Category Archive: Personal Projects
“This is your time. Go get ‘em.
Go on, go get ‘em, this is your time now
This is it, your time, go on now……………………”
What is happening here?
As each player prepares to go on to the field of play a member of the Highland Park Scots coaching staff, a rotund, stocky man, makes a point of saying something inspirational to him. A short, quiet exhortation that implies timing, destiny and honour. These players are boys, seventeen, eighteen years old. Generally they do not acknowledge it but they know where they are and what this is. It’s everything they’ve wanted as far back as they can remember and for some of them these months will be the greatest of their lives. The future is not yet written.
The girls that make up the Highland Park Belles Drill Team are getting something similar from an equally inspirational lady at the side of the pitch. Their faces are locked into a rictus of concentration. Their tights, American Tan to the last, glisten as the final, ethereal hues of the dusk succumb to the interrogatory clarity of the floodlights. This is Texas high school football. Us and them, over and over again. None of it is ambivalent, all of it is vital.
What is happening here?
Highland Park, Texas. It is the first Friday in September and all through the day the external temperature display inside the car has been relentlessly and malevolently defying gravity. It currently reads 108F. The air is torpid, inert and the only sound to be heard outside of the car is the sound of a uniquely American kind. It’s the drone of wealth and it comes in the form of over employed air conditioning units outside of each and every house on the block, reflecting back from the bone white concrete driveways. Across the street a blue and yellow sign is stuck into the lawn of the house there. “Belles Spaghetti Supper. This Friday 5-7pm. HPHS Cafeteria. Catered By Amore.”
Take a spin in the car, if only to turn the dial on the A/C and keep out of the asphyxiative, lacerating furnace of the ambient air. In some other countries it would only ever be possible to experience this atmosphere sitting inside a pine cabin, naked. The grass that lines the front lawns and pavements of Highland Park is that shade of green from 80s teen movies, where 15 year old boys ride bikes in quiet, wide streets looking for Ally Sheedy. Well fed, healthy, comfortable, confident and lush, resting on the hammock of infinitely long hosepipes.
The Highland Park Soda Fountain, one hundred years old, is doing cool and intense business. Nineteen bar stools line the counter. Find one and wait your turn. The Lime Freeze looks like the only game in town, the oasis in the desert. The glass door has a poster on it with head shots of all of this season’s Highland Park Cheerleaders and Scotsmen. These are different to the Belles. The Belles are more acrobatic and perform a show at halftime. The Cheerleaders are pictured in a sort of triangle with a caption underneath that says ‘KEEPING UP THE SPIRIT’. Beneath the Cheerleaders are head shots of the five Scotsmen. Their role is uncertain. There is also a separate shot of them atop the horizontal bar of a football goal. There is a sponsor logo at the bottom of the poster too. Being involved is mandatory here. To not be involved might be a bad thing. Perhaps it would be best to go back and get involved.
The pre-game spaghetti supper is a thousand square feet of systematic and efficient, production line involvement. The five dollar dinner is the fly on the line. The school hall is a grid system of long trestle tables carpeted in auction items, donated by parents, local businesses and other concerned parties. These are not small items. There’s some big ticket stuff here. A week long spa trip to a Colorado desert retreat, a day at the Texas State Capitol as a guest of a member of the House of Representatives, high end loot worth bidding on. The hustle in here is a microcosm of America’s unique ability to be individually entrepreneurial, yet it’s in the service of the group. It’s a sort of American socialism. Over here it might have been called The Big Society, until that initiative died an oxygen starved death from lack of Big Government funding. What drives this though, is the unspoken responsibility placed on the shoulders of all who live in the shadow of the team, the town and the school to be involved. The closeness of the community, in terms of social standing and reputation is highly observed. The Highland Park Scots are the hive and the citizens of the township are the bees bringing in the pollen. What use is an unproductive bee?
Mums sport football jerseys and badges with pictures of the players or the cheerleaders. There’s a queue to have the team logo stencilled on a cheek. ‘Scots’ on one side, ‘Belles’ on the other.
Game time. The opponents are from Monterrey, Mexico which means that the crowd, only halfway full, politely endure the playing of the Mexican national anthem. Three boys in the crowd strip off their shirts to reveal ‘U’, ‘S’ and ‘A’ painted on to their chests in red, white and blue. They are standing in the wrong order though, so it reads ‘AUS’. Someone tuts and points this out. They quickly realign themselves. A Scotsman, standing nearby, apologises for this infliction of overt nationalism.
The boys’ posturing goes wasted. The Mexicans have fielded a lowly fan base for the game, possibly only a crowd of one on their side of the pitch. It’s hard to tell but it may just be a local kid who’s snuck into the away end in a gesture of defiance. He was too high up in the stands to go and ask. Down at one of their corners a lone cop stands watching the action, big gun on his hip. From here, looking across to the home side of the field it’s obvious that the industriousness doesn’t stop when the game starts. A stream of people are filing in, carrying and wearing merchandise from the team shop beneath the stands.
A third of the way through the game and the home side of the stadium is almost full. Most of Highland Park could well be in here. The cops, ambulance and fire officials mingle amongst themselves down in one corner of the field. Along the sideline the players who are not currently on the field of play spend most of the time on their feet watching, exhorting, willing it to go right. The big digital clock on the scoreboard stops and starts in defiance of real life with a regularity that is hypnotic.
Various team coaches draw up plays on portable white boards. They wear the uniform of white, middle America: khakis, white polo shirts, sneakers. They are gruff, confident and look like they get to eat well for it. The relevant team members fan around them and give the impression of listening intently. They look like they are really listening. Head coach, Randy Allen, wearing a shirt, tie and panama hat paces the line with a clipboard in hand, pen in his shirt pocket. Coach Allen signs off all his emails ‘Go Scots!’
The players fit all the stereotypes. Nothing is missing. Have these kids actually evolved to be mirror images of the characters in every high school and college movie ever – Grease, Animal House, Revenge Of The Nerds, Porkies, American Pie – or were they always like this? One kid is so like the quintessential changing room towel flicker, so like Biff Tannen, that he is scarcely believable as a fictional character, let alone an actual real life flesh and blood one standing here tonight. He must weigh 280 pounds and his knees look wrecked already.
The Scots put the pressure on and Monterrey quickly fall behind. The lead is too comfortable. The cheerleaders, sitting it out on the side are a line of ponytailed princesses, banded up high and tight, teen imprints of their mothers, checking their Facebook pages on their iPhones. The band, sitting in the bleachers, strike up. The band leader, an earnest girl in white cotton gloves on a podium at the front, fixes her eyes absolutely on the musicians as her arms strain. Every muscle in her arms gives rise to the belief that in her head she is trying to control an excitable muscular dog on a tight leash.
My host leans in to my ear, “You know, John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Reagan, is an alumni of this establishment.”
This is a micro society maintaining it’s place in the order of things. The support system that holds the team up and generates the resources for it to be viable is self determination at work. It is competitive on every level you can possibly imagine, within itself, as well as in its attitudes to those it is up against. It’s uniquely American, it’s how individuals bring their express individual attributes to the situation and leverage them for the benefit of the team, the school and the town, as well as their own personal standing within those places. To not commit in the fullest way would indeed be a bad thing.
The band, maybe forty strong and not big in the context of Texas high school football teams, come on for their role in the halftime show. It’s time for their big idea. My host drops a hint.
“They have been waking me up every morning at 5.55am all summer with their rehearsal of ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin. It’s pretty damn sweet.”
What follows is deeper and wider than ‘Kashmir’ though, because it is actually a mashup of ‘Kashmir’ and the music of Benjamin Britten. It is truly imaginative, clever and entertaining. This is what I mean when I say it is competitive on every level. Even the band have got serious game. They’re not just here to give the kids who can’t run a chance to be included. They kill it with some outrageous sizzle. Weeks and weeks of motivating sixteen year old kids to rise in the summer dawn and go out on to a barely cooled patch of redundant car park tarmac to go through the mad idea of a faraway, dead English composer mixed in with a long defunct English rock band, over and over again. For the excellence of the group, so they can be better than the other lot, who in this case haven’t even brought a band with them. Us and them, over and over again. This is not just about winning on the field. This is about self, self regard, the group, motivation, pride, relationships, reliability, honour, work and just being really, really good at the thing they’ve chosen.
Year in, year out, a place like this, a scene like this is where America renews itself. This is what’s happening here.
I was down in Dallas in September 2012 to photograph a story on high school football and was staying with an old friend who lives there. He and I both like to take the opportunity to enjoy high quality meats whenever the chance presents itself. The American South, of course, is the place to explore what the meats are capable of giving when cooked on a barbecue pit. Each state has its own methods and techniques and, I’m sure, if you want to get really picky you can find those who believe it varies dramatically from county to county too.
A few days before my arrival, my friend, Trent, sent me an email with a link to a post on the Texas BBQ Posse blog, strap line, “In search of the greatest smoked meats in the greatest state in the union.”
Gary Jacobson, who wrote the post, began by explaining that he had recently been the recipient of a letter from a man by the name of Clyde Biggins. Clyde claimed that he had once been the owner of “Clyde’s Old Fashion Hickory Smoked Barbecue” on Westmoreland Road in Dallas.
In 1993 he had been convicted for his part in a conspiracy involving illegal drugs, was convicted and now almost at the end of an eighteen year term in a federal prison.
The piece went on to explain how Clyde was looking to get back on his feet when released and could the members of the Posse do anything to help in that regard. You can read the full text at the link below. It’s a great read and is a story that contains the mouth watering seeds of the possibilities of redemption.
To cut a long story short, Clyde has been unable to secure the food licences that would allow him to once again set up shop in Texas. To get around this he has put together a mobile rolling barbecue and positioned it in his front yard. Food is free but diners are encouraged to leave a tip. He invited the Posse over to try his cooking and Posse member Jim Rossman revealed, “Clyde’s the real deal. The meal I had would easily rank him in the top 5 among Dallas-Fort Worth BBQ joints, plus he has a great personality. That’s a winning combination.”
“Watching Clyde work that pit was like watching a great conductor lead a symphony,” Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins said. “No thermometers, gauges or gimmicks. It was old school cooking by feel alone.”
Clyde was reluctant to allow the members of the Posse to reveal his address on their blog, for fear of being shut down by local officials, despite the fact that two Dallas cops stopped by that afternoon to pick up some takeaway, so there was no way to locate him.
After reading the story I sent back a reply to Trent: “Your mission? Find Clyde.”
In the lead up to my arrival Trent reported back regularly with the news. No dice every time. All through my stay the backdrop to the hundred and five degree heat was the hunt for Clyde. Still nothing until, on my last full day in Dallas, Clyde joined Facebook. Trent sent him a message with his phone number and within five minutes Clyde had called back with an invite to come on over and “sample some meats”.
I didn’t go over there with the intention of doing any filming but I took my camera anyway, mainly in case I got the chance to do a portrait of him or something. When we got there, the mid afternoon sun was beating down but in the shade of some big, heavy trees everything just seemed so much more mellow and amenable. We sat down on some chairs in front of his pit while the smell of pecan smoked meats drifted on around and he was more than happy to tell us his story. So, I had to use what I had and I shot this short handheld with one 8gb memory card and interviewed him with the voice memo app on my iPhone. Someday I’d like to go back there with a jib, a dolly and a crew worthy of the subject.
If you’re ever in the Dallas area make sure you take some time out to find Clyde. He really is the real deal. In the meantime, this short film might give you a flavour of how good his food tastes.
This feels like it will never end. While everybody else came to the party, stayed for a drink and left, I have been stuck in the room with all 140 of them for almost a year. It has taken me that long to gather up written pieces from as many of them as I can. Those that didn’t get back to me are too late. I tried, oh I tried. Nevertheless, over 120 people worked their brains to a pulp to give me something insightful, revealing, funny, thoughtful, worrying and optimistic on Twitter, photography, being photographed, 9/11, society, evolution and a thousand other things, as well as collectively creating an impression for future generations of what it means and feels like to be alive today.
The end result is a fantastic 172 page book, featuring written contributions from almost everybody who took part in my 2010/11 quest to photograph 140 of the people I follow on Twitter, as well as the portraits themselves.
In all the talking I’ve done on this project over the last year, time and again I have come back to the role technology plays in making human lives infinitely more convenient, while at the same time conspiring to drive a wedge between us physically. This has been so ever since the invention of the telegraph. The overwhelming response to ‘One Hundred And Forty Characters’ has been positive. The trolls have been contained to an area the size of a trolley and I am convinced that this is because the people who have seen it have innately understood and recognised that deep in our make up we understand that we are pack animals. We need to meet, gather and be together in common cause. OFC is that writ graphically and simply, only made possible because of technology, a lever to allow the conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy.
This has happened in several phases and stages. One, I invited people to my studio via Twitter. Right there they are out of the Twitter window and through my door, in my face. I can see how tall they are, what they sound like, what sort of phone they’ve got, where they came from and on and on. Two, when the project ended there was an exhibition and about 100 of the 140 came to the opening night. This made real a physical manifestation of Twitter’s daily virtual world, where they could all get up in each other’s faces and find out the same stuff I did, but with added alcohol. Finally, all of them are brought together for posterity, into hard copy format, ink on paper, with their thoughts to stand beside them.
“It’s a confessional, a Samaritan, a water cooler and a soapbox all rolled into one.”
As the years pass and we travel ever further into a world where online relationships will be nothing more than our daily reality, this combination of portraits and words will come to serve as a big old time capsule of what we thought social media was in its earliest days. Oh! how we will look back and laugh at our naiveté, I’m sure.
‘One Hundred And Forty Characters’ is available as a 172 page book, printed in England by F.E. Burman, in a limited edition format, on Fedrigoni Xper 140gsm with a blind embossed cover on Fedrigoni Xper 320gsm. Thank you to Wayne Ford for his beautiful design and art direction and also, Eleanor O’Kane, who proof read every single word and made the necessary corrections to the text.
The book is available directly from here for £35.00 for UK buyers. Click on the first link below:
For buyers from outside the UK the book is £40.00 and you should click here:
Finally, one more treat for you. So you can see just what you’ll be getting for your money, here’s a great little video of the book’s text pages, with a voiceover by me, that took 14 attempts to nail. Lots to look at, lots to read, get yours today. Thirty years from now your kids will be staring at this in wonder thinking, “How did they live like that?”
This is as heavy as any piece of armour worn at Agincourt. Created by Fee Doran of Mrs Jones in London. Among her other creations was a pair of trousers made for Justin Hawkins of The Darkness. The unique thing about those was that they were made entirely from pairs of knickers thrown at him onstage by female fans. Tasty.
Last year I took part in a project entitled ‘What Is England?’, curated by photographer Stuart Pilkington. The idea was that each of England’s 50 counties would be represented by a single photographer and, over the course of one year, through a series of fixed assignments the project would build a pictorial idea of what England is today. I represented Surrey.
When I volunteered to take part I was asked to write something on the county and what it meant to me.
“I wasn’t born in Surrey but I was made in Surrey. In the same way that Elvis was made in Memphis. It’s the place that stamped itself on me whether I wished it to or not. I love it and I loathe it. But being a born nostalgic, where the past is always better than any future on offer, I mostly love it now. I love it’s civility, it’s decency, it’s emotional constipation. Nobody in Surrey would dream of burdening you with a need for a solution to a personal problem. It’s a county of Hugh Grants. When people ask me where I’m from I say “Surrey. God’s County.” I leave it to the questioner to decide how that answer is intended or received. Surrey is where I discovered photography, where I bought my first record, where I lost my virginity, where I first got drunk and where London and the future was never more than 20 miles and never less than 20 light years away. It was my home for 9 of my 41 years, less than a quarter of my life and diminishing by the day, but when I think of it I think of Tania Wild in a navy blue v-neck tank top and a half return to Guildford for 55p.”
These pictures don’t reflect the kind of place I grew up in, they are the place I grew up in. As a child I lived in what I can now see was, for me today with children of my own, an existence that is utterly unattainable. The people in the two pictures above now live in the house in which I spent my teenage years. Particularly in these pictures, I have realised that I’m fetishising the 1980′s England that I knew. The village I grew up in was a classic Home Counties English village. There were old school, pre big bang City commuters and locals who were born and bred, with a definite accent that would place them here, with a working life that had been agricultural, although even then you could see that it was dying and the fields were being replaced with ‘Executive’ style estates. The Surrey I grew up in was comfortable, not out and out rich. It had something of John Betjeman about it, something of Agatha Christie, the miners’ strike didn’t come near us. For my Dad, whose childhood was one of wartime evacuation, lonliness and bitter London poverty, this was everything he had dreamed of and worked towards. In one generation our family had moved up from the misery of what had come before. Half my friends went to private schools and half went to ordinary comprehensives. I went to a private school till I was 14. When I begged my parents to take me out of it because I was so unhappy they relented and sent me to a comprehensive. There were idiots and good people in both systems. Any night in one of the five local pubs would have allowed you a view of the social mix. The Public Bar and the Saloon Bar were not so segregated that they couldn’t tolerate cross pollination.
My trip back to Surrey to take part in this project was a selfish one. I have to admit I made no effort to represent the county in any modern or objective way. Parts of it are a million miles from this part here. No, my sole motivation was to travel back to a time when I felt safe, secure and more certain than I do today. However, as welcoming as the current occupants of my house were, I have to confess that I don’t like what the place has become. The lawn, immaculate in these pictures, seems to represent the massive gulf between the haves and have nots in our country today. It’s the same piece of land on which I spent my formative years, but it doesn’t look anything like the garden I knew, which was a more messy and natural affair. This is an English garden on steroids, the introduction of a banned substance in the form of too much wealth. It seems unhealthy, prone and vulnerable to disease or attack. Looking at these pictures has made me realise that I grew up in an English idyll that doesn’t exist anymore. It was a place where the gap between the top and bottom was not obscene, where the top and bottom mixed in the pub and where the local amateur dramatic society was the place in which they all came together to put on idyllic plays from their own pasts.
In October 2000 I went to New York for a 3 week visit to take my portfolio to magazines and record companies. It was a heady time and I had been working in London for a great bunch of American mags, including Spin, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Detour and Flaunt among others. I had the sofa of a friend to sleep on so I could afford to spend some time over there cementing my relationships with these people, as well as make some new connections too. It was an itchy, too short sofa but a trip to New York was never something that would allow a thing like an itchy, too short sofa to get in the way. The meetings went well and in the 3rd week of the trip I started to get calls from people I’d been to see in the first 2 weeks, asking if I was still in New York and was I interested in shooting something for them over there.
My 3 week trip became an open ended one with only Christmas to book end it. In a short time I discovered the joy of the layover on trips to Oklahoma City, Houston, Fargo, Washington DC and Jacksonville. I loved being sent off on assignments that were, by English standards, over huge distances, requiring hotel stays and odd, late night experiences in small town bars where my accent and demeanour were something to point at and ask questions of. I also remember a day spent with Joel Schumacher in Times Square while he was directing some external scenes for the Colin Farrell movie ‘Phone Booth’. Although the entire film is set inside a Times Square phone booth, everything of Farrell inside the phone booth was shot in Hollywood and only the long shots of him from outside the booth were done in NY.
Christmas arrived all too quickly and already I had begun to think of myself as living in New York. I came home determined to go straight back in the new year of 2001.
It took a while because I had to find a place to stay and the Christmas break had taken some of the momentum out of it all but in March 2001 I sorted a room with a friend of a friend, who was a musician, in a house in Dumbo, Brooklyn. On Sunday 25th I boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK airport and arrived to an empty house. My new housemate was away on tour in Europe so I went down to the nearest bar and sat there while the Oscars ceremony played out on the TV. I realised that I had never felt so lonely as I did at that moment. When I had been there before Christmas everything that had gone my way had been a bonus. It was only supposed to be a 3 week fishing trip, everything else had been luck. This time I had made an actual commitment, I had rent to pay and a ticket with a return flight that was 3 months away, the maximum stay allowed on a green tourist visa waiver. The main part of my plan was to find an agent. With an agent I could then secure a visa to live and work there properly. Now there was a target to meet it suddenly didn’t seem so free and easy. All this was running through my head as the world’s most glamourous ceremonial celebration of success rolled in front of me on the telly in the bar. The cheeseburger was really good though.
The very next morning, however, I woke to a gorgeous spring day and a phone call from Catriona Ni Aolain, the deputy photo editor at Esquire Magazine. She had an assignment for me down in Florida to do a portrait of the New York Yankees’ closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera, aka ‘The Hammer of God’. I don’t know anything about baseball and my 15 minutes with Rivera didn’t add to that knowledge in any way whatsoever but at least the job allowed me to build up a layer of confidence in this new adventure. By May 2001 I had found an agent and an immigration lawyer. A visa application had been filed and in late June I returned to London to sit out the waiting period that the visa process required. I was not only eager to get back because of work. There was now a girl for me in that port and I wanted to get back there for her as much as the rest of it. In August the application was approved and after a trip to the American embassy for an interview I was finally issued with an O1 visa in my passport. An O1 is valid for 3 years and is issued to those “who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education,business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” I can absolutely assure you that with a great lawyer and an armful of letters testifying to this, proof can be achieved for pretty much anybody as long as you place the prism of subjectivity in the right place on the table of evidence. I travelled back to New York in mid August, where things had gone incredibly quiet in the dog days of summer. I was ok for money though and my main memory of those weeks was scuttling like a rat from one air conditioned environment to another in the oppressively humid New York August heat. One big job did come in though, for a record company. A publicity shoot in, of all places, London. On the 9th September 2001 I got back on a plane to Heathrow. In the taxi to the airport I took this picture of the Manhattan skyline from the Williamsburg Bridge.
Two days later I spent the entire afternoon and evening glued to a TV screen as my brand new home appeared to slowly crumble before the world. My flight back was booked for the 15th but there seemed little point in taking it and, besides, there was such a backlog it seemed futile to even try, so I stuck it out in London, relieved to have not been there if I’m really honest. I had been into the Twin Towers on several occasions for portfolio appointments and an agency I had very nearly joined had it’s office right in their shadow across the street. Fortunately all the people that worked there had survived as they began their working day at 10am and the 2nd plane hit just after 9am. I eventually returned to New York sometime around the 20th September and as I made the taxi journey through Manhattan towards King Street I couldn’t believe how quiet the place seemed. Meek would be the word that springs to mind, which is not a word that one would ever have thought of placing in the same sentence as the name of this town. I dumped my bags and went out for a walk. Immediately outside my building as I turned the corner onto 6th Avenue was a FDNY firehouse. I had barely noticed it before and now it was impossible to miss. The home of Engine Company 24/Ladder Company 5 had been turned into a shrine for the guys from the firehouse that had died on September 11th. In the picture below you can see that at least 11 men from that one FDNY post were killed. I continued walking and saw that death was all around. Everywhere there were ‘missing’ posters and flyers. They were stuck on lamp posts and fences, in shop windows and the front of apartment buildings. Anywhere with a flat surface that was exposed to the public space had some kind of piece of paper pleading for people to contact other people.
Within 10 days of being back it was clear that the city was going to be depressed and unproductive for a while to come. There was no work coming in, the atmosphere maudlin. Whatsmore, my now girlfriend had been made redundant in the post 9/11 slump and sitting around doing nothing was de rigueur most days. Nobody was hiring. As I wrote in the introduction to a collection of photographs of her from that time that I published earlier this year called “Things May Change But This Will Stay The Same” :
“November 2001. A bleak time, living in New York. Fumes, dust and death hanging in the air, the citizens of the city that never sleeps hiding in, hiding out. Looking back at these photographs now, they are shot with a melancholic and listless drift that at the time was not apparent. A sense that the girl in them has entered a state of inertia, numbed dumbness caused by that cornflower skied morning in the concrete jungle where dreams are made. Is she waiting for the remnants of those events to catch up and finish her off? Or is she passively hanging on for something new to carry her out of it?”
So we got out and did what Americans have done since day one. We hit the road and made something of it. What follows are more pictures from what I have come to call ‘The 9/11 Patriotic American Roadtrip’ only because that was what I wrote on the big box of negatives that I came back with. These are snapshots of America in shock, just like that girl’s state of numbed dumbness. Passing flashes and snapshots from my memory: having a gun pointed at me in Arkansas by a man whose picture I’d taken; drinking Amaretto all night long in New Orleans and eating beignets the following morning; the family on welfare living in the motel room next door to ours in Oakland; a teenage boy who told me he’d never left Arizona, stating as fact at a Friday night high school football game that President Bush had already ‘eradicated’ 78% of all known terrorists; my friends Miles & Alex meeting up with us in South Carolina; them telling me about the guy in Atlanta who’d asked them if Britain had a lot of Muslims and how did we deal with them; an Indian pilot in Albuqerque being frisked before boarding his own plane; the brothers with the Osama bin Laden effigy hanging from a tree outside their house; the car with these words painted on it’s rear window – “WHEN WE FIND BIN LADEN FUGGETTABOUTIT!”; every telegraph pole in one street of Charleston with a ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ poster complete with an image of bin Laden; somebody wearing a t-shirt in New Orleans with an image of bin Laden; the teenage couple living in a formica panelled car in Florida; getting a puncture in a thunderstorm between New Orleans & Galveston, Texas; arriving in Los Angeles and going to see The Strokes.
What I remember most as we made our way across the country, from New York down the east coast, through Virginia, Maryland, N.Carolina, S.Carolina, Georgia and Florida before turning west into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and finally on into New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, ending up in California, was the extent to which the greatest tragedy and mass murder ever commited on American soil was being absorbed, to a certain degree, by Calvin Coolidge’s maxim, ‘The business of America is business’. Everywhere we went there was evidence of the commercialisation of 9/11. Flags, stickers, t-shirts, badges, buttons, beefed up security, freedom fries……
I think these pictures, more than anything else, symbolise that but not in the raw, exploitative way that you might think I mean. Instead I came to see it as a manifestation of what Alexis de Tocqueville once referred to as ‘the tyranny of the majority’, whereby the sheer ‘goodness’ of democracy allowed the majority to lord it over the minority, under the guise of due process having been seen to take place. If you were not seen to be publicly expressing grief, empathy and sympathy then there was a high chance your business might suffer. Saccharine sentiment in places of business, from people who hitherto had not expressed much awareness of anything outside of their own narrow definition of the world. In fact, I even detected a sort of undercurrent of animosity towards New York from some of the middle parts of America for being the kind of un-God fearing place that went and got itself attacked in a damned new holy war. Like an errant cousin who has done brought shame on the temperant members of the family, which leads me on to the observation that it was also clear how much of a message push there was in all this for the American church, with it’s ‘well what do you expect if you let Satan into your lives?’ way of selling itself. So much of the return of fundamentalist religion into American politics and the way it has thoroughly corrupted the idea of separation of Church and State can be traced back to what happened on 9/11.
The ultimate display of the way in which public sentiment has been tyrannised into a required form of acceptable, default behaviour is the mandatory expectation for all public officials, from the President on down, to always be seen to be wearing an American flag pin on their lapel. Appear in public without one at your peril and in ten short years this has come to be regarded as not even up for discussion. On the other hand, when the wearing of a poppy on Armistice Day was first mooted there were many First World War veterans, still young men, who regarded it as cheapening the memories of those who died in the trenches and who refused to wear one. Time and perception always evolve, individuals sometimes don’t.
Halfway through the roadtrip, during a five day stay in New Orleans in mid November, the public’s and government’s thirst for some revenge was at last unleashed as the full military might of the United States was brought to bear on the despotic and comedically backwards Taliban government of Afghanistan. The long, never ending ‘war on terror’ was declared. The second half of our journey, from there to Los Angeles began to take on the feel of a voyage into a new and often forbidding world. The Nineties, whatever they were, were already long gone. How I miss them sometimes, how naive they now seem, how free and how optimistic.
I was thrilled to be asked by the National Portrait Gallery a couple of months ago, if they could acquire my October 2010 portrait of writer Caitlin Moran, who despite being born in 1975 has had a column in The Times since 1958. She is, indeed, a prolific woman. I have a few things in the bowels of the nation’s collection and on a handful of occasions they have managed to crawl out of the sub-ground level darkness to make it on to the walls of the gallery itself. This time, however, the gallery wanted to fast track the photograph straight into the “Picture of the Month” slot for August. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the wall of Room 39 at the NPG later this week.
The story behind how the picture came to exist is a great example of the unforseen bonuses that can derive from getting off your arse in times when the Black Dog is upon your shoulder. Regular readers of this blog will know about the ‘140 Characters‘ project, in which I spent the best part of a year photographing 140 people that I follow on Twitter. What I haven’t really mentioned before is that I started the project at a time when work had been very quiet for several weeks. I had barely seen or spoken to anybody. In times like those your reserves of confidence can literally eat themselves up in minutes. Since the demise of analogue/film in my world, the opportunities to meet and spend time with other like minded types have been heavily diminished. Frankly, I miss it. In the days of going to labs it meant that you were meeting your contemporaries, getting to know them and even, in some cases, actually becoming friends with them. Those people know what it’s like and we would each draw comfort, support and fuel from each other during the dodgy periods. Since that’s all over, I don’t know what anybody looks like anymore. I feel like Ray Liotta at the end of ‘Goodfellas’ stuck in the witness protection programme. “There’s no action anymore. Just the other day I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce in a restaurant. You know what they brought me? Egg noodles and ketchup. I get to live the rest of my life like a schmuck.”
Other photographers are just names now, not faces. The ’140 Characters’ thing was my attempt to meet people, as well as ‘self assign’ a project that would fill up some time, inspire me and also serve as a big, barbed stick with which to keep the Black Dog away. I don’t like spending days at a time on my own. The mental lanes my mind tends to wander down always lead to gloom, pessimism and an assumption that all the future has to offer is an unpleasant ending. It’s boring and lonely. Twitter was/is the closest I have come to filling the hole that has been left by the eradication of house leaving opportunities.
The portrait of Caitlin that is now in the NPG was a byproduct of the Twitter project. I had been following her for a while on Twitter and loved watching the way she would interact with other people on there, particularly Alexis Petridis, the Guardian’s music critic, who is someone I know as an acquaintance, having worked with him a couple of times on stories for The Guardian Weekend. Watching them, and others, was the virtual version of sitting in an office with very funny workmates. As I developed the idea for the project in my head, I wanted it to be a place where I could bring people together in a photograph who were clearly doing things together in a medium like Twitter. Equally, I also wanted it to serve as a platform in which people who previously had had no contact could come together and the white space of the frame would be the canvas in which they could form something unique amongst themselves. So it was with this theory in mind that I persuaded and managed to co-ordinate a visit to my studio from Caitlin and Alexis at the same time and on the same day. What I love about these pictures is that they are a clear visual manifestation of how their relationship regularly plays out on Twitter.
After photographing the pair of them together I then spent some time on each of them as individuals and it was here that the headline image was made. I knew that I had the time of someone special, even magical, so I thought it best to exploit it while I had the chance. So, as well as doing some of the white background stuff, I also decided to do something different. When I say ‘different’, what I really mean is that I just wanted to do a classic Penn/Avedon style of 1950′s black and white character led portrait. I felt that I didn’t even need to wind her up and let her go because she winds herself up and lets herself go. It was me but it could equally have been her bedroom mirror or an audience of legal executives. What ensued was a 15 minute period where I documented, in real time, certain elements of a mesmerising, clever and very funny woman. One image doesn’t do her justice, so here ‘s a selection of the outtakes – the ‘rejects’. What comes over, looking at them now, is that fundamentally Caitlin is a performer, except she does it for a mass audience with a pen. I’m quite convinced that, given the opportunity, she could have done it with comedy, radio, telly or even films. Singing, I’m not sure about.
In all probability these pictures would have then languished for eternity on one of the gazillion hard drives that my work, post analogue, now lives inside. No one would have seen them and they’d have drifted further from my frontal lobes with each new subject that came my way. However, in an idle moment a couple of days after our time together I sent her a selection of them via email. Here’s her reply:
So, the pictures went from Caitlin to her publishers, who after much umming and a lot of aahing picked the one they wanted, which then went on the cover of her book ‘How To Be A Woman’, and which now, 6 weeks after it was published is right up there in the top ten of Amazon’s UK sales chart. They put a silly red/pink tint on her polka dot top in the photo, for no discernible reason whatsoever, and because as someone once said about Martha Stewart, “She can never let a pine cone just be a pine cone”, but this is what happens when you let ‘wordy’ people loose on imagery. They always think they can improve it. It’s my ambition to one day stand behind a literary person and, every few minutes, lean over their shoulder and randomly change a sentence they just wrote. In return I will allow them to come on a photo shoot with me and point at things they’d like me to photograph, for the purposes of providing some sort of visual affadavit to the words they think they will later write.
Luckily this didn’t put off the nice people at the NPG who saw it and asked if they could buy it ‘for the nation’ and print it in it’s full monochromatic glory, with Caitlin’s polka dot top rendered in a fine shade of greys.
As I said at the beginning, what I am most thrilled about in all this is the way that what began as an idea motivated by the realisation that I was feeling unmotivated and in need of creative stimulation has, in hindsight, led all the way to the walls of the place that any portrait photographer yearns to have their work. So, thank you to Caitlin for turning up and thank you to Alexis Petridis for forcing her to turn up.
See the picture and viewing information on the National Portrait Gallery website.
The Manzine have published this piece by me on my ‘Consequences of Vengeance’ project. Read the backstory here and if you’d like to buy a copy of the magazine then visit their site and order yourself one. The Manzine features work by many of the best writers working in Britain today and it allows them to write pieces that stretch them in a far more creative way than the mainstream publications they work for will allow.
“Chris Floyd exists partly because his mother was not blown up by V2 rockets launched from The Hague during the Second World War. Here are some pictures he took and a story he wrote about the subject.
The photographer David Bailey told me recently that when he was a kid, a German V2 Vergeltungswaffen (Vengeance Weapon) rocket, landed on his local cinema. After that, rage and sadness were with him constantly. He believed Hitler had killed Mickey Mouse.
I am 42 years old and I have two children of my own. Girls. They are six & two. The older I get, the more prone I am to dwelling on the feints, swerves and potholes of this life, as well as the gifthorses and cupcakes.
At 7.21am on Tuesday 27th March 1945 a V2 struck Hughes Mansions, a series of tenement buildings in Vallance Road, Stepney, London E2. It killed 134 people, most of them still in their beds. Most of population of the building were Jewish, of eastern European extraction. Two of those were my great grandparents, Abraham & Annie Mordsky, who lived at number 83.
This particular V2 also has its own little place in history. It was the final enemy attack of World War II to result in the death of London civilians. If Hitler, with his 1,000-year Reich collapsing around him, wanted to have one last go at exterminating the Jews, then what a sweet shudder must have run through him as the 1,401st of his beloved vengeance weapons to land on London took out 120 of them in the one place in Europe where they were guaranteed life and liberty.
Another relative, living nearby in Underwood Road, came running over to Hughes Mansions when he heard the explosion. In the rubble he found the bodies of Abraham & Annie, entirely physically intact, with not a mark on them. The colossal vacuum created by the V2 blast had asphyxiated them. It had sucked the life right out of them. They never knew what hit them.
My mother was two years old, a regular Monday night guest at her grandparents, while her mother went to work. Her father (my grandfather) was at sea in the Royal Navy. Abraham & Annie were his parents. My grandmother decided to change things around on the night of the 26th March and did not send my mother to stay with the Mordskys. Consequently, she was not killed at 7.21am the following morning. As a further consequence, you are now reading this.
I do not remember a time when this piece of family history was not in me. As I get older I think about the V2 more than I probably should. How could I not? It defines the reason for my existence on this earth. Are there other things like this that I don’t know about? A decision made by a woman to have the night off. No, don’t fancy it tonight, I want to stay in… I’ll swap my shift. I’ll keep the kiddy with me, we’ll see the in-laws later in the week…
I’ve dreamed about being there five minutes before it came and yelling at all those in its path to get out. Wake up! When I open my mouth in the dream, well, I’m sure you can guess: nothing comes out. They all die and I’m paralysed.
I am a photographer and taking photographs is the thing I do. It’s how I see, feel and touch. So I decided to go to the corner of The Continent from where my fate was determined and see it for myself. Maybe I can stop it there.
I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for information and I found a website called v2rocket.com. It’s a bottomless mine of V2-related facts and people. I discovered that the launch sites of many V2s are well known among those who like to know. Included in that list is the launch information for a rocket that originated in The Hague at 07.12am on March 27 1945. Alongside it is the known impact site: Vallance Road, Stepney, London. There even exists an RAF reconnaissance photograph of the site that was taken earlier in the same month. It shows a heavily wooded park/forest in the centre of the city – Haagse Bos. In the picture are five V2s lying on their sides in a line. The RAF returned later to bomb them. Unfortunately, the leading bomber dropped its load too early and all those planes behind followed its lead by doing the same thing. The bombs landed at the south east corner of the park instead of the intended spot, the north west. I look at that picture now and one of those five is what I can’t stop in my dream.
I went to see the consequences that were visited on that little piece of Stepney and we packed the car with large-format camera equipment. A 5”x4” cherrywood Zone V1 field camera. Or a “blanket over the head wedding photographer camera”, as a passerby once commented. Eighty sheets of large-format colour film were loaded in a darkroom. We were bristling with Victorian technology, and when we unpacked and set up the shot of the Hughes Mansions site as it is today, from under the blanket I was bringing into focus an upside down and back to front image of a tarmac carpark. Of course. What else would it be?
Also upside down and back to front in the viewfinder was the outline of a woman carrying a Tesco bag. She opened her mouth to speak and what came out, from across the other side of the car park, was absolutely the right way up and not back to front:
“What you fuckin’ doing that for? I live ’ere. I got right to know innit.”
“There was a German rocket that landed here in the war and killed 134 people. My grandparents were two of those. I’m a photographer and am doing a proj…”
“Oh right. Yeah. The war. Fuckin’ killed loads innit.”
She then turned to an as-yet unseen
co-inquisitor, above us in the flats, and bellowed:
“BOMB COME. THE WAR. KILLED ’IS FUCKIN’ NAN & GRANDAD INNIT. ’E’S TAKIN’ A PHOTO OF IT OR SUMMINK.”
And then she disappeared up the stairs with her Tesco bag and whatever.
Then we’re being eyed up by four young guys. Just watching us. Not speaking, to us or to each other. Some more appear across from where they are standing. I’ve been in a lot of places where a camera is not welcome and I can sense when its presence is causing ripples. Now is that time. Even the sky seems to go darker. Malice is radiating and it starts to gently rain. A warning. Stay here and bad things might happen. The difference between then and now is that I know I’ve been warned. I’ve been given the luxury of time.
There is history here. In 2005 a small memorial plaque was unveiled on the site. There was a high turnout of old Jewish people, some who survived the V2. But as we drove out of there it occured to me that the V2 didn’t just suck the life out of my great grandparents in that place. The tarmac carpark feels like a memorial, and there seemed to be mistrust, suspicion and paranoia all around. I don’t need to go back there again.
The distance that the V2 flew in nine minutes in 1945, we drove (in the opposite direction) in 13 hours this year. From Hughes Mansions to Harwich in Essex, an overnight ferry to The Hook of Holland and then another drive to The Hague.
The launch site. This was it, the place I dream about and the muddy patch of woodland that the RAF missed. Standing there I felt more kinship and meaning in this, the patch of crappy municipal ground from which my grandad’s mum & dad’s death was certified, stamped, signed, sealed, delivered, nine minutes before they knew it. There is more grace, peace and beauty in this bare patch of Dutch mud and leaves that gave of itself to allow death to be delivered remotely to others, than there is in all of that blob of grim, dark blight of east London that seems to bear only ill will to those within as well as to those from without.
And now I know why. From here, the path that led to my place on this ball of rock in space was sealed too. This terrible incident was the first step in a chain of events that led to my mum meeting my dad. Had there been no rocket that day, then, well, who knows what it might have been. I know there’s no point in asking these questions, but what point also is there in the Fantasy Football League?
We choose the fantasies we like to take part in. Some people like football, I like to wonder about rocket trajectories. No rocket? No deaths, no mourning, no this, no that, no who knows what and on and on for another 25 years, deviating from the trajectory of me. No mum meeting no dad. No me. Nor my children too. I see their little faces in in the deaths of Abraham and Annie. I thank them for it and realize that this isn’t just about the consequences of vengeance. It’s also about the consequences of trajectory, the defining characteristic not only of projectiles but also lives. Cupid, above all, can tell you about that. “
In July 2010 I decided to begin photographing people that I follow on Twitter. The idea for this came at a moment when I realised I had not seen or spoken to any of my best half a dozen real and actual friends for over a month. Some of those people on Twitter I communicate with several times a week, in bursts of 140 characters or less, and yet I had never met any of them. As we are now well and truly living in a digital age I am aware that this state of being is only going to deepen and the traditional forms of friendship, although they will not go away anytime soon, are going to have to make more room for the new way of doing things. Where Facebook might be considered as the place in which you tell lies to all the people you went to school with, I had begun to think of Twitter as the place where you tell the truth to all those that you wish you’d gone to school with. The project rolled on indefinitely for almost a year but when, one day, I counted up the number of subjects to date and came to a number in the mid one hundred and thirties, I immediately knew where this had to end. So here they are. My new friends. 140 characters. No more and no less.
I am one week short of taking a full year to get to this point and, for those of you that are interested, here is the original post from July 2010, explaining it all right at the start. Reading it back, I am struck by how much my inspiration stayed the course. The digital nature of being a photographer today remained the prime raison d’etre for the project. Humans are pack animals, despite what we may or may not believe at any given point in our daily/weekly/monthly/yearly cycle of highs and lows. I am definitely happier when in the presence of stimulating company and the demise of film and all the trips to film related places (photographic stores, labs, printers etc) has played a big role in the erosion of those opportunities, as well as leaving a huge social void that is yet to be filled by something equally physical or new. Nor is anything likely to, we are too wedded to the convenience of the computer and the immediacy of digital delivery. I mean, come on, who is going to go back to sitting around waiting for clip tests ever again? Or be full steam ahead with heavenly raptures of transcendence for the deadline dodging motorcycle courier? Then there’s international clients. Fedexing contact sheets? You’re out of your frigging mind. So far, Twitter has plugged the hole, in the sense that it has created an opportunity for me to talk to people on a daily basis while I’m at work. What constitutes me being at work is vast swathes of time during the week, where I am sat alone at a computer for hours and hours and hours. The furthest my intellect gets stretched during these periods is when I get to do ‘Ctrl+C’ followed by ‘Ctrl+V’.
In addition, I’m also really, really nosey and I wanted to see what all these people that I had begun to ‘talk to’ were like and, equally importantly, what they sounded like. I needed to meet them. Further down this post is an audio/visual slide show that features a whole load of the one forty alongside an audio edit of many of them talking about Twitter. What it reveals, that Twitter does not reveal by itself, are the accents. I love just hearing all the accents and I love that the British Isles, despite what we may think about the gradual homogenisation of our regional dialects, still throws up a wonderful ploughman’s platter of chat. I played it to my dad, who is a 69 year old retiree, out of the world for 4 years, and does not engage in Twitter or any other forms of social media. After listening to it he said: “I’m not so pessimistic for the future after hearing that. In fact, I’m quite optimistic. People are still thoughtful, still intelligent and still funny. We’ll be alright.”
I never joined Facebook, or any of those other ones, so why has Twitter, after two and a half years, remained entrenched in my daily life? I can only come to one conclusion. Whereas Facebook seems to allow the user to construct a perceived or projected existence for themselves through the deployment of various convenient aids, Twitter just strips it all away and leaves the user with nothing but the utilitarian tool of 140 characters and the imagination of language. Over a sustained period of time or patch of ground you are always going to betray yourself. By that I mean that you will, layer by layer, reveal who you are and this will continue to be an ongoing and ever revelatory process. Other users will continue to be attracted to that or not, and vice versa. It’s really quite binary, whilst being relentlessly deep and wide, which I like. A lot.
As someone said to me, Twitter is “a huge, massive, endless free flowing conversation with lots of interesting, witty people.” What more is there to say? If you don’t get it, then you just don’t get it.
To celebrate the end of the project I have commissioned a limited print run of 500 posters. Designed by Wayne Ford, the posters (shown above) are A1 in size (840mm x 594mm) and were printed in England using a lithographic tritone process consisting of a warm grey 4, a book black and a process black on 135gsm Omnia paper stock. They are £30 each, including delivery. Mine is framed and on my hall wall. Hit this little button here and Paypal will make it all nice and smooth.
As if that ain’t enough! Here is a 14 minute slideshow of all the portraits that were produced for ‘One Hundred and Forty Characters’ accompanied by a fantastic audio edit of many of those who took part talking about Twitter with wit, thoughtfulness and insight. Warning! Contains accents.
And finally, if you’d prefer to just listen to the audio, which is just the straight 14 minutes of human ingenuity and interestingness on one subject all by itself then click here to listen to an Audioboo file while you go about other important tasks.