Saturday, 8 June 2019

In Conversation With Chris Floyd

What is love? Before Christ, at a Greek drinking party, Plato hypothesised about the purpose and nature of love. In A Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes pontificates on love: “I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one.” And in 1993, the Trinidadian-German singer Nestor Alexander Haddaway, better know by his stage name, Haddaway, sang the question: “What is love?” Love has led nations to war and back again to peace; it has inspired men to greatness and driven them to take their own life; it has given us the freedom to dream and a million reasons to breathe.

©Chris Floyd

What is love? I take a trip to Marylebone railway station, arguably the most adorable gateway in to and out of London. Men in straw hats smooth their Marylebone Cricket Club ties; the shoeshine stand is brisk with business; soft bellied ramblers and academics dressed in paisley mix among the smell of freshly baked bread; an elderly gentleman rubs charcoal across a sheet of paper covering a blue plaque fixed to the wall dedicated to poet and friend of the railways Sir John Betjeman. With the Haddoway hit resonating around my head, I board a train to Banbury to meet the man who has answered the question ‘what is love?’ He has seen it, experienced it and, most remarkably of all, photographed it.

At Banbury, the man I’m here to meet isn’t and I’m instructed instead to take a taxi to the Falkland Arms pub (silver award winner of the Toast of Wadworthshire 2013 Marketing Pub of the Year) in Great Tew. The taxi driver asks which route to take; I tell him I’ve no idea how to get there. It’s a rookie mistake; he chooses the longer of the two routes. As we sweep past green ‘Fresh Asparagus for Sale’ signs, and brown ones to denote ‘Ducks Crossing’, the taxi driver asks if I mind if he makes a phone call. I say I don’t mind; it’s a rookie mistake as it turns out I do mind. In between snapping chewing-gum bubbles, he hacks forth a dialect down his cell phone loud enough to be heard in the dustiest corners of Baghdad.

Stepping from the taxi at this outpost of English countryside, I take an outside seat at the 300 year old (looking) table opposite the forty-something (looking) portrait photographer, Chris Floyd. The pubs motto swings silently on the sign behind him: In Utroque Fidelis ‘faithful in both’. As Floyd gets the beers in, I look through his book of love Things May Change, But This Will Stay The Same. Across the thick textured pages, amongst the autumnal colours and setting sun, we are able to join Floyd in his infatuation. We gaze at a flame-haired young woman stretching out in a car; disrobing in the bathroom; eating a sandwich; smoking a cigarette; sleeping. Sometimes she gazes straight back, more often not. The book represents a short sharp moment in time of how you fall in love. The relationship between Floyd and the young woman, ten years his junior, accelerated from the ruins of 9/11 across the roads of the USA; New Orleans - Houston - Alberquerque, - frequently stopping at motel rooms and Amaretto-stocked bars until, inevitably, this listless drifting love with no agenda reached the end of the road.

©Chris Floyd

He tells me the name of the Botticelli beauty but I won’t tell you. If you have seen, or you own, one of the 100 books produced, you’ll already have your own name for her. As Floyd writes so eloquently in the introduction; “It doesn’t matter what her name is because I’m looking at an ideal of how I wanted love to be and remain, of how I saw a woman when I fell in love with her. This is love, for the first time, as shell shocked and stunned wonder that this thing, this person, has been put here, on Earth, in front of me, in my lifetime and has the emphatic power to make the time in my days go quicker, slower or nowhere at all.” In time, Floyd has loved again and relocated from London to the countryside with his loving family: wife Alice and children Scarlet and Belle. It’s taken time for this self-confessed London obsessive to readjust to the country and its everyone-knows-about-you life.

Aged 22, during a summer break from his studies at a Surrey technical college, Floyd left for London, his head full of stories from his London-lived grandfather who was hit on the head by notorious British gangster, Jack Spot. Against a backdrop of Poll Tax riots, Floyd quickly landed a job (via an assistant photographer’s recorded message telephone hotline) with a jobbing photographer shooting for Woman’s Own, the TV Times and crafting head shots of aspiring thespians. Floyd quickly lost the job, on the anniversary of the French Revolution, after too many rolls of film perished on the metal spools in developing tanks. Floyd was only familiar with the self winding white Patterson brand plastic spools.

©Chris Floyd

As Floyd forks ham and eggs into his mouth and German-American parents change a baby’s diaper in the boot of a Volvo parked opposite, he explains discovering photography in his mid-teens and rapidly realising it could be an effective tool to meet people who do great or even dastardly things. He talks of the photographers he admires – Ewen Spencer, Elaine Constantine, Juergen Teller – and he talks about his passion for listening to black soul music jamming sessions. It’s a process not unlike his own photographic practice, where each image is layered with choices: lens, location, post-production and light – each element building up a style and momentum that can be tweaked, enhanced or pulled back on. His work has taken him from London to Paris to New York (where he met Alice) and to many places in between. His portraits and short films of some of the world’s most high-profile stars have earned him global recognition and accolades. Floyd was there at the beginning of the lad mag phenomenon, photographing for Loaded magazine and he was one of the few photographers who made the successful transition to GQ magazine, when Loaded’s inaugural editor, James Brown, took the helm there.

Floyd puts down the lady’s hairclip he’s been intermittently fiddling with and we depart the Falklands Arms in high spirits, then immediately burn our backsides on the black seats of his leased Mercedes Benz estate. Driving like a Londoner, Floyd points out the general direction of the home of fellow portrait photographer Nadav Kander, that bloke who created the Daleks and fashion designer Patrick Grant, who persuaded Floyd to move here after they toured the country together on assignment for Esquire magazine. We scorch to a stop at wine bar in Chipping Norton, sommelier Richard informs us he has just spotted actor Patrick Stewart, then we scoot over to Trev Beadle, the family butcher, for rib eye steaks. Unfortunately Trev wasn’t there after busting his leg in a field, Floyd asks Lee, who has a pig hoisted on his shoulder, to send Trev his get well wishes. A final look at the book shop before finally heading home towards family Floyd, past Tracy Farm, a proposed new outpost for the Soho House set and across the boundary of Hook Norton, a village on the way to nowhere.

Stepping over sleeping schnauzer Marmite (I love him), past a framed David Bailey contact sheet, Floyd takes me up to the ’hub’, a former cinema room in the house from which he conducts his day-to-day business. There are open draws full of Kodak Portra 160 and Ilford FP4 film and party invites from the American Ambassador to London as well as notes of thanks from fashion designer and film director Tom Ford and former visual editor of the New Yorker Elisabeth Biondi. A bronze cast of Belle’s baby foot stands on stacked Agent Provocateur postcards, a commission that has unfortunately run its corset (insert groan). 

In one corner of the hub leans a framed poster from another of Floyd’s notable projects, which I finger with regret. In the summer of 2010, Floyd began to photograph the people he followed on Twitter. I received an email asking if I’d like to participate, the sun was out, a bottle of wine was open and I declined the invite. Others flocked to take part and the project ended where it had to, at 140 characters, the maximum number of a single tweet. The Great Twitter Portrait Project (TGTPP) aroused the interest of a nation. Never the quickest to realise a good idea, I belatedly tried to get involved, taking my family to be photographed at Wallpaper* Tweetlife, a TGTPP inspired initiative hosted at the 2011 Multiplied Contemporary Editions Fair at Christie’s in South Kensington. Heading downstairs to take the kids to the convenience store for sweets, Floyd summarises that for him, truly creative individuals make truly creative things whether they are being paid or not and confesses to having a short attention span, lacking confidence and being prone to focusing on his failures and what he hasn’t achieved. 

Back from the shop, I excuse myself from a conversation with Scarlet about earwax and probe the kitchen, where Floyd and Alice are squabbling about the type of taps required for the new shower room. I grab a San Miguel lager from the fridge, exit for a seat in the garden among the warblers and blackcaps and open Things May Change at an image of a jackknifed juggernaut by the side of a road. As the ballad It Must Have Been Love by Swedish pop duo Roxette crescendos on Absolute 80s radio (‘the UK’s only 80s music radio station’) Floyd strides purposefully past en route to the Banbury bathroom showroom, clips closed the gate, pauses with keys in hand at the car and turns back to face Alice who is leant against the front door frame and asks “Blow me a kiss?”. 

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