Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 12

The Skyline. The skyline? Isn't that a bit obvious? Well, yes and no. It is New York's 'face' after all and a fitting place to conclude this brief series. The skyline, like the city itself, is not one thing. With as many facets as there are angles to view it, and all of them wondrous and brutal. Whether you see it on foot from ground level, rising above the foliage of Central Park or from the observation deck of the Empire State, from the Staten Island Ferry or driving in from one of the surrounding airports, the outlines of New York's wonderful architecture against the sky, land or water, is a human marvel, a statement of what is possible.

In the better part of a decade spent there, I travelled to and from the city several times a week, and not once in all those hundreds of journeys did I ever see the skyline and not sigh with the satisfaction of profound happiness. My first rented apartment was on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights and I looked out over downtown Manhattan from the living-room window. I ran every morning along the promenade and each time, the same feeling of awe and potential and belonging, crashed over me. However, my favorite view was inevitably the most frequent. Living on the Upper West Side I would most often return via the Tri-boro bridge and there was always that point where the road crested, sweeping right and there it was; by no means the best aspect on the city compared to the classic views approaching from Red hook or the Long Island Expressway, but it was my welcome home.

For me, the enduring quality of this landscape is that it doesn't matter how brief a glimpse I get through trees or buildings or parting clouds, approaching or leaving, it still has the same effect. 

Day 6 - Leaving the city for the airport, I get one last fleeting view through the cables and bridges of the LIRR track as the train speeds to Jamaica, Queens.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 11

The City that never sleeps.... Even when the residents do. One of the things that has endured is the sense of round-the-clock endeavor. No mater what time it is or where you are in New York, you are never more a than a few meters away from someone working.

Day 6 - 3 am in a pizza restaurant off Christopher Street, one of the customers slumps on the table next to a slice of pizza. Tiredness overcame hunger.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 10

The cab home. "Shall we walk.... or do we have time to take a cab?" was another of those great New York truisms offered as wisdom to help my transition from tourist to resident. But late at night there is something at once decadent and comforting about whistling through the city. 

Day 5 - Heading south, Fifth avenue stretching relentlessly green in front of us as we ate the blocks from east mid-town to the village in the blink of an eye.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 9

The Bronx. Maybe this is the borough that represents the closest thing I have found so far to that elusive feeling of New York. A feeling, an atmosphere that in truth, had nearly vanished from most of Manhattan even by the time I arrived in 1991 and was certainly a rare and precious commodity less than a decade later when I departed. I still can't describe adequately what it is, but you know it when you see it, and this felt very close. The latin music blaring out from an open window above a bodega, 'walk-up' buildings, a heady mix of community spirit, grit and getting through the hard life with a smile, snatching joy where you can find it.

Day 4 - East 151th Street and Courtland Avenue. telephone and power cables adorned with 'sneakers' outside the Bronx Documentary Centre where an exhibition of my late friend, Tim Hetherington's last photographs was opening. (More on that subject soon)

Chasing Smoke - 8

Again, the light. My father always used to say that wherever there's a traffic jam, you'll find a policeman trying to direct the cars. Not Here! A tricky junction, nearby street closures, one woman with a will of iron making it all run like butter in the sun.

Day 4 - West 14th at 9th Ave. The low sun of the evening bouncing in every direction.

Chasing Smoke - 7

To be young in NY. It is often said, though I don't know who first coined the phrase, that New York is only for "The very rich, the very poor and the very young." It's not true of course but I was quoted this by a long-time resident when I first arrived. He asserted that when I fell between these three groups I should leave.

Day 4 - A young couple kissing on the uptown 3 train, just after 72nd street.

Chasing Smoke - 6

Constant change. As the old joke goes, "New York is an amazing city.... its going to be FANTASTIC when it's finished!" Of course, it will never be finished, constant tearing-up, rebuilding and alteration is a big part of its allure.

Day 4 - A sidewalk on on Gansvoort Street, cobbles, tarmac, cement, concrete, hardboard, duct-tape, utilty line markings. History displayed like the rings of a tree.

Chasing Smoke - 5

The Light. A sunny autumn morning in New York leaves you with the sense that you could achieve anything. The colours, the reflections, the limitless possibilities.

Day 4 - A yellow cab barrels along Washington Street under the southern end of the High Line, reflected in the window of a florist. 

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 4

Flags. The very first thing I really learned about America is how the "Stars and Stripes" is so much more than a symbol in the national psyche. It is something woven into the very fabric of being American. I have never seen more or bigger flags anywhere in the world than in the US.

Day 3 - A construction site on 14th Street. Nobody working at this time of night but the flag is still lit up, fluttering in the swirling wind.

Chasing Smoke - 3

Coffee. Before the chains of interchangeable multinational beverage shops became ubiquitous in New York, there used to be little places that served what they described as coffee. Not 'latte' or 'cappuccino' or 'grande soya de-caff mocha' but its straightforward, unadorned cousin. Your choices were, black or white, sugar or not. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it was battery acid but it was honest either way.

Day 3 - A good cup of coffee at Cafe Gitane on Jane Street. At some point in the drinking you get a little skyline appearing from the caffein 'Hudson'. There are still lots of places if you look a bit.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 2

Baseball caps. For me, a Yankees cap always looks vaguely fraudulent anywhere outside of New York...
Irrespective of how committed a fan the wearer might be.

Day 2 - My friends' son, staring curiously into the lens. Barely at pre-school and already a Yankees fan. Pinstripe in the genes.

Chasing Smoke - 1

In August I travelled to America for the first time in over a decade. I found New York in particular to have changed a great deal. Of course it's absurd to expect places to remain when we ourselves change constantly. So, on this visit I decided to photograph anything that evoked some kind of memory for me - whether real or imagined.

Day 1 - Croton on Hudson - Even though I've never been here before I found this scene instantly redolent of a certain aesthetic you see north of the city's suburbs and south of what could righteously be considered 'Upstate'.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


A few weeks ago, during what was an almost freakishly warm late September, I had the opportunity to go out on assignment foraging for wild foods with one of the most knowledgeable people in the country, Miles Irving. 

Miles has not only written one of the best books on the subject but also has a company that supplies foraged foods to top restaurants around the country and there was a wonderfully autumnal mist hanging low over the fields as I drove into the village in Kent where he bases his operations. 

Foraging has undergone something of a popularity boost in recent years with many people paying to go on courses aimed at learning to identify and sustainably gather the native plants and fungi that would once have been an essential part of the ordinary diet but have now fallen out of circulation.

On the relatively short walk along the nearby river Miles showed us some of the everyday plants that are easy and safe to identify. He also showed us the frightening similarity between some of the most deadly plants and their edible cousins along with a warning that they represent very advanced foraging knowledge, not to be attempted by anyone who has even the slightest doubt. 

The most shocking anecdote he told was of one of his course attendees who had grown up an orphan after her parents had both cooked and eaten what they described as cow-parsley soup and which turned out to be the inordinately poisonous hemlock.

He picked stem from the nearby undergrowth and showed us some of the identifying marks and characteristics and then, rather soberingly, showed us how little it would take to kill a person. It was a tiny amount, barely bigger than a coin and the leaf itself looked to the untrained eye exactly like the herb chervil.

As we walked further along the riverbank Miles picked mallow, sorrel, yarrow and rose hips amongst others, all of which we tasted and learned a little of their potential uses in cooking or traditional medicine.

The most surprising was the seeds of giant hogweed which not only looked amazing, backlit in the morning rays, but also tasted extraordinary - buttery, nutty, slightly citrus and herby.

On our return to the house we went into the preparation room. It was a hive of activity as three people worked relentlessly to fulfill orders placed by top restaurants. Boxes labeled with the name of the establishment were being checked against lists and pristine bags of various herbs and fungi were placed into them. All with a low-key semi-military efficiency.

Added to which, Miles himself was preparing sample bags to show to the chef team at Heston Blumethal's Dinner restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge, hoping to persuade them about these unusual and under-used flavours.

It is extremely important to stress at this point that no one should attempt to forage for food unless they have a good knowledge of what they are picking. Miles offers courses and has an excellent book on the subject but he urged caution even for those who were experienced.

"You can eat anything once, " he drily observed. "Just because it tastes ok doesn't mean it won't do you a lot of harm or even kill you."

"Even if you are experienced, there are certain families of plants that you should be extremely wary about."

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Madam President

Three days ago (7th October) it was announced that this year's Nobel Peace prize was to be shared by three remarkable women , Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Back in February 2006, I had the priveledge of meeting and photographing President Sirleaf while I was in Monrovia, covering the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia for the Sunday Times (London).

As part of our UN organised visit we had been invited to a attend a presidential ceremony where new dignitaries would be sworn-in. It was still only a month or so after her inauguration and there was a curious atmosphere. A mix of perhaps understandable tension over her security, and elation in the crowd who clearly sensed this historical opportunity to break the cycle of violence that had gripped Liberia so often in their recent past. 

When proceedings were ready to begin, a hush descended over the assembly and the president herself entered the room, flanked by security at a respectful distance and followed by a throng of local photographers who mobbed her, shutters chattering as she walked the length of the smiling room.

Seated on a sofa embroidered with the national emblem and with an imposing and vigilant bodyguard stood immediately behind her, she cut a calm but formidable figure.

One of the most beguiling aspects of being a photographer is the opportunity to see behind the scenes of so many people's lives. Legendary female journalist and longtime comrade in arms 'Charlie Alpha' had managed to arrange an interview with the new President as part of our piece.

And so it was, that after the main ceremonies, we were led up to the presidential offices and awaited our scheduled interview. Our tour-guide showed us round the Presidential offices. They were what estate agents would undoubtedly describe as "lavishly appointed" rooms which had only recently belonged to the deposed warlord Charles Taylor.

Amongst the endless gold-leaf, discarded chandeliers and carpets so deep you needed a machete to cross the room, there was a rather peculiar treasure. Charles Talyor had a purpose-built personal barber shop. Mirrored on every side (allegedly to prevent anyone creeping up on him while he was being shaved) and complete with Liberian flags and yet more chandeliers.

It was not a huge room and photographing it without getting myself in the picture took a bit of careful composition and acrobatics on my part. Charlie Alpha was not so restrained, and instantly wanted a picture of herself in the chair. Naturally I obliged, knowing full-well that it would join the litany of our travel pictures that might eventually appear in one of her books.

When President Sirleaf appeared she was softly authoritative, friendly and very patient considering her pressing schedule. 

"Can you believe all this?" she said, Jesturing around the room to the luxurious carpet with the national emblem and the then upwards to the ceiling on which was painted the most amazing scene of Charles Taylor, wrapped in the national flag (which stretched the length of the room) attended by seraphin and cheurbim.

"I would have preferred it painted over, but it is not really a priority at this moment." she added, nicely understating the challenges that were facing her country and her administration.

Nevertheless, when it came to take her portrait I couldn't resist framing her in this environment. The new face of Liberia against the trappings of the old regime.

The hope for a new start, surrounded by the reminders of why Liberia so desperately needed that renewal.

More than five years later, her Presidency has prevailed and brought stability and peace to the country. I think it's fantastic news that she and her fellow compatriot, the peace activist Leymah Gbowee have been honored alongside Yemen's Tawakkul Karman who is engaged with the beginning of a similar struggle to achieve peace and justice in her own country.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Dead man's shoes

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Afghan fighter in possession of a good pair of boots, must be in want of a tale to tell about them.

October 19th 2006. About halfway through our climb to Osama's former compound in Tora Bora, we stopped for water and a quick break to check our position on the map. Our guides (and guards) were a mixture of local tribal militia and the regional governor's soldiers. A good-natured competitiveness had sprung up between the two groups. Each talking about the weaponry and equipment they carried, boasting in Pashto of their various exploits, occasionally laughing and translating for me what had just been said.

Cooling off in a mountain spring on the climb up.

Amongst infantry, the world over, comparing boots is one of the immutable laws of life. It comes from needing your feet to be in good condition. And although it would be an overstatement to call it an 'obsession' there is certainly more frequent and impassioned discussion of footwear than you might otherwise expect from a bunch of hard-bitten men with guns.

Boot story one-upmanship. 

The local militiaman explained that he had taken his sandy coloured boots from the feet of an Arab fighter he had killed in battle, while the older Mujahedin from the governors forces claimed (to a largely unconvinced audience) that his boots had been a gift from an American special forces soldier. They were plainly too poorly-made for this to be likely, but seniority has its advantages and not having your story questioned is one of them. 

He turned to me and asked how I had got my boots. They were a new pair of Altbergs, bought only weeks before, not yet broken-in and the only thing that had died during the process of procuring them was the poor cow that made the leather. 

I toyed briefly with inventing an elaborate backstory and thought better of it. 

"I bought them," was my somewhat feeble response, "in Englistan!" I added, using the colloquial Afghan term for Britain.

He translated my response to the group. 

They all smiled and shrugged but you could tell I'd lost any respect they might have had for me.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Diary Picture - lucky shot in Queens

First trip to New York in over a decade. As I arrived the heavens opened. In the back of the cab, with the rain lashing against the roof I waved the camera at arms length in the general direction of the storm. Squeezed the shutter just as lightning forked across the sky - pure fluke.

Given the choice between good and lucky, I'll take lucky every time.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Diary picture - night out in Leeds

19th March 2011 Taxi rank near the Calls in Leeds. Saveloy and chips anyone?

After my last two, reasonably long, posts addressing serious issues it seemed like a good time to publish something light-hearted for balance. 

Earlier this year I helped friend, colleague and namesake Justin Leighton on a big advertising shoot. Multi-city, three week assignments are not common and so he decided that we would do a mad four day Recce trip. Justin L armed with his newly acquired Fuji X100 and me with my 5D mkii and 35mm lens (approx same angle of view).

Whilst working out angles and schedules for the live shoot in April we indulged ourselves in a bit of old-fashioned documentary photojournalism for the joy of just taking pictures. From a technical viewpoint, there is not a lot to separate the two cameras. Both good in low light, nice colour, very sharp lenses.

But the X100 soon became an object of desire for me after it became clear how much less often people noticed it and how quickly they ignored it. The 5D on the other hand drew a lot of attention quite quickly. Also when close to group subjects the smaller sensor and wider angle lens of the Fuji helps to spread everything out a bit, whereas the full frame 35mm f1.4 allows better portraits of single figures at the same angle of view. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Turning point

I was not there. I did not witness, first-hand, the chilling scenes. Did not taste the acrid sting of smoke and all things man-made turned to powder. Did not photograph the heart-rending plight of those that jumped to their death rather than face the inferno. Did not record for posterity, all the permutations and combinations of grief, heroism, despair and brotherhood.

And yet I felt it. Like twin daggers to the heart.

I called New York my home for nearly a decade and returned to my native Britain, for family reasons, more than two years before the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Nonetheless, it felt personal, as though a loved one had been assaulted.

None of my closest friends were killed when the towers collapsed, though many were photographing the unfolding chaos in the immediate vicinity. A very few, who were closest had only their quick thinking and the assistance of those around them to thank for their escape. But I had no reason to cry with grief and so, I did not.

But I felt it all the same. The shock, the disbelief, the anguish, the powerlessness, the sympathy for all those so terribly and directly affected. The dreadful certainty that so much would change, everywhere. And the inevitability that it would not, and probably could not, be for the better.

Often, when asked "Where were you when.....?" my answer would be, "I was there, right there as it happened, this is what I saw." That is the privilege, the burden and maybe to a certain extent, the addiction of what we as photographers do. We see it ourselves, know for sure, because we are there.

Not on September 11th 2001. That day I was in London, photographing a footballer. That day I saw it all second-hand, part of the global television and media audience. I read about it, heard pundits opine and even spoke to colleagues who saw it themselves in the vain hope that if only I got a clearer understanding I would be somehow objective about it.

The events of September 11th 2001 left their mark on me by osmosis. A thousand news clips deluged me for days, weeks, until the gradient had been equalised. As much unsettling imagery and knowledge within me as surrounding me.

There are so few fulcrums on which the whole world turns. I did not witness this pivotal moment. Do not know for certain, did not see for myself.

And yet I felt it. And feel it still.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The double-edged sword of controversy

Is there such a thing as bad publicity? The events of the last week have made me wonder. A video I shot has been widely watched but has three times as many 'dislikes' as 'likes'. Naturally I have to wonder, how did this happen?

Banksy mural 'Stop and Search' cut down and sat in a Bethlehem back-yard.

Late last year, I embarked on a project to document the journey of two Banksy murals from The West Bank to the UK and then to an exhibition in Long Island, New York.  They had been bought from Palestinian entrepreneurs by a partnership of two galleries, Keszler Gallery NY and London's Bankrobber, both of whom have previous experience of dealing with Banksy's uncertified street work.

Removing pieces of street art from original locations is something that infuriates their creators and I can completely understand why. Context is so much of this art form and not everything travels well. This is probably particularly true of Banksy's work and the removal of these two pieces from Bethlehem, and their subsequent exhibition for sale in Southampton, NY, has upset lots of people who would rather they had stayed where they were sprayed.

As a result, a short edit, that was used in the exhibition catalogue to give a sense of the journey the pieces had taken, is now being viewed by thousands of people every day. Which is good, I guess, but the small percentage who have expressed a view either way (173 out of 29,000+ views) have been nearly three times more likely to hate it!

Some of these votes will undoubtably be a protest at the act of removing the walls, some will be because they don't like the way I've filmed it.

The two gallery owners, who allowed me the access, have been widely vilified on the internet and come in for some pretty stern questioning in the international media.

However there are several important points which the critics of Keszler and Bankrobber have either overlooked or, perhaps, are unaware of.  And as an impartial observer I find it strange.

Firstly, the works had already been cut down long before either Bankrobber or Keszler had been offered them. Several attempts had been made by their owners to sell them. Approaches by dealers and galleries, and even an attempt to sell on eBay, had all run into the problem of how they could be physically moved. The larger piece 'Stop And Search' weighs 2.5 tons. 'Wet Dog' is 1.8 tons. They're not exactly the kind of things you FedEx.

Even the word 'entrepreneur' conjures entirely the wrong impression of those that sold the pieces. Palestine is under severe restrictions in what can and cannot be moved across the security wall, leaving the territory effectively annexed. My experience of the Middle East means that I understand a little of the economic hardship that everyday hard-working Palestinians have to confront in order to do business. Can anyone who lives in comfort and freedom really criticize those who sought to earn some money from selling these works? Well, of course not, which is why the hate is turned toward the dealers.

Secondly, though Banksy himself may not like this fact, his work consistently transcends that of his peers. It is sharper, better observed and more subversive than pretty much all of his contemporaries. Because of this, his contribution to art history is going to be very important, I suspect. His prints, whilst often extremely good and highly collectable, nonetheless, do not have the visceral edge of the street works. The very fact that he so frequently risks arrest to make these pieces imbues them with extra presence. The two Bethlehem works that had been cut down were hidden from public view for years, in very unsuitable conditions. When I first saw them, they had rudimentary protection from the elements, and certainly one of them was deteriorating rapidly. The other, though more solidly constructed, was clearly fading all the same despite being covered with a plastic sheet.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the people of Palestine, and particularly Bethlehem, are much more ambivalent about Banksy's works than you might expect. His politically-aware pieces on the dividing wall itself were extremely well timed visual barbs that helped to draw international attention to the controversy about the wall's construction. Most especially, amongst a section of the Western population, who might have had little knowledge or understanding of the issue, he brought awareness and curiosity, both of which are very good things. Several years later, few of these pieces survive, they have been painted over by Palestinian graffiti artists and political activists who have replaced them with their own authentic vision of what it is really like to live in a territory that is in enforced isolation. The taxi drivers who ferry tourists to and from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for massively inflated prices are only too happy to take the long route in order to show you a couple of Banksy works. For them, the visitor's interest means extra money. But for pretty much everyone else they are yet another sign of someone who came, admittedly in good faith and with the very best of intentions, and then left again while they for the most part cannot leave, cannot freely seek work, in many cases cannot even see their families who live only hundreds of yards away.

At a cafe in Bethlehem I asked about the general feeling towards Banksy's artworks around the West Bank. A polite, serious and well-educated man replied in perfect, heavily-accented English: "For him, I think it was good maybe to come and do these things.

"For us," he shrugged, "It's no difference."

This should not have been as illuminating for me as it was. Palestinian culture is complex, much more than the sum total of stone throwers, funeral processions, mourning mothers and burning flags that has become the newsreel shorthand for their struggle for a self-determining nation. I suspect Banksy himself might well have understood this when he made his paintings, but I think many of those who are angry about their removal are not quite as well versed in the subtleties of the region.

If Banksy was a Palestinian artist then it would be unthinkable for the works to be anywhere outside Palestine. But he is not. Those that chose to sell them certainly didn't feel as though they were parting with pieces of the national cultural heritage. 

So now what? They have been stablised, presented for exhibition, shipped to America and put on show. They have been danced around at a party, examined and, much to the chagrin of the gallery owners, touched. More people saw them in the opening weekend of the exhibition than in the last three or four years when they were living under plastic sheeting in a back yard.

Inevitably they will be sold, although when is anyone's guess. The person or institution that buys them will need to be well funded because you can't just put a two-ton piece of masonry in your average house!

It may seem a shame that they have not remained in their original context, but let us be as unsentimental about this as the people who lived with them. In one case, the building owner planned to cut a door though the middle of the work. In another, the wall, part of a disused bus shelter on wasteground, was crumbling even before the work was put up. 

Meanwhile, the video that I produced from some of the footage, has been used as part of the exhibition catalogue and subsequently to promote the exhibition. This will hopefully help me on the road to making the project into a more substantial documentary than it is currently. So yes, I hope to gain something too.

Banksy gifted the people of Palestine several of his artworks. Some remain, most do not. 

It is not for us to dictate what Palestinians choose to do with those gifts. 

•  •  •

Here is the catalogue video from my own hosting last week (a relatively paltry 582 hits!)

The original hosting (29,000 and counting) at Bankrobber's channel is here.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Long day in Helmand

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Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Meeting expectations

Mostly, when you actually meet and photograph a public figure you quickly find yourself changing your previously held opinion of them. The side that seldom emerges in the spotlight of the TV camera often reveals itself in the more relaxed environment of an interview or portrait shoot.

This is probably never truer than in politics. So much currently rests on public perception and so many of those around power feel the need to exert their influence that the gap between how politicians appear in the media and how they are “one-to-one” frequently leaves me unsure of how anyone could juggle such disparate personas.

For most of the nineteen-eighties I was a teenager. It was a time of great social polarisation and upheaval and one of the biggest beasts in the politics of that era was Norman Tebbit. He was the kind of hard-line Conservative that was a magnet for the right and a figure of genuine hatred for the left.

A couple of decades later and he is, to quote Gill Scott-Heron, “no longer so damn relevant!” but he remains active in politics and an undoubted thorn in the side of the current Tory party whose desperation to shed the past image often borders on illness.

When I got the commission last week to photograph Lord Tebbit of Chingford on the eve of his Eightieth birthday, two thoughts went through my head: The first was inevitably the caricature of him as a skinhead thug on the TV satire Spitting Image. The second thought was, “there’s no way he can possibly be as reactionary as he seems”.

Accompanied by writer Matthew Bell we met in the central Lobby of Parliament, the brief walk to an interview room in House of Lords led through imposing splendour past one of the greatest under-viewed art collections in the UK to a manned elevator whose interior is so ridiculously small that it was barely possible to fit all three of us in one trip without crushing the cheerfully knowledgeable West African lift operator.

With the interview underway, Lord Tebbit seemed only too happy to talk. Although, “happy” might not be the word.

Everything about the modern world seemed to irritate him and stand as proof of how much better it all was when he was younger. His sharp intellect and amazing life experience (Fast jet pilot and journalist amongst others) seemed at odds with several of his more illogical assertions.

He is sceptical of the contribution made to UK life by immigration but staunchly denies any racism - hilariously citing the fact that he is friends with Bishop John Sentamu and Nasir Ali and seeing this as proof-positive of his open-mindedness.

He hates the BNP (British National Party) with a passion but mostly because he believes them to be socialists and they advocate centrally planned economic policy - a fact of which I was unaware but which most would consider the very least of their faults as a political party.

He loves nationalism in all it's forms and seemed blithely unaware of the terrible violence that it often spawns. But most of all he hates multiculturalism.

Not so much a, "Glass half full or half empty?” sort of guy. More of a, “Better keep hold of that glass or some scrounger will come over here and drink the rest of it!”

Matthew did his best to challenge some of the relentlessly negative statements but I never got the slightest sense that even the most rational argument could persuade him to reconsider any of his views.

As time came to do the photos he unhelpfully asserted that, “photographers just take as many pictures as possible and one of them is bound to come out!” which did not endear him to me - but, in fairness, there is no earthly reason why he should care what I think.

The wallpaper in this particular room was fantastic, classic and yet contemporary, reeking of pomp and taste and still somehow slightly kitsch. I instantly knew that I wanted it to be an integral part of the picture rather than just the backdrop.

A true blue Tory caught in a thicket of Labour red and Liberal Democrat yellow.

Ordinarily I might get the subject a little way forward and let the wallpaper fade out of focus and out of the light but I have been doing an little too much of that recently and I wanted a punchier, more aggressive look to the lighting and the final image.

Using the 30cm square diffuser for my Q-flash, without the front baffle so that the silvered innards were visible, I taped a small piece of white card in front of the bare bulb to act as a rudimentary bowl and spoon. I knew this would give me a slightly harsh, almost ring-flash look to the light as long as the reflector was close to the camera.

Pressing my unfortunate writer into service as an impromptu assistant I shot a series of expressions both to and away from camera but as often happens it was a bit of luck that gave me the idea for the best picture. Mathew’s slight frame was not built for the rigours of holding a flash on the end of a pole above his head for long periods of time and it slipped lower and lower as his arms started to ache.

When his muscles eventually gave way there was a strong shadow across the top of the background. Looking at it on the back of the camera I thought I had accidentally jogged the shutter beyond its synch speed. The minute that his arms were working again I reset the light – lower and pointing a little downward giving an effect rather like the light you might see in the smoky backroom of an old gangster movie.

Somehow it seemed appropriate for a man who was once a political enforcer for Margaret Thatcher. The harsh light illuminating his eighty years of life experience. Every crease of his face by now pressed into a hard stare.

So here he is, exactly as unreconstituted as he appears. Not worn down by age or the tide of public opinion that seems to have been running against him for decades. An immovable object, a man of conviction and strongly held beliefs - but not my beliefs.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

They don't make them like that anymore!

When I was growing up there were very few highly visible Scientists. But about the most visible of all, (possibly even from space!) was Patrick Moore. His rapid-fire delivery and astonishing knowledgeability always gave the impression that there was so much inside his head that it kept squirting out as though his skull could no longer constrain it.

Of course he is SIR Patrick Moore now and not such a feature of British television at the age of ninety as he once was but when I had the opportunity to photograph him last week I very quickly realised that he is still a force of nature.

A gradually deteriorating war-wound has left him confined to being seated or lying, his spine no longer able to bear the strain of standing. His hands and fingers seemed to visibly frustrate him as they refused to do as he commanded. But while manual dexterity may elude him, his mind is still limber. Sporting a bright Hawaiian shirt that lit up the room on a grimly grey January afternoon, he talked about the cosmos, cricket and his cats on whom he dotes.

He sat on a swivel-chair in his study - his mission control, every inch the English eccentric you would want or imagine him to be. Occasionally he pointed out some of the things around the room and recounted the memories attached to them. The sheer number of framed academic achievements alone was overwhelming but what made it more impressive were the models, books, bits of rock, photographs and ornaments that covered every available surface, all of which had a tale to be told.

To reach one's nineties and be so lucid and fascinating is a rare talent. When it came to making the portraits, I decided to glory in his age rather than gloss over it. The limited space and the fact that there was only one direction I could shoot meant being careful about where to set-up the lights. Two of his friends who lived locally had turned up by surprise and I had to pick my moments too, avoiding times when he was speaking. Added to which, the ancient mullioned bay windows meant that it was impossible to avoid reflections. But I slowed the shutter, letting a little daylight though to neutralise them.

As I gingerly stepped backwards and pulled the shot wider to include more of his study I saw the single bare bulb directly above his head. It reminded me of the way thoughts are illustrated in cartoons. It felt appropriate for a man whose life has been lived so intellectually. Indeed, at that moment, he did seem somewhat cartoonish; larger than life, seemingly indestructible and with a light-bulb appearing above his head as though a brilliant idea had just occurred to him.

The brilliant idea turned out to be a large Gin and Tonic but I was driving and so he and his friends chatted amiably as I packed away my kit and prepared to give my colleague a lift to the station.

Sir Patrick Moore, Astronomer extraordinaire, cricketer, author and accomplished xylophonist (though no longer playing), living legend and national treasure, has a new book out at the end of February. Paul Bignell's interview with him in the Independent on Sunday can be read here. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, 29 January 2011