Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Dench Diary : May - July 2015

May 2015

16th It’s cultural week at my daughter Grace’s school and parents have been invited in to cook a food dish specific to their country of birth. She is the only person in her class with two English parents and we haven’t been invited to contribute.

26th I met Darth Vader once, well, David Prowse, the physical embodiment of the Dark Lord in the original Star Wars trilogy. Prowse also played The Green Cross Code Man, a costumed superhero character created in 1970 as an aid to teaching young children road safety across the UK. He visited Holy Trinity Junior School in Weymouth where I was a pupil long long ago. As I reached up to collect my signed photo, I thought him a formidable green giant. Today I’m stood eye-to-eye with Darth Vader, well, the meticulously replicated replica at the Madame Tussauds Star Wars immersive experience featuring 16 of the most famous heroes and villains in scenes from some of the most iconic moments from the Star Wars universe. I’m here on assignment for WIRED who is calling it ‘the world’s first Periscope commission’. Periscope is a live steaming video app that describes itself as ‘the closest thing to teleportation’ and I’m about to teleport the watching world to a live tour of the exhibit. Easy money? Turn up, turn on an iPhone 6, open the Periscope app, point it at the exhibit, no post production, go for a pint. Not quite. The exhibit is below ground and the internet connection dips in and out so my brother-in-law is following me around with back up WiFi. The environment is noisy and the answers unpredictable from the (mostly foreign) visitors I interview.  A stream of hearts appear on my iPhone if viewers tap their screen to indicate they like what they see and comments from viewers pop up obscuring the footage: ‘Touch the Stormtroopers face’. ‘Stop talking’. ‘Tell us who you are’. ‘Lift up Princess Leia’s dress’. Around 3,5000 tune in at the peek of the 25 minutes broadcast. I think I may have experienced the future of spot news.

 ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

31st “No. No. No. No. No. HELL NO!” Jeff Mermelstein, legend of the New York street photography community, is whittling down submissions for Oslostreets, a 24-hour photo challenge where participants from across the Norwegian capital, submit photographs every hour for Jeff and I to edit. The best will be included in a final day presentation. I’m not being much help, tears of laughter obscure my view listening to Jeff’s verbal scything. “They don’t like anything!” I hear one woman trill as she exits the auditorium where a crowd has gathered to witness the decision making. “They dismissed all my work in less than a minute!” exclaims another scuttling towards the door.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage


6th It’s the wedding season and first up is my brother-in-law James who marries Rachael at a Hindu ceremony in north London. I am on behind-the-scenes photo duty. Congratulations Mr and Mrs Wakefield.

13th Second up is the wedding of Gareth who marries Shelley at a registry office in Derby. I’ve been spared photo duty. Congratulations Mr and Mrs Tibbles.

 ©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

24th The deceptively nimble hands of award winning photographer, Edmond Terakopian, flips over my box fresh, limited edition Olympus OM-D E-5 Mark II and begins to instruct me through the digital menu on the back. It’s the final and most crucial part of preparation for a trip I’ve been waiting over 30 years to embark. A few months previous, I’d been at The Photography Show UK and asked Mr Olympus, what compelled him to authorise significant sponsorship for my book, The British Abroad.“Timing” he said. “What’s next?” he asked. I didn’t know. What I did know is that I’d concluded my work on British identity (for now]) and explained I wanted to swap the red, white and blue of the Union flag of Great Britain for the Stars and Stripes of America. “Where?” he asked. Racing through the alphabet I slammed the mental brakes on D. “DENCH DOES DALLAS!” I blurted. Mr Olympus nodded sagely and a few weeks later, I got the nod, funding and kit to go.

Two things shaped my impression of Dallas as a teenager in the early 1980s, as they may have done for millions across the globe: Dallas, the TV series (a prime-time soap opera focusing on the Ewing family, translated and dubbed into 67 languages in over 90 countries) and Debbie Does Dallas, the adult movie (‘Everyone on the team scores when her pom-poms fly’). One about pistol-packing, face-slapping, greedy, scheming oil tycoons with big personalities and bigger hats; the other about pistol-packing, bum-slapping people with limited personalities and big everything. I’d heard whispers from my uncle, who had lived in Dallas, that residents didn’t actually walk about in ten gallon hats and wear fist-sized belt buckles; I’d heard rumours that Dallas was sophisticated, that the women weren’t just charity-lunching ranch-wives and the men were more interested in Ferraris than cattle farming. It was time to challenge what I thought I knew in the one-off feature-length episode: DENCH DOES DALLAS.

Ahead of my trip, I decided I may need help and emailed three photographers living in the area with a list of topics I’d like to photograph.

I received the first reply:

“I’d be happy to take you out on the town for a drink/pic opportunity. But, I’m not the most social person, I’ve got a couple of kids and a wife that keep me grounded in a good way. Although, I do know of a few seedy places that might make for some good old fashioned grunge photo ops.”

I received a second reply:

“Haha, sorry man, I can’t really help you out there. I am a Christian with a wife and little six year old girl. The things you are looking for I am not really a part of and don’t really have any idea of where to find them.  I can give you some recommendations on places to eat or some cool bars to check out, but that’s probably about it. Sorry man.”

I don’t remember the requests being offensive! It was perhaps an indication that I was be about to enter an area with a less liberal attitude than in Europe.

There was no third reply.

Dallas the TV series and Debbie Does Dallas got one thing right: Dallas is BIG (disappointingly, while researching for the trip, I learnt that, contrary to the title, the film is not set in Dallas, nor does Debbie "do" anyone in or from the city). The flags are big; the signs; storm drains (so I’m assuming the storms); road accidents; pool parties; food portions; snacks; the restaurant tips; drive thrus; cows; cow horns and ‘breastaurants’ (Dallas Hooters was the biggest in the world until Las Vegas opened a branch in Spring 2015 but if you eat there you can’t tell anyone). I’ve decided to explore the Metroplex, the largest landlocked metropolitan area in America, approximately 40 miles from east to west, without a car. Instead I’ll traverse the nations ninth most populous city, by bus, train, taxi and on foot.

Dallas is not pedestrian friendly. Halfway through a 3.5 mile walk west along Mockingbird Lane, the sidewalk gives up. I think I’m the first pedestrian to have made it this far and consider planting a flag. If I hadn’t walked, I wouldn’t have noticed the splayed squirrel dead on the garden path at number 3902. I wouldn’t have discovered a fire hydrant called American Darling. I wouldn’t have sat down exhausted next to a pair of snakeskin sandals left under a bench at a bus stop or met a man unloading a car boot full of cake. I wouldn’t have realised the puddles all look Texas-shaped or encountered Yung Stonerz, a musically inclined collective from Louisiana preparing for a gig in the Deep Ellum district of east Dallas.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

“The car park at Baby Dolls is always full and the venue offers the highest quality experience in adult entertainment” explains my Dominican taxi driver. I count around 40 women spread across the small stages, sprawled across the floor of Baby Dolls Saloon; some kneel on stools chatting to customers at the bar, others arch over the laps of Mr America in dim corners. Adult entertainment is big in Dallas: there’s The Lodge; Jaguars; Silver City Cabaret; The Men’s Club of Dallas; Cabaret Royale; The Clubhouse; Spearmint Rhino; Onyx; XTC; Lipstick; Dallas Cabaret North; Dallas Cabaret South; Chicas Bonitos; Pandora’s Men’s Club; Exposure Sports Cabaret and The Black Orchid among others, and another Baby Dolls in Fort Worth. There’s Zona Rose if you prefer the Latino experience; La Bare, a Las Vegas-style burlesque show catering for women and Colette, for those who like to swing. Most of the venues are open 18 hours a day and clustered around Harry Hines Boulevard, one of the first highways in Texas and named after a former chairman of the highways commission; I’m not sure Harry’s motivation was to speed horny Texan men to their wet lap destinations. It’s an uncomfortable wait for the manager (to ask if I can have permission to photograph at Baby Dolls), made more uncomfortable by having to leave my camera bag at reception.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

Southlake doesn’t have an adult entertainment venue. If it did, the women would make a fortune. My Sudanese taxi driver tells me: “Southlake was named in 2014, by Time magazine, as one of the ten richest cities in America with 58.7% of homes reported to make more than $150,000.” Walking around the suburbs of Southlake, I can see that most homes have that amount of money parked on the driveway alone. Hollywood couldn't have scripted a more American dream town and the town may well have scripted Hollywood. The town hall looks remarkably like the one from the film Back to the Future. Southlake feels like a film-set ahead of its annual Stars & Stripes celebration: lights are fixed in position, security sniffer dogs paw the perimeter, flags are unfurled and picnic blankets are meticulously laid out to reserve spaces ahead of the fireworks. When the action begins, the choreography is sublime: beautifully dressed women chatter past, fragrant teenagers giggle in the doorways of juice bars and toddlers skip along wearing candyfloss smiles. After half a day in Southlake, it feels more like the set of The Truman Show.

©Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

I spend the rest of my Dallas days striding out of the Crowne Plaza hotel into the warm morning sun, retiring satisfied and fatigued to drink beer by the rooftop pool in the warm evening sun. I photograph people risking their safety as they dash into the road at Dealey Plaza to be photographed stood on the X where president John. F Kennedy was assassinated. I photograph clipped lawns, grassy knolls and trimmed bushes. I go uptown: I go downtown. In the elevator to the top of the Reunion Tower, I ascend in awkward silence after refusing the offer to hear some facts about the tower by the elevator operator. Outside on the tower’s GeO-Deck, I make a couple feel awkward after refusing the offer of their phone to take their portrait. I photograph out of windows and under flyovers, young women at a swimming pool party and a same sex couple embracing after agreeing to get married (gay marriage became legal across America on the 27th June 2015). I make a pilgrimage to the picturesque Southfork ranch (used as the setting for the original Dallas TV series) and go out on patrol with the Dallas Police. I take portraits of the Colt, Bowie, Texans and Martin team cheerleading teams and gather shots of teenagers dry-humping in their underwear at THRIVE nightclub. I walk gingerly around Fort Worth Water Garden where, in 2004, an adult and three children drowned in a fountain. I dress in formal attire to photograph the quinceañera (15th birthday celebration) of Karina Ramirez and the red carpet gala opening of Quartermaine hairdressing salon. I visit Globe Life Park to watch the Texas Rangers baseball team lose against the Los Angeles Angels and lose far too much betting on the horses at Lone Star Race Park. I’m escorted from a gun show that doesn't welcome the media and witness terminal diseases cured at the Southwest Believers’ Convention. I photograph the aisles of supermarkets and the souvenirs I collect. I photograph Junior Olympic Champions boxing at a club organised by the Dallas Police Athletic League and and pay Annie, $5 to photograph me sat astride a Longhorn Steer at the historic Fort Worth Stockyards district.


11th Thirteen years ago, Hull was nominated the worst place to live in the UK. It took the top spot in the book Crap Towns: the 50 Worst Places To Live In Britain. ‘The silent threat of violence hangs in the air, along with the smell from the chocolate factory. Chocolate factories, by the way, don’t smell of chocolate, they smell of death’ it wrote. The smell has gone and Hull has been awarded UK City of Culture 2017. People who couldn’t wait to leave Hull, will be queuing up to get in. Now in its second year, the Hull International Photography Festival (HIPFest) will be a key event and I’m delighted to join photographers John Bulmer, Frieze Janssens, Ami Barwell and Matt Finn as a patron of the festival.

16th “What do you feel you are charting?” “What did you learn about the British?” “What do you think the local authorities should do?” “Was it difficult taking pictures of drunk people?” The questions from the RTL TV interviewer come fast. The British Abroad book has been published and is generating good media interest: The Sunday Times magazine publish ten pages of pictures; the Daily Mail post it online. VICE publish an interview and I chat live on the radio to Sean Moncrieff from Ireland’s Newstalk 106-108FM to a potential 250,000 listeners. I try not to think of today’s potential 12 million German TV viewers. As the camera picks up cutaways from around my studio (desk at the end of my bed) I consider if I should remove the half empty Cristal Vodka head, discarded bottles of wine, beer cans and Soviet paraphernalia.

A version of this feature first appeared in volume 4 issue 3 of Hungry Eye magazine available to purchase here

All my books can be purchased here


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  2. The place itself looks great with good pub area, and a much larger upstairs beer hall. Nice decor at venue NYC with brick walls, wooden bench seating, and chalkboard beer lists showing off the day's selections.