After talking this week with long time friend and colleague David Howells I've been spurred on to start a new series of posts on Cover featuring some of my personal favourite portraits from the last few years. In each case, presenting two pictures combined into a single frame with a short explanation. As the series progresses it will give me the excuse to dip into a wide variety of editorial and commercial portraits and how they came to be.
First up, Jessica Swale, who after becoming one of the UK's most successful young theatre directors decided to write 'Blue Stockings' her first full-length play. Naturally, being a first time playwright the venue for it's inaugural staging was that tiny, little-known, back-street flea-pit... Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. This kind of talent goes beyond amazing and into the very slightly intimidating realm.
To couch it in Zoolander terms, the phrase "Jessica is so hot right now!" does not even begin to cover it.
The original idea (or 'concept' as they like to imagine it should be called) was to do a portrait of Jessica with the auditorium of the Globe theatre in the background. Still not quite sure who's idea this was - I suspect it might have been the section editor.
Literary types think literally, and if the office had their druthers I would have been doing a picture of Jessica Swale, dressed in blue stockings, in the Globe Theatre auditorium, carrying a sign that read "I'm Jessica Swale and my play 'Blue Stockings' is on at the Globe theatre." Of course, that would still be a bit subtle by their standards but they could have underlined the point by stating the whole thing again in the caption.
Fortunately fate intervened, and a freak delay during my journey to London meant that by the time we came to do pictures, the auditorium was full of theatregoers and we had to make do with what we could find outside. After spending ages trying to fulfil the brief of Playwright + Theatre in the same frame I decided that we should do a photograph which concentrated on Jessica herself rather than the building.
Here are my two favourites and I'm pleased to say that while the Independent didn't use either of these actual frames, they did at least ditch the original brief in favour of one of the shots from this second phase of the session. The article which was headlined 'Woman on fire' can be read here.
Question: How many photographers does it take to change a
Answer: Just one, but I’m not sure I would have done it that
Professional photographers can be famously sceptical of
other people’s pictures. Often the criticisms can seem petty and peevish but
the news that the first “official photographs” of Prince George were taken by
his grandfather, Michael Middleton, elicited immediate reactions from photographers
Those reactions were howls of protest and gales of laughter
in about equal measures.
In case you haven’t seen them, either because you’ve been
locked in a bunker for the last day or you are the partner of a Guardian
journalist currently transiting through Heathrow, I’ll describe them for you.
They are not spectacularly bad. Not so awful that we might
be tempted to think they’re good in a in a post-modern ironic sense and
certainly not so mind-bendingly pointless that we could expect to see them as
finalists in the Deutsche Borse prize next year!
No, they are bad in an ordinary, approachable way. You do
not need to be a connoisseur to know these are crappy pictures, absolutely
anyone can see that they are grindingly mediocre.
Taken in what we assume is the garden of the family home,
they convey two essential messages to the outside world.
Firstly, that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are normal,
down-to-earth people who enjoy relaxing in the summer sunshine with their son
just like any other parents.
Secondly, that they, in common with so many families
throughout the world, have relatives with a really nice camera and no clue how
to use it!
Let’s leave trifles like technique and camera-handling
aside. After all, Mr Middleton certainly did. Instead we’ll concentrate on some
of the more baffling features of the first picture.
It’s supposed to be a photograph of the Prince and his
adoring parents right? So why are the family dogs more prominent than the
“Congratulation your royal highness you are the proud
parents of a retriever! No, my mistake, there is a baby in the picture - just
fading into the lawn. Hang-on, that’s a dog too! Where’s the baby? Oh I see it, masquerading as Kate’s massively developed right bicep!”
Did nobody spot this before the pictures were sent round the
world’s media? Who looked at that and thought it was OK? What has happened to
the famous concern for the royal image we have seen in recent years?
Better yet, where was the quality control from the papers
themselves? Certainly someone on the picture desks of the various international
publications and news-outlets should have called up the palace and said those
time honoured words,
“Errr, do you have anything else?”
As if to answer this un-asked question there is another,
similarly dreadful shot. No longer seated this time but still in the shade of a
In this photo they appear to be standing on the banks of a
huge yellow river that turns out to be the lawn - over-exposed by eight stops
or so. The dogs are gone - mercifully – but it still has the same
clumsy, depressing, second-rate atmosphere as the first picture.
Is this some misguided attempt at man-of-the-people
accessibility? Is it a demonstration of extreme contempt for the very idea of aesthetic
We are living in a time of austerity and cut-backs so I
would be the last person to advocate that Mario Testino needs to be deployed to
the Middleton household on a round-the-clock basis to record the infant
Prince’s every move. That would be profligate and wrong.
Nor do I think that merely because the Royal family are
publicly funded that automatically means William, Kate and George have to
become public property. But really, basic self-respect should have kicked in
here. A suitable professional photographer could and should have been found for
this first official record.
On the bright side, this may be good news for professional
photographers. A few years ago we were treated to some beef-witted, waste of
blood and organs on Radio 4’s Today Programme, telling us that photographers
were a thing of the past because modern cameras and software meant anybody
could take a decent picture.
Finally we have a comprehensive irrefutable rebuttal to this assertion.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Michael Middleton!
* this is an edited version of the piece I wrote for Pixelrights Blog earlier today.
Years ago I lived in Bristol and worked on the press agency South West News Service. Whilst there, I was assigned to photograph the Bristol Balloon Fiesta which was a lot of fun. But in the intervening years I've never had the chance until the weekend just passed. The Fiesta is much bigger now and very professionally organised but the smooth sensation of hot-air ballooning hasn't changed a bit.
The press team introduced me to Colin, one of the pilots from Cameron Balloons who had kindly offered a to take me on a flight so I could get shots for the Independent on Sunday.
We rose steadily into crisp morning air, floating over the city that used to be my home.
Colin seemed rather underwhelmed as I pointed out the landmarks of my former life. The offices on Hotwells where I learned my trade. A few of my favourite haunts - even the hill where I was thrown in front of a moving car by the co-designer of a famous middle-eastern weapon of mass destruction after I had tried to photograph him as part of a Sunday Times investigation.
Ah, the carefree days of youth!
As we passed the south-western suburbs of the city our intended landing area was lit by a shaft of light breaking through the clouds. Gliding silently but for the occasional roar of the heater, I felt completely 'meshed-in'...