I never had the good fortune to meet the great Helmut Newton in person but I will never forget the interview that I saw on television with him shortly before his death.
Newton told the interviewer that he had once approached Buckingham Palace because he wanted to photograph Prince Charles’ Camilla nude. Asked by the interviewer what happened, Newton smiled and said “I never got a reply”.
All photographers have a favourite subject that they cannot find out how to contact let alone convince to sit for them. I have a whole list. Even the two most famous people I can lay claim to having photographed are not everybody’s idea of fame: The classical singer Thomas Hampson and the investigative journalist and broadcaster Tim Samuels.
I am using the term “famous people” deliberately because “celebrities” creates an instant and violent impression of cheapness in my mind.
This February, in the run-up to the elections in Britain, I became interested in then prime minister Gordon Brown. I could not understand why every photograph of him that appeared in the media was created so extremely unsympathetically.
Gordon Brown must have been one of the most photographed people on the planet and many of the press photographers out there are excellent at what they do. Is it really conceivable that there was not one photograph that did not fail to portray his values and passion?
I wrote to Gordon Brown in February of this year, when he still had an official, easily accessible address. I was luckier than Helmut Newton in getting a reply from Gordon Brown’s private office but equally unsuccessful at getting to photograph him. The letter thanked me for my “generous offer and kind words” but stated “regrettably, the Prime Minister will not be able to be photographed at the moment as he has a very busy diary”. It was a very kind and gentle letdown that made me want to photograph him even more although I suspect that he probably hates cameras aimed at him.
The remark that he had a very busy diary was interesting. It was stating the obvious in a way that you explain something equally obvious to a little child in a kind and not at all offensive way.
I am good at getting this kind of reply. Some time ago, I contacted the agent of Jean Alexander, the actress who plays the part of “Auntie” in Last Of The Summer Wine. I like Auntie Wainwright’s business instincts of “not letting a customer slip away”. I am not that brutal with my clients and have always felt that I should learn from her.
I did not seriously expect a reply but after a couple of months I held a hand-written letter from Jean Alexander in my hands, apologising for the delay in replying, of course declining in the nicest possible way and pointing out that she was only “dressed and wigged like this when filming”, stating the obvious to a naïve little child. I would have loved to photograph her as Auntie or as Jean.
The least they could have offered, I suppose, was a cameo role in Summer Wine. I could have been the photographer coming to photograph her for a local paper, ending up not getting the shot and leaving her shop with a collection of ancient cameras bought on an impulse. Auntie’s impulse.
After the elections and his subsequent resignation, Gordon Brown announced that he wanted to devote himself to charity work rather than taking the lucrative but far less worthy route of lectures and consultancy. At least I think he did. This announcement endeared him to me because it seemed to prove what I had suspected and wanted to capture: The intelligent, passionate man with strong moral values.
Today, I saw a piece on some website about the last letters Gordon Brown wrote as Prime Minister and I felt moved, something that does not happen often. (I cannot post a link because I have lost the page.)
If Gordon Brown’s charity work goes ahead, I expect that he will thrive in the relative obscurity of a man, who can finally dedicate himself to his passion and his values.