Saturday, 21 January 2012

Remembering Julia Carter Preston

Julia was quite simply an amazing woman in all senses. Although in her early eighties, when I came to photograph her, she was still a great beauty, with very smooth skin and sparkling eyes. Maybe because her hands had spent a lifetime dipped in clay, they were exquisite, long and tapering.  I sure she could have made a fortune modelling them.

Her pottery pieces are wondrously detailed. She gained technique and inspiration from her famous father Edward Carter Preston, former head sculptor at Liverpool Anglicon Cathedral.  But ultimately Julia's style was completely her own and the collector would know a Julia Carter Preston anywhere. A major retrospective of her work at The Walker in 1999 saw a frenzy of people literally fighting over the plates. Like all her exhibitions, it was a sell-out. My husband bought the last piece, or so he said, a small bowl with lid, as a present for me. Once in a while when we have a disagreement we argue over its ownership.

In February 2008 I arrived at their Canning Street house in the centre of Liverpool, in an area now known as The Georgian Quarter, but then it was simply Toxteth. An air of regal elegance trailed Julia, as well as her devoted husband Mike. I could not help but imagine the many flamboyant dinner parties they are reputed to have given and wished I could have attended one of them. The atmospheric Georgian house was stuffed to the gills with antiques and ceramics that glimmered on this particularly sunny day. Mike served tea in the first floor sitting room and the cat Percy peed on my circular reflector. This caused much hilarity, and even if the incident was tinged with shades of embarrassment, it served to break the ice.

Julia was “potty” about animals, but cats in particular and she sat in a chair by the window stroking Percy with her lovely hands and laughing when he tried to lick her face and play with her flaming red hair. Hers was the last photo I took for “People in Liverpool” and I felt it was not complete without her. In the four years that have passed since, both Mike and Julia have also passed away.  It is symbolic of their mutual devotion that before Mike died he planned every detail of Julia’s funeral. She had sadly declined with dementia, quite rapidly after I took this portrait in fact, and he wanted to ensure her safe deliverance into the next world.

The house in Canning Street has been donated to Hope University to create a bursary for the arts, The Carter Preston Foundation.  Julia’s memory will always live on.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Roger Phillips, Broadcaster not irascible, and an era past

I have known Roger for 21 years, for the first 18 of these purely by his voice. You do not need to know what he looks like to know who he is because of it. Though he has not a hint of a Liverpool accent, for me it is nevertheless “The Voice of Liverpool”, gravelly, with a throaty purr, and deep, and sometimes, all the same, he slurs a bit. His BBC Merseyside phone-in has a faithful following, including many old folk who tune in Monday to Friday at noon, as regular as the things that do not happen so regular in their lives anymore.

Though others may disagree with me, it is my opinion that he has the patience of a saint. I am constantly amused by the old men calling in ranting and raving about the ills and injustices of the day. Of course it is not always old men, but mostly it seems that it is. They call him by his first name and many of them call more than once, and their views are often politically incorrect. But Roger lets them have their say and only counters in the calmest of ways, never raising his voice, just stating emphatically the inaccuracies of their statements when needs must, and always sounding as if these men are sitting in the very same room as him. It is a fine line to negotiate and perhaps one that he would not be permitted to do in any other city.

If I were to cast him in a performance, it would be as the lion in The Wizard of Oz, without a doubt. In fact, this would be quite apt for after graduating from Cambridge Roger started his professional life off as an actor. He is immortalized forever along with the likes of the then unknown actors, Julie Walters, Peter Postlethwaite and Bill Nighy, pictured in the iconic photo above. It is still to be found in the entrance of the soon to be demolished Everyman Theatre and if you mosey on down there sharpish you can still catch a glimpse of the youthful Roger, cheeky, cheerful, the world at his feet. Hopefully, when The Everyman is re-built, the photo will be spared and find a new home but then that is a story for another day.

In 1974, when this picture was taken, the group shown here was young and feisty, and loved to drink in the bohemian bistro downstairs. The Everyman was more of an actors' studio then, a bit rough around the edges and refreshingly organic. Here this gang bounced ideas and creativity off each other in their camradity. It was where Willy Russell, and later Alan Bleasdale, took off, and a lot of relationships besides. Then, as things do, the cliques split and headed to pastures new; Julie and Peter to a long successful run of Funny Peculiar in the West End, and Willy to Shaftsbury Avenue with his play John, Paul, George, Ringo …and Bert.

Roger on the other hand, after a brief stint as a cabbie, decided to venture into radio broadcasting. The rest is history, as they say, for he has been on air now for 32 years and received sackloads of awards, including the Gold Sony Award for ‘News and Talk Broadcaster of The Year 2000’. No other local broadcaster can equal his following.

About 3 years ago Roger and I finally met face to face - at the Everyman aptly enough, though not in the bistro downstairs. I had just published a fine art calendar of a naked girl frolicking with Antony' Gormley's Ironmen at Crosby Beach and Roger asked me for an interview. Thanks to The Liverpool Culture Company, who in their narrow-minded wisdom had banned it in the 2008 Liverpool year of culture, I was inadvertently thrust into the local media spotlight.

After the interview we arranged to do a shoot for my, at that time, book-in-progress, People in Liverpool. On a Saturday we met at a pre-arranged spot in Sefton Park, both of us without half the photo props we had talked about. I forgot the newspapers, but not the butties. He remembered the newspapers, but not the fish and chips. For me this was a relief as I was already unaccountably nervous. We walked around to find a suitable spot and he talked with good humour. I kept on dropping my photographic accessories. Hearing his distinctive voice, passers-by greeted him with “Hello Roger”. A few times he was waylaid with problems unique to Liverpool, such as whether the Lamb Bananas were really Liverpudlians or not.

I had already decided to take Roger from behind, but now I was beginning to realize that I would have to do so in an isolated place. We found the required quiet spot, near a stream with a few ducks, and this is where we set up camp. The ducks were in for luck because suddenly a steady string of processed white bread began to rain upon the water around them. Clearly word got out because before long the feathered friends were queuing up for morsels. It was quite hilarious really for I could not get the image out of my head from that film “About a Boy” with Hugh Grant – the one where the said boy throws a whole loaf of his mother’s organic bread in the lake and it lands on a duck and kills it.

Along with the ducks, a trickle of local folk began to gather round. With a wink and a nod, we dumped Roger’s butties in the brook and headed towards the obscurity of Keith’s wine bar on Lark Lane. The shoot was in the bag, and so we spent the rest of that Saturday morning gabbling over a couple of coffee Americanos. And we have never stopped since.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Maura O’Donnell, Merseyside Woman of the Year 2009

Because of the recent snow, I have been reminded of this time two years ago when Merseyside ground to a standstill for what seemed weeks. On the very first day of the snow I had arranged to photograph one of the nominees for Merseyside Woman of the year 2009, a very deserving lady who happily went on to win the nomination by popular vote. As Maura is a keen golfer, we arranged to meet at her club, The Royal Birkdale, and on that morning there was a light, but manageable sprinkling of snow on the ground so we we decided to go ahead with the shoot.

However, as I drove up through Crosby, then Blundellsands, and further, the skies decided to send forth an ever increasing flurry of dry powdery snow. By the time I reached The Birkdale, my car was skidding and the flakes dancing wildly in merriment at us two fools who presumed to think golf was possible.

Of course play wasn't on- the "green" had been closed for Health & Safety reasons, and a straggle of men in the clubhouse eyed us suspiciously, or rather me with my arsenal of photography equipment. Images of Maura teeing off , the golf ball zooming through the air vanished in the swirl of snow outside the clubhouse windows. After it was explained that I was not there to blow the whistle on The Birkdale's innermost secrets, it was agree we could shoot around the clubhouse with caution. It was a bizarre experience, but I am very happy with the photo for it is definitely different, and actually rather pertinent.

Maura O'Donnell is overwhelmingly humble and perennially cheerful. I have known her on a casual level for ten years and I have never seen her put herself above anyone. She is warm and curious, and always asks you about yourself. Unlike so many, me included, she is not in the habit of beating her own drum, though it would be easy to do so.

That is why, when I was shortlisted for Woman of the Year 2008, all I could think of was that the wrong person was chosen.

For instance: I have not invested my money in a company that specializes in clinical nutrition and is literally responsible for easing the lives of countless sick people. Nor have I embarked on a personal project to build a much-needed school in Uganda.

Maura is bright, kind, hard working and extremely moral. If the world was full of Mauras, it would be a peaceful and fun place. There would be no rudeness, no illness, and plenty of love. All children would be nurtured and receive a proper education. Art would be encouraged. Faith too. And of course, golf would be played in all seasons, even if there was snow.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Marco Pierre White - a slightly personal take from a female

About 25 years ago, my husband-to-be took me to a new restaurant around the corner from his flat in Clapham called Harveys. We had one of the most amazing meals of our life, then or since, and we have both eaten in some of the finest restaurants of the world.

In particular, I remember the starter of oysters in a champagne sauce, or as Marco corrected me last week, "oysters with champagne sabayon and caviar". Whatever. A few years on, and a few more outings to Harveys, we married, and when our first child was born, we called him Harvey.

Like Marco, we thought it a great name.

And now, several decades later, I am asked to do photos of him. My editor is amused by the flap I go into. Yes, admittedly, he is one of the most famous chefs in the world, and one who has set a lot of firsts, but so what? She does not understand. I have calmly photographed quite a few famous people - Ivo Pitanguy, Willy Russell, Loydd Grossman, even Queen, so why Marco???

I am not sure I know, but I was very nervous. Luckily I have lived to tell the tale.

Marco Pierre White is exactly as portrayed by the press. And yet, Marco Pierre White is not. He is both intimidating and charming, engaging and distant, a handsome man who could be mistaken for a bum, and yet is still, absolutely, undeniably, incredibly sexy.

And I have to say this, even if I should not, but he really looks like a cross between my husband and Ken Dood. You can blame it on the hair, and you can blame the hair for making him look so sexy. And the eyes - they are, at times, haunted, then warm and pleading, or icy and threatening. He is the kind of person you want to know, you want to like you, and that, you fear, never will.

He is definitely a man’s man. Despite having been brought up on a housing estate in Leeds, he emanates the impression of top public school and seasons spent with titled relatives in Italy. His voice is melodious. His hands are huge and expressive. It is hard not to think what he could do with them. As it is, it seems that they spend a great deal of time carrying a shotgun and a string of pheasants. For Marco loves to hunt.

When I looked at his images on the Internet I gained the mistaken impression that his eyes were very dark, whereas in reality, they are a pale brown mixed with the hazel-green hue of pain. I do not know where that pain comes from, but it is transparent. The logical conclusion is that it stems from his mother who died before his eyes of a brain hemorrhage when he was only six. He mentions it more than once, and I have read about it too. And his father fell ill with cancer when he was 10. Also that he was bullied as a child. It is these obvious deductions that point to his combative nature, and problems with women in general.

Re women: "I like the truth", he told me, "I like honesty". He is ruthlessly honest, and you feel that it is a kind of game. As long as he is honest, it does not matter if he is cruel. “If I was married to you for 20 years, I would quarrel with you all the time”, he said. That stung, and I wondered at the same time, what did that mean? We were outside his recently opened restaurant, The Swann Inn in Aughton, while he had one of countless ciggy breaks of the day. That man is a serious chain-smoker. I tried to take a photo. “No photos”, he ordered. There was an unmistakable menace in his tone.

Marco asked me lots of questions. This was charming. He knew my oldest son was named Harvey. I was too startled to ask how. Perhaps someone had told him that we had named our first-born after Marco’s first restaurant? “Where does he go to school”, he asked "And your other son, what is his name?”. Charlie. “A good name. Good names”. I, in turn, asked him what his children were called. “Luciano, Marco, and Mirabelle”. AH, good Italian names, I said. “No, Mirabelle is French”. I saw the sneer and felt very stupid.

I wondered about his first child, Letitia, from marriage number one. Maybe he had mentioned her. I was so star struck that it is a slight possibility, just as I had failed to recognize that Mirabelle was French, and this despite speaking the language. I also wondered about his last wife, Mati. “I was married to a stranger for 18 years,” he told me. “We met, six weeks later she told me she was pregnant, and then I spent the next 18 years working 8 days a week while she stayed at home”. Maybe, but this is not exactly what he has always said.

My aim for the day was to get Marco to look at me, that is to say, to look in the camera. I wanted to show his eyes for I felt that few photos did. In many he looks simply exhausted, or haggard, or nasty, or all three. Apart from a batch of wonderful photos taken by Bob Carlos Clarke when Marco was young and whippet-thin, he seldom gives a pleasant impression, and there is no hint of his oozing sexuality. I had hoped to address that, but sadly it was not to be.

My private shoot with him was stampeded from behind by a plethora of press and magazine photographers let through the closed door by a PR agent from Paversmith. My dignity slipped, as did the slave trigger for my flash, somehow, and inexplicitly, ripped from its lighting stand. Luckily, it was found by a friendly waiter, stuck between some sofa cushions. Now how did it get there?

Always the professional (ha!), I soldiered on, and I did manage to get some decent images that in my humble opinion are better than most I have seen. I have no idea what the other photographers got that day, though they seemed to like squatting on the ground and shooting up. I tried that and my chocolate tunic rode up my leggings in am ungainly manner. Briefly I saw Marco’s eyes flicker over my crotch. Those photos were not good.

Later, a fat guy with a squat lens asked me where my flash was? You see, his was stuck in the centre of his camera. But mine, was some distance away on a stand to keep that “press photographer look” out of the images. I took great pleasure in indicating its whereabouts.

At the end of the afternoon, I was granted one final shoot of six frames with Marco, then we shook hands and said good byes. Outside, someone took a photo of us together and Marco put his arms around me in a genuine hug. “It was very nice meeting you”, he said, “I hope our paths cross again some day”.

As I said, exactly as the press depicts him, but then, exactly not.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Doorman at Rock Lounge

Charlie, my youngest son, formed a rock group “Bad Lesson” when he was ten years old, and until the members went their different ways two years later, they enjoyed a certain amount of success.

This doorman was outside a rock venue in the city centre were Bad Lesson was hired to play. It was one of those studenty places, worn, and smelly, and up some dirty stairs. In other words, terribly shabby chic.

With the doorman’s permisson, I took two snapshots of him before hurrying in to listen to a deafening, cacophonic rock din. Technically and pixel-wise, this is not a good photo - the quality of digital has advanced light years since then. Nor did I have a tripod and it was very dark, and yet, the visible detail says it all.

Look carefully and you can see our outlines reflected in the mirror in the distance. The little bit of light there is focuses on the doorman’s lived-in face and hands. The lens was a fisheye that I got terribly bored with after an initial honeymoon. But here it works well.

I often wonder where this person is now, and what kind of life he has. His demeanor leads you to speculation. Sometimes I imagine he will tap me on the shoulder, one night when I am out and about, and say, hello, it’s me.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Joey Harris, West Everton

( This portrait was commissioned by The Museum of Liverpool in conjunction with their West Everton Project to be revealed in 2011)

When I turned up at Joey’s house, he looked very surprised. In one hand he held a sheet of curling wallpaper and in the other, an unlit roll-up. The arranged visit had been forgotten and he was in the midst of wallpapering the hall for his wife.

I was a bit dismayed by this, but Joey could not have been more welcoming, and we sat in his kitchen and drank cups of tea. He talked about the good old days, like so many of the others I would meet in West Everton, and for Joey in particular these days were “The Four Squares”.

After showing me a DVD of old B&W photos he had scanned and set to music at college, Joey took me to the place where “The Four Squares” used to be. He pointed out the bungalows that now replaced once thriving shops, and the place on the football court that marked his long gone childhood home. He drew an arch in the air to demonstrate the squares grand entrance, and then, he stood in the middle of a vast empty green field and stared at me, swallowed up by its vastness.

We went back to his house for another cup of tea, then outside in the back garden where Joey had created an ornamental pond. This was his pride and joy and he proclaimed that there was not one gadget he had not sourced for it. Briefly he posed in front of the bubbling water, besides some discarded packaging, which contrasted oddly with the perfection of the pond.

We were here so that Joey could light up. He pulled hungrily on a roll-up, banned from the house because his wife had given it up and could not stand the smell of smoke anymore. Tugging at the remnants of his fag, and rolling it around his teeth, Joey pointed to his pond, and then the house, and declared, “I would give this all up for the old days back in The Four Squares. We were a community then, thick as thieves.” Then he hesitated for a split second before adding with a wry smile, “in fact we were a bit of that too - to survive”.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Brenda Murray, Local Historian

Brenda, 85, is a formidable woman, of that there is no doubt. Hale and hearty, she has not spent a day ill in bed for 45 years.

Her preferred mode of transport is the bicycle, and of modern technology she will have no truck. I can personally vouch for the fact that she does not lack omega oils. When I arrived at her neatly presented house for the arranged shoot there was something distinctly fishy in the air.

“You don’t mind if I finish off my lunch”, she stated, rather than asked, “I am running a little behind time”. It was grilled sardines and salad – "delicious", she declared, "my favourite".

No, Brenda’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to bring to the public attention the historic aspects of her native area, Seaforth, and by so doing help to reverse its decay. She is determined and perseverant and marches straight ahead in her mission. No one denies a request from Brenda Murray, and certainly not Brenda herself.

“ I have far too much to achieve still”, she informed me, “so will be here on Planet Earth for quite some time yet”.

A week after our shoot, Brenda arrived to collect a small print of this photo. She was appalled.

I found her reaction rather intriguing, for I thought she, of all people, would be taken with the well-preserved period details of her face. But no, Brenda is like anyone else after all. She preferred a more benign image with her bicycle!

Update February 11th, 2010: In my original version of this story, I mistakenly said that Brenda lived in a bungalow. When Brenda finally returned her release to me two days ago, this note was attached : "A bungalow would not suit my personality. Living in one is for people who have given up and want an easy life".

I rest my case