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Everything But The Girl, Hampstead 1988.

Monday, 25 June 2012 In my last blog post I explained how I'd found someone with a rather formidable media reputation to be, in real life, friendly and utterly charming.

Unfortunately the opposite can sometimes be the case too.

In well over 35 years of professional photography, far and away the most difficult and unpleasant photoshoot I ever had to do was with Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn - collectively known as Everything But The Girl.

In well over 35 years of professional photography, far and away the most difficult and unpleasant photoshoot I ever had to do was with Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn - collectively known as Everything But The Girl.

I’d been commissioned to photograph them for the cover of NME.  It was in 1988 and still in the early years of NME printing colour covers.  Until around 1984, the magazine had been produced on uncoated newsprint and the paper quality would not support decent colour printing.  But by the time of my shoot with EBTG the paper had been upgraded and the then editor, Danny Kelly, was most insistent that all its colour photography should actually be colourful.  All the more so for the cover, in order to better attract the eye on the weekly news stands.

(This requirement explains the approach I took to a lot of my photography in the '80s).

When I went over to Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s flat in Hampstead I found it to be very smart but completely colourless.  It was all white walls and black and white tiled floors.  Fans of EBTG won't be surprised to learn that they also had several black and white framed photographs of Louise Brooks on the walls.  There was virtually no colour anywhere.

I said to them “We’re going to have to take these photographs outside.”

At which suggestion, they both flew into a hissy fit and point blank refused.

I then said “Well, fine but the photos probably won’t go on the cover then.”

On hearing this I received the longest and most sustained four letter word rant I’ve ever had to endure.

It would have been very easy for me to just walk out and leave them to it.  I really wanted to.  And I really wanted to give them back a few free opinions of my own.

But neither would have been very professional.  NME would simply have commissioned someone else and it would have been a black mark against my name next time they wanted to commission some photography.

So I set up some lights and did as they asked.

I’m not exactly sure, even to this day, why they took the attitude they did.  It wasn’t particularly warm outside but the weather was fine and it wasn't raining.  I'm pretty sure it was Spring and at the end of their road was a massive park known as Hampstead Heath.  They certainly weren't big enough names to worry about being bothered by people in the street.

But they refused, absolutely, to even step an inch outside their front door.

Maybe they’d spent all morning cleaning up their flat and they didn’t want all the effort to go to waste?

What's probably more likely is that they were rather proud of their flat and they wanted everyone in the music business to see it and see what a big success they'd become.

The photos came out quite well but, as I expected, there wasn't enough colour in them and so they didn’t go on the cover.

And I got paid around about half of what I would have got, if it had.

I once mentioned the above story to a guitar tech I met that had been on an American tour with Everything But The Girl.  He told me that Ben Watt hadn’t managed to say “please” or “thank you” to him once for the entire tour.

In the July edition of The Word Magazine, in an interview with David Hepworth, Tracy Thorn talks about writing her memoirs.  She says that she's had to go back and read a lot of her old interviews to remind herself of the person she'd been back in the '80s.

Maybe I can help her out with that.

In my experience, not a very nice one.

Grace Jones, The Dorchester Hotel, London 1985.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012 I was very pleased to see that Grace Jones' recent performance at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert was received so well.  It couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

I photographed Grace several times in the '80s and '90s and, though she had a reputation of being difficult, one would be hard pushed to meet a more friendly, warm hearted person.  

And she's far more down to earth than one would ever imagine if one only ever saw her fairly eccentric stage show.

I photographed her in Milan in 1989 and after the shoot she was determined that the journalist, David Quantick, and myself accompany her on a tour of some of Milan's wilder night clubs.

In one she whipped her t-shirt off and danced topless.  Being Grace Jones, she attracts a lot of attention anyway and that certainly didn't hinder matters in that regard.  En route to one of the other clubs we managed to pick up a rather drunk hanger on.  At one point he was half in and half out of the door of Grace’s limo, rambling on and holding everyone up.  Grace Jones said "Look, if you want to come with us get in, if not get out."  This didn't do the trick and none of the men in the car took charge including, I'm afraid to say, me.  Grace Jones got out of the other door, walked around in her six inch heels and manhandled the guy out of the car herself.  We drove off with him sitting looking bemused on the pavement.  She can be quite a formidable woman.

The photograph above was commissioned by the NME and taken in the Dorchester Hotel in 1985.  Initially I was picked to shoot her because I'd gained an entirely undeserved reputation at the NME as being a good photographer of difficult women.  Possibly this was due solely to a couple of successful shoots with Bananarama but I wasn’t going to argue.

I almost always found that women who were considered "difficult" were in fact successful, intelligent women who simply had a clear idea of how they wanted to present themselves and resisted being pushed around at the whim of a mostly male music industry.  I never once had a problem with strong female performers like that.  Several times I had problems with the delicate, shy type who go through life fluttering their eyelashes in order to achieve their objective, but that's another story.

Believe me, Grace Jones is certainly not that type.

Chuck Brown, Georgetown 1987.

Friday, 18 May 2012 I was sad to learn yesterday of the death of Chuck Brown "The Godfather of Go-Go."

(For a while, around '85/'86, some commentators thought that Go-Go was going to grow to be a bigger genre than hip hop.)

I met and photographed Chuck Brown several times, in the mid '80s, in Washington DC and in Baltimore, where he lived.  He'd had a colourful life, including an 11 year jail sentence, but I always found him charming and extremely polite.  I can't say the same for some his friends. 

The first time I met him was in 1985 when I'd been commissioned to go to Washington, with the writer David Toop, to shoot all the major players on the Go-Go scene for a big feature for The Face magazine.  Island Records had put David and myself up in a really grand hotel, right on the edge of Georgetown, but it was winter and bitterly cold.  The Potomac River was frozen over.

We met Chuck and his label boss cum advisor Maxx Kidd within hours of our arrival.  Maxx, a very voluble, expansive man, turned up in a chauffeur driven stretch Lincoln with a enormous, bear-like bodyguard called Big Al, who we later learnt was a martial arts expert.

Over dinner, David interviewed both Chuck and Maxx at some length and by the time I got some time to do my photographs it was getting close to midnight.  In those days, I was always looking to shoot my photographs with available light, almost no matter how dark it was.  I liked to travel light and didn't bring any lighting with me.

My idea for the photo shoot (if I could dignify it with such a term as "idea") was to find some sort of late night local atmosphere somewhere and try to imbue the photographs with a specific sense of time and place.  I'd had in mind a photogenic, Edward Hopper type urban nightscape.  But it was way too cold to shoot in the street, so I hoped we could find a cosy bar somewhere close.

It sounded like a simple enough plan.  Maybe I should have explained my scenario more fully because almost any busy open bar would have done.  But Chuck and Maxx said they had a friend who owned a bar and it was suggested we do the photos there.  The five of us piled into the back of Maxx's limo and we set off.  Somewhere along the line, we made a stop and picked up Chuck's saxophonist Leroy.  So then there were six of us and one, Big Al, was at least the size of two.

Our next stop was at the bar owner's house which seemed to be quite a long way out of town.  Complicating matters somewhat, it turned out that it was the bar owner's birthday and his bar was closed for the night.  It turned out he'd been celebrating his birthday all evening with his girlfriend and by the time we arrived they’d both gone to bed for the night.  Whilst David, Big Al and I waited in the limo, a delegation managed to persuade the guy to get up, get dressed and come with us to open his bar.

When he got to the car, it was plain to see that the bar owner was heavily refreshed verging on the legless.  He seemed pleasant enough to begin with and only too happy (almost) to do us a favour.  But somewhere along the journey back to the bar, things started to turn ugly.  I don't exactly know what was said but half way there, the bar owner started to get aggressive.

I honestly have no idea what the problem was.  There was obviously no real room to start a fight but the bar owner had a small hand gun, which had been concealed in his sock, and he started waving this threateningly in the faces of Chuck, Maxx and David.

I was sitting right next to the guy and he didn't at any time point his gun at me.  For some reason he didn't speak to me at all.  God only knows what I'd done right.

Either way, seven people squeezed tightly into the back of a limo, one of then being a drunk with a gun, is not a recipe for a doing anything harmoniously.  It's also not a good portent for a photo shoot.  Big Al, who I understand never carried a gun himself, managed to gradually and diplomatically talk the guy around and we all went on our way.

The bar owners "bar" turned out to more of a large, featureless dance hall with all the atmosphere of a doctor's waiting room.  And it was just about the last place I would have wanted to shoot photographs. Even though it was late February, the bar was still heavily bedecked with Christmas decorations.

The photographs I took there were not good (the one above is from a happier, later shoot in '87).  Neither Chuck nor Leroy look particularly radiant in any of the photographs in that bar.  The argument in the car seemed to have put paid to that.   They just weren't usable.

I guess the whole situation was partly my fault.  We never needed to go all that way and wake someone up.  My excuse was that I was a little jet lagged and just went along with the flow.

Over the next few days, David and I went all over Washington checking out the then burgeoning Go-Go scene.  I even went around some housing projects shooting a lot of the local street kids.  It was two decades before the era of 'The Wire' but I don't think David or I fully appreciated the degree to which drugs had rendered a lot of American housing projects such dangerous places.  Even though we found everyone to be very friendly, I don't think I'd go and try to shoot those sort of photographs now.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that we were accompanied on all our jaunts by Big Al, who'd been lent to us for the duration by Maxx Kidd.  I'd like to put on record that Big Al did a fantastic job, even guarding us when went into the bathroom in some of the Go-Go clubs.

About a year after we got back, I learnt that Big Al had been shot and killed by a kid in a record store.  He was a very sweet man and deserved so much better.

RIP Chuck Brown.  RIP Albert ‘Big Al’ Butler.

At The Roxy Club, London 1977.

Friday, 20 April 2012 It's April and it's student dissertation time once again.

In recent years I've often been asked to contribute to student's submissions, usually by answering a list of questions about my documentary work.

I always enjoy participating in this sort of thing.  Not only is it good for the ego but it's also a great opportunity for me to take some time out to reflect on what I've been doing over the years.  Reflection never does anyone any harm, does it?

The question I'm most often asked is, "How did you start?"  That's always a very easy one and I've covered this before on my blog.

A question that I was asked last week was not "How did you start" but "Why?  And what was it that motivated you to start photographing social subgroups and youth movements, like punks and skinheads?  That question is way harder.

Asking me to elucidate on what my exact motivations were for starting to do this 35 years ago is very hard.  And besides, anyone who ever claims to be too sure of their motivations for doing anything should be heard with some caution. Most likely my motivations were myriad, so whatever I say now might need a pinch or two of salt.

What I certainly do know was that my motivation was not to make a record of what those youth movements looked like for historical purposes.  This didn't occur to me until I'd been doing it for about six months.  Even then, if I’m honest, it had to be pointed out to me by Jack Schofield at Photo Technique and Sarah Kent at the ICA.

When punk started in the UK in 1976, I was 25 and just a shade too old, I felt, to be a punk myself.  But I think I would have liked to have been one.

I would also most probably have liked to have been a teddy boy, a biker, a skinhead, a mod, a hippy, a goth or a new romantic.  That is if I'd ever been the right age at the right time.

I was the sort of lanky, geeky, bespectacled youth that didn't naturally fit into any sort of group.  I was an only child and, as a teenager, I was more than a bit socially inept.  I didn't hang out on street corners with a gang but spent plenty of time trying to avoid those that did.  In my mid-teens, I spent most of my time at the park playing football or indoors drawing and painting.

In 1964 I was two or three years too young to be a mod. Besides I would never have had the money to buy a scooter.  Later in the '60s, I managed to be a watered down desperate-to-avoid-a-fight type skinhead and, a bit later, a watered down sort of living-at-home-with-my-parents kind of hippy.  I was pretty rubbish at both.

I suppose when punk happened and I found myself in clubs taking photos of them, it gave me a chance to vicariously experience something I could never have been a part of myself.  And it was a really strong sort of compulsion that drew me out to take photographs of them, three or four nights a week at a time when I didn't have a car and had to hitch quite a long way home afterwards (it was at a time when there were very few night buses).

Though I was quite good at my day job in advertising, I was getting nowhere fast.  Photography and punk came along at exactly the right time for me.  Just at the time when my career was flatlining, my opportunities in photography were taking off.

Although I don't kid myself for a moment that my early photos of punks were any good, I managed to get them published and shown quite a lot.  Most probably for the simple reason that there was a media clamour for exactly the sort of images I had.

I was extremely lucky, I was in the right place at the right time.

By 1982, when I'd only been a professional photographer for a year, I'd already had 3 well publicised one man shows (including at London's ICA and the Photographer’s Gallery) and my work had been published in some of Europe's best known photography magazines (including the French version of PHOTO and Zoom) .

I was relatively successful quite quickly.  Keeping it going proved to be the hard part.

It will, for most professional photographers these days, always be the hard part.

Vanessa and Esmé, Torture Garden, Kings Cross 2003.

Saturday, 14 April 2012 I'm just back from Hull after attending the preview of my show 'Endless Night - 35 years of nightclub portraits.'

It was a very enjoyable evening and the people of Hull (or at least, the ones I met) made me feel very welcome.

The Hull show is the first time that my nightclub portraits have ever been put together as one large whole and, seeing them all up on the MoCC's walls, it made me realise that I probably should have done something like it a lot sooner.

Of course, when I began the project 35 years ago, it wasn't a project at all.  I was just a guy with a borrowed camera taking a few snaps of people in a couple of basement music clubs - initially just The Roxy in Covent Garden and The Vortex in Soho.  The photographs I took at those two clubs featured in my very first solo show 'Some Punk Portraits' at the ICA in 1978.

At the time I said that that was about it for me, taking photos of kids in clubs but somehow the compulsion to record young people out enjoying themselves persisted.  First for 5 years, then ten years and, in what seems like a blink of an eye, it's now 35 years going on 36.

Somehow, don't ask me how, I'm still friends with many of my subjects and I know that some went on to great fame and, occasionally, fortune.

Vanessa Upton (seen above on the left in a detail from one of the photographs in the show), was just about the UK’s top fetish model in the 1990s, a particular favourite of Bob Carlos Clarke RIP.  She also featured in many a pop video of the era including the one for Blur’s ‘Country House’ and she was also the love interest in David Brent’s very amusing tilt at pop fame, with his cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ (The Office/BBC).

The last I heard, she’d moved to the South of France and become a roofer.

The woman on the right above is Esmé Bianco who is currently being seen as Ros in the HBO hit series 'Game of Thrones'.

Mark and Kerry who run the MoCC also knew many of my subjects, from the time when they both lived in London in the '80s, and Kerry tells me she was once in a band with one of the women shown in the show.  The band was called 'Baby.'  I’m not too sure whether they ever bothered the charts?

It's always nice to be able to fill in on some details of subjects that I may only ever have met once, in some cases only for a few seconds, many years ago.  Several times recently I’ve been contacted by people I photographed last 3 decades ago.

I intend to try to find a gallery for this show in London somewhere.  If I have any good news on that score, I’ll announce it here.

http://gameofthrones.wikia.com/wiki/Ros

Miss Binney, Camden Palace 1982.

Monday, 9 April 2012 The above photograph is one of those in my new show 'Endless Night - 35 Years of Nightclub Portraits' which starts on Friday at the Museum of Club Culture in Hull. There are sixty black and white portraits on show, all taken in London nightclubs, spanning the years 1977 to 2011. The show will be on until the end of May.

The Museum of Club Culture is at 10 Humber Street, Hull, HU1 1TG.

I guess I should have mentioned it before but I also have a show running at the moment in London at The Society Club in Soho.  Called 'Unseen.'   This show mainly features previously unseen portraits from my years as a rock photographer.  The Society Club is at  12 Ingestre Place, London W1 F0JS.  It runs until the end of May too.

I'd like to apologise for not managing to post anything at all during March, my wife was ill and my eye was a off the ball a little.

The model.

Monday, 9 April 2012 The model that I'd booked about a month before, met me in the street outside her apartment.  She was shaking, crying and speaking into a mobile phone.  Her eyes were reddened and her black eye make up was streaked down her cheeks.

All the while continuing her somewhat animated discourse on the phone, she led me into her house, up some dark stairs and into a small funky smelling apartment.  In the living room I found another woman sitting on a couch.  The couch was surrounded by discarded clothes.  It was clear that the other woman had been asleep on the couch until a few moments before I arrived. There were more clothes laying around in other piles around the room.

For the next hour or so, the model wandered around the apartment, chain smoking and arguing, sometimes almost hysterically, on the phone.  The model's friend told me that she was arguing with her boyfriend who was currently being very difficult over non-payment of some urgent bills.

Eventually some sort of denouement was arrived at, the model calmed down slightly and decided to have a shower.

I passed the time by chatting with the model's friend who, it turned out, was a model herself and also a keen photographer.  She had me look at her photography portfolio.  Some of her photographs were quite good but there was a such huge melange of different styles and techniques on display that I suspected it was more by luck than judgement.

Twenty minutes later the model emerged from the shower.  Still dripping, she then wandered about in front of us naked and resumed the telephone discourse with her boyfriend.

Finally, getting on for an hour and a half after I arrived at her address and for the first time, the model turned her full attention to our shoot together.

She asked me what I wanted her to wear and pointed to one of the piles of what looked like dirty washing on the floor.  She held up a couple of items.  Everything looked creased and grubby.  She told me that one particular pile of clothes had all been picked up on the streets of New York.  She may have been joking, I couldn't really tell.

I suggested she wear whatever she'd feel most comfortable in.  She pulled on a short black dress with some stains on the front.  It was at this point that she decided what she most needed was some breakfast.

So we had another delay whilst she toasted herself some waffles. Since her kitchen was well lit with natural light and an almost perfect '50s period piece, I tried to take a few photographs of her there but found that after about every half dozen shots, her friend would jump in front of me and take some photographs of her own.  This sort of thing really infuriates me but I must admit, I didn't say anything for fear of negatively effecting the delicate mood of the model, which by now had become almost cheerful.

But by the time we were all able to get out of the model's apartment, I'd hardly done anything and we were getting close to two and a half hours late.  Even though it was approaching mid-day, the traffic on the eight or nine mile drive over to the studio I'd rented was completely backed up and I lost even more time.  During the drive, the model applied her make-up.

I'd booked her for only three hours.  We arrived at the studio well over three hours late and, as I parked my rental car, the friend started moaning that it was already time we were headed back, in order to get to the model's next appointment.  Although I'd rung to let the studio know I'd be late, I had no idea I was going to be quite this late.  When we arrived, I detected a distinctly frosty atmosphere from the woman running the place, who'd always previously been very sweet.

By now I was just about ready to scream in frustration.  I was too hot, completely stressed out from the drive and lengthy search for a parking spot and I was starting to worry that I'd be devoid of any inspiration. Any sensible individual would probably have cancelled the shoot before it had even started - back during the telephone row.  But I had plenty invested in the day, both in financial terms and in time, and I've never particularly been known for my good sense, so I just got on with it.

Somehow, and I'm not sure how, I managed to squeeze out a quick studio session of about 30 minutes before we all made a mercy dash back through the traffic, so that my model could get to her next appointment (which, I might add, she did).  On the drive back, it took the model about 15 minutes to fill out her name and address on my release, during which, several times, she appeared to have fallen asleep, giving me some indication of what might be other issues.

In getting close to five hours, I'd shot only for about 45 minutes in total.

Absolutely nothing had gone right except for one thing.

As a model, she was fantastic.  I'd never photographed anyone remotely like her before.  Either with make-up, no make-up or make-up running down her face, she was gloriously pretty.  And she had this peculiar ability to look great in anything - not least her grubby and crumpled clothes.  Doubtless she would even have looked wonderful in the proverbial potato sack.

I didn't have to direct her once, everything she did was ridiculously photogenic and just exactly right. It was a strange and somewhat magical experience.  She may have left a little to be desired in terms of professionalism but once she was in front of a camera, she was some sort of genius.

From her website and blog it seems that she's very sought after and always extremely busy.  It's not hard to see why.  Her website is full to overflowing with great photographs by a lot of different photographers.  Not only does she look fantastic in almost all her photographs but she seems to have the ability to make all the photographers seem fantastic too.  I have to admit, this was why I was so keen to book her myself.  I wanted some of whatever it is that she brings in my portfolio too.

Reading what she writes (and she writes a lot) it's clear that she's an intelligent but very complex character.  She also takes photographs and has a deep and very genuine interest in both photography and photographers.  Maybe this is the key factor?  In my experience, very few models are like this.  But it also begs the question "How would she deal with photographing a model like herself?"

Maybe one day I'll have the gumption to ask her.

2012 is my 40th year of taking photos and I think it's safe to say that I learnt more from taking photos of this one, particular model (or should I say, trying to take photos) than I've done from any other photo shoot for years.  Everything I learnt from this episode I'm not fully aware of yet but I recall a William Blake quote "Improvement makes straight roads but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius."

One of the things I did certainly did learn is that sometimes working with a difficult model can be hugely rewarding.

I'll let you know how my next photo session with her turns out.

I'm purposely not naming the model or, for that matter, when or where I shot her.

And the photograph to accompany this posting is not her.  I have no reason to personally malign her on the internet.  This posting is more to do with my own failings than hers.