layer of confidence in this new adventure. By May 2001 I had found an agent and an immigration lawyer. A visa application had been filed and in late June I returned to London to sit out the waiting period that the visa process required. I was not only eager to get back because of work. There was now a girl for me in that port and I wanted to get back there for her as much as the rest of it. In August the application was approved and after a trip to the American embassy for an interview I was finally issued with an O1 visa in my passport. An O1 is valid for 3 years and is issued to those “who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education,business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” I can absolutely assure you that with a great lawyer and an armful of letters testifying to this, proof can be achieved for pretty much anybody as long as you place the prism of subjectivity in the right place on the table of evidence. I travelled back to New York in mid August, where things had gone incredibly quiet in the dog days of summer. I was ok for money though and my main memory of those weeks was scuttling like a rat from one air conditioned environment to another in the oppressively humid New York August heat. One big job did come in though, for a record company. A publicity shoot in, of all places, London. On the 9th September 2001 I got back on a plane to Heathrow. In the taxi to the airport I took this picture of the Manhattan skyline from the Williamsburg Bridge.
Two days later I spent the entire afternoon and evening glued to a TV screen as my brand new home appeared to slowly crumble before the world. My flight back was booked for the 15th but there seemed little point in taking it and, besides, there was such a backlog it seemed futile to even try, so I stuck it out in London, relieved to have not been there if I’m really honest. I had been into the Twin Towers on several occasions for portfolio appointments and an agency I had very nearly joined had it’s office right in their shadow across the street. Fortunately all the people that worked there had survived as they began their working day at 10am and the 2nd plane hit just after 9am. I eventually returned to New York sometime around the 20th September and as I made the taxi journey through Manhattan towards King Street I couldn’t believe how quiet the place seemed. Meek would be the word that springs to mind, which is not a word that one would ever have thought of placing in the same sentence as the name of this town. I dumped my bags and went out for a walk. Immediately outside my building as I turned the corner onto 6th Avenue was a FDNY firehouse. I had barely noticed it before and now it was impossible to miss. The home of Engine Company 24/Ladder Company 5 had been turned into a shrine for the guys from the firehouse that had died on September 11th. In the picture below you can see that at least 11 men from that one FDNY post were killed. I continued walking and saw that death was all around. Everywhere there were ‘missing’ posters and flyers. They were stuck on lamp posts and fences, in shop windows and the front of apartment buildings. Anywhere with a flat surface that was exposed to the public space had some kind of piece of paper pleading for people to contact other people.
Within 10 days of being back it was clear that the city was going to be depressed and unproductive for a while to come. There was no work coming in, the atmosphere maudlin. Whatsmore, my now girlfriend had been made redundant in the post 9/11 slump and sitting around doing nothing was de rigueur most days. Nobody was hiring. As I wrote in the introduction to a collection of photographs of her from that time that I published earlier this year called “Things May Change But This Will Stay The Same” :
“November 2001. A bleak time, living in New York. Fumes, dust and death hanging in the air, the citizens of the city that never sleeps hiding in, hiding out. Looking back at these photographs now, they are shot with a melancholic and listless drift that at the time was not apparent. A sense that the girl in them has entered a state of inertia, numbed dumbness caused by that cornflower skied morning in the concrete jungle where dreams are made. Is she waiting for the remnants of those events to catch up and finish her off? Or is she passively hanging on for something new to carry her out of it?”
So we got out and did what Americans have done since day one. We hit the road and made something of it. What follows are more pictures from what I have come to call ‘The 9/11 Patriotic American Roadtrip’ only because that was what I wrote on the big box of negatives that I came back with. These are snapshots of America in shock, just like that girl’s state of numbed dumbness. Passing flashes and snapshots from my memory: having a gun pointed at me in Arkansas by a man whose picture I’d taken; drinking Amaretto all night long in New Orleans and eating beignets the following morning; the family on welfare living in the motel room next door to ours in Oakland; a teenage boy who told me he’d never left Arizona, stating as fact at a Friday night high school football game that President Bush had already ‘eradicated’ 78% of all known terrorists; my friends Miles & Alex meeting up with us in South Carolina; them telling me about the guy in Atlanta who’d asked them if Britain had a lot of Muslims and how did we deal with them; an Indian pilot in Albuqerque being frisked before boarding his own plane; the brothers with the Osama bin Laden effigy hanging from a tree outside their house; the car with these words painted on it’s rear window – “WHEN WE FIND BIN LADEN FUGGETTABOUTIT!”; every telegraph pole in one street of Charleston with a ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ poster complete with an image of bin Laden; somebody wearing a t-shirt in New Orleans with an image of bin Laden; the teenage couple living in a formica panelled car in Florida; getting a puncture in a thunderstorm between New Orleans & Galveston, Texas; arriving in Los Angeles and going to see The Strokes.
What I remember most as we made our way across the country, from New York down the east coast, through Virginia, Maryland, N.Carolina, S.Carolina, Georgia and Florida before turning west into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and finally on into New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, ending up in California, was the extent to which the greatest tragedy and mass murder ever commited on American soil was being absorbed, to a certain degree, by Calvin Coolidge’s maxim, ‘The business of America is business’. Everywhere we went there was evidence of the commercialisation of 9/11. Flags, stickers, t-shirts, badges, buttons, beefed up security, freedom fries……
I think these pictures, more than anything else, symbolise that but not in the raw, exploitative way that you might think I mean. Instead I came to see it as a manifestation of what Alexis de Tocqueville once referred to as ‘the tyranny of the majority’, whereby the sheer ‘goodness’ of democracy allowed the majority to lord it over the minority, under the guise of due process having been seen to take place. If you were not seen to be publicly expressing grief, empathy and sympathy then there was a high chance your business might suffer. Saccharine sentiment in places of business, from people who hitherto had not expressed much awareness of anything outside of their own narrow definition of the world. In fact, I even detected a sort of undercurrent of animosity towards New York from some of the middle parts of America for being the kind of un-God fearing place that went and got itself attacked in a damned new holy war. Like an errant cousin who has done brought shame on the temperant members of the family, which leads me on to the observation that it was also clear how much of a message push there was in all this for the American church, with it’s ‘well what do you expect if you let Satan into your lives?’ way of selling itself. So much of the return of fundamentalist religion into American politics and the way it has thoroughly corrupted the idea of separation of Church and State can be traced back to what happened on 9/11.
The ultimate display of the way in which public sentiment has been tyrannised into a required form of acceptable, default behaviour is the mandatory expectation for all public officials, from the President on down, to always be seen to be wearing an American flag pin on their lapel. Appear in public without one at your peril and in ten short years this has come to be regarded as not even up for discussion. On the other hand, when the wearing of a poppy on Armistice Day was first mooted there were many First World War veterans, still young men, who regarded it as cheapening the memories of those who died in the trenches and who refused to wear one. Time and perception always evolve, individuals sometimes don’t.
Halfway through the roadtrip, during a five day stay in New Orleans in mid November, the public’s and government’s thirst for some revenge was at last unleashed as the full military might of the United States was brought to bear on the despotic and comedically backwards Taliban government of Afghanistan. The long, never ending ‘war on terror’ was declared. The second half of our journey, from there to Los Angeles began to take on the feel of a voyage into a new and often forbidding world. The Nineties, whatever they were, were already long gone. How I miss them sometimes, how naive they now seem, how free and how optimistic.
There are two photographic competitions that I make sure I enter every year: the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, run by The National Portrait Gallery in London and American Photography, which is now in it’s 26th year and is the domain of Kathy Ryan, the photography director of The New York Times Magazine. AP exists in the form of a most luxurious annual, designed every year by a guest art director of oxygen depriving ascendancy, and consisting of approximately 300 images which have been whittled down from 8000 entries by a panel of judges from the art, publishing and design spheres. It represents the high watermark of that year’s photographic efforts. It’s a big deal. The book is always stunning, no question, and to be in it can put the wind beneath the wings of a photographer’s career.
I have entered the Taylor Wessing, in it’s various forms, sporadically over the last ten years and have seen it change/evolve from a forum primarily ruled over by working editorial photographers to a canvas for global, emerging and fine art photographers. It reflects the growth in the role of formal photographic education and the really excellent photographers that have come to the fore in this time. When I was of university age in the late 80’s and early 90’s there were about 6 places in the country where you could study photography at degree level. I really don’t like that word ‘emerging’ though. It implies that you have either, completely made it and are fully formed, or that, photographically, you are a hatchling chick, blinking your way into the sunlight, naïve and dumb, yearning for credence from a world ready to bestow. The reality is that we are all always emerging. Any artist is constantly emerging, evolving, growing and changing – it’s always been like this. Stop moving and it’s all over.
I was selected to appear in the Taylor Wessing in 2008 for a portrait of the artist and film maker Steve McQueen. That photograph was taken on the roof of a hotel in Cannes at the film festival in May 2008 and came from a session that consisted of about 30 images and which lasted for no longer than 5-10 minutes. At the time I honestly felt like I did not know what I was doing but I know I am at my best when I go with my intuition and, in this case, there was something about McQueen that just screamed autism in my head. I’m not saying he’s autistic per se, rather he seemed to have no bend or sway in him. His interpretation of, and response to, everything I said was literal. The only time I have ever spoken literally was at the altar on the day I got married. For two Englishmen to conduct an entire encounter in a foreign country through literal interpretation of each other’s words is quite, quite weird. The English of Englishmen is full of hidden meanings, double negatives, light, shade, like a double breasted blazer, so much of it is beneath the buttons. In the last 2 or 3 frames of the session my intuition finally arrived and I just knew that, whatever I asked him to do, he would respond to that request literally, which he did. “Give me your biggest, warmest smile you can give me.” What I got was Homer Simpson goes to the south of France in a pink t-shirt.
Taking my parents to see the picture on the walls of the NPG was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was part of a final show of 60 images, selected from an entry base of several thousand and seeing it on the walls of the prime repository of British portraiture seemed to vindicate the choice I had made all those years ago to follow the dicey path of photography as career.
In the same year I was also selected to appear in the American Photography annual for a portrait I had done of Paul McCartney at 64. This was for The New Yorker and the double whammy of the subject matter, combined with the kudos conferred upon the image by the status of the publication in which the portrait appeared, confirmed the inevitability of it’s selection. It almost had nothing to do with me. I say all this in retrospect. As proud as I was to be selected for that one – 300 photographs selected from 8000 entries – I always had a niggling feeling in the middle of my brain that it wasn’t my work that was chosen, rather a perfectly competent portrait of a VERY FAMOUS MAN at the age of 64, who, in the prime of his life wrote a song called ‘When I’m 64′, which was then published in one of the world’s foremost magazines. Lucky.
Maybe I’m being too cynical because I know that, unlike McQueen, with the McCartney portrait I went there with the clearest idea of what I wanted from my time with him. Being the Beatle nut that I am, it is apparent from any and every biography that James Paul McCartney was, and still is, an ambitious grammar school boy. I knew that for all these years he has used, consciously or unconsciously, his cheery, breezy, wa-hey thumbs up persona to charm a room. But I also knew that he has a core of steel and has never shied away from being tough, cruel and stubborn when he was in pursuit of his interests. This was what I wanted from our session. We had 30 minutes together and he was phoning it in. Thumbs up, cheese, cheese, cheese. Do less, I kept saying. You’re an honest man. You can be secure in your achievements.
“What’s the matter? You don’t like a bit of whimsy?”
“Not when there’s a war on, Paul.”
For 2 frames his jaw tightened, the eyes hardened and an icy wind blew my way. He hated me and I had my moment that I had come to get. To portray is to betray and now I know how much he hates that picture.
I often cycle through his London neighbourhood on my way home and twice now I have nearly run into him. He seems to be in the habit of not looking before he steps into the road. Both times he acknowledged it was his fault, “WHOA!! Sorry mate!” If only, I ponder, he realized that that cyclist took the picture of him that he so loathes. I smile wryly, drop my head and peddle on my way.
Now here we are in Two Thousand and Ten and, as ever, we are only as good as our last entry. Now I understand why three star Michelin chefs commit suicide, even though they may have been boasting those stars for 13 years.
It. Never. Ends.
Last year’s victory is this year’s faded glory. This is how empires crumble and die. People don’t so much get complacent, fat or lazy, but the world doesn’t stop for long to admire what they did last Wednesday.
The world is always moving. It will, at least, show you respect if you keep moving with it. Yeah, so you won something last month, what else? I’ve got a friend and whenever I respond to his enquiry regarding my recent activity, he always responds with the line ‘what else?’ I say ‘Fuck you, pay the bill and claim your corporate expenses’ He doesn’t care. What I have is not enough. He is the world.
Today, though, I do have a what else and it goes like this:
Congratulations! Your work has been selected to appear in the American Photography 26 annual.
On behalf of the entire jury, I thank you for your submission and support of American Photography. This year’s distinguished panel included Gail Buckland; Scott Dadich, Wired; Janet Froelich, Real Simple; Luke Hayman, Pentagram; Steven Kasher, Steven Kasher Gallery; Michael Norseng, Esquire; Kira Pollack, TIME.
From over 8,000 pictures entered by over 1,200 photographers, magazines, agencies and publishers, the jury selected, by a majority vote or better, only 304 images to appear in the book and represent the best pictures from 2009.”
After checking on the AP site (www.ai-ap.com) I was compelled to remove all my clothes and run naked to the bottom of the garden and back when I discovered that 3 of my photographs have been chosen to appear in the annual. Siddown! That’s one percent of the book.
Two of these pictures were from a two night residency at Brixton Academy in London on behalf of the band Kasabian last summer. A great commission from Roma Martyniuk, the creative director at Sony Music, to spend the two nights in and around the band photographing any how and anything I chose. So, on the second night, with our “Triple A’ access all areas pass we took our equipment down to the gap between the front of the crowd and the stage and lit the hardcore fans with some high powered and mobile flash units.
It’s been something of an obsession the last couple of years, the idea of applying studio lighting techniques to highly fluid and mobile reportage scenarios. So I’m double double delighted that the third picture to make the cut was from a series I photographed on a grime club in London this year. It needed a couple of assistants and it needed those assistants and me to develop a method of communication in a demonically dark and loud environment but we pulled it off and back at the top of this post you can see them all.
The American Photography book is out in November and there’ll be a party for it in New York. I’m looking forward to it.
Enough now. What else?