Derek Jarman, London 1985.

Sunday, 19 February 2012 Today is the anniversary of the death of painter and film maker Derek Jarman. He died from an Aids related illness exactly 18 years ago.  He was 52.

I photographed Derek three times and I certainly wish it had been more.  He was a wonderful, sweet man and truly an inspiration.  

When I first met him, he lived very simply.  First in a small flat opposite Central Saint Martins in Charing Cross Road, London.  Then, in later years, in a small cottage next to the nuclear power station in Dungeness, where he rather famously took up gardening.

The first time I was commissioned to photograph him, I had this rather crackpot notion that fire should somehow be involved in the photograph.  It was during the years when I still thought it important to have a very specific idea for every photograph and fire was a motif which, I'd noticed, often cropped up in Derek Jarman's films.  So I sketched out a few ideas and took them with me to show him.

Unlike, I suspect, many a famous painter or film maker, he was very enthusiastic.  One idea was for me to photograph him reading a book with flames arising from the pages.  I planned to go and buy an old book from one of the many second hand bookstores nearby but I didn't need to.  Derek Jarman pulled one out from his own shelves and, with a tin of lighter fuel which he also had handy, he pretty much set up the whole thing for me (detail shown above).

A few days later, we drove down to a bit of waste ground in the docklands area (it was in the days when it was still fairly desolate down there) and I did another shot of him standing in a ring of fire.  I made a circle of crumpled newspaper about six feet in diameter, he stood in the middle of it and a colleague set light to it.  He was a real trooper.  I guess it wasn't particularly dangerous.  He could probably have stamped out the flames if he'd wanted to.  But it was fantastic to have a photographic subject that was prepared to go to some lengths to help me get an interesting shot.

If I'm honest, I don't think either photograph was as successful as I'd hoped but I was certainly right about one thing.  Derek Jarman certainly did seem to quite enjoy a good fire.

He's sadly missed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/feb/14/art.margaretthatcher

Keith Richards, Savoy Hotel, London 1985.

Friday, 3 February 2012 Yesterday I attended the opening of the Sunday Times 50th Anniversary Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea.  One of my photographs of Keith Richards (detail above) is included in the show. 

When I originally responded to the request to be included many months ago, I wasn't really sure what to expect.  I've been in a lot of group shows over the years and some are  more worthwhile than others.  I didn't know whether my photograph would be one of many thousands, flicked past quickly in some sort of audio visual presentation.  I need not have been concerned on that score at all.  I didn't count them but it was it was in pride of place among a selection of about fifty photographs and the way they were all displayed - in huge light boxes - was very impressive.  I don't know if it was a coincidence or what, exactly, but standing right next to my photograph when I first saw it was eminent music business PR Alan Edwards, Keith Richard's press officer back in 1985 and the man that did much to help set up the photograph itself  all those years ago.  It was slightly weird to see him in that context, since I don't believe we've met since that night.

But I really had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming (actually the word "gobsmacked" would not be too strong) when I saw what exalted names I was on show with - Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold, David Bailey, Don McCullin, Arnold Newman.  I don't for a nanosecond categorise myself with photographic icons like that but it would nevertheless be a shame if I couldn't at least mention it here, on my own blog.

http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/current/sunday_times.htm

Ken Livingston, County Hall, London 1981.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012 shapeimage_2I was commissioned to photograph Ken Livingston by the French left-wing daily Liberation. He’d completed his first 100 days as the leader of the GLC and it was before most people in the UK had really become aware of him. It was at the time when the popular press dubbed him ‘Red Ken’ and the likes of the Daily Mail did everything but accuse him of eating live babies. 

The writer, Patrice Ballon, and I found him to be warm and utterly charming. Halfway through the interview, his elderly mother wandered in carrying a large bag of shopping. They shared a joke or two and then she went off to find a cup of tea.  I don’t exactly know why but the kind way that he treated his mother, in front of us, endeared me to him all the more. I photographed him again, 20 years later, as MP for Brent East, and he was just the same. Warm, faultlessly polite and with time for everyone.

When he became Mayor of London, he wasn’t always perfect, not by a long chalk.  But, in my view, he was streets ahead of the current incumbent.  I’ll be interested to see if he gets back in at the election on the 3rd of May.  He’ll certainly be getting my vote.

Bananarama, Brighton 1981.

Thursday, 12 January 2012 For some reason, Bananarama developed a very bad reputation with the music press.  Although they started out as three ordinary but very likeable women, they became known as being awkward with journalists and especially difficult with photographers.

I never saw this side of them at all.  I met them fairly early on in their career well before fame had had a chance to go to their heads.  I was introduced to them by the DJ Gary Crowley in the summer of 1981 whilst I was shooting him for The Face magazine.  I didn't know it at the time but I'd actually met and photographed two of them once before - Keren and Siobhan - at Billy's Club in Soho three years previously.  I only discovered those photographs fairly recently.

The photograph above was commissioned by the magazine Cosmopolitan.  At that time I had a fairly open brief from Cosmopolitan and I was detailed to find young pop bands that were destined for the top.  It was for a half-page, monthly feature.  When I was introduced to them, in all honesty, I had no real idea if they were going to be any good (it was some time before their first single) but they were three attractive, young women in ra-ra skirts and therefore perfect for the spirit of the times.  Plus I thought they would be just right for Cosmo's demographic.

We decided to drive down to Brighton for the photographs.  We ended up doing most of them on the pier but I also took some shots of them at the funfair, on the big wheel, and larking about fully clothed in the surf.

It was a great day out with beautiful sunny weather.  The three of them couldn't have been any more charming or easier to work with.  Soon afterwards I went to the WAG Club in Soho and saw them do a live PA of what would become their first single 'Aie a Mwana'.  I thought it was great.  Produced by Sex Pistol Steve Jones, it's still my favourite of all their singles.

I also managed to persuade Nick Logan to run a couple of the pictures in The Face.  Where, according to legend, they were seen by ex-Specials lead singer Terry Hall.  I guess he must have assessed them in much the way I'd done because, based solely on the way they looked, a meeting was arranged between them and Terry Hall's next band - the 'Fun Boy Three.'  The rest, as they say, is history.  The two bands subsequently collaborated on the single 'T'ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)' and it got to number 4 in the UK singles charts.

Bananarama's next record 'He Was Really Sayin' Something' then had The Fun Boy Three singing backup.  That one got to number 5.  I shot the photograph for the cover.  It was taken at Orleans House Gallery, near the riverside in Twickenham.

I also shot them for the cover of NME a couple of times, once during the time Jacquie O’Sullivan was in the band.  They were always fine with me.  I loved working with them.

Le Beat Route, Soho 1982.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

shapeimage_4Last Friday I went to the launch party for the Graham Smith and Chris Sullivan book 'We Can Be Heroes.'  It was held at a nightclub in London's Soho that used to be called 'Le Beat Route,' which was well known, for a while in the early '80s, as being one of the premier haunts of Boy George and the youth sub-cult that eventually became known as the New Romantics.

In the years between 1981 and 1983 I’d taken a lot of photos there.  It was a great club for a while because it came along after the initial glare of publicity that surrounded the New Romantics had passed on.  They didn't seem to run a strict door policy, like Steve Strange had done at the Blitz, and it was a lot darker and more subterranean than the Camden Palace and so much less attractive to all the poseurs and tourists.  And the beer was cheaper.  So all the old crowd from Billy's and Blitz could have a night off, let their hair down and relax a little.

But what took place at Le Beat Route still resonated.  A few people (and it was only a few) started wearing incredibly shabby and distressed denim down there.  At that point, I hadn't seen that look anywhere else in London.  Robert Elms wrote a cover story for The Face about it, dubbing it "hard times chic".  Within what seemed like weeks, hard times chic went global and you could buy heavily distressed denim in the high street.

In the intervening years not much has changed at Le Beat Route.  The old sticky carpet has been replaced by a new sticky carpet.  There is no longer an old fashioned pay phone at the bottom of the stairs.  There are more lights and a few more mirrors around the walls than there ever had been before but essentially the old place was exactly the same.

I'd spent so much time there it was almost like going home and it was great to see some of the old faces from that time.  Many of whom, like the club itself, don't seem to have changed all that much.

Some of them, like milliner Stephen Jones OBE, went on to achieve worldwide fame.  Others like Martin Degville of Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Carole Caplan, Cherie Blair's one time confidant (neither of whom, I saw on the night) managed only a little more than their requisite fifteen minutes of fame.

Although I chatted to a few of the old crowd, it was clear that many of them either didn’t remember me or, perhaps, had ever known who I was in the first place.  It takes a lot to bruise my ego and  I suppose time has been less kind to me than it has to some of them.  Of course, I usually had a camera in front of my face.  That’s my excuse.

As Christos Tolera (Blue Rondo A La Turk) told me at another book launch on Monday, very few of that crowd were in a fit state, back in the day, to remember much of anything.

My photograph of the couple kissing under the table (detail above) sums up the place nicely.  They’re totally oblivious to the  people and the detritus all around them, totally lost in the moment.  In my opinion, almost a perfect place to be.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/we-can-be-heroes

Reading Festival 1989.

Saturday, 3 December 2011 The above is a detail taken from a photograph of a bottle fight that took place at the Reading Festival in 1989.  Although I didn't see it at the time (I was too busy trying to duck the bottles), the guy in the front has the words "violence is their answer not ours" painted on the back of his jacket.  In my opinion what makes it an interesting photograph is the contrast between what the guy is doing (or appears to be doing) and the person he wants to present himself as.

This dichotomy might be ruined slightly if I were to tell you that the bottles were all plastic and the fight was mostly youthful exuberance, rather than anything approaching violence.  Of course, if it were not for this blog, I wouldn't.

People did get occasionally hurt though.

In 1991 when Meatloaf appeared at the Reading Festival his first couple of numbers were met with a barrage of bottles, many of them full up.  Fairly understandably, Meatloaf was not prepared to put up with this and eventually he stormed off stage.  After about five minutes he came back and, looking really mad, grabbed the mike, pointed to the place where most of the bottles were coming from and said "If there's any more..."   At which point another bottle hit him squarely on the nose and he had to be taken to hospital.

Great comic timing but not very funny.

And if you'd been a Meatloaf fan that had waited at the front of that crowd all day to see your hero, you'd have rightly been irked.

But not everyone who forces their way through a crowd of 50,000 people will happily tolerate acts they haven't come specifically to see.  And if they've been drinking all day too, it may not always strike them as convenient to force their way back out again just to go to the bathroom.  There’s an obvious solution to both problems.

So the bottling of the bands became something of an disagreeable tradition at British Festivals in the '80s.  I never really understood exactly why but some of the most popular bands got bottled as much as the less popular ones.  In 1983 when Madness headlined a CND benefit at Brockwell Park, they were relentlessly bottled by a group of their own skinhead fans, right at the front.  Luckily for the rest of us, they ducked and swerved around and managed to endure it.

When Zodiac Mindwarp And The Love Reaction played Reading in 1987, I saw their drummer Slam Thunderhide catch a bottle right in front of his face and skilfully chuck it back without missing a beat.  It was very impressive.

And the bottle chucking had another downside.  Heavy drinking doesn't necessarily improve one's aim.  Often a bottle would come zooming out of the sky, burst against the stage or speakers and shower anyone standing in pit (either photographers or security) with something warm and not very fragrant.  It happened to me more than I care to remember. Okay, it wasn't exactly like being in 'Nam with Larry Burrows but it was unpleasant all the same.

The problem was cured overnight when some genius had the idea of banning the sale of drink in bottles at rock festivals.

I don’t know who it was but give that man a medal.

At Gossips Club, Soho 1979.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

At GossipsI discovered today that there is one slightly peculiar similarity between me and one of my photographic heroes -

Garry Winogrand.

We both had deadbolts on the inside of our darkrooms, both for a rather unusual reason.

I would have thought that the only normal reason anyone could have for wanting to lock themselves into their own darkroom would have been to stop someone accidentally opening the door and letting the light in.  Either that or to preserve one's privacy whilst one is working.

In the case of me and Garry this wasn't the case.  It was to prevent the ingress, or in my case the egress, of one particular person.

According to a fascinating blog entry from Norman Bringsjord (link below), a one time student of Garry Winogrand, Garry had a large deadbolt fitted on the inside of his darkroom to prevent his belongings going astray whilst he went through a divorce.  Since he, or someone, would have had to be inside the darkroom at the time, a fact that would be obvious from the outside, one might normally have expected that to be enough.

Maybe Garry Winogrand's ex was a particularly formidable woman?

In my case, having a deadbolt on the inside door of my darkroom was to prevent someone getting out, not in.  That someone was me.

It was the late ‘70s, when I'd just started  to take photography really seriously.  Due to finances though, my whole set-up was still amateur in the extreme.  I only owned one camera body and one lens, and my flash unit was a cheap Sunpak, which I mounted on my camera upside down, with a contraption made from a bent coat hanger and a lot of sellotape.

I set up a small darkroom in the house that my family rented with a couple of our friends.  The only spare space I could utilise was the cupboard under the stairs (which we used as a larder).  If I moved all the food out, I found that there was just enough room for me to stand between the inside of the door and the larder’s bottom shelf.  But only just.  I found that (and this is no exaggeration) if I breathed out too heavily or leant back only slightly, the door would ping open and I’d fog everything.  I solved this problem by fitting a deadbolt on the inside of the door and locking myself in.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty arrangement but it worked and I kept that set up for several years.  My first three one man shows were all printed in the darkroom/larder including 'The Kiss' at the Photographers Gallery in 1982.  The above shot was in that show and also used on the poster.

http://www.bringsjord.com/about/index.php

Nick Cave, London 1989.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011 Commissioned by the German magazine Spex, this photograph was done in Bridges Place, which is an alleyway close to Trafalgar Square.  It’s a smelly, somewhat medieval passage which, even on sunny days, is quite dark and dramatic and it narrows down to about two feet at one end.  My photograph of Douglas Adams was taken in exactly the same place.

It's one of the places in Central London which, just a few feet away from the hustle and bustle of everyday city life, can photographically be made to look quite otherworldly.

Because, in those days at any rate, lots of hotels, record companies, film companies, PR agencies and management offices were concentrated into a few square miles of Central London, I had a few fail safe spots where I knew I could always go and make an different looking photograph.  Bridges Place was often preferable to a chintzy hotel room or an anonymous, windswept roof.  And it certainly suited my downbeat style better.

I don't work that way now and I don't necessarily recommend it but it was the way I worked then.

Over the space of about 12 or 13 years, I’d photographed Nick Cave at least half a dozen times and every time I met him he acted as if we’d never met before. You’ll photograph some musicians for five minutes and twenty years later, you’ll run into them again and they’ll instantly remember your name.  It’s not that way with Nick Cave.  I never saw any glimmer of recognition in his eyes each time we met.  None whatsoever.

It’s okay though, it doesn’t bruise my ego.

Well… maybe just a bit.

But perhaps it’s a good thing. The first time I ever photographed Shane McGowan, he seemed slightly disagreeable (though one learnt that it was never easy to tell with him). Whilst I was out of the room, he told my assistant that he didn’t like me at all because I was some “c**t”  he’d fallen out with when I photographed the Pogues.

I’d never, in fact, ever photographed the Pogues.

The reluctant surfer, North Devon 2011.

Saturday, 29 October 2011 The photograph above was taken last weekend.  The reluctant surfer is Jake Wilson, aged five and three quarters.  In the background you can just about make out three figures enjoying the surf.  They are his parents and sister Ella.

Jake had worked hard with his family all day in order that I could shoot some happy holidaymaker type photographs for an advertising job I had to do.  We'd gone into the nearby town and hired wetsuits and surf boards but, after stopping off at the local pub for a while, by the time we got back, I think the sea was either too cold or, maybe, the surf too rough for Jake to manage.  He manfully stood up to every other task I threw at him.  He's a great little poser.  He's also my grandson.

I do realise that I recently wrote on this blog that advertising photography was not the kind of work that I ever really aspired to doing.  The job in Devon was great fun but nevertheless that still does hold true.  But in order to sustain a career as a freelance photographer, especially in the current economic climate, it sometimes pays not to be too sniffy about some of the jobs one gets offered.

Over the course of the last week, I've been part of an online debate about just this subject.  Or rather, photographers who shift from genre to genre.

Generally speaking, I don't think it's a very good idea.  Some of the greats (Richard Avedon or Irving Penn for instance) can be brilliant across several genres but usually only those that can be made to sit happily side by side.  In the case of Avedon and Penn, usually whatever would fit into their studio.

Usually if a photographer tries to spread himself too thinly across too many genres, the result will more often than not be that they won't excel in any of them.

Here I'll offer as an example someone who was very nearly a contemporary of both Avedon and Penn - Patrick Lichfield.

Over a fifty year photographic career he shot advertising, fashion, portraiture, reportage, erotica and, for all I know, probably weddings too.  The one time I met him he was a friendly and utterly charming man but, especially considering the subjects he had access to through being a member of the British Royal Family, very few of his images are in any way memorable.  He was pretty good at most of the photographic subjects he tackled but, in my opinion, not great in any of them.

You might say that I and photographers like me would be very lucky to have a career even half as successful as that of Patrick Lichfield.  That would certainly be true, no question.  But Lichfield, Avedon and Penn all come from a different era, an era when photography itself was a lot harder and those that managed to climb to the very top often became household names.

Which meant, if you could ever manage to hire them, they brought their own special  kind of prestige to a project.  Hence they used to get offered a lot more than they might otherwise have been perfect for.

(When I was still an ad agency art director, I once tried to hire Norman Parkinson to shoot a campaign for Courtaulds.  In this case, I did think he was exactly the right photographer for the job, the client was prepared, very reluctantly, to pay his astronomical fee and the only thing that nixed the idea was that he couldn’t make our dates.)

Nowadays everyone has a camera, everyone can take at least a half decent photograph but, it seems, less and less are earning a living from photography.

And not so many photographers have quite the fabulous prestige of some of the greats of the late Twentieth Century.

Which means, if you’re staring out now and you really want to get noticed, you need to specialise.

The Beastie Boys, New York 1987.

Thursday, 20 October 2011 To be quite honest, when I first met the Beastie Boys I thought they were three idiots.

NME had sent me to New York and I turned up, on my own, to find them in a small, cluttered West Village flat. The atmosphere reeked of dopey, male adolescence. They proceeded to lark about, show off, chuck things around and generally try to make me feel as awkward as possible.

I smiled and tried to go with the flow, just in order to get the job done and get out of there as quickly as possible. 

It certainly didn’t dawn on me at the time but this little performance might have been a sort of test. Maybe they put all members of the media through it, just to see how they would react; I certainly have my suspicions on this score. I honestly don’t know if I passed the test or not, but after an hour or so, they shut up and let me get on with it.

When it was time for me to go, they presented me with a small metal keyring.   Apparently they gave them to all visiting members of the press.

The keyring was in the shape of two figures, an attractive young woman and a rather unattractive looking old man.  It was articulated so that one could make the figures appear to be in enthusiastic sexual congress.  It was the sort of low-brow trash that one can pick up in seaside novelty shops the world over.  If one was young enough, one might have found it mildly amusing - for a millisecond. When I got home I gave to my sixteen year old son.

In subsequent years, after they moved to LA, I shot the Beastie Boys many more times and I got to know them well.  As usual, my initial impressions of them turned out to be completely wrong. Three nicer and more intelligent guys one could honestly not hope to meet.  So I guess their earlier behaviour was a test.

We took the above photograph just off Eighth Avenue and a very one similar one later featured on the cover of the NME.