Category Archive: Commissioned Work
Three days in the same week, three well known people, three unique encounters on the confrontation/collaboration curve.
All of these encounters are built from the same basic structure in that each was scheduled to last for a short period of time – one to two hours – and each took place in an alien environment, on the subject’s turf.
All have been doing what they do for a long time and it could be said are known for a particular integrity, as well as sometimes a certain spikiness.
What do I mean by the confrontation/collaboration curve?
In an earlier blog post on my portraits of Ray Winstone I alluded to it and it has been bobbling around in the back of my head like a ball on a roulette wheel ever since. All great portraiture has to involve a combination of collaboration and confrontation, represented by the imaginary line that connects photographer to subject and upon which it’s necessary for the two to meet if anything at all is going to happen. If the two meet somewhere in the middle third I’d say that was a collaboration. Anywhere on the third at each end then it’s more of a confrontation.
Each of these three, Jeremy Paxman, Paul Weller and Damon Albarn, started out in my head as similar in terms of what I was prepared to expect. Well, actually, Weller not so much. Of the three, I have photographed him before (with Noel Gallagher) in the upstairs room of a pub and the afternoon became the evening, which became the night. Definitely the night. On top, I come from the same part of the world as him and the fact that we can talk about that place quite intimately meant that, even though we last met seven years ago, he remembered not only me but the night with Noel too. So of the three he was the one of which I was least nervous, despite his sometimes brusque reputation.
Another thing about Paul is that he innately understands and likes cool imagery. If you get him, or he gets you, then he’s easy to photograph. Don’t ask him to put on a circus outfit and run through a flaming Mod target of fire but address him on terms that reflect his sense of the world and working with him can be a flowful experience. There’s a quietly patient zenness to the way he sits. He’s very still, physically and in the way he projects too. I remember the room being so quiet but there was no fidgeting, no impatience. He sat in his chair and he was evidently comfortable in his body and skin. If I saw him do something that I liked, and said so, he would hold it for long enough. His gaze into the camera was resolute. He speaks quietly. Short sentences. He’s completely the opposite of bombastic. Precise, measured, quiet and confident, a silent collaboration.
Confidence. What is that? Based on our public perception of him in his role as host of ‘Newsnight’ we’d probably all agree that it’s something that Jeremy Paxman has in surplus amounts. Based on an hour and a half with him in the living room of his agent’s house, ostensibly to produce some pictures of him for a poster to publicise his Edinburgh show this summer, I’d say I’m not so sure. This is all gut instinct, cod psycholgy, but after twenty years, I don’t know, you learn how to read people quickly. Not in novel form but definitely in sketch. I may be on their turf physically but they’re in my landscape once the door’s shut and the lights come on.
There was about him a kind of dichotomy at work and my instinct also says that it’s this which makes him so compelling to watch as an interviewer and journalist. Not far below the surface there is a great uncertainty, a doubtfulness that surges and falls in relation to the output and the noise around and inside him. Bombastic at first glance, he comes into the room like a rapidly decelerating sports car, tentative not far behind. At every stage he would more or less do what I asked him, whilst simultaneously challenging the necessity of it. At one point we had a two line exchange that punctured the tension and made the whole thing quite a laugh.
“What an extraordinarily strange job you have.”
“Well yours can hardly be classified as normal, can it?”
His Newsnight persona is not an act. It’s the necessary manifestation of an internal need to seek truth and honesty not just without but also within. I liked him very much and came away thinking that his role in public life adds to its richness and, again, its integrity. In summary, a collaborative confrontation.
Weller has been in my cultural life since I was about eleven or twelve years old and Paxman for my entire adult life, probably since Spitting Image cast him in latex. Damon Albarn has been here for the shortest amount of time, yet of the three he’s the one that I probably feel the closest affinity with in terms of comparative experiences. We are the same age, born 1968, the same height, same colour eyes and hair, same kinds of suburban adolescences where London was some aching distant nirvana, twenty miles and twenty light years away. Both him and Neil Tennant have a beautiful ability to clarify and crystallise the longing to escape suburbia for a less mundane existence but paradoxically, had they always had what they felt they deserved, or were in need of to complete themselves, they would never have become the artists they did.
My career came into bloom at the same time that his did, 1994, and over the years I have photographed all of his British contemporaries and a good few foreign ones too, yet, frustratingly, never him or his band, Blur. Perhaps an invite to spend an hour with him in his studio was something to be wary of. My gut said yes and so did my mouth.
In the Ray Winstone post I mentioned how it feels when a meeting on the line has fallen short:
“There are some where you can feel that you are only inches apart, yet you’re just not going to make it. Those are the worst. They torture me for days afterwards, blaming myself for an imagined oafishness or missed opportunity.”
When I wrote that it was the time with Damon that inspired it. All the way, a confrontation punctuated by very short dashes of tolerance rather than collaboration.
We had arrived an hour earlier than him and set up in one of the rooms at the studio, a large soundproofed thing with pianos and keyboards along every wall. An incredible sandpit for a grown up.
Damon arrived and thought that the erection of a 9 foot wide backdrop was silly. He thought it was ‘a bit formal’. What can I say to that? I like to photograph people on plain backgrounds. I don’t want to work against a cluttered wall with Indonesian puppets in the background. So that was where we started. I tried to break the ice:
“Oh God, this isn’t going to turn into a stand off between two passive aggressive people, is it?”
That got us back to one degree above zero with a wry(ish) smile. So seizing the initiative I ploughed on, a triumph of hope over experience, trying to explain my theory of confrontation and collaboration, eliciting this short, sharp response:
“I’ve had my picture taken enough times and I know what a good photograph is.”
The thing about a statement like that is that in one sweep it lumps you in with every other photographer he’s ever met. Nothing special, nothing different. This time is unimportant, it’s merely something that stands between me and my desire to bring it to a close. To the ego it’s a declaration of war.
“Well I’ve listened to a lot of records and I know what a good song is.”
From there Damon’s passivity dominated the room. It was a creatively negative energy that coloured everything, or rather desaturated it and even getting him to engage with the camera was a small victory.
He was extremely difficult to get a read on and it’s been a long time since I’ve come away from a subject feeling locked out. I have referred to the act of portraiture as similar to that of a burglar casing a building, looking for an open window, a way in. That, to me, is often how it is. I walk all around the place trying doors, tugging windows, asking questions, talking, always talking, as if the act of talking is the key to one of those windows or doors. And 99% of the time it is but with Damon it wasn’t. I shrunk back into myself, defeated and outsmarted by a psychological terrain peppered with invisible patches of quicksand. Just as I felt we had established a surer footing, a vortex of ground would draw me down.
At one point, in response to something I said, he offered this beauty:
“And you were doing so well.”
I couldn’t even look at the pictures for several days afterwards. When I finally did, pressure of approaching deadline rather than any desire at all, I realised that although the encounter was demoralising on a human to human level it yielded something worth having on a photographic one.
One final thought.
It’s funny, for twenty years I have been told by so many people how much they think I look like him (same age, same height, same eye colour, same hair, same build once but not now), to the extent that in a Los Angeles bar in the mid nineties, when I assured a barman who thought I was him that I was not him, he replied, “You look more like him than he does.” When it goes on for so long it becomes a bit of a joke, part of your schtick, part of who you are and all that. Then you meet the guy, you spend an intense couple of hours together and while you’re on his turf you overhear him talking to someone from his management and he refers to you as ‘the photographer’ and you realise that he doesn’t even know your name.
Sometimes I wonder if this happened to Richard Avedon or Irving Penn or Arnold Newman or any of the others from whose shadows we try so hard to emerge.
Late March 2003, a Friday, I am living in New York City. Been here for almost three years, my trips back to London confined to Christmas and the two months in the summer when the concrete and glass serves only to exacerbate the fetid and oppressive humidity of the place, rat people darting from one air conditioned refuge to another.
All my life, The Beatles have been here. They saturate my earliest memories. A babysitter playing ‘Help’ on my dad’s stereo that lived inside a glass cabinet. Just the sound of ‘The Night Before’, the reverb, colours my impression of the sixties as a time of space, light and opportunity. Young men bombing about a deserted late night London in Minis, with beautiful girls in mini skirts and knee high boots, before going back to Habitat flats with record players on the floor. Who cares if it was true. The records made me feel like it was.
I became obsessed with everything about them: their accents, their wit, their hair, especially their hair. Even today I can have deep conversations with like minded types on what defines peak hair for The Beatles. My thoughts on this can change from one day to the next but widely speaking I put it somewhere between mid 1965 and early 1966 – from the making of Rubber Soul to the making of Revolver. Although, interestingly, I think Paul McCartney had a hair resurgence during the recording of the White Album. For Lennon, I think peak hair could be the Rubber Soul sleeve.
David Bailey’s iconic 1965 portrait of Lennon & McCartney was both my photographic and musical ground zero. There are plenty of other great pictures of them but there’s nothing that comes as close to capturing that mid-sixties stylistic & monochromatic graphic austerity. Its insouciant directness like a one note symphony, we don’t need all that other rubbish that came before.
Now here I am in London in late March 2003, a Friday, over from New York just for this one thing. I’m in the tenth year of my career as a photographer and I have been commissioned to photograph McCartney. All the way over on the plane, all the way here in the car I keep telling myself that this is one of those things I’ve wanted to do all my life, one of those reasons why I became a photographer. Stay fixed on what you want to do. I’m clear about what I want to do.
He’s rehearsing with his band in the now demolished London Arena. I have been told to arrive at 8am and set up in time to shoot McCartney at 10am. I have been guaranteed half an hour with him. 10am comes and 10am goes. My assistants and I sit around for hours, mere yards from McCartney as he runs through song after song with his band, his entire live sound set up being given the full workout. My own private show. I die contented.
Finally, around 5pm I am told that he is ready and he comes over to my pop up studio in the middle of the seatless auditorium. We are maybe three minutes into it, I am barely even out of neutral and into first gear when he says,
“Sorry, I’ve got to go…doing a live thing at the BBC. You’ve got enough, yeah?”
“But I was told we’d have half an hour.”
“Yeah I know but I just got behind on it all today and this BBC thing is live, so I’ve really gotta go. Anyway, you’ve got enough haven’t you?”
“Well not really, no, and to be honest I’m a bit disappointed. I came all the way over from New York for this. I was told to be here at 8am and ready at 10am, which I was. I sat here all day right in front of you and now you’re telling me you have to go.”
“You came from New York? “
“Yeah, I live there.”
“Oh wow, blimey, ok, fair enough. Look I’ll tell you what. Can you come back on Monday? Will you still be here? I’ll give you half an hour then. Leave all your stuff here over the weekend, it’ll be safe.”
“Really? Half an hour?”
“Definitely, I promise.”
“Ok, thank you, that’s a deal.”
We shook hands on it and as he gathered up his bag and coat I had the pleasure of this colleague like exchange with one of the most famous people to have lived in the twentieth century:
“Bye then, Paul. Have a good weekend, I’ll see you Monday.”
“Yep, you too, see you Monday.”
All weekend I realise that in a way I have the advantage now. He’s bound himself to a commitment, I’m getting my half hour. Normally, in this world, there is a formula that allows you to work out what you will actually get compared to what they say they’ll give you. Divide time promised by 2 and subtract 5 minutes. Hence, 30 minutes really means 10 minutes. It’s not cast iron but it’s a good guide. Come Monday, I’m going to make sure I get my half hour.
McCartney’s publicist is there to smooth things out. All is fine. Time is no problem but he’s not wearing the right clothes. I beg him to put on a dark round neck jumper and a dark grey pinstriped jacket on top of the white t-shirt he’s turned up in. I don’t want light, I need dark. He obliges willingly. We go over to the studio set up to start and he’s in a good mood.
I know what I want. All through his life James Paul McCartney has been an ambitious 1950s Liverpool grammar school boy. Even now he’s still an ambitious 1950s Liverpool grammar school boy. He’s competitive, focused and, I’m certain, ruthless. His persona, his public persona, the one we all know, that’s a front. I don’t think it’s a conscious front, it’s a part of him as much as his hands are a part of him, but it’s something he’s developed through his life that he can deploy to get what he wants. Underneath all that breezy, winsome charm is a surgical ruthlessness that has kept him and his interests aligned. That’s what I want from this encounter. I want to get that on film.
Our half hour ticks by. I’m getting nothing different from what he’s given every other photographer for the last forty years. I notice that he does this thing where he asks you questions about yourself but then doesn’t listen to a word you say in response. In between these moments he serves up a series of autopilot poses, many of them come with thumbs attached. I’m not kidding, they really do.
Inside, I’m losing altitude, I can see a plane just going down and down and down. The ground’s getting bigger all the time when I finally just say it out loud:
“No, too much. Much too much. Do less. You’re an honest man and you can be sure of your achievements.”
“What’s the matter? You don’t like a bit of whimsy?”
Outside, the second Gulf War is only a few days old.
“Not when there’s a war on, Paul.”
And like that, it’s all there. The thin layer of sea covering the edge of the beach fizzles into the sand and everything I believed to be concealed underneath is revealed.
The public McCartney we have known all our lives is gone, the eyes narrow and, the thing I remember most, his jawline tightens and clenches. For a few seconds his face has gone from soft marshmallow cherub to steel reinforced granite. Right there, for two frames, locked in silver nitrate, he hates me and I love him for it.
When I was young and the world was wide open, I thought that it would be enough to be able to tell people who asked, that I was a photographer, that I took or made pictures for a living. It seemed so perfectly succinct and circular. I am a…..photographer. The word ‘photography’ is the joining together of two Greek words: ‘photos’ meaning light and ‘graphe’ meaning drawing. Going by these definitions ‘photography’ gives us ‘drawing with light.’
Then I got older and, fortunately, I got a career. What fell by the wayside though, was the idea that I could just be a photographer. So naive. I’ve had all kinds of work in my portfolios. People, landscapes, still life, reportage. Never any watches though. I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to do less than spend a life photographing watches. Literally seeing your life tick by at work. I did once photograph the stopwatch that timed Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile but that was different. That was a watch with a unique history and a charisma of its own.
As the years have gone by I’ve slowly evolved and narrowed my field of expertise down to one singular element of practice within the wider field of photography. That now slim vista consists entirely of portraiture. Nowadays, when people ask, I say that I am a portrait photographer. If the subject has a pulse then I am your guy. Even the photograph I made of that stopwatch, with its cracked glass and hands stopped at 3min 59.4sec was a portrait.
So here I am, twenty years in, and I’m a people person. I’m in the people box. I don’t get calls to photograph ice cream or cars or electronics or fashion still life. No, I’m a people person. This is a good thing because without it I’d never meet anyone. It’s been said that the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is that an extrovert enters a roomful of people and feasts on the energy in the room. An introvert enters a roomful of people and the room instantly sucks all the energy from them. Without the job, I’d be stuck alone in a roomful of people feeling exhausted, so I’m thankful for it in more ways than one.
Which brings us to Ray Winstone here. Not in a million years would I have known how to engage with him had we been pitched together, say, in a small soiree of a dozen people. Put a camera in my hand though, and all that goes away. I have a role and with it a licence to say or ask almost anything. The camera is the catalyst for the conversation.
I walk a strange line with these encounters. On the one hand I want to get my subject in to a place where they feel like the whole thing is nothing more than a light stroll down a promenade of moderately stimulating conversation and engagement, so that when they walk back into the real world they think, “that was nice, he was nice, not too demanding, I enjoyed it. What shall I have for lunch?” On the other hand, I’m really trying to nail them in a lightning flash moment of self reflection and revelation. I try to quietly push and coerce, wait a bit, lighten it up a touch, wind it back in suddenly, just like fishing. I want it to feel like the whole universe has momentarily dissolved and they are left there utterly alone with themselves and nought for company.
My whole method revolves around constant conversation, talk talk talk, what about this thing you did, what about that thing you did, did you expect that an image of you in a pair of yellow swimming trunks would become an iconic image? All that. There’s a line joining the subject and me. Each of us at opposite ends. For it to work, I HAVE to meet them on that line somewhere. If they won’t come far down the line it means I have to go all the way up it. Other times, they come the whole length and I barely have to stand up for the connection to happen. There are some where you can feel that you are only inches apart, yet you’re just not going to make it. Those are the worst. They torture me for days afterwards, blaming myself for an imagined oafishness or missed opportunity. When the meeting on the line does happen, that becomes the moment where I can stop speaking, they can stop speaking, and no one needs to say anything anymore. Oh, it’s a cloud nine moment, the most intense feeling of relief. The adrenaline settles and it all becomes flat as the calmest ocean. Everything seems, I don’t know, it seems so balanced. I once had it with Paul McCartney for two frames and it was enough.
So, Ray. These portraits were shot in the Riflemaker, an art gallery in Soho, London. I didn’t have long, perhaps half an hour at the most. I would have liked it to have been longer. Given another hour I think he would have delved deeper for me and we could have gone higher than second gear. He is an underrated and mesmerising actor when it comes to conveying the nuance of emotion and that’s what I would have worked on with him but when it comes down to it, it’s not going to come in half an hour. Time, we’re back to watches again. The great thing that he asked me though, was “What d’you want? What sort of thing you after?” – a collaborator, a dream to direct. I loved him for his willingness to try to go somewhere for me. It was real honey, he knows it’s about something more than just showing up in a double breasted blazer. He used his whole body. His hands, chest, shoulders all affected the weight of the pictures. He came all the way down the line, then he was out the door and into the streets of Soho, off for lunch.
A call from Esquire creative director David McKendrick late in the afternoon of Wednesday 7th August. Pure hundred percent Scot. Calls everybody ‘Big Man’, regardless of gender. Big man, wee man, the last time I saw him he was wearing a tartan pashmina.
“Big man, ah’ve got something nice I’d like ye to do. A wee film of Ralph Steadman but it’s quite complicated in terms of how we want ‘e do it. Can ye come in and meet the team for a wee chat.”
Sounds great. How about Friday, two days from now?
“Ach, no can do, Big Man. Friday is the day we need to actually shoot it.”
Right then. Tomorrow morning it is then.
Following morning, off I trundle to London. I live out in the country now. Trips to London aren’t difficult but they’re a day out. I need to take sandwiches. Well, not sandwiches per se, more like my phone charger and a book.
In the meeting it’s explained that Esquire is to launch a weekly iPad version of the magazine. Original content, top deck material. They want me to produce two films; one for the iPad edition and a separate one for the website. We are to drive down to Steadman’s place in Maidstone, Kent, the garden of England, bottom right hand corner of the country. Does he know we’re coming? He’s expecting us. It’s all set up. It. Is. All. Set. Up. Honestly, it really is.
We arrive at 11am on the Friday. There he is, pen in hand, still scratching a living with bottles of ink and nib dips after all these years. We’re guided in to the studio and the over riding vibe is one of slightly impatient tolerance, lets knock this off and get done with it. I need to have a glass of wine and a rest. Steadman’s wife, Anna, seems to dictate the pace. Thinking back on her now, she reminds me of Anna Massey. Precise, detailed, clipped, curt and circumspect.
The response to the film cameras (we have two) is not good. He goes along with my desire to film him but there is a light dusting of schoolboyish belligerence to his cooperation . He oozes a kind of quiet hostility and more or less refuses to do anything I suggest, no matter how benign. I’m starting to get the feeling that he is not into this at all. I don’t know, maybe my ideas were crap. However, I’m self aware enough, insecure enough and critical enough to know if something I think up is crap, but then again, just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
The reality of making a film is that it requires the attendance of lies to construct an idea of (subjective) truth. For instance, we see a man enter a room playing a ukelele. We see him come into the room through a door. We see the back of him walking away from the door further into the room. This is a falsity. We are seeing two opposing points of view almost simultaneously. In real life this is not possible. One viewer could not move fast enough from the first point of view to the second. We have but one pair of eyes and our feet have not yet evolved to make this notion a reality. So here is the beauty of storytelling with film. We can see all sorts of points of view in the same moment.
The practical reality is that the same moment needs to be filmed several times from several angles in order to cut together, in the editing room, this simultaneous moment. So when I ask the man playing the ukelele to do it all over again for me, he comes in perfectly once more, playing the same tune perfectly, only he’s not playing the tune on the uke. He’s playing it on a harmonica.
How exactly the fuck am I supposed to cut this moment together now? These few seconds in time? What’s this? I haven’t come here to make The Matrix. I’m working in linear time. Steadman’s running on lateral time.
And I realise, the bastard’s screwing me. I’ve only gone and brought a conventional army to fight an assymetric war.
It’s fast becoming a disaster. Nothing is going to come of this. Only yesterday the whole thing seemed so promising. What is going on? Why invite people in and then wilfully block them at every turn? We are here to produce good things. Good work, with soul. Nothing doing, we’ll have to fight back before this ship goes down with all our dreams on it. I manoeuvre my subject onto the stool by his desk, hit the record button on one camera, quickly check the focus then deliberately move away from it and start to talk to him. David, my sound man, twigs what’s going on and smoothly slides the boom in over Steadman’s head. Jonas, the DoP, finds a good angle with the second camera and we are up and running. Steadman softens sufdenly and opens up about his life, his mother, his father, Hunter S. Thompson, people in positions of power and a randomosity of other topics. I let him take it where he wants, occasionally pulling him back to something closer to my intended and hoped for direction. Once he gets going he barely pauses for breath. And boy, does he get going in the most wonderful way.
Soon after, Anna comes in and pulls me to one side. All becomes clear and what’s clear is the reason for the difficulties of earlier. Turns out the publisher of his new book, who had arranged this whole day, had emailed the Steadmans the night before to tell them of our desire to make the film(s). Mrs S. hadn’t read the email and had it that we were there to “do a quick snap of Ralph” and clear off. The sight of 5 guys in 3 vehicles had verily tipped her over the edge and for the first couple of hours thought we were tearing the back end out of the whole thing by imposing in such a heavy handed way. Ralph needs to rest. Gracefully, she apologised and from then on we were made to feel more than welcome, to the extent that, by the end of the day, there was barely enough room in the car for all the signed books and improvised pieces of art he gave me to take away. It truly was a game of two halves and a beautiful insight into the mind of a complex and brilliant man.
Now with a willing subject we could get on with it. He still wouldn’t do anything twice though, which makes for a tricky way to make a film. Still, with some clever editing and judicious use of voice over it all came together ok. The element that I am most happy with is the soundtrack. Each film has soundscapes made from the sounds in Steadman’s studio. His icy nib scratching ink on to the paper, the wind chimes by the door, the shutter of the camera fixed above his desk that he uses to snap pictures of his work with, the clink of ink bottles, him playing the ukelele and harmonica. We took all those elements and broke them down and looped them into a rhythm track, with the heavy dob of an ink splat on paper being turned into a repetitive bass drum part.
These two films are thin volumes, little companion pieces, sketches really. The best you can hope for from only a few hours in someone’s company. On the day I hardly got to know him at all. Beaten up and bashed around, in the editing room I got to know him inside out. A Friday afternoon in August, the dog days of summer, an old man in his winter, the face of benevolence with the mouth and mind of a still sometimes angry man who sees lots to be angry about, still scratching out a living.
A lovely commission from Anthropologie to make a two minute film on Gwyneth Leech, a New York based artist who draws intricate and beautiful things on paper coffee cups. Each day she reuses her morning coffee cup to draw or paint a scene. She then signs the bottom of the cup and writes the date and event that inspired it. Gwyneth has now done over 1000 cups and Anthropologie curator Wendy Wurtzburger asked her to allow them to reproduce eight of these pieces on ceramic versions of the cups for sale throughout the brand. As part of London Design Week the Regent Street store in London also asked Gwyneth to hang 365 of them in their window and all this week she has been sitting among them drawing on new cups, allowing passersby to watch her at work.
This film, ’365: A Year In Cups’, was shot in the window of the Regent Street store on Monday 16th September 2013 and the music on the film is by Kevin Cormack who makes up fifty percent of Half Cousin
We are in a prime piece of four storey Georgian Mayfair, on the first floor, the second floor if you are American. The place attracts a multinational crowd. It’s not an art gallery. It’s a fine art gallery. As I said, a multinational crowd. Cultured people with good legs and fine watches. I am here to photograph Ronald David Wood. He is the artist in residence at the gallery. Up on the top floor is his studio. It has all his paints, his brushes, his canvases, a snooker table, and although he’s not actually living here, a huge bed should he wish to take advantage of the resources and crash for a while. Later on I make a joke about how handy this must be if he doesn’t have enough money in his pockets for a cab back to Holland Park, especially after a big night out in the West End. It went right off the cliff. Sometimes I worry that I get too subtle at the key moments. I’ve been doing it for years.
Everybody who works here calls him Ronnie. They tell me what to expect. Ronnie likes to be involved in the creative process. Ronnie doesn’t like to dwell on things for too long, Ronnie does tend to get bored. That’s ok, I say, I get that a lot. Wherever I go in the building, on any of the four floors, the music of The Rolling Stones plays continuously. All the hits from the last half century.
We bring in our equipment from the car outside. It’s the hottest day of the year. Thirty six degrees centigrade. The lunchtime streets of Mayfair buckle under the weight of the heat but back inside the fine art gallery the cool air of wealth wafts over all of us from the air conditioning vents.
I set up two different shots simultaneously, so that we can wheel Ronnie from one seamlessly to the next, without losing him to boredom somewhere in between. The most important element is to not give them time to think. If you do that they will always choose to slip away, wander off, disappear. In summary, they will do one. Why? Because when you’ve been in The Rolling Stones for almost forty years you will have had your picture taken tens of thousands of times. There is nothing interesting about it, nothing new, nothing to cause you to think. Having your picture taken for a magazine cover is like what a Payment Protection Insurance cold call is to us. On the whole, you don’t want to be rude but if they go on past a certain point you’re just going to hang up and not feel guilty about it
Sight, target, engage. It’s a military situation. There’s no mirror, signal, manoeuvre here. Whatever it takes. As one gilded Stones hit fades away and a new one immerses us in it’s familiar scent, a thought comes into my head. A question for Ronnie. Yes, can I ask you something, Ronnie?
“Yeah man, as long as it’s not about The Faces”
I gesticulate to the speakers, to the music.
“Well, when you go somewhere, a bar, a pub, a restaurant, a shop, a cab and you hear a Stones song on the stereo, the radio, well, what do you hear? What do you hear that we don’t hear?”
The opening bars of ‘Gimme Shelter’ are washing down over us. Ronald David Wood cocks an ear, his body comes up on it’s haunches as he searches the spectrum for the signal. The only thing missing from this familiar posture is a guitar. The apocalyptic, heart of darkness groove of my favourite ever Stones song cascades down in a torrent over us:
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today…”
Ronald David Wood finds the signal or, more correctly, the signal finds him and his arm starts to move, followed quickly by his hips. He loses himself in it for five, maybe six seconds, locked inside. Then his head slowly comes up, he pulls his Ray Bans down his nose an inch and his black, black eyes look at me for a second before his nineteen fifties, post war, Hillingdon ration boy face breaks into the slyest little smirk you’ve ever seen, and he says:
“Yeah…….I like it.”
This was commissioned by Henny Manley at British Esquire and is the second time I’ve photographed Natalie Dormer. The first was in 2007, just as her role in ‘The Tudors’ as Ann Boleyn was about to go out. Now she is here to promote her role as Margaery Tyrell in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’. She’s a dream to work with. Collaborative, funny, self aware, a fabulous actress and the kind of woman you would rather be in a room with than not be in a room with. A week before the shoot, trawling location company websites for somewhere good to photograph her, I came across a huge house in Barnes, south west London that had a hammock in the garden. I’m not sure why but Issac Newton’s name popped into my head and I started to think about apples and gravity. It was an easy thought to have.
The idea for a short 2 minute film took shape almost immediately and I called my friend Max Olesker, one half of the genuinely genius comedy duo Max and Ivan, to ask him if he could write me a short script on the theme of Issac Newton, gravity and Newton’s famous third law which, formally stated, says that ‘For every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction.’
As well as the scientific meaning of this there is also the karmic implication. You get back what you give. You get out what you put in. Et cetera, et cetera.
A day later Max sent me this script:
“In 1666 Sir Isaac Newton formulated the theory of gravity, when an apple dropped on his head.
At least, that’s the legend.
What actually happened was this; Sir Isaac was strolling through a Lincolnshire garden, with a friend, and they drank tea beneath the shade of an apple tree. As he looked on, Sir Isaac realised that, no matter what side of the world a tree might grow, it’s falling apple will always tumble towards the earth. Never sideways, never upwards – there must be a power, drawing the apple inexorably towards the earth’s centre.
He published his findings in 1687, in a book called The Principia, which defined the laws for bodies in motion.
Perhaps the most famous is Newton’s third law: when one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that of the first body. Or, put simply, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
When Natalie arrived on the day of the shoot I asked her if she would be willing to do the film if we had enough time left. After glancing an eye across the script she agreed. My original idea was to have her speaking the dialogue to camera but she quite rightly pointed out that there was no way she would be able to learn it well enough in the time we had, so we recorded it as a voiceover with a couple of line ommissions and one line delivered to camera to jolt the viewer from the reverie of her filmic thoughts. After we finished the voiceover I spent a long time recording the sound of the hammock swinging and creaking. Barnes is right under the flight path to Heathrow airport so the longest period of pure silence I got was about 45 seconds before another plane’s screaming engines came roaring into the soundscape to screw up my celluloid dreams. That was clean enough though, and we looped it in the edit to provide a continuous metronomic rhythm to match the image of the girl idly swinging her life away on a lethargic summer’s day.
My favourite moment in the film is the way we see her in the hammock swinging from side to side and gazing upwards at the sky just as we hear her say the line “Never sideways, never upwards…..” the image matching the script.
I must also credit the beautiful work done by my team on the day: Styling by Jane Taylor-Hayhurst; Make Up by Arabella Preston; Hair by Ayo Laguda and my assistants Sarah Brimley and Andras Bartok.
I’m thrilled to have had my portrait of writer Charlie Brooker selected for the 2013 Taylor Wessing portrait prize show at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Of 5,410 photographs entered only 60 were chosen by the judges. The show will run at the NPG from 14 November 2013 until 9 February 2014.
If you’d like to read the wider story behind the picture then here is a blog post I wrote about it last year.
From: jon rubin
Subject: Inquiry: Shoot in Oxford Circus tube
Date: 2 July 2013 19:28:24 GMT+01:00
I am an American artist who is doing a project for The Thing Quarterly and Levis and I am looking to hire a photographer in London for a shoot.
I got your info from Geoff Chadsey who is a photo editor for Time Inc.
Basically, I need to have photos shot of one man waiting for a train in the Oxford Circus tube station. The photos from that shoot will go into ad spaces throughout the station (without any branding on them). Each weekday during rush hour, for the duration of the images display (late August), the actual man depicted in the photo (in the same clothes as he wears in the photo) will be in the Oxford Circus underground waiting for a train that he never boards.
As people arrive at the platform they will see the photos of the man in the ad space(s) and might recognize him waiting on the platform. As everyone boards the train and empties the platform, the man would be left standing there alone (much as in the picture). By destabilizing the viewers perception of both the image of the man and the man himself this project creates an uncanny simultaneity between the space of advertising and the space of life, what is past and present.
I saw your website and love the work you do. The project is on a really fast track and needs to be shot late this week, early next. Let me know if this might be of any interest to you.
I can be available via Skype or email to give you more details if you’d like.
From: Chris Floyd
Subject: Re: Inquiry: Shoot in Oxford Circus tube
Date: 2 July 2013 19:54:54 GMT+01:00
To: jon rubin
I love this idea!
It’s good that you wrote when you did. I had a few different jobs come in today and I’m in the process of getting them scheduled but I would so love to do this that I can bend everything else around it.
Do you have ‘The Man’ cast yet? Do London Underground know about it? They are very strict on shooting anywhere on the tube. If we have permission then that is great but it’s always possible to guerilla it.
Would we see the man from the back? From the front? With the track behind him or would our POV be from the track looking towards him?
Would he be the only man in the picture or would there be many other people?
I have so many questions though it might be easier to talk on the phone. It’s no hassle for me to call you. If you’d like to talk then send me your number.
So, here’s the bigger picture:
San Francisco-based publication THE THING Quarterly has partnered with Levi’s® Made and Crafted™ to produce Moment to Moment, a magazine (of sorts) that happens in real time throughout the summer, across a broad spectrum of mediums and geographic locations. Through a series of independent but related contributions—all built around the central theme, ‘Good Things Take Time’, Moment to Moment reminds us about the good things that happen when we slow down and experience the details around us.
Moment to Moment is based on visual artist Dan Graham’s interventions from the 1960’s in which he purchased advertising space in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Arts Magazine in order to create art pieces. The title comes from 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who envisioned a three-dimensional book entitled Moment to Moment. He saw it as something that would be performed, rather than read.
The project will consist of over 15 different commissions including online videos, text pieces, paintings, animated gifs, photography, and essays. Some of these pieces will appear on billboards, bus shelters, subway stations and other outdoor advertising spaces in cities around the world. These public interventions propose a more pleasing visual alternative within the urban landscape and prompt viewers to take time for the good things around them. Some pieces will be inserted into the paid advertising space of magazines as standalone works of art. They will be pages from the Moment to Moment project, extracted and repositioned as pages in other likeminded publications. The remainder of the publication will be featured online at www.goodthingstaketime.com and in the free printed newspaper which, like the official website, will document and share the entire project.
The man on the platform is London based artist, Michael Crowe, who is doing a great project of his own called Mysterious Letters. In order to get far enough away and realistically photograph him on the platform of the southbound Bakerloo line platform at Oxford Circus required permission to go into the station at night, after 1am, when it had closed, the power had been switched off on the track and position the camera there. An underground station is an eerie place when it’s closed. All I could think of was ‘An American Werewolf in London’.
Jon Rubin has created a site for the project here.
This is his statement:
Dates: July 29th through August 12, 2013
Part One: Multiple advertising spaces in the Oxford Circus Underground will show a photograph of a man seemingly waiting for a train. The photo will be stark and beautiful, the man’s face filled with gravitas. No one else will be in the photo but the man.
Part Two: Each weekday during rush hour, for the duration of the images’ display, the actual man depicted in the photo (in the same clothes as he wears in the photo) will be in the Oxford Circus Underground station waiting for a train. He will not board any train. As people arrive at the platform they will see the photos of the man in the ad spaces and might recognize him waiting on the platform. As everyone boards the train and empties the platform, the man will be left standing there alone (much as in the picture). As their train pulls away from the station people might recognize the lone figure as the lone figure they saw in the ad spaces.
Part Three: Each day the man will write in a notebook things that he hears other people on the platform saying, including any questions or statements directed at him. This writing will be presented on this blog.
“Everyone’s so scared. Don’t be scared.”
In this new short for Mr Porter, Hollywood talent agent, Andrew Weitz, takes pride in the fact that his more conservative colleagues make fun of his style and that this spurs him on to buy more of the things they are baffled by.
A lot of people have asked me if this is the house where Cameron wrecked his dad’s Ferrari in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’. I wish it was, I truly do. Unfortunatlely, it is not.