Chris Floyd: Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances.

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.


18 Responses

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  1. […] via Chris Floyd: Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances.. […]

  2. Jon said, on August 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Hi Chris, lovely shot of Caitlin and excellent it has been acquired by the NPG.

  3. Heather said, on August 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    I love this woman. I love the photograph. I also understand why they inserted red into the image (because the colour red, sells…) and I don’t mind that they did. I bought the book because I love the title and I love CM’s tweets. She makes me want to dare to be the woman I am – without apology. (I haven’t quite put my toe in the water, yet…) Your photography is wonderful, I am a follower & a fan!

  4. Ann Gagno said, on August 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Thank you for the inspiration. I feel a surge of optimism reading how this amazing project turned out 🙂

  5. Diana Lundin said, on August 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Love this story. Great idea, great photography. There really is a message here. I love your creativity, your determination, and your results.

  6. Rob Prideaux said, on August 2, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for writing honestly about the Black Dog, and more importantly, realistically about what you do to chase it off. Your story is proof that persistence is key, through doubt, distraction, and even isolation.

    • Jon said, on August 3, 2011 at 4:58 am

      Well said, and Thanks for getting this to a wider audience, very timely..

  7. Oren Ziv said, on August 3, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Very inspiring. Thanks.

  8. Gerri said, on August 3, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I prefer the monochrome version 😉

  9. Dickon said, on August 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Wonderful photos & post, Mr Chris. By the way, if you buy Ms M’s book on Kindle, as I did, the cover is rendered in greyscale. Usually this is a poor substitute for the print version’s cover, but on this occasion it’s clearly closer to the photographer’s intention…

  10. d. said, on August 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    That’s fantastic! Congrats. Always great (and inspiring) to hear how something that started out from scratch (and without any further intention of simply just doing what you love already) and have it lead to places like the NPG and elsewhere.

  11. corkap said, on August 22, 2011 at 7:17 am

    The colour version appeared in the Irish Times this weekend, accompanying an interview with Caitlin. Funny to see it there, after seeing it here first. It strikes me Chris that you are a ‘wordy’ person too these days. Watch out for any photographers peering over your own shoulder, changing sentences as you write…!

  12. Lisa Hughes said, on October 4, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Hi Chris, I’ve just finished reading How to be a Woman and it was great to read the story behind the cover image. The nine unpublished pics above also perfectly capture Caitlin’s personality which (even though I’ve never met her) I absolutely adore from her columns, book and those hilarious tweets.

  13. Kit said, on November 8, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Love the full black and white original, Chris – and great story too – even worthy of a literary person!
    It’s great to have found your blog – am catching up all those years since the Lemonade Factory!
    Not Twitterfied yet, but very much a blogger!

  14. Thanks for the history behind Cate’s portrait. She’s looks beautiful – those eyes, man!! And well done on beating the Black Dog, something I’ve suffered from often over the past thirty years.

    Cate is, as you say, a performer with words. Her columns in the Times have me laughing aloud. Good to have a writer that is consistently outstandingly inventive with words.

    I have the portrait as my desktop background – is this ok?

  15. […] trove every time I turned a corner and discovered something new. Although it was fantastic to see Chris Floyd’s striking photographic portrait of Cailtin Moran hanging in the gallery, this was not my inspiration for today’s post. Instead, it was […]

  16. […] planting analogy goes all the way back to Luke’s mention of the Caitlin Moran book cover.  In this post from August 2011 I wrote about how that picture came to exist and the consequences of it.  […]

  17. […] seed planting analogy goes all the way back to Luke’s mention of the Caitlin Moran book cover. In this post from August 2011 I wrote about how that picture came to exist and the consequences of it. This […]

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