I don’t believe in fate, luck, destiny, Karma or Kismet, as the saying goes ‘you make your own luck’. My particular favorite is ‘preparation meeting opportunity’, the mind being open to and tuned into the infinite possibilities of our interaction with both people and places and how we then interpret, make sense of and utilize this. It is mid May, an overcast day in Soho, the usual busy streets, everyone is on a mission, they walk, ride or drive with purpose and intent. I live in what some may consider a sleepy town in Derbyshire but I love the contrast and the buzz of this, my place of work in the heart of London. Twenty years as a graphic designer, the last ten a photographer shooting fashion, beauty and portraits, and now I’m embarking on directing and shooting short films and commercials. I seem to spend an increasing amount of time in this, the heart of the British Film Industry in Soho’s 1/4 square mile. Its the days forth meeting and I’m on my way to meet with directors representative Corin West from recently appointed production company th2ng. Corin wants to get out of the office so we head to one of several emergent new tearooms in the area. We chat as we walk and exchange the usual pleasantries. I’ve only recently met Corin and I want to know him better especially as my career as a director is to some extent in his hands. We near the tearoom and something, no someone catches my eye. It takes a moment to process the fact that there sitting in the window is Terence Stamp. I’m not especially surprised by this, after all we are in Soho with its multitude of production and post production houses, recording studios, restaurants and meeting places. He’s the third actor I’ve seen today…. ‘But its Stamp!’ ‘Fellini, Soderburgh, Loach, Schlesinger, Shrimpton, Bardot, Brando, Christie, Far from the Madding Crowd, Priscilla, The Limey, Waterloo Sunset, Terry and Julie and General Zod. An icon of the sixties and quite possibly one of the most photographable faces in the World.
This is an opportunity and with that comes the pressure, the pressure to do something. But what? As we enter the tearoom Stamp is facing us in full view of everyone, not sitting in a corner and not hiding behind a newspaper, magazine or book. Surely this must mean that he is receptive to being approached.
To me at least he is generating a ten foot aura, and its clear why he is so often chosen to play God or the Devil, at the wave of his hand I could very well find myself sipping tea out of a crater on the dark side of the moon. His looks are so striking that I cant help but stare, its the eyes that I find so captivating, they are incredible, piercing, icy, metallic and now pointing directly at me. To my surprise I blurt out something about how I enjoyed watching him on the Alan Titchmarsh show. ‘Alan bloody Titchmarsh!, where the hell did that come from?’ I’ve only ever watched one of his afternoon programmes at my mums house a couple of months ago and Stamp was being interviewed. Titchmarsh asked if he would reprise his role of General Zod. (kneel before Zod) Three overweight middle aged men in superman outfits knelt before him. Two were on both knees and the third only on one and so Stamp on afternoon TV imperiously orders ‘Both knees you bastard.’ He doesn’t seem to understand what I’m talking about and so I go on to say how this is the one day I don’t have a camera and there he is, a portrait just waiting to be taken. Stamp quotes his friend Terry O’Neill, about how Paparazzi photographers have brought photography to its knees. ‘He thinks I’m a Paparazzi!’ I quickly move to dispel this thought and explain that I am a portrait photographer and filmmaker and besides I don’t have my camera. A silence follows and I awkwardly hold out my hand and we shake, me saying something along the lines of what a privilege it is to meet him.
As Corin and I sit and chat my mind inevitably wanders and I cant help but feel that I have made a complete cock of myself in front of Terence Stamp. ‘Fellini, Shrimpton, Bardot, Brando, Christie, Titchmarsh?’ Twenty minutes pass and Stamp rises to leave and to my surprise walks over and says goodbye. I smile and we exchange a wave. I watch him walk down the street. ’ Opportunity meeting preparation.’ The seconds are ticking by, ‘you make your own luck’. The urge to photograph Stamp is overwhelming, ‘he is an icon’ and I look at Corin, ‘fuck it’ I say and get up and run after him. Shouting his name, I quickly catch up to him on Berwick Street. I stop, out of breath and we stand face to face. There is a moment of silence as the sun bursts from behind the clouds and Stamp stands majestic in a pool of light, he looks at me quizzically with those incredible piercing eyes. ‘You can tell me to fuck off if you like but I really want to take your picture’. There I’ve said it, and using an expletive just like he did on the Alan Titchmarsh Show. I go on to say ‘I am represented and my agent used to look after Richard Avedon and Terence Donovan’. More seconds pass and then a smile slowly unfolds and he starts to talk about the aforementioned photographers. We chat and he play punches me enthusiastically explaining how Donovan had taken what he considered to be his best portrait. I know the one, photographed whilst Stamp was shooting Far from the Madding Crowd; ‘he just grabbed me off the set and shot a few frames’ he says. And then right out of nowhere Stamp says ‘How about here, tomorrow at 11.30am?’ Here being the tearoom. I say an enthusiastic yes, no details are exchanged and for the second time that day we say goodbye and I watch him head off towards Oxford street. Slowly I walk back to resume my meeting, trying to process exactly what just happened. Once again as Corin and I talk my mind starts to wander, only this time it’s ‘Will Stamp turn up?’ and ‘How am I going to photograph him and ‘where am I going to photograph him’
I usually have enough equipment to carry out a stills shoot in the car and sometimes even carry it with me. It was very fortunate that I hadn’t got my camera on the day I met Stamp. He would have almost certainly agreed to be photographed but it would have been short lived, transient, a gesture of good will to a fan, almost like a tourist shooting a picture of him or herself with the star. Ironically in this case not having my camera may well mean getting the picture and not missing it. The fact that he agreed to meet the next day meant that he had made a firm commitment to be photographed and so the expectation was set in both of us and I at least had time to prepare. Not a commission but every bit as important. It makes me wonder if this is how things were done in the Sixties, simple, uncomplicated, an agreement between two creatives. A collaboration with none of the complications we have today, when even getting close to a ‘famous person’ means wading through a pile of red tape, petit politics and people who some how can find a million reasons why it cannot happen. Knowing we would meet at the tearoom I discussed the shoot with the chaps behind the counter and they immediately agreed to me shooting Stamp, even asking what tables would I like reserving. Looking at the direction of light for 11.30am I pointed out a couple that would suite Stamp, him sitting in the corner in front of a brick wall with a big picture window to his right. The forecast was for an overcast day which would give excellent diffused light and so in theory at least he would be lit by perfect window light. Thanks to my involvement in the Canon Ambassador program a quick phone call had the extra lenses and batteries I needed heading over on a bike to th2ng on Wardour street, for collection the next morning. I headed off to spend the evening with my agent Mark George (Terence Donovan, Richard Avedon)
On the way to Mark’s I felt the excitement bubbling up along with a large degree of trepidation and nervousness. It was the fear of failure and I get it on almost every shoot but most of all when I’ve not been able to prepare as thoroughly as I’d like. I phone Don McCullin. Don is also represented by Mark George and he and I have worked closely together for the last three years as he has gradually started to embrace digital photography. Don is best known for his conflict photography but he is also one of ‘the great’ portrait, still life and landscape photographers. His life was recently documented in the feature film ‘McCullin’ nominated for two BAFTAS. Don is a master of light and observation and for forty minutes we discuss Terence Stamp, his new cameras, shooting in India, and his recent trip (at the age of 78) behind enemy lines in Syria for the Times. I ask him if he ever photographed Stamp and he replies… laughing ‘No I was only ever interested in photographing down and outs’ He congratulates me at managing to get Stamp to agree to be photographed and insists that I phone him to let him know if he turns up. I take a moment to savor the fact that I am discussing tomorrow’s shoot of the legendary British actor Terence Stamp with the legendary British photographer Don McCullin. Don goes onto say that shooting Stamp would be very important for me, ‘ you don’t see or hear much about him’ and wouldn’t it be great if I could shoot the portrait in half light (one side of the face lit, whilst the other in shadow). I agree.
Some would call it serendipity or even fate but for me it’s playing the hand you’re given, ‘opportunity meeting preparation’. I text Documentary filmmaker Jacqui Morris. It is Jacqui that made ‘McCullin’, the feature documentary about Don, and it is Jacqui for whom I am Director of Photography on her next film about ex Sunday Times Editor, Sir Harold Evans. Only a month ago I photographed Jacqui in her living room for the BAFTAS, the same room that would not only enable me to shoot Stamp in half light but would also mean I could shoot my own take on Donovan’s famous portrait. I text her ‘Would you mind if I pop round tomorrow lunchtime with Terence Stamp?’
I wake at 6am and arrive in Soho at 7.30am. I spend an hour walking the empty streets looking for possible exterior locations. This time spent preparing eases the growing anxiety and at the same time increases the pressure as I know I’m only going to get the best pictures from this shoot by somehow persuading Stamp to agree to be photographed at Jacqui’s apartment on Frith street. Admittedly only a stones throw away, but nevertheless another big ask to a complete stranger and one who has agreed to one location and not two. I go for a long breakfast, clean my lenses and camera, open my laptop and continue the research that I had started the night before.
Will he or wont he? Everyone I have spoken with about yesterdays encounter are intrigued as to whether Stamp will turn up. Initially the thought had crossed my mind, then I thought back to our meeting in the street, and if I am right, this is a man who keeps his word and sure enough just after 11.30 am he peers through the tea room window. I meet him at the door, He is in a green cashmere sweater with a yellow spotted cravat, white jeans and open toed sandals. I have no control over his wardrobe and yet I cant help but think I’d have preferred him in an open collared white linen shirt. It’s a curse of being a perfectionist, always wanting more, never satisfied with what you have. The tearoom is busy and yet from the moment he walks in I see no one other than Stamp, I am in a bubble. I’ve ordered his favorite Assam tea (having asked the staff) and its waiting for him as I invite him to sit in the pre arranged spot in the corner. Both the light and location are good and we start to talk.
Over the last decade I have photographed many celebrities and what many would consider ‘famous’ people and sitting face to face with Stamp is no different. I have a moment of needing to pinch myself, a sense of unreality, am I really here facing this person? At first sight he appears stern and aloof and if I was to use a single word it would be ‘unapproachable’. It’s a face that says to me that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and I know that if I am going get great pictures I must keep his attention. Once the conversation starts, this ice cold veneer lifts, revealing a rich seam of life experience just waiting to be mined. He is completely at ease with himself and this in turn helps me to relax. Photographing people is as much about verbal and non verbal communication, inter personal skills and just plain being able to listen as it is about shooting pictures. He doesn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry, I ask ‘how long have you got?’ he looks at me and shrugs, so I explain that I’d like to chat for a while leaving the camera and lenses by my side. Past experience tells me that if I get to know him better he will be a far more willing subject and I’ll get better results.
The conversation is easy and I start by saying how I’d like the pictures to be more portrait than editorial, permanent and considered. I go on to talk of my obsession with light and he talks of working with some of the great Directors of Photography. I decide to go for broke ‘the light is good here but I know a far better location near by where I have more control over the light and I can shoot my interpretation of the Donovan portrait (his favorite) and maybe some street photography on the way?’ He is less keen on the street and immediately agrees to the other location with genuine enthusiasm ‘lets do that.’ This is starting to feel like a great collaboration.
Thirty minutes pass and I have almost forgotten why I’m here ‘Jimmy Dean, Brando, Shrimpton, Christie, Venessa, India, Ashrams, Soderbergh’. Stamp talks passionately about the medium of film and vehemently dispels digital ‘…and yet its become so expensive to shoot with film in movie making’ he says. I assure him that digital is closing the ground fast and the look of film is now more achievable than ever and its a technology, that when embraced, can be very rewarding.
Gradually I introduce my (digital) camera into the space between us and start to shoot as we continue to talk. I ask about his looks and in particular his eyes, but he is more interested in talking about his voice. It is true, his voice is equally captivating and if this were a film I would have put the same amount of effort into the recording of the sound as I had the pictures but its not, so again I press him about the eyes. His answer is simple, ‘being present minded, in the moment’ and this made perfect sense to me. I’ve seen it before but not often, as so many of us, myself included walk around with so much mind clutter that our heads are like washing machines noisily churning thoughts over and over in the background, a constant distraction from where we should be, in the here and now. The previous evening I researched Stamp primarily to find out about the Donovan picture, after all I’m a photographer not a journalist and its the pictures that most interest me. I didn’t have to look far to find out that after splitting with Jean Shrimpton he all but disappeared to India for nearly a decade. I ask if this state of mind is a result of his time in India and does he meditate? He contemplates this and explains that meditation is a permanent state. As we talk its clear that he is giving me his full and undivided attention, it is this that is behind those incredible eyes and face, this that is so beguiling, spellbinding, mesmerizing at times even disconcerting, other worldly, mysterious and of course bankable. He is one of a very select group of male actors ever to be referred to as ‘beautiful’ I try and imagine the young Stamp and the effect he must have had on others, in particular women. He talks about his looks detached and objective, a workman talking about his tools. ‘I knew I was loosing them as I reached my fifties’, ‘and now?’ I ask. ‘Now I don’t bother, I’m seventy five in July’. But it Is clear that Stamp looks after himself; he has great posture, healthy looking skin, tall and slim, tanned with a shock of receding, white, fluffy hair.
The conversation moves to the subject of his talks at the BFI and Hay festival (the reason he is here in the UK) and seeing himself in his prime on the big screen and on stage in front of an audience. After a standing ovation ‘I kneeled before them!’ ‘and they went crazy’. Zod kneeling before the audience, I can image the scene. Then it’s ‘Song For Marion and working with ‘Vanessa.’ And his next film with director ‘Tim Burton’? But little is said about that. Stamp is doing all the talking, there is fire in his eyes, hands expressive, then he is still, deep in thought one minute then laughing heartily the next. This is not the understated and brooding Stamp that I had anticipated. He is a gift to photograph as I cycle through lenses and angles, sitting standing, crouching and at times just inches from him as he sits patiently talking to me through my camera. All of this in the midst of a busy tearoom in Soho. Now its me who’s in the moment and nothing exists outside the viewfinder, not noticing the other customers but just occasionally from the corner of my eye I see passers by stop to stare and watch us at work. Stamp sips his tea and for a brief moment only his eyes are visible over the lip of the cup, I ask him to repeat this several times as I shoot. I’ve found that when photographing very recognizable faces its always interesting to somehow mask off part of the face, the picture becoming a puzzle. The result pleases me as it’s so very English, tea and Terence Stamp.Neglecting the conversation in favor of shooting pictures I start to feel it wilt and Stamp’s attention is beginning to drift. ‘Time to move on?’. He agrees. Outside and we head to Frith Street, Stamp leading the way and once again there is a sense of unreality as we walk through the busy Soho streets. I imagine the young Stamp walking the same streets fifty years ago. He must have felt like a god back then. Camera firmly in bag and now on the subject of writing and directing, Stamp is back on song talking about reprising his role as the dangerous ex con ‘Wilson’, for a sequel to ‘The Limey’. ‘Was that your favorite role?’ I ask. ‘Yes, because it was written for me’ he replies. As we round the corner from Carlisle street onto Frith Street Stamp stops and enthuses about the screenplay he has written for the sequel. He grabs both my arms and looks me straight in the eye, painting the scene. We discuss how older footage could be mixed with new and talk about, mood, atmosphere and lighting, the grading process of both film and now digital, and how important all these ingredients are to the making a great film. Stamp is hypnotizing, and if he sells it like this to a studio, then I’ll book the cinema tickets now. On Frith Street and he’s re-enacting how Sodabergh was both director and cinematographer on the original movie. ‘He would just pick up the camera and shoot off the shoulder!’ he says enthusiastically. It was all done in a single take’. I say how much I admire directors that can both direct and shoot, its an inspiring thought.
Finally we reach the apartment and Stamp easily scales the three flights of stairs to be greeted by Jacqui and 19 year old son Archie. Introductions over, he leaves his sandals at the door and walks in bare foot. I explain that Jacqui and I are soon to be filming Bill Clinton for her new film and Stamp talks fondly of the ex President and shares a story about meeting him at a Summit in Jordan (Clinton a big fan of Priscilla) and talking with him well into the night. Archie and I move to close all the shutters just leaving one slit a couple of inches wide casting a single shaft of light. I am reminded of the Donovan portrait. It is true that his picture inspired me to shoot here but this is my shoot, this is my time. The light falls over a huge old brown leather armchair. Behind this is an antique Victorian screen, a mural of exotic birds dance across it’s time worn and stained surface. Archie sits in for me as I look at lighting, angles, camera settings and styling.
In all professions there is a magic that can happen if all the correct ingredients are present but its what you do with the ingredients that is actually the magic. Photography is no different, and put very simply it can be broken down into the following categories 1. Subject 2. Location 3.lighting. Of course you need the right camera and lenses but that should be a given. As Terence Stamp relaxes into the big old armchair, he brings his legs up and sits in the lotus position arms resting on his knees and hands falling limp. The light falls across his face (“wouldnt it be great if you could shoot him in half light?”…) It’s one of the very few times I have looked through a viewfinder and thought this is it, I cannot do any more and with the right direction, which in Stamp’s case is none, this has the potential for magic. A calm follows and I start to shoot.