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.

The One Percent

Brixton Night 01

There are two photographic competitions that I make sure I enter every year: the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, run by The National Portrait Gallery in London and American Photography, which is now in it’s 26th year and is the domain of Kathy Ryan, the photography director of The New York Times Magazine.   AP exists in the form of a most luxurious annual, designed every year by a guest art director of oxygen depriving ascendancy, and consisting of approximately 300 images which have been whittled down from 8000 entries by a panel of judges from the art, publishing and design spheres.  It represents the high watermark of that year’s photographic efforts.  It’s a big deal.  The book is always stunning, no question, and to be in it can put the wind beneath the wings of a photographer’s career.

I have entered the Taylor Wessing, in it’s various forms, sporadically over the last ten years and have seen it change/evolve from a forum primarily ruled over by working editorial photographers to a canvas for global, emerging and fine art photographers.  It reflects the growth in the role of formal photographic education and the really excellent photographers that have come to the fore in this time.  When I was of university age in the late 80’s and early 90’s there were about 6 places in the country where you could study photography at degree level.  I really don’t like that word ‘emerging’ though.  It implies that you have either, completely made it and are fully formed, or that, photographically, you are a hatchling chick, blinking your way into the sunlight, naïve and dumb, yearning for credence from a world ready to bestow.  The reality is that we are all always emerging.  Any artist is constantly emerging, evolving, growing and changing – it’s always been like this.  Stop moving and it’s all over.

Grime Night

I was selected to appear in the Taylor Wessing in 2008 for a portrait of the artist and film maker Steve McQueen.  That photograph was taken on the roof of a hotel in Cannes at the film festival in May 2008 and came from a session that consisted of about 30 images and which lasted for no longer than 5-10 minutes.  At the time I honestly felt like I did not know what I was doing but I know I am at my best when I go with my intuition and, in this case, there was something about McQueen that just screamed autism in my head.  I’m not saying he’s autistic per se, rather he seemed to have no bend or sway in him.  His interpretation of, and response to, everything I said was literal.  The only time I have ever spoken literally was at the altar on the day I got married.   For two Englishmen to conduct an entire encounter in a foreign country through literal interpretation of each other’s words is quite, quite weird.  The English of Englishmen is full of hidden meanings, double negatives, light, shade, like a double breasted blazer, so much of it is beneath the buttons.  In the last 2 or 3 frames of the session my intuition finally arrived and I just knew that, whatever I asked him to do, he would respond to that request literally, which he did.  “Give me your biggest, warmest smile you can give me.”  What I got was Homer Simpson goes to the south of France in a pink t-shirt.

Steve McQueen

Taking my parents to see the picture on the walls of the NPG was one of the proudest moments of my life.  It was part of a final show of 60 images, selected from an entry base of several thousand and seeing it on the walls of the prime repository of British portraiture seemed to vindicate the choice I had made all those years ago to follow the dicey path of photography as career.

In the same year I was also selected to appear in the American Photography annual for a portrait I had done of Paul McCartney at 64.  This was for The New Yorker and the double whammy of the subject matter, combined with the kudos conferred upon the image by the status of the publication in which the portrait appeared, confirmed the inevitability of it’s selection.  It almost had nothing to do with me.  I say all this in retrospect. As proud as I was to be selected for that one – 300 photographs selected from 8000 entries – I always had a niggling feeling in the middle of my brain that it wasn’t my work that was chosen, rather a perfectly competent portrait of a VERY FAMOUS MAN at the age of 64, who, in the prime of his life wrote a song called ‘When I’m 64′, which was then published in one of the world’s foremost magazines.  Lucky.

Maybe I’m being too cynical because I know that, unlike McQueen, with the McCartney portrait I went there with the clearest idea of what I wanted from my time with him.  Being the Beatle nut that I am, it is apparent from any and every biography that James Paul McCartney was, and still is, an ambitious grammar school boy.  I knew that for all these years he has used, consciously or unconsciously, his cheery, breezy, wa-hey thumbs up persona to charm a room.  But I also knew that he has a core of steel and has never shied away from being tough, cruel and stubborn when he was in pursuit of his interests.  This was what I wanted from our session.  We had 30 minutes together and he was phoning it in.  Thumbs up, cheese, cheese, cheese.  Do less, I kept saying.  You’re an honest man.  You can be secure in your achievements.

“What’s the matter?  You don’t like a bit of whimsy?”

“Not when there’s a war on, Paul.”

For 2 frames his jaw tightened, the eyes hardened and an icy wind blew my way.  He hated me and I had my moment that I had come to get.  To portray is to betray and now I know how much he hates that picture.

Paul McCartney

I often cycle through his London neighbourhood on my way home and twice now I have nearly run into him.  He seems to be in the habit of not looking before he steps into the road.  Both times he acknowledged it was his fault, “WHOA!! Sorry mate!”   If only, I ponder, he realized that that cyclist took the picture of him that he so loathes.  I smile wryly, drop my head and peddle on my way.

Now here we are in Two Thousand and Ten and, as ever, we are only as good as our last entry.  Now I understand why three star Michelin chefs commit suicide, even though they may have been boasting those stars for 13 years.

It.  Never.  Ends.

Last year’s victory is this year’s faded glory.  This is how empires crumble and die.  People don’t so much get complacent, fat or lazy, but the world doesn’t stop for long to admire what they did last Wednesday.

The world is always moving. It will, at least, show you respect if you keep moving with it.  Yeah, so you won something last month, what else?  I’ve got a friend and whenever I respond to his enquiry regarding my recent activity, he always responds with the line ‘what else?’  I say ‘Fuck you, pay the bill and claim your corporate expenses’  He doesn’t care.  What I have is not enough.  He is the world.

Today, though, I do have a what else and it goes like this:

“Dear Chris,

Congratulations! Your work has been selected to appear in the American Photography 26 annual.

On behalf of the entire jury, I thank you for your submission and support of American Photography. This year’s distinguished panel included Gail Buckland; Scott Dadich, Wired; Janet Froelich, Real Simple; Luke Hayman, Pentagram; Steven Kasher, Steven Kasher Gallery; Michael Norseng, Esquire; Kira Pollack, TIME.

From over 8,000 pictures entered by over 1,200 photographers, magazines, agencies and publishers, the jury selected, by a majority vote or better, only 304 images to appear in the book and represent the best pictures from 2009.”

After checking on the AP site ( I was compelled to remove all my clothes and run naked to the bottom of the garden and back when I discovered that 3 of my photographs have been chosen to appear in the annual.  Siddown! That’s one percent of the book.

Two of these pictures were from a two night residency at Brixton Academy in London on behalf of the band Kasabian last summer.  A great commission from Roma Martyniuk, the creative director at Sony Music, to spend the two nights in and around the band photographing any how and anything I chose.  So, on the second night, with our “Triple A’ access all areas pass we took our equipment down to the gap between the front of the crowd and the stage and lit the hardcore fans with some high powered and mobile flash units.

It’s been something of an obsession the last couple of years, the idea of applying studio lighting techniques to highly fluid and mobile reportage scenarios.  So I’m double double delighted that the third picture to make the cut was from a series I photographed on a grime club in London this year.  It needed a couple of assistants and it needed those assistants and me to develop a method of communication in a demonically dark and loud environment but we pulled it off and back at the top of this post you can see them all.

The American Photography book is out in November and there’ll be a party for it in New York.  I’m looking forward to it.

Enough now.  What else?

Brixton Night 02