Category Archive: Editorial
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.
Whitney Bromberg Hawkings has been Tom Ford’s PA and right hand woman for over 15 years and is now senior vice president of communications for his eponymous label. On dressing for Tom and work: “It’s like being ready for your first date every day of your life — everything has to be perfect.” Watch the video, below, of Whitney in her London house sprinkling her assured Texan insouciance across the domestic landscape as she prepares for another day at the high altar of style.
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.
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.
On Wednesday 8th August 2012 I was on holiday, staying in a rented cottage, down in the New Forest, a place of childhood memories, one of my favourite places in the world. The phone signal in the cottage was non existent but there was a wireless connection in the pub over the road. I’d got into the habit of wandering over there a few times a day, like the typically connection addicted citizen I am, to check my emails. Truth be told it was also an opportunity to get away from the tyranny of spending every minute of the day with my 2 small children, an escape from the incessant noise and brain mashing claustrophobia of it all, to enjoy a quiet 20 minutes alone in the company of half a cider and the Olympics on the pub’s megatron HD telly. A day earlier I’d sat in there and watched 20 year old Laura Trott win a fabulous gold medal in the women’s omnium event in the cycling.
On my final swerve of the day I went out the door and over the road about 10pm. An email plopped into my inbox from Monica Allende, picture editor at The Sunday Times Magazine.
“What are you up to on Friday? Trying to put a v. last minute shoot together and checking your availability.”
It was clearly urgent but there’s two kinds of urgent. There’s the urgent that can make this job the best thing in the world, where all the cards fall into place at the perfect moment, where you get to meet and have an intense one to one with someone brilliant or world changing. Then there’s the other urgent. The other urgent is the one that is brought about by a relentlessly negative chain of events. They wanted somebody else for the job, the subject changed the date, the chosen photographer couldn’t do the new date, a better story has fallen through and they need something to fill the gap. It’s the urgent that’s brought about by a series of failures. Your role in it, if not handled carefully, could forever associate you with those failures, despite the fact that you were not even involved at the point that they took place. No matter how good a job you may do you will always be thought of as the person to call when the person they want is not available. Best to try and avoid those if you can.
Aside from the perception of urgency generated by Monica’s email, Friday was also the last full day of our idyllic week in Hampshire. We were planning to hand back the keys to the cottage around 11am and go a few miles along the coast to see some friends who have a boat, where we would spend the day with them, messing about in the Solent and even, perhaps, make land at the Isle of Wight for an ice cream before heading back to the mainland for the drive home to London and it’s strange McEwanesque August atmosphere.
I mulled it over for about 10 minutes before hitting the ‘reply’ button. Stay here and enjoy the last day of a truly memorable and classic English holiday, with the promise of a jump into the Solent off the side of a boat? Or take the risk with a different kind of leap that this was the right kind of urgent? I tapped the reply button on my phone and typed a response to Monica.
“I am totally around. What’s the job?”
I stayed in the pub for about half an hour but she never replied.
The next morning, though, everything started to happen. Monica emailed around 11.30am and came clean with the facts.
“The idea was to shoot Laura Trott as Britannia for the STM Olympics special. It was almost confirmed last night, but she is a bit freaked out this morning after all the media coverage. I won’t know for an hour but even if they confirm I am not sure we can put such a demanding shoot together. See attached the idea I have in mind. If it was to happen tomorrow afternoon I would still like to meet in the morning to prepare it all , but as we stand I haven’t got a team in place yet.
How do you see it?”
These screen grabs were attached to her email, which were a great help in making me realise a) how we should do it and b) how we should not do it.
Immediately I knew how it had to look and how it could be done. It was actually pretty simple. I replied to Monica.
“I thought it might be something Olympic! It can be done. As long as we have Laura, a studio and the props/clothes it is totally possible. As with anything else like this, the key to it is to make it modern and stylish, otherwise there’s a danger of it looking naff and cheesy. The way to do it is to keep it extremely simple. The lion might be a problem though.
Other than that I am confident it can be done.”
In any photographic situation where there is a danger that it might go all wrong, where the execution can be way too literal, I always try to steer it back towards the one element that is the most important: spirit. In this case, Laura Trott is a 20 year old girl from Hertfordshire. A week earlier no one, including me, outside of the world of track cycling had heard of her. In seven days she, among several others, had come to embody an ideal of how we would like our country to be. Hard working, modest, humorous, good at stuff and very much alive. Binding her up with spears, shields, togas and chariots would drag her down more than anything. How to make it work?
I close my eyes and I think of the canon. The canon are the photographers I draw on in times of doubt. They give me comfort, solace and inspiration. They include Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, Corrine Day, Glen Luchford, Erwin Blumenfeld, Harry Callahan and, in this case, Irving Penn. I close my eyes and I go through the rolodex in my head thinking of them all until I find the one that instinctively feels like the inspirational match for the task at hand. That’s not to say I set about slavishly ripping them off. I use them as my starting point, my jumping off point. They are my photographic moral compass. They show me the light, guide the way and keep me company. Once I push off and get underway I’m then going forward under my own steam. By the time I get to the other side I will have, hopefully, added enough of my own ingredients to the dish for it to taste new and different. To understand what I mean then check this out:
Each of them are great but one was a jumping off point for the other. I love it. You can hear the lineage right there.
Anyway, back to Irving Penn. It took me about 0.5 seconds to ask myself ‘What would Irving Penn do?’ It just seemed so obvious. I called Monica up and we had a great talk about what to do. I said this is an Irving Penn picture. She replied that they wanted the backdrop behind her to be a Union Flag but the flag, she thought, should be very faded, as if it has been hanging out in the wind for 50 years. I agreed totally but there was no way we would be able to find a flag big enough with one day’s notice that is also the right texture. It would need to be about 30 feet by 20 feet big. Going back to my earlier mention of instinctively knowing how we should/should not do it. I want to hint at Britannia, not hammer her into the role. The Union Jack is the main element. Then maybe the shield. Definitely not the helmet. Please God not the helmet. Besides, she has those plaits that have instantly become her trademark. It must be a modern picture but with nothing brash or shiny about it. No forced heroism or shot from below constructivist nonsense with added clip lights. It should be elegant, chic, classic and classical. I want to do it like that but with the help of a little bit of modern technology.
What did I mean by ‘modern technology’?
This was the part where I would have to convince her.
“Ok. We’ll get a big canvas, battered, old, frayed, worn, grey, grim. I know where we can get one of those. We shoot her on that and then we add the Union Jack in afterwards with CGI.”
I had tried something like this a couple of years ago on a shoot I’d done with N-Dubz, Tinchy Stryder, Chipmunk & Taio Cruz. That one had been shot on a white studio cove and I had used CGI to add in a monochromatic Union Flag afterwards. Three years further on, though, I thought that both the technology and skills of the person I had in mind to do it would have advanced enough to be able to make the flag look not only convincing but properly fantastic. Having this earlier example to show Monica was helpful in convincing that this was a way better option than trying to project a Union Jack on to a backcloth. All I had to do was explain that this was shot on a flat white/grey background and the flag was constructed digitally. What you do with that flag is entirely subjective. If we took that idea and put it onto a canvas, a fabric with motion and life in it, rather than a dead wall, then we could make it work so much better.
At some point on the Thursday it was decided that Friday was just too short notice and Laura was persuaded to make the trip to the studio on Saturday instead. This meant that I got to have that last full day of holiday and we did indeed spend a gorgeous day on a boat bobbing around the Solent.
My time at sea was periodically interrupted by emails from Georgia Lacey, the prop stylist, with questions about Britannia related matters, the best one being:
“Morning Chris. Do you have any preference on spear?”
Call time for crew was 7am at Spring Studios in Kentish Town, London, on Saturday 11th August, four days after Laura had won her second gold medal and three full days after the shoot had first been proposed to Laura. Having worked for magazines for almost 20 years, I had never known a shoot or story come together so fast and at such short notice. Laura was due to arrive at 9am and we would have her for two hours. One hour would be taken up with hair and make up, so that would mean an hour of shooting time. In theory that is plenty but we had also agreed to try the shot in several different ways, with variations on props, hair and medals. I have always felt that less is more ever since I heard Michael Caine tell a story about how director John Huston told him “Do less Michael, do less. I can see you acting.” However, Monica thought it important to give the art director at the magazine plenty of options. We had several Britannia style shields to hand but Monica had the best idea of all; to use a wheel from Laura’s bike.
The first thing for my assistants to do was get the canvas backdrop up. Much of Penn’s greatest portraiture was done using natural light. I couldn’t do that here, the studio’s daylight source was in the wrong place and it’s just not strong enough to give me what I wanted. I set about trying to replicate Penn style daylight with artificial lights. I do this by building a replica window from 12 foot by 4 ft polystyrene flats (polyboards) – which forms a three sided room with the open side bound by layers and layers of thick diffusion material. I use all sorts of things – silks, rolls of spun glass, trace, plastic bags, anything that impedes the light from travelling in a straight line. The lights then go inside that room and the diffusion hopefully acts in the same way that thick cloud does on the sun.
We shoot a lot of test pictures and I can get incredibly fussy about whether or not light looks right. To me it either looks right or it looks fake, it just looks wrong. Sometimes the journey there is quick and everything falls into place and other times it seems to take forever, with detours and wrong turns but when it feels right it just, well, feels right.
By the time Laura arrived we were pretty much ready. I was genuinely moved to meet someone who had done something so special at such a young age and, whatsmore, who really did seem to wear it so well. I asked her who had presented her with her medals.
“I dunno really. Just a couple of randomers.”
Once she came out of hair and make up (incredible job by Hamilton Stansfield) and through wardrobe I could tell that all Monica’s worries about not pulling this off were just that, worries. Everyone had done their part perfectly. All we needed now was to get the right shot. And after trying several permutations of prop and pose we settled on this. The movement in the canvas was provided by my 2 assistants, Andras & Phil, rippling it from each side.
Once Monica had selected the image it was sent over to Rick Carter at Paperhat FTP who put Lee Rouse to work on creating a Union Flag from the blank canvas behind her. We had to provide him with a whole slew of measurements from the lens to different points in the shot so that the computer could work out angles and plot points that would allow it to overlay the image of the flag on to the ripples and folds of the blank canvas. He spent all of Saturday night working on it. By lunchtime on Sunday the finished image at the top of this post was completed and sent to The Sunday Times. They had held back printing for four days to accommodate this as the cover of their Olympics special issue, which is out today, seven days later.
So, after all that, why do I feel this is right? The right way to have done it, not the wrong way. I’ve said before that twenty years of experience adds up to a lot of mistakes. These come back to you in the form of wisdom. This doesn’t mean that you become complacent though. As I’ve got older I’ve realised that the only way to not become complacent is to stay paranoid.
It’s all there. It feels true, even though it’s a constructed image. It has honesty at it’s core. The colours, the tones of her skin, the strength, the quiet confidence, ready but not offensively aggressive, not an ounce of empty bombast. Who wouldn’t want her on their side? She should be on town hall walls all over the country.
It has the one ingredient I mentioned at the start of the process. It has spirit.
With about ten minutes left before she was due to leave, I took her over to a separate set up we’d prepared earlier and took a portrait of her as herself. We barely spoke. I didn’t need to say anything. Everything she is was right there in her face.
Last year I was commissioned by ESPN Magazine in New York to go to Iffley Road sports ground at the University of Oxford, where, in a glass case, is the stopwatch that was used to record the time of Roger Bannister’s record breaking mile on the 6th May 1954. This was the first time the mile had been run under four minutes.
ESPN were preparing a photographic feature on great pieces of sporting memorabilia and my shoot with the watch was one of many others they had arranged.
There were actually three watches used that day, in the event of a breakdown or doubt. You could call it belt, braces and glue. The other two are now in private hands and this one is still the property of the club. The other interesting thing about the watches is that they are 30 seconds to a revolution, so the hand had to travel just short of eight complete circuits to do it’s job that day.
In the excitement, joy and pandemonium immediately after the race the watch was knocked from the timekeeper’s hands and the glass on the front cracked on impact. Part of it is forever missing and you can see that in the picture above. Bannister’s record breaking time is preserved though – 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.
The club secretary took the key to the glass cabinet that the stopwatch lives in out of his desk drawer, unlocked the door and handed the watch over to me. History in my hands, reassuringly heavy too, a wonderful thing. I set up my lighting and table top backdrop in an empty squash court and spent a lovely afternoon messing about with light, shadows and time.
After the story ran I was asked by the magazine’s then photo editor, Catriona Ni Aolain, if I could make a large print of it for the editor in chief. Of all the items they had photographed for the story, this was the one he wanted to hang framed in his office.
Now seems like a good time to post these pictures. Tonight is the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games and this story is a long way in the past indeed. In 2008 I was commissioned by The Observer to spend a week with Sebastian Coe while he carried out his business as the man in charge of London’s bid.
For 7 days, journalist Tim Adams and I went everywhere he went. We didn’t speak too much but he never tried to stop me photographing anything. I sat in on sensitive meetings and he was always welcoming whenever I arrived anywhere to shadow him. The part that had the biggest impact on me, however, was the realisation that every place he went he had to deal with doubt, cynicism and scrutiny. I know that as we approach the start of the games there has been some anger at some of the cock-ups that have happened but I honestly believe from watching Coe, over the course of one week in 2008, his entire drive and motivation came from a desire to pull off something fantastic. I hope he does and I wish him and everyone involved the best of luck.
My favourite pictures from this story are those above, taken at a meeting with the members of the Greater London Authority in a portakabin at the site of the stadium, at that time a pile of rubble and earth. Coe had been summoned by the GLA to justify certain budgetary matters. The item at which the members were most indignant was a line allowing for provision of several thousand car parking spaces for ‘media’. Coe explained patiently that ‘media’ carry a lot of heavy stuff – cameras, sound equipment, tripods, lights and if they were made to carry it in then they just would not turn up. I stood behind him nodding fervently, whilst indicating my lighting set up. He had told me before we went in what this was about, so in the short time I had to prepare I decided to try and light the room as a scene from the Henry Fonda movie, ‘Twelve Angry Men’ – which is set almost entirely in a jury room as the verdict of a case is debated and Fonda passionately argues his view to the other eleven members. The pictures here do seem like the countdown to an execution and Coe came out of the meeting quite depleted.
What I want the viewer to see in these photographs is a glimpse of the sheer relentless mountain climb of a task the man has before him. Remember that this is an extract from one week in his life, four years ago. It was like this every day for the the four years before that and it has been like this, probably more so, every day for the four years since. What was obvious from observing him was the way he paced himself through the day. Really, truly fascinating to watch.
Read Tim Adams’ original 2008 piece from The Observer here
I must give the man some kudos here. With most of the people that I photograph it’s a ‘that’ll do’ attitude that carries them through the process. A collaboration is what I’m looking for but, often, what I get is a muted co-operation. Yeah…go on then, just do it quick. I know one Hollywood publicist whose number one criteria when approving photographers for shoots involving his clients is ‘How quick are you?’
I have photographed Ricky Gervais 5 times and, unlike most, he gives much more. He can be tentative initially, a little wary, but once he has committed to an idea he’s up for it in all it’s forms.
I once photographed him for a Christmas related story, in the middle of July, which involved a terrible sweater and Kermit the Frog. We were trying to make it look like Ricky & Kermit were sharing a laugh together in an old skool Christmas Radio Times kind of way. We shot hundreds of frames and were really struggling with it. He persisted with the inanimate frog for much longer than one would have expected until, at last, he decared, “Wait! I’ve got it, I’ve got it! Whattabout like this?……”
The second time I photographed him was at the Dorchester Hotel in London. I was told I had 3 minutes and when he came in he acknowledged how little time we had been given, so offered to do whatever he could to make it work. I said I was going to recite a list of 1970′s sitcom actors and would photograph his reaction on hearing the name of each one. Number 8 was ‘On The Buses’ star Reg Varney, who I think looks like Gervais in a sort of lackadaisical 1970′s way. Evidently, Reg’s name had it’s own effect on him because it yielded this reaction…
This time we were doing a shoot to illustrate his recent heavy weight loss, brought on by boxing and running. It needed some energy and he really did bring it. He battered that punchball for as long as I exhorted him to keep at it and after each kick he would come to the computer, examine it carefully and then insist on giving it another go until he felt the image looked right. Here’s what we got…..