Monday, 8 August 2011

Dench Diary : May 2011

This Month I relive my brush with the LA porn industry, say farewell to good friend and fellow photographer Tim Hetherington, and pass up a weekend at the in-laws to go on a pilgrimage to New Brighton in the footsteps of Martin Parr.

4th The PR is late. They often are. I’ve a tight two hours to complete the shoot and it’s ebbing away. Generally my experience with PRs hasn’t been great, except once. I was on assignment for the Telegraph Magazine tracking down the entourage of the deceased entertainer, Liberace. Our search had taken us to Las Vegas, then on to Los Angeles. Selfridges, department store was to display Liberace paraphernalia in their windows and was funding the trip. PR Maria Dark was our attaché. Checking out of the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, the receptionist asked if I had anything from the mini-bar? “Everything.” She looked at Maria. I looked at Maria. Maria nodded her consent. The $250+ slate was cleaned. Today’s PR turns up and loiters in shot while instructing what I can’t do and where I can’t go. I’m photographing White Water Rafting at Lee Valley Park near London for Men’s Health Magazine. I’ve done my research. Equipped with a buoyancy aid and 70-200mm zoom lens I leap gazelle-like around the course under instruction from on-sight snapper, White-water Dave. Later, the PR buys me a BLT sandwich.

9th Dust of my 12x16 print folios and head over to White City and the offices of Olive magazine. They responded favourably to a portrait email-out and invited me in. The invite came with a warning: "We commission on an all rights basis. This is pretty much standard across the industry now…" The design team coolly surveys my work before the Creative Director announces she’d be delighted to commission me for some projects. Apparently, people have been turning up with the results of ‘test’ shoots, so witnessing commissioned prints has been a rare delight. On the way out she retells a delightful story when David Bailey refused to leave his studio to photograph Michael Winner, who refused to leave his home to go to Bailey’s studio.

10th Late in bed Googling myself I find a link on the GQ Magazine website to my first ever foreign assignment. It was one to remember - 1999, on a Friday afternoon as I sipped some Cava in North London, Ash Gibson, art director at GQ called. Would I like to go to Los Angeles? I would. Would I like to go tomorrow? Fergus Greer, the assigned photographer was stuck in Kosovo and unable to get back in time. I said yes. Without a credit card I phoned my Dad and asked if I could borrow £500 cash. He said yes, and drove the 143 miles from my hometown of Weymouth to deliver. Arriving in LA I had a vague idea where the job was and booked into a cheap Motel. Turning on the radio after a fitful night's sleep, I discovered several people had been shot in the vicinity. The only resident not renting a room by the hour seemed to be yours truly. Still, excited by the assignment I unfolded one of two numbers to locate the writer and dialled the luxury establishment. “Hello the Beverly Wilshire, how may I help?” “Could you put me through to AA Gill please.” AA Gill, the sardonically revered and feared acid-tounged hack. He had scripted a pornographic film and was in town to direct. Striding on to the set of Hot House Tales, I introduced myself; he sat with a childlike expression of amusement, dressed in a light safari suit as an aspiring colonial dandy might sit amongst his ayahs and bearers. The next few days were surreal. The star of the show was Houston who had recently had sex with more men in one day than anyone else in history. She was supposed to climax at 500 but the turnout was 620; she kindly finished them off. Houston was a giver, well a taker. I documented Gills progress and marvelled at the professionalism of the team. On return to Blighty I showed my Dad the contact sheets; “That’s Ron Jeremy,” he pointed out, “I’m familiar with his work.” Thanks Dad. The article on the GQ magazine website has half a dozen of my images from the reportage. I don’t remember discussing or agreeing to this and am confident my 1999 contract didn’t have a web-use clause. In the hope of relieving Conde Nast Publishing of some further coinage, inquire about a fee. The article is removed from the website.

13th 9am and I drop my daughter off at school. Three minutes past and Marcus Bleasdale is on the phone discussing where we can get a drink. Today we will need a drink; 10.30am in Richoux, a Mayfair bar and restaurant we sate our palettes with Champagne. At a few minutes past 11am, the coffin of photojournalist and friend Tim Hetherington is hoisted into view to the front of The Jesuit Church Of The Immaculate Conception. The sight is a collective thunk in the stomachs of the congregation. Atop the coffin a single candle flickers; white lilies pout a silent fanfare. American author and journalist Sebastian Junger completes the service with a personal tribute. A man of dignity and power, his presence and voice is projected and proud. On returning to his seat he slides a hand across the wooden lid and crumples into the arms of a loved one. I return my gaze to the pattern on the floor that today has become as familiar as my daughters face. During the reception held at the Dorchester hotel on Park Lane, the mood lifts. Stories are exchanged and new friendships forged. As Tim’s mother advised us to do, we begin to “dance with life” as her son had done. The dance takes us late into a night at the Frontline Club. As Bleasdale would later tweet, the day was “truly moving, special, sad, uplifting. We say goodbye to a great man. Tim.”

15th Enter the FOTO8 Summer Show, £20 for three images. Check my finances and have £15 left; £10 will feed two children in Ethiopia for 100 days. Sorry kids. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait another 150 and enter one picture in the AOP Open Awards instead.

19th I am photographing the actress Prunella Scales, probably best known for her role as the long-suffering wife in TV sitcom Fawlty Towers. The shoot is for a Telegraph Magazine garden special. I’ve shot some portraits and details in the rear garden and accommodated the writers’ request to photograph Prunella by the compost bin. We are now stood outside the front of the house admiring the smaller garden. It’s not just any garden; it’s a herb garden. I’ve been biting my tongue all morning but now, I think, is the time. I ask Prunella what type of herbs. “Fennel” (snigger), “Mint” (chortle), “Sage” (here it comes), “Rosemary” (say it), and “Tarragon” (AND!) And that’s it. I’m sure I detect a narrowing of Prunella’s milky blues. There is definitely no BASIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!

26th For the second year I have volunteered, yes volunteered dear reader as backstage snapper at the Miss Leeds beauty pageant grand final. Every reportage photographer should photograph a beauty pageant. Ever since I saw Tony Ray-Jones image Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 it was on the shoot list. I was hoping after Miss Leeds 1, it might launch a career in event photography. There has been no direct benefit. One of the 2011 contestants has withdrawn after viewing my pictures. Before Miss Leeds I’ve a meeting with Henry and Paul at Jamie’s Italian and spring up the steps into the arms of a spritzer. Between the Pinot and Pasta it’s clear Henry and Paul have no idea what I do or who I am. I have no idea what they do or who I am. I think at one point they suggest I run a dedicated photography gallery under their mentorship and funding. I really should pay more attention. After the plus-three-hour pow-wow, I flick back through my notes. I’ve written down the phrases "the thing that exercises my mind," and "consider the USP," next to which is a doodle of my weeping face. The speech bubble simply reads, ‘Miss Leeds!’ Rushing backstage my face pings taught, an instant hairspray Botox. The tongue swells to the roof of my mouth. I look like a permanent surprise. Throw up a backdrop, lights, and peer through the haze. Nubile lovelies singe and tinge, brush and fuss. There’s enough fake tan to cast an army of Oompa-Loompas. They line up for their close up. Straight into lens please Adrianne Carter. Adrianne is sponsored by Acorn Stair Lifts, ‘Acorn can help you use your stairs again.’ Adrianne says: “I want to make people happy by making a difference, it’s a great feeling knowing I have put a smile on someone’s face.” Can you look up to the light Jade Garbett? Jade is sponsored by Exercise Express. Jade says: “I am a happy bubbly person and love to see other people happy too.” Chin down a touch Kelsey Sutcliffe. Kelsey is sponsored by Fastway Tour Bussing. Kelsey says: “I will show it doesn’t matter what size clothes you are.” Push your lips together for one please Olivia Goulden. Olivia is sponsored by Dolphin Lifts, ‘A true family business.’ She says: “Imperfections make you perfect.” (Can someone please tell me why stair lift companies sponsor beauty contestants?). Kelsey (21) from Keighley triumphs and I cut through the curses to congratulate. “Hello again, it’s Peter, from London. Congratulations.” Kelsey hopes to go to London one day. She says: “I have driven near it once on the way to Windsor.”

27th One of the great thing about being a photographer is you can create a project to drink and photograph where you want. Frantic in bed at the MINT Hotel, I’m racing through my ideas book. This weekend is a bank holiday weekend. The current plan is a trip to the mother in laws. I ring my wife. “You know I’ve always wanted to go to New Brighton?” “No.” “Of course you do, the town that Martin Parr photographed 25-years ago for his book, The Last Resort? “Vaguely.” "Well I’m going.” I gather my kit and jump on the first TransPennine Express to Liverpool, descend the three flights and change onto the seabed smelling Wirral Line. Welcome to New Brighton.

28th - 31st Four nights, I booked four nights. It’s blowing a gale and slapping rain, duck in to Kevin’s Hairdressers for a trim and ask “call me Kev” where I should go for the day. “Not Birkenhead, they’ll batter-yer-head, ha-ha, I’d go to Liverpool.” Four nights! What was I thinking? Determined not to stray from New Brighton I visit the former site of the outdoor swimming pool, former site of the pier and former site of the tower. I meet local-born Ray, back in town for a friends 60th birthday and ask what I should do. He doesn’t know. “But stay out of Birkenhead, they’ll likely give you a smack.” I embed myself in New Brighton and photograph lifeguards Gary and Matt, sea fisherperson Pat, the North West Concert Band and newlywed Claire Simon-Kind (30) with bridesmaid and sister Sarah Simon (28). Nibbling a Mint Feast I snap graffiti proclaiming "Laura Loves Dick" and imagine the happy couple canoodling in the weather shelter where their love is carved. Steve, out walking dogs Bobby and Rocky slides in alongside. We talk about the history of New Brighton and what I can enjoy on my visit to the Wirral. “You’d enjoy the fort.” I float the question. “And Birkenhead?” “I wouldn’t go there, the 20’s-30’s get a bit aggro like.” I’ve enjoyed stomping in Parr’s footsteps. On my last night I decide to get smashed. In the morning, sifting through remnant pocket clues I find a neatly folded square of paper and open. Underneath the heading "New Project" it has one word in capitals underlined, BIRKENHEAD. I check the diary for the next planned visit to the in-laws

A version of this feature first appeared in the July 2011 issue of Professional Photographer Magazine

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