Portrait Photography

For all my working life I have found the camera an indispensable tool for gathering information. The photographs here, however, were taken for pleasure rather than for information (except for the two of Lincoln Kirstein, which I took as reference to paint from). All of them date from the photochemical era, long before the advent of digital photography.

I processed a film for the first time in 1967, passing it nervously from hand to hand through some developing fluid in a darkened room. Many of these early films were severely overdeveloped, but I soon discovered that dense black negatives subjected to long exposure, could result in prints as seductively grainy as Seurat drawings. My photographs of Desmond Heeley, draped in a linen table cloth, make him look like a biblical prophet in a sandstorm (in fact, the plain white wall of my studio!). The first five pictures (plus a few later ones of William Pierce as the god Pan) were lit by a single 100 watt bulb. All the others, apart from a few shots taken out of doors, were lit by a patch of bright cloud at the window.

I first met Desmond Heeley the theatre designer in the early sixties and through him, got to know two of his fellow designers, Tanya Moiseiwitch and Anthony Powell. One day when all of us were together at Anthony’s house he raided his unique collection of authentic period clothes to transform Tanya, first into an Edwardian ‘Grande Dame’, then a sophisticated woman of the thirties and finally, a stylish, forties heiress. Fortunately I had my camera with me. (By then Anthony’s costume designs for movies had already won him three Oscars!)

Back at home, my photo sessions had largely depended on improvisation. To make the most of Hugo Clarkson’s aristocratic profile, I had dressed him in a borrowed ruff, a small Turkish carpet, some junk jewellery and my grandfather’s pocket watch. After helping me put this look together David Walker, another designer friend, had used the same ruff to nudge me into the sixteenth century as well. These enjoyable sessions gave me a real feel for period. This proved particularly useful some years later, when I embarked on my Portraits in Time- a set of drawings that pitched a number of my contemporaries back through time to an earlier age.

Often I encouraged my subjects to act a part rather than expecting them to just be themselves in front of the camera. Paradoxically, this helped them to relax. William Pierce as well as taking on several other roles, became Pan with vine leaves in his hair and horns made out of taped-up pipe cleaners. Geoffrey Rogers assumed the character of an inmate of Bedlam, Michael Stennett wrapped in a blanket, became a doppelgånger for Egon Schiele, and Ian Judge, also wrapped in a blanket, evoked the face of death in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. Occasionally I ‘floated’ a head in a void, asking one of my subjects to lie down on a dark carpet wearing a black polo neck pullover, then photographed them from above. (Nuala Willis, Desmond Heeley and Erik Larson).

Invariably I took my camera with me when visiting ‘out of town’ friends, such as the Colemans and the Murphys. I called in on Roy Strong and Julia Trevelyan-Oman at their Regency cottage in Brighton shortly after their surprise elopement in September 1971 and was among the first to reveal them as blisfully happy newlyweds.

Over time, my photographs became somewhat less coarse grained and took on a more documentary tone. Astrid Zydower the sculptor and Yolanda Sonnabend the theatre designer sat for me in the context of their studios. Paul Harbutt the painter, his family around him, posed within the confines of a large picture frame.

Although Jim Farrell, the Booker prize winning novelist, was wary of the camera lens, he seemed remarkably at ease in front of mine. He sadly met his death in an accident only a month or two after our photo session. Lavinia Graecen, his biographer, featured several of my pictures in her wonderfully compelling book, ‘J.G.Farrell: The Making of a Writer’.

The other portrait subjects featured here include the painter R.B.Kitaj, the fashion designer Bill Gibb, the animatronics expert Marion Appleton, the dancer Sean Avres of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and three of my regular models; Barry Mackenzie, Joe Kiernan