Chris Floyd: Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances.

Agent Provocateur – “In Praise Of My Bed”

Posted in Commissioned Work, Me Myself & I by Chris Floyd on August 10, 2011

Here is the front and back cover of a project I’ve just completed for Agent Provocateur.  It’s for their first range of homeware (bedding is not a sexy word).  We toyed for a while with the idea of calling it ‘beaux draps’, which, apparently, is a French phrase for sheets, literally translating as ‘beautiful drapes’, but it never stuck and so we ended up back at “Agent Provocateur – Home’.

This began sometime before last Christmas when Sarah Shotton, AP’s creative director, raised the prospect of working with me on something.  Her words, “I know you could totally do something good for us.” was exactly the thing to lift my mood in the late afternoon December gloom.  She said she was a fan of my lighting and the way that I photographed women, in her eyes, struck a balance of outright sexiness and dignified celebration, rather than a demeaning objectification.  I was flattered that she had noticed because when I photograph a woman I try to take a picture that she will hold on to forever as a celebration of herself  in a sort of peak state, literally humming with oestrogen, the defining chemical of femininity.  As a husband and a father of two girls, this is the stuff that surrounds me, which I love. This aim is my way of trying to make them fall in love with me and, in a funny way, it’s possible because if you take an amazing picture of a woman there’s a little part of her that will love you forever.

Sarah, several of the other AP girls and I spent about six weeks throwing ideas back and forth at each other.  What kind of mood did we want?  What kind of girl?  What kind of  tone?  Light?  Or dark?  Eventually we felt that an art deco vibe might be the right way to take this and, once that theme fell into place, it became a question of  finding a location that would frame it. As soon as we were confronted with the formidable and glorious beauty of the art deco room at Eltham Palace in south east London we knew we had it.  Originally a manor house, it was acquired by Edward 2nd in 1305 and it was also where Henry 8th spent much of his childhood.  In the 1930’s the house was bought by Stephen Courtauld of the textile dynasty and he and his wife, Virginia, built the room that we shot these pictures in.  Perfectly round, with a pair of symmetrical staircases, it was modelled on an ocean liner, the height of luxury motion in a pre-air travel age. Our final major discussion was on what the bed should look like and Sarah came up with the idea of the semi-circular, 8 foot high, mirrored bed head, which we had made for the shoot and which is now on display in Agent Provocateur’s New York store at 675 Madison Avenue.

As well as a full day of stills photography I had also committed to directing a short film for the AP website.   As well as the kind of girl who could turn herself into a 21st century facsimile of Monica Vitti, the original script involved a trip to Rome, a cobbled street, a hotel room of the right size, a stylised Super 8 film within the actual film, a 1965 green Citroen DS and two men playing the role of French detectives. However, we would have needed about half a million pounds to make it happen so I had to scale the whole thing right back. Well, actually I had to scrap it completely and think of something else.

It was clear on the day that I had to allow the film to become a completely free form exercise in movement, texture and light and in this, the biggest contributor was the fantastic model, Natalia Z, all the way from Siberia and in London for just a week.  Just like the movies, she was the last girl we saw at the end of a long, hot day of casting at the AP offices.  Having seen all the girls we thought there were to see, Natalia walked in as we were all standing up to leave and as soon as we looked at her, the way she walked, the way she talked, the way she was, we all knew she was the one.

On the day of the shoot I worked in the way I feel most comfortable, which is to build the shot, step by step, creating the mood I’m trying to achieve by adding and placing one light at a time. I had wanted to light the whole thing with continuous lights – HMI’s, Kino Flos and 2K Blondes.  In this way I could have easily switched from stills to film whenever I liked but we would have needed a huge generator truck to power them all.  The power available at Eltham Palace wasn’t enough for 60kw of lamps and there wasn’t enough in the budget for the generator, so instead I lit the stills with about 12 flash heads and then used a combination of 3  HMI 2.5kw, some Kinos and the flash head modelling bulbs for lighting the times when I wanted to stop doing stills and shoot some motion.  Fortunately, the Red camera can shoot at quite high ISO settings and with thoughtful framing and use of gels I managed to create a look for the film that compliments the stills.  In this I was helped by having an incredibly talented cinematographer in Cordelia Beresford.  This collaborative element was the most enjoyable part of the day.  A portrait photographer ploughs a solitary furrow, so to have a partner in Cordelia was a proper little treat, like a full plate of Mr Kipling’s Bramley Apple Pies.  And if you want to see for yourself then check out the film below.  The voiceover you hear is a poem by Meredith Holmes and is called ‘In Praise Of My Bed’.

At last I can be with you!
The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
clean smoothness
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.

To see the full shoot then please check it out on my website

The Result Of Time Spent With Caitlin Moran And How It Ended Up in The National Portrait Gallery

Caitlin Moran - London, 2010

I was thrilled to be asked by the National Portrait Gallery a couple of months ago, if they could acquire my October 2010 portrait of writer Caitlin Moran, who despite being born in 1975 has had a column in The Times since 1958.  She is, indeed, a prolific woman.  I have a few things in the bowels of the nation’s collection and on a handful of occasions they have managed to crawl out of the sub-ground level darkness to make it on to the walls of the gallery itself. This time, however, the gallery wanted to fast track the photograph straight into the “Picture of the Month” slot for August.  I’m looking forward to seeing it on the wall of Room 39 at the NPG later this week.

The story behind how the picture came to exist is a great example of the unforseen bonuses that can derive from getting off your arse in times when the Black Dog is upon your shoulder.  Regular readers of this blog will know about the ‘140 Characters‘ project, in which I spent the best part of a year photographing 140 people that I follow on Twitter.  What I haven’t really mentioned before is that I started the project at a time when work had been very quiet for several weeks.  I had barely seen or spoken to anybody.  In times like those your reserves of confidence can literally eat themselves up in minutes. Since the demise of analogue/film in my world, the opportunities to meet and spend time with other like minded types have been heavily diminished.  Frankly, I miss it.  In the days of going to labs it meant that you were meeting your contemporaries, getting to know them and even, in some cases, actually becoming friends with them.  Those people know what it’s like and we would each draw comfort, support and fuel from each other during the dodgy periods.  Since that’s all over, I don’t know what anybody looks like anymore.  I feel like Ray Liotta at the end of ‘Goodfellas’ stuck in the witness protection programme.  “There’s no action anymore.  Just the other day I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce in a restaurant.  You know what they brought me?  Egg noodles and ketchup.  I get to live the rest of my life like a schmuck.”

Other photographers are just names now, not faces.  The ‘140 Characters’ thing was my attempt to meet people, as well as ‘self assign’ a project that would fill up some time, inspire me and also serve as a big, barbed stick with which to keep the Black Dog away.  I don’t like spending days at a time on my own.  The mental lanes my mind tends to wander down always lead to gloom, pessimism and an assumption that all the future has to offer is an unpleasant ending.  It’s boring and lonely.   Twitter was/is the closest I have come to filling the hole that has been left by the eradication of house leaving opportunities.

The portrait of Caitlin that is now in the NPG was a byproduct of the Twitter project.  I had been following her for a while on Twitter and loved watching the way she would interact with other people on there, particularly Alexis Petridis, the Guardian’s music critic, who is someone I know as an acquaintance, having worked with him a couple of times on stories for The Guardian Weekend. Watching them, and others, was the virtual version of sitting in an office with very funny workmates.  As I developed the idea for the project in my head, I wanted it to be a place where I could bring people together in a photograph who were clearly doing things together in a medium like Twitter.  Equally, I also wanted it to serve as a platform in which people who previously had had no contact could come together and the white space of the frame would be the canvas in which they could form something unique amongst themselves.  So it was with this theory in mind that I persuaded and managed to co-ordinate a visit to my studio from Caitlin and Alexis at the same time and on the same day.  What I love about these pictures is that they are a clear visual manifestation of how their relationship regularly plays out on Twitter.

140 Characters: Alexis Petridis & Caitlin Moran

140 Characters: Caitlin Moran

After photographing the pair of them together I then spent some time on each of them as individuals and it was here that the headline image was made.  I knew that I had the time of someone special, even magical, so I thought it best to exploit it while I had the chance.  So, as well as doing some of the white background stuff, I also decided to do something different.  When I say ‘different’, what I really mean is that I just wanted to do a classic Penn/Avedon style of 1950’s black and white character led portrait.  I felt that I didn’t even need to wind her up and let her go because she winds herself up and lets herself go.  It was me but it could equally have been her bedroom mirror or an audience of legal executives.  What ensued was a 15 minute period where I documented, in real time, certain elements of a mesmerising, clever and very funny woman.   One image doesn’t do her justice, so here ‘s a selection of the outtakes – the ‘rejects’.  What comes over, looking at them now, is that fundamentally Caitlin is a performer, except she does it for a mass audience with a pen.  I’m quite convinced that, given the opportunity, she could have done it with comedy, radio, telly or even films.  Singing, I’m not sure about.

Nine unpublished pictures of Caitlin Moran

In all probability these pictures would have then languished for eternity on one of the gazillion hard drives that my work, post analogue, now lives inside.  No one would have seen them and they’d have drifted further from my frontal lobes with each new subject that came my way.  However, in an idle moment a couple of days after our time together I sent her a selection of them via email.  Here’s her reply:

So, the pictures went from Caitlin to her publishers, who after much umming and a lot of aahing picked the one they wanted, which then went on the cover of her book ‘How To Be A Woman’, and which now, 6 weeks after it was published is right up there in the top ten of Amazon’s UK sales chart.  They put a silly red/pink tint on her polka dot top in the photo, for no discernible reason whatsoever, and because as someone once said about Martha Stewart, “She can never let a pine cone just be a pine cone”, but this is what happens when you let ‘wordy’ people loose on imagery.  They always think they can improve it.  It’s my ambition to one day stand behind a literary person and, every few minutes, lean over their shoulder and randomly change a sentence they just wrote.  In return I will allow them to come on a photo shoot with me and point at things they’d like me to photograph, for the purposes of providing some sort of visual affadavit to the words they think they will later write.

Luckily this didn’t put off the nice people at the NPG who saw it and asked if they could buy it ‘for the nation’ and print it in it’s full monochromatic glory, with Caitlin’s polka dot top rendered in a fine shade of greys.

As I said at the beginning, what I am most thrilled about in all this is the way that what began as an idea motivated by the realisation that I was feeling unmotivated and in need of creative stimulation has, in hindsight, led all the way to the walls of the place that any portrait photographer yearns to have their work.  So, thank you to Caitlin for turning up and thank you to Alexis Petridis for forcing her to turn up.

See the picture and viewing information on the National Portrait Gallery website.