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.