Here’s an email I received quite late on a Friday afternoon in April of 2012.
My name is Luke, I’m a designer at Faber & Faber. One of our co-publishers at the Guardian gave me your details, and after viewing your website I felt compelled to get in touch. I see you did Caitlin Moran’s book recently, which most publisher’s design teams are pretty jealous of.
We commission a fair bit of photography, of both high and low profile people for use on our book covers. I’d love to meet you and see a bit more of your work – would you be up for either coming in to see us and showing us your portfolio, or meeting for a coffee somewhere convenient for us both in London?
Of course, being utterly incapable of playing hard to get, I immediately replied to Luke and made an appointment to go in and see him at Faber in Bloomsbury Square, London.
There is a whole dilemma at work for a photographer in this age, when it comes to how to show one’s work to a new/prospective client. Print portfolio, or iPad? IPad, or print portfolio?
The reality is that I like to use both. The iPad makes EVERYTHING look better. It is slicker, less fumbly, less clumsy. It can make almost anything look good, which is why you should take a print book with you to prove that your work stands up by itself without the support pants and corset of that HD super glossy screen. I’m doing films and moving image work more and more now. Even if the person I’m going to see is not commissioning me for those things it’s still nice to be able to show them some of that if they are interested.
We are, these days, selling ourselves as a brand as much as any other. I don’t particularly enjoy that and it distresses me that I have to think like that but, then again, I don’t really know much about televisions either, so if you stuck me in a roomful of them I’d probably shrug my shoulders and point at the one that says ‘Sony’. It’s a trusted brand, the trust built up over decades through product excellence and diligent, brilliant marketing. Same with photographers. Some (NOT ALL) of the people who commission photography don’t really know much about photography. They always go for the big brand names. They know that no one will laugh at them and other people will think they’re really cool. There are photographers out there who would do the job just as well, maybe even better and also for less cost, but, well, you know how it goes. Those big names have earned their place by proving themselves early on but they’ve stayed there by turning themselves into brand names within our industry just as Sony, Mercedes, Apple and Gaggia have in theirs.
Fifteen years ago someone said to me, “You know, when someone hires you, what they’re really paying all that money for is your opinion, your visual opinion. You’ve demonstrated that the way you see things has a validity to it and they want you to do that for whatever it is they’re trying to sell. The most important thing you can do is maintain the integrity of that opinion by making sure that you don’t do anything that might compromise the way people interpret it.” The more time passes, the more that statement resonates.
I have never been able to actively go out and sell myself. I mean, I can do it a little bit but it’s not my default state. In the main, I have always tried to just do the best work I can and hope that the people I want to work for will see it and then look for a reason to want to work with me. Being brand aware means being so much more conscious of treading an almost fascist path through one’s career. It means actively pursuing a course, rather than being satisfied with where the wind takes you. I’ve developed a technique, twenty years into my career, that embraces a mix of each. I will spend six months carving a particular path and then I’ll turn the engine off and let the wind take it from there for a while. I try and plant seeds that will bear fruit later. Plant them regularly so that, hopefully, I build up the possibility of regular harvests. It’s the method I’ve developed that best allows me to pursue my ultimate aim, which is longevity. I put this down to the fact that I never had any formal schooling in the politics of the business. I never learned from anyone how to play the game and sometimes I lament that because this is an industry that does contain a lot of game players, people who for whatever reason are not necessarily particularly self confident or secure and who mask this by applying layers of deflective materials to their outer shell.
When I started writing this post I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it but now I do. The seed planting analogy goes all the way back to Luke’s mention of the Caitlin Moran book cover. In this post from August 2011 I wrote about how that picture came to exist and the consequences of it. This email from Luke is a good example of that seed bearing fruit two years later.
I thought hard about the format in which Luke might like to view my work and I decided that he seemed like the kind of guy that would get a kick out of having a look at a big old fashioned print book, what with him being part of an outfit that has for many decades been in the business of producing works in print. However, on the day of our meeting both my print books were otherwise occupied. All that brow furrowing was for nothing. I went with the iPad.
At the meeting I went through some of my work, we watched one of my short films and he quickly came to the point, which was nothing other than a lively surprise. I thought that he just wanted to meet me, leaf through the work and keep me in mind for things in the future. That’s what usually happens. In this case, though, there was a specific project on the immediate horizon.
Faber, in partnership with The Guardian, were planning to reissue three of Charlie Brooker’s recent books with new covers, alongside a brand new hardback, entitled ‘I Can Make You Hate’. Would I be interested in working with Mr Brooker on producing the covers for 4 books? Yes I would. ‘Hate’, as we came to refer to it was a thinly veiled parody of a couple of books by a well known television hypnotist and self improvement guru. Luke’s idea was for the cover to parody the self improvement guru’s book covers, with a smug faced Brooker in his place. The three reissues were to be a photographic representaion of the illustrated covers that the books had previously had. Luke sent me some extremely detailed and finely tooled illustrated briefs to work with.
There is generally not a cascading waterfall of money available to the people that create the cover art in the book publishing industry, so, in lieu of hiring a studio, we were offered the use of the Faber boardroom to do the shoot in. The boardroom still contains TS Eliot’s chair. How can you turn that down?
On 12th June Luke from Faber, two assistants and I carted all our equipment, lighting and backdrops through the narrow front door of the building and up to the well proportioned boardroom that overlooks the British Museum. Luke had done a great job of sourcing some good props and had also spent the previous weekend hand making a brilliant cut out of a red and yellow hellish inferno for use on ‘The Hell Of It All’ cover.
The thought of actually meeting Charlie was daunting. I rarely get intimidated at the prospect of having to work with someone but in his case the power, wit and imagination of his writing and personality were starting to make me think that he was not going to want to spend much time on this frivolous and self evidently vain crap. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the course of the day we shot about 900 pictures and when I look through them I’m reminded how much effort and thought he put into the process.
Rather than play the part of a passive and parodically curmudgeonly author, he gleefully embraced the collaborative process and delivered a genuinely wide portfolio of options, especially when it was time to turn his attention to the ‘I Can Make You Hate’ cover.
Jobs like this, it can be easy to get lost fulfilling the brief. As the day wears on I try to keep it in mind to do something for myself, to do a picture that I would have done without a brief. It’s not a separate thing that I try to do but more of a way of working where I keep my eyes open looking for the thing that I’m looking for. It’s not a tangible thing, it’s a subjective, esoteric thing. At a point, late in the day, it presented itself and it’s the picture that heads this post.
Why is it that one? Writing this now, I haven’t looked at the picture since I finished working on it but it’s clear in my head. I can see it quite precisely. It represents the way I saw Charlie that day. He’s a unique writer. He’s carved his own niche. The reason I think it resonates is because it casts him in a light that shows him as a man who highlights things, often dark things, particularly in the TV drama he’s creating now, that we didn’t necessarily realise we were aware of until he wrote it.
Someone I know suggested that he’s Jeremy Clarkson for Guardian readers, which I do think is a pretty funny and insightful observation. But it also possibly says more about the way the people they work for pitch both men at their audiences.
The theme that I think exists throughout much of his work is a projection into the dystopian near future. In this light, the person that he most reminds me of isn’t Paul McKenna, it’s JG Ballard.