Michael Birt & Dafydd Jones
View through a lens: Two contemporaries, one conversation
Text: Michael Birt | Images: Michael Birt & Dafydd Jones
Dafydd Jones: How
do you get work?
Michael Birt: Originally it was sitting at a desk making calls. Something I didn’t like, most photographers find that difficult. The reception was nearly always positive but I remember one picture editor on a newspaper, he told me to reconsider my need to be a photographer. I couldn’t believe it. I wrote a note in my diary, marking it as a bad day.
Do you still make those calls?
Only if a magazine is doing something different. Recently I called Intelligent Life. Graham Black, the Creative Director, is an interesting man and I love the way he art-directs magazines. Generally the work comes in. In the past I had to turn down as much work as I took on, these days I get great work and a good volume but the market has shrunk considerably. I have been photographing theatre posters over the last few years, which I enjoy enormously. I know Michelle Collins and she asked me to do a poster for a play she was in, since then I have done 4-5 a year. I like the collaboration with the advertising agencies – the exposure the work gets is very attractive.When I started out, I wrote to people asking them to sit for a portrait: subjects like John Osborne, Henry Moore, Julie Walters and Bill Brandt. This was important, as I have many images that would otherwise never have existed. I have a wonderful collection of letters, some handwritten, from the sitters either replying to my invitation or thanking me for the portrait. Unlike now, it was a gentle pace and I spent much of the early 1980’s driving to country cottages and spending the day taking pictures, sometimes being fed. John Piper’s wife, Myfanwy, cooked me one of the best meals I have ever had.
What was Bill Brandt like?
Brandt filters through all my work. He was very quiet and couldn’t understand why I took so many frames – I didn’t, but he would only take one or two.His apartment in Kensington was fascinating; it was a privilege to see it, full of the artifacts that were in his photographs. He showed me his wide-angle camera and some of his photographs. I bought one of his prints recently, Nude 1953; I waited for years to be able to buy one. It is now clear that he was one of the great artists of the last century.
I bought one too. I went to Bill Brandt’s exhibition, just after his death, at the V&A. There were extraordinary looking women there, who turned out to be his models. One of them I talked to posed for his East Sussex beach series. She told me that they would work all day but he only took a couple of frames. I was at that exhibition too and the first person I saw was his brother, Rolf. He looked so like Bill Brandt, it was rather disturbing.
Do you still write to people to ask for a sitting?
Not that often, but I did write to Ai Weiwei just before he was arrested. Understandably, I didn’t hear back. I am not giving up on him; he is at the top of my list. I recently contacted Walid Siti, an Iraqi artist living in London. His work is astounding, he paints beautiful abstract landscapes
How did you get to work for Tina Brown’s Talk in New York?
Before Tina launched Talk, unbeknownst to me she had a picture of mine in her dummy issue, of Vinnie Jones. She met Jon Link, the art director of Loaded, who she was considering as an art director for Talk. He had many of my portraits in his portfolio including the one in the dummy. She called me and I met her at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge and she offered me a job. The sort of meeting you dream of – I was there for two years.
When I was working at Talk, I had the feeling that it wouldn’t last, did you?
Not really, not until near the end. I think 9/11 made it difficult for it to carry on, the atmosphere in New York changed then. When it started, it was an exciting time and I photographed most days all over the United States. I liked Tina and we seemed to have the same idea about photography and magazines. The launch party on Liberty Island was probably the best party of all time. I sat between Madonna and Lauren Bacall, who I watched comb her hair, which was as sensual as it gets. The photographs you took on the ferry to Liberty Island are very special. I remember the sun was setting over the Hudson; the light was so elegant.
Do you work on your own projects?
No, I like my portraits to be part of a job. Although it is something I want to do. I used to photograph nudes and I’d like to re-look at the subject again. They were very abstract and I’d like to make them more emotive this time.
Do you have a contract with a magazine?
Not at the moment. I have had contracts, they can be very productive but also have a negative side, as you can’t work for anyone else and it takes you out of the market. Then it requires time to rebuild your clientele.
How important is your website?
Very important, more important than I ever gave it credit for. My first site was built in 2001 and it became outdated technically and visually. I left it for too long, because it takes so much time to redesign and build. My new site does get me work; it is the new portfolio. Although I do want to make changes to it – to include more writing and perhaps video.
Do you still use film?
No – a couple of times in the last 4 years. I was asked to use film recently but refused; my assistants and I are set up for digital and find it too hard to revert. I love digital, its quality and the ability for post-production and printing large scale, it’s like being back in the darkroom again.
MICHAEL BIRT: How did you start?
Dafydd Jones: I was at Winchester School of Art doing painting and photography but I didn’t think I could make a living from painting. Afterwards I got a job at Butlins in Minehead as a ‘Colour Walkie’ to photograph the campers. The discipline it gave was very useful. After that I set up a studio in Oxford with the money I had saved. I entered some of the Butlins photographs into a Sunday Times competition and was shortlisted. We were given a subject to photograph; my theme was the return of The Bright New Things at Oxford University. This in turn led to Tina Brown asking me to work for Tatler.
Tell me about Mark Boxer’s influence at Tatler?
It was great working for Mark, my party pictures were very popular and it enabled him to sell a lot of advertising next to that section, which in turn allowed him to put more resources into my photographs. He was personally interested in my work; he would note his favourites on the contact sheet with a big tick. I was sometimes worried that my best pictures were not being used, so Mark asked me to put a gold star next to my choice, the stars ended up on the back of the prints too, a bit like being at school.
I love your aristocracy pictures for Tatler, they show an era and a part of British life that’s seen less these days?
I was so sure it was a fantastic subject; no one else was doing it. I remember them being so fantastically polite. The aristocracy is now more hidden away, I rarely photograph them these days. Some people react badly to the photographs, Chris Beetles didn’t like the images because he hated those people.
Has anything happened that you didn’t expect when working?
Actually almost all the time, which I enjoy. In the 1980’s at a charity ball, a scene unfolded in front of me. A young woman pulled a gun and pointed it at a guy’s head. It went through my mind that this was going to be a great picture, but then I noticed the expression on the young man’s face – he looked scared. I worried my flash going off may make her shoot so didn’t take the picture. Another man calmed her down and led her away. A few years later I was working at a party and the same young man approached me and said he had been terrified but had never forgotten the expression on my face – when I had realised it was a real gun. Apparentlyshe was from a wealthy European family and her father had given her the gun for protection.
I have watched you work at parties, you are one of the most unnoticed photographers in the room, is that something you have worked on?
No, I don’t work on it but I like the idea of it. If people are aware of you, they tend to stand in front of you and smile, which I don’t want. I found it liberating when I went to work in New York, as no one knew who I was, so they reacted less.
What sort of camera do you use and has digital changed the way you work?
I like less bulky cameras with fixed lenses, Leicas and Nikons. I think digital has changed my photography as I take more frames. My panoramas are easierto do digitally, which are stitched-together frames. Originally, I began to be interested in QuickTime VR movies but couldn’t find a way to sell them. An art director suggested that they should be flat panoramas. I think they tell a good story, especially at red carpet events, the narrative unfolds in the picture, a bit like Eadweard Muybridge’s work.
Which photographers influence you?
I like press photographs. The image of Gaddafi when he was dead, with the many hands holding mobile phones and taking photographs of him. It was a very powerful image. Bill Brandt is an old favourite and Bailey’s work in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. More recently, the Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz, who takes pictures of drunken people at weekends in Cardiff.
Is black and white important to you?
Yes, I sometimes convert from colour, I think my work for Vanity Fair is better in black and white but they tend to ignore them and use the colour files.
Do you always have your camera with you?Yes, I do, but I also like my iPhone camera – the files are pretty good.
What have you learned through taking pictures?
To be polite. I sometimes take pictures I shouldn’t and I tend to apologise as I take them. If I were not polite, I’d get punched on the nose.
Do you have a favourite picture?
It’s hard to pick a favourite.
One of mine is the one you took of Cindy Adams, the writer, just of her legs.
That was taken at a union demonstration in New York. Norman Mailer was campaigning to stop the Daily News being sold. She was sitting on a car. Cindy has lovely ankles, she used to be a model. Ankles and feet are a bit of an obsession. Funny you mention that picture; I do have a print and have been thinking of framing it.
Do you take street pictures?
No. But if I had been there, I’d have taken pictures of the riots in London, perhaps just as well I wasn’t. It’s hard to know when to take a picture if something so awful happens. I was in Brighton when the bomb went off at the Grand Hotel. I was staying a couple of doors away but slept through the explosion. When I woke up and heard the news, I went to take a couple of photographs but not with anyenthusiasm.I have a bad memory for people’s names, I’d struggle remembering the lesser-known celebrities at events, do you?Yes, I do. I have notebooks and make notes as I work as an aide-mémoire. The people I work for are obsessed about celebs but I like to photograph ordinary people too. I do tend to take pictures of what is interesting rather than just personalities. As with Cindy Adams, I just saw the legs, and took the picture before knowing who it was.
Have you ever been papped?
I was outside a church in New York on a rainy day, Lech Wałesa was attending a service with other celebrities. I saw a man, a short guy with a camera in his hand, a little self-important, but he looked so good I took a picture of him. He obviously didn’t like it and a littlelater he came up to me and shoved a camera in my face in an aggressiveway with his assistant holding a flash. I asked someone who it was. Avedon, came the reply.