Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Dench Diary : February 2011

This Month, Peter Dench, the award-winning photojournalists finds that self-imploding magazines and shrinking expense accounts mean things just ain't what they used to be in the world of professional photography. On the plus side there's always a launch party just around the corner . . . welcome to the world of a sometime working pro.

1stWhilst Peter has shown an increased dedication to photography and has produced a good portfolio of work for interview, his overall attitude tends to be one of indifference, flippancy and at times complacency. Unless Peter grows up a little in the very near future and works hard in all his subjects he will soon find himself out in the cold world surrounded by students who leave him standing.” Words as relevant now as they were 21 years ago. Keen to know her progress, I Google Virginia Bolton, my former A Level Photography teacher. I discover eight used copies of her book Focus on Photography for sale at a penny on Amazon but nothing else. My mum has retired and is doing what mums do best, sorting things out. In my hometown of Weymouth there are three boxes of my life needing rescue including this college report. Flicking through the viewed once magazines it’s clear just how much editorial photography has changed. A 1999 Marie Claire a whacking 426 pages, a 1998 GQ a healthy 321. The format is big and the pages are jammed with adverts for Palm Pilots, before Viagra remedies and photographs of Gail Porter with hair. My contributions failed to save some of the publications, Frank, The Face, Wish and NOVA, all gone. It’s poignant tipping them into recycle. Today what was probably my last editorial mail out will reach their destination. From habit I ordered 200 postcards. Three immediate commissions would usually follow plus another half dozen within a few months. Checking the list less than 70 recipients still have their job. I say a mental goodbye to the days of jollies masquerading as stories, visits to a town dedicated to Superman, foam parties at Club Med and I go out with a smile. The stamps bore my cheesy pate next to a billowing Union Flag courtesy of the www.royalmail.com/smilers service, ‘Smilers - Share a special moment.’

8th I’m hanging my LoveUK exhibition at Creative Ad Agency, Archibald Ingall Stretton in time for Valentines Day and pop along to the offices to asses the space. After, I have three hours to occupy before a long anticipated private view of an important Eve Arnold retrospective at the Chris Beetles Fine Photographs Gallery in Swallow Street. The sun is out. Resisting the urge to imbibe I start snapping the street. It feels I’m trespassing all over iN-PUBLIC member and street photographer David Solomons Up West project. Stalking red scarves around Carnaby Street a Hexar AF sneaks into view. It’s iN-PUBLIC member and street photographer David Solomons shooting his Up West project. We have one of those twitchy conversations photographers often have with one another where no-ones really paying attention, eyes and wrists flick to the colours that pass and the people that wear them. David is gracious enough to let me crash his drinks meeting but something odd happens. I decline. I’m enjoying myself and continue to play peek-a-boo with the sun as we bounce up and down Piccadilly before I finally succumb and head up to the 5th floor bar in Waterstones Bookstore. If I ever have a lover of advanced years who enjoys The Express and a good Royal Wedding this is the ideal venue to take them. Looks like many of the men at the tables agree. The walls are decorated with the covers of 40 years of Pulitzer Prize winners. I scribble some down. The woman next to me asks if I’m a writer. I snort derisively. Then say yes. For a second I think she wants to caress my head in her leathery nape; her friends turn up and the moment fades. It’s opening time at Chris Beetles and I jittery flit moth like towards the gallery door, swerve sharply and compose myself round the corner. My legs bow, the table I glanced inside was groaning with fizz. Breath, skip back round and nip through the door. No name or invite check, they let anyone in these days. A man views the work seated by scooting round in a desk chair. Another prods me out the way with his walking stick. The bubbles are introduced to my palette and I acquaint myself with the work, some of it familiar some not. In a fantasy moment I rehearse purchasing ‘Bar Girl in a Brothel in the Red Light District, Havana, Cuba, 1954’ and check the price, £2800. It’s one of the cheaper prints. ’Marilyn Monroe During the Filming of The Misfits, Nevada, 1960’ is a busty £17500. Most I talk with think them a fair price. The red dots are out and at least four have stuck. I check my lapel for a scarlet disc. I decide to leave when my camera bag dominoes an empty glass into a terracotta army of others. I momentarily detect the spirit of Roy Castle and Norris McWhirter chortle their approval. I hold my nerve and let the lady trying to stand them up take the blame, doff an imaginary cap to the £8000 ‘Barmaid, New York City, 1950s’ grab my coat and burp into the evening.

12th Attend the first anniversary party of the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff - turn to the 6-page feature in this issue to read of the experience. Wait! Finish the diary first.

17th The editorial mail out has tweaked the interest of Stylist Magazine, a portrait in Soho of former MP Jacqui Smith, breeze past presenter Claire Balding and into the BBC’s Henry Wood House where we are to meet. While Jacqui is having her make up done I get a call delivering news as significant as winning a World Press Photo Award. I’ve only ever spontaneously shouted out loud for joy three times in adult life and to the surprise of the office release a shattering fourth. It’s Director of the 2011 Visa Pour L’Image Festival of Photojournalism, Jean-Francois Leroy with confirmation that they would like to exhibit ‘England Uncensored’. This is big news. Leroy ends the call with those magic words, “Welcome to the club.”

18th TAXVAT man has cleaned me out and is still squeezing. I check my air miles from more prolific times and book an escape. It is time to go on a journey to see a man. Not just any man, but a man with a fine head of hair. The ladies call him Mr Darcy. Many call him Captain Congo. Others call him friend. I simply call him Bleasdale. Marcus Bleasdale. I first met Bleasdale when he joined the IPG agency of which I was already a member in 2002. I think he will concur benefiting from my tutelage. It’s satisfying to see him doing so well and progress to a point where I was only on the subs bench at his wedding. Winner of World Press Photo of the Year 2005 Finbarr O’Reilly shot the stills. Current Magnum President Jonas Bendiksen was on video duty. Now with the VII photographic agency, Bleasdale has got me a gig teaching a workshop at the Bilder Nordic School of Photography in Oslo where he lives. Realising I’m heading to one of the most expensive cities in the world I log onto wonga.com to see if I can raise enough for a round and head off to the airport. I arrive bearing the requested maximum quota of duty free and series 8&9 of Silent Witness.

19th Arriving at the £8000 a year School of Photography the nerves aren’t bad but I postpone breakfast just in case. Last night at the Crown Prince’s favourite Restaurant over Venison (I was tempted by the Braised Ox Cheek in Beer) Bleadsdale had warned me, “Dench, you’d better be funny.” This morning I don’t feel funny. Breakfast with Bleasdale is not always an amusing start to the day. All the hope and light from this dawn is juiced into a tale of Congo Rape and Child Soldiers. I stare out the window at the residence across the road and applaud the Norwegians aversion to net curtains. It’s a peeping Peter paradise. “Are you a nation of tall blonde, fluffy jumper wearing, whale killing, pillaging sea warriors?” may not be the most conventional question to kick off a presentation but most of the ensemble seem to take it in their stride. I check the slow blinking lids of ice cool Catrine on the front row for a written message. Nothing. She just seems tired and idly jabs at her phone. The theme of the workshop is Irony and Humour in Norwegian Life and Society. I show them a cross section from my work on England from Dagenham Estates to Blackpool Hen Parties, Country House Events to the Banbury Hobby Horse Festival and end the presentation reading a few extracts from the Diary to see if it translates and am pleased the laughs are loud. Skidding round to the Dubliners Pub on a high I get the drinks in. Two pints of Guinness and two packets of crisps please, £22.59. My legs start doing an involuntary Charleston. I’ve never taken so long to finish a pint.

20th The family have joined me for a mini-break and while we watch the girls ice skate I complain to Bleasdale about having to pick up the cab fare on my Jacqui Smith all in fee commission and ask him about his recent 21 day trip to north-east Congo on assignment for Human Rights Watch and the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting. He flatly explains spending $17000 on flights and only eight of those days being shoot days. Of having to fly with motorcycles and a generator before seven-hour rides through the bush. On one ride an accident smashed his knee and chewed the skin off his elbow down to the bone. Two days from decent medical care he patched himself up and finished the job. Not wanting to alarm the wife, the first she learned of his ordeal was as he crawled the stairs to his apartment 10KG lighter and urinating blood. Three trips to A&E followed before he headed off on a three-week trip to the Central African Republic and 10 days in Uganda. After ice-skating, hot chocolate and waffles we move on to The International Museum of Childrens Art, I pick up the entrance fee and make a donation. Under the Chinese masks Bleasdale talks about an orphanage he and a bunch of Congo conscious journalists have set up (congochildren.com) feeding, medicating and educating around 134 kids from past or current conflicts. He starts to regale a story of shooting backstage at Marc Jacobs during New York fashion week when a Nun called from Congo; she was having difficulty raising the $65 tax required to get six cows across a lake intended to provide milk for the orphanage. Before he can finish he beats off to catch the start of an African drum lesson, you can take Bleasdale out of Africa . . .

22nd Today I’m back at the Bilder Nordic School to assess the work of the students. I kick off the morning with a YouTube video of Jahn Teigun’s 1978 Eurovision Song Contest Nul Pointer, Mil Etter Mil (Mile After Mile) just to show that Norwegians are capable of being hilarious. Of the 40 students that attended my presentation, twenty have returned and 17 produced work. I ask Sebastian what’s his excuse and float the idea of getting the non-shooters to sing a chorus along with Jahn. “My best friends brother took an overdose and his wife hung herself.” I let thoughts of punishment pass. Later, reflecting on the quality of work from the Bilder Nordic School I find myself once again out in the cold world surrounded by students who will probably leave me standing, assume an attitude of indifference, flippancy and at times complacency, board the plane, sit back and suck back the British Airways Malbec, Mil Etter Mil Etter Mil . . .

A version of this feature first appeared in the April issue of Professional Photographer Magazine

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