Old photographs have such power. I’d like to think it is in the composition or the tonal values, something photographic but the reality is often more mundane. It’s the subject. Someone you haven’t seen for a long time, a you at 21 years of age, a landscape that is now a housing estate. All of those photographic arts, that expensive equipment, all the thought that went into it are as forgotten when the memories they evoke come flooding back.
You made a beautiful, characterful portrait of your dad. It’s nicely side lit, made up of skilfully printed creamy monochrome tones and he is smiling benignly into the camera. You’ve just come across it in the attic where it has lain unseen and unappreciated for 20 years. Even back then you were a pretty damn good photographer, you think to yourself. You bring it down from the attic, dust it off and show it proudly to my your wife. “Makes a change to see that miserable old sod smiling”, she mutters – and turns back to the TV.
You made a beautiful, characterful portrait of your dad. It’s nicely side lit, made up of skilfully printed creamy monochrome tones and he is smiling benignly into the camera. You’ve just come across it in the attic where it has lain unseen and unappreciated for 25 years. Even back then you were a pretty damn good photographer, you think to yourself. You bring it down from the attic, dust it off and show it proudly to my your wife. “Makes a change to see that miserable old sod smiling”, she mutters – and turns back to the TV.
There’s a great postcard set in an artist’s loft studio. He is showing a woman, obviously his mum, his latest work, a large abstract painting. He is explaining it to her. “It’s about the post modern angst of the conceptual artist , the alienation of capitalist values from the undertow of humanity, the quintessential disconnect of the angular momentum of the zeitgeist”. “That’s nice, dear”, she responds.
A fellow staffer photographer on a national newspaper in London once covered a job with a powerful city business figure. The businessman obviously liked my colleague because he asked if he would come back do a set of portraits for him for publicity and corporate use. On his next day off, my colleague was in the businessman’s city HQ shooting the portraits as asked. Hasselblad, 150mm lens, set of Elinchrom lights, assistant and all. It went well and contact prints were sent round by courier. A lot of prints were ordered including some large ones for framing for the office walls. My friend was delighted. He’s always fancied being a portrait photographer. When the job was done and prints delivered, he sent round the invoice and got a call back from the man’s secretary saying that he’d asked her to call to say thanks. “That’s great”, said my colleague, “did he say what he liked particularly?” “Oh, yes”, she came back, “he said they were lovely and clear.”
Photographing women can be just as disappointing, though I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s partly because I enjoy the company of women but also because of the way women so often enjoy the photographic process. Men just want to get it over with. Women are more inclined to join in the spirit of the session, they want but be involved. You can show them the little things you are doing, the reflector here that gets hides bags under the eyes, the pose that makes the legs look longer. What I don’t enjoy is going through the contacts afterwards when all your careful, hard-earned tricks of the trade, your artful lighting and your winning ways are are subsumed into one over-riding observation like, “why do I look cross-eyed in all these pictures?”
To be fair, I do recall times when I could do no wrong. That’s a nice, if slightly guilty feeling. I’ll explain why. I got a call from a publicist friend, Tony Brainsby. Did I fancy doing some work for the McCartneys, Paul and, then, Linda? They were looking for a new face and ideas for publicity pictures and videos stills. Tony thought they’d like me so I duly went down to their Sussex house to say hello, looking back on it, a sort of audition, really. They did like me and my ideas, so I was asked to go back and shoot some pix during a video shoot at a local castle.
A week after the shoot I’m asked to meet Linda at super printer Gene Nocon’s lab in Covent Garden. Linda is there, leaning over a lightbox with a pile of trannies which she wants to edit down to a dozen for a calendar project she is doing for the McCartney’s fan club. Not all the pix are mine. Some are from another photographer who had spent two weeks with them. I’d spent a day. In fact, for every one of mine, there were ten of his in the pile. But in the calendar selection, there were two of his and ten of mine. Linda asked me to go through and see if I felt she’d missed anything. She was an experienced photographer so I doubted she would have. But as I went through, I kept coming across stuff, nice pictures and much better than most of mine.
I sorted out what I thought were worth reconsidering, all of which were this other photographers. She went through each one, no, not that one, no, don’t like that one, the horse is walking badly in that one and so on. Chatting, I asked her where the other photographer was. “He’s not around now”, aid Linda, cryptically. I shut up, none of my business and it was my pictures that were getting used so why should I care.
Back in London, I asked Tony what had happened. He said that the other photographer had got to know the McCartney’s and had in their opinion, become over-familiar. They’d got fed up with it and hinted but the hint wasn’t taken. So, quietly, they’d dropped him. And there I was, the new face. One day’s worth of material to show. No matter how exciting the scenarios he’d photographed and no matter how brilliant his pictures of them were, my stuff was always going to be better. There’s a lesson there, I think. There’s more to professional photography than a good camera.
To hammer home the point (well I would, wouldn’t I?), here is a cover fold from a Paul McCartney album on which I, among others, have a credit.
That photographer I mentioned – his name isn’t on there.