Friday, 17 April 2009

Levi Tafari, Poet

Levi looked at me with assessing eyes. I could see that he was trying to work out my intentions and it made me nervous. My intentions were not very profound.

Of Jamaican heritage and West African roots, he is a celebrated poet, playwright and musician. His compelling face and background make him an ideal subject to photograph.

On a dark rainy afternoon in November, I knocked on Levi’s door. Amongst all his other accomplishments, he is a trained Cordon Bleu chef and I had a vague motion of a man and his kitchen. This idea was swiftly dispatched when I found out that two others had been there before. The knife and the elaborate dish trick had been executed. I certainly did not want to be derivative.

That day Levi put together a simple meal of moist Jamaican fruit bun, thickly sliced and smeared with butter, and topped by a young cheese. To accompany we had fruit tea. He placed this gracious treat on mats in the dining room on a square glass table and invited me to sit down. I asked Levi which place was his. He is married, with a son and a daughter, and everyone in families has “their” place at the table. I did not want to start things off on the wrong seating.

We talked, circling a mishmash of topics. Often being described as an Urban Griot, I could see why. For starters, he jumped right into politics and the pending displacement of world powers. This was duly followed by food and Liverpool, mixed with various aside stories. The finale was why Levi had a Jamaican accent (of sorts), although he had been born and raised in Toxteth.

His formative years were passed in a large Victorian house owned by an aunt where he only heard foreign accents. A Barbadian family lived on the ground floor, Nigerians above, and Levi and his family on the top floor. When Levi first went to school he was placed in a class for the incomprehensible.

In the two hours I stayed, Levi never ceased to look at me with those questioning eyes. At the end he asked, so what about my kitchen, is it right for the shoot? I paused. It does not say enough about you, I said. He looked disappointed, and retorted, but it is only a kitchen. Exactly, I answered, and added hurriedly, there is not enough natural light anyway.

Thus it was agreed that I would shoot him in my studio, black on black. Just in case this did not happen, I took a few very dark shots of him in the kitchen in front of a metal wall organiser. Then I left and worried all the way down the dock road. Would he cancel?

As soon as I arrived home, I loaded the few photos onto my computer. Underexposed, but very good. Levi has a great face and he is very relaxed in front of the camera. I pressed auto contrast in Photoshop and the images took on new life. If necessary, they would pass muster.

The shoot did happen, and Levi gave generously of his time. He was extremely loquacious and we continued to explore a medley of topics. I had worried what he would think of my home, but I need not have. As a matter of fact he had had the same worries about what I had thought of his after a tactless comments during our first meeting. This is a man who pays close attention to words.

A week later I posted the contact sheets off to Levi. The next afternoon I was driving home after a really upsetting day and my mobile rang. It was Levi; ecstatic, full of heart-felt praise. He just wanted me to know immediately how much he loved the photos. His words flowed down my hands-free like beautiful, warm, soothing honey, sheer poetry and music to the ears. Levi, champion of Liverpool 8, Urban Griot and conscious-raiser, had cheered me up.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The confession

I confess straight off the mark so that you are under no illusions. Whilst under the influence of fermented grapes I photographed Justina Heslop, here,Image Resourcer for the forthcoming Museum of Liverpool, and she was standing in front of a church alter.

You may wonder, but let it be said that Justina comes in an extremely curvy and alluring package, a cross between Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame and a St Trinian’s hell raiser.

The first time I met her she was quite tipsy and did an impromptu photo session of five kooky poses for me. One ended up on my website, and from time to time I went back to it and wondered what more a controlled shoot might extract from her.

Enter the fabulous Alma de Cuba on Seel Street, a restaurant housed in a former church, and saved by a prayer, from administration this week. What better setting than this for a somewhat outrageous girl?

We arranged to meet there, Justina in her outfit from our previous encounter, and I carried along a number of light units to supplement the Gothic darkness of Alma’s interior.

When I arrived, Justina was firmly ensconced at the alter with two companions. A pint of wine spritzer, or at least the remnants of one, sat on the table in front of her. Hello, she said, that’s my auntie, and this is my partner Phil.

Suddenly I was nervous for she seemed very serious and not at all like the girl I had met some weeks before. Had there been any wine in the spritzer? I ordered her another and what the hell, a glass of wine for me.

While we were drinking, my assistant for the day, fashion photographer Bruce Smith, was setting up the lighting. He declared it ready to go and we had a mini dispute. I need to talk to Justina, I told him, and he replied, better take the photo now.

Not my style, but I complied. Justina approached as requested and we set about the mission. Quickly I decided to do the whole thing differently, took my camera off the tripod, and got into it. So did Justina. After ten minutes I declared the job done. We relaxed with another spritzer (for her), a beer (for Bruce) and a massive white wine (for me).

That is when Bruce saw the shot. All I saw was an agreeable haze. He grabbed a reflector and squeezed Justina into a corner, by a stain glass window, on top of a cast iron radiator. Luckily it was not on. “I thought this was over!” Justina protested, as I jumped on a table to take “the shot”. “So did I!”, I exclaimed, and soon it was.

Over drinks I asked her questions and we laughed a lot. Having forgotten a notebook, I scribbled tipsily all over my diary in whatever space I could find. How on earth I was going to remember any of this?

Justina was educated at Archbishop Blanche, in Aigburth, where she was a model student who did her homework and did it well. This girl was an A-star student in fishnet stockings who kept her head down; a hell raiser in appearance only.

The package Justina chooses to present is more a reflection of her fascination with Japanese culture and the sexy "Gothic Lolita" look popular with young girls there.

The truth is that Justina is very bright. Her eccentricity is but further proof of this. Who else would study Fine Art and Dance at university? And what about her passion for sword fighting?

She prefers the rapier and the dagger, she informed me, because both are short, like herself. “The point is to distract the male with these, and of course my chest, use what I’ve got…”

Her partner Phil joined us in laughter at the table. They used to live in Yorkshire where, playing Dracula, he earned his daily bread. Every day Justina, the dutiful girlfriend, brought him exactly this in the form of squishy sandwiches that would not disturb his fangs. This Dracula did not draw blood.

We ordered another few drinks. Confessions in the form of witticisms showered thick and fast. And contradictions too. We would like to move to Canada, Phil announced, there is more room there. Yes, added Justina, we live our lives online. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world if you do that. All we need is a bed and a computer screen.

Hail Justina. The sun was nearly over the yardarm for the Gothic model and her ex-vampire. After a very large coffee, I took a taxi home.