Nicholas Sinclair – Photographer

Nicholas Sinclair – Photographer


And… here we go “Your life is your life. Know it while you
have it.” Noam Chomsky My life in photography really evolved out
of my childhood influences. I grew up in a very artistic home, there was a lot of artistic
activity, painting, music, theatre, books and we were encouraged to paint and to draw
and to play musical instruments and I think it had a big impact on me when I was growing
up. My father was an actor. He worked in the theatre
in London and in New York. He made films in Britain and in Hollywood and in fact some
of my earliest memories are of sitting on the side of the London stage watching him
working. My mother is a landscape painter and she introduced
us to the great painters, to the great composers and musicians and to the great writers, so
it was a really interesting cultural mix when I was growing up, but this was the 60’s.
I was thirteen, fourteen years old and there was a cultural revolution happening. So as
well as Beethoven, Dvorak, Elgar there was also Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. As well as
looking at van Gogh and Kandinsky and Constable and Turner I was listening to Miles Davis,
to John Coltrane, to Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, the Stones. So it was a fascinating time to
be absorbing all this new cultural material. In the mid 1970’s I studied Fine Art at
Newcastle University and then after leaving university I went straight to music college
and studied the drums and I had a brief career as a professional musician. The transition from painting and music into
photography took place in a Moroccan circus in 1982. I had been offered a job there playing the drums and I took the job not for the musical possibilities but for the photographic possibilities.
I just had this feeling that it could be a really interesting place to start taking photographs.
So almost unconsciously and by accident my career as portrait photographer began photographing
circus acts. And I took one photograph of a Spanish trapeze artist which worked beautifully
as a graphic image, as an expression of what the circus is about and it was that photograph
and a few others which I found on contact sheets which gave me the confidence to think
that I could possibly do this as a profession. And its interesting when you see my very early
circus pictures and then you come right through thirty six years later to what I am doing
today, you can see the similarities and I am without any doubt drawn to portraiture. There was a significant shift after I worked
in the circus to photographing actors and actresses and it was a technical shift as
well as an aesthetic shift so I moved from a hand held 35mm camera, using available light,
to using a Hasselblad on a tripod, using studio lights, so the pictures became more formal
and the first actress I photographed was Dame Wendy Hiller. I photographed her in profile.
I used quite an unusual lighting plot in that I lit her from behind so that she is facing
off in that direction, I bring the light in from the back of her head, the light then
bounces into a reflector and so the light is reflected into her face. And I felt that
the most flattering light would be the softest light I could achieve. I
then moved from Wendy Hiller to Paul Scofield and in fact the two of them worked together
as husband and wife in one of the most important films to come out of the 1960s, a film called
A Man for All Seasons. Paul Scofield won the Oscar for that film and Wendy Hiller was nominated
for best supporting actress. To photograph Paul Scofield was one of the
turning points for me in my career. He arrived at my studio and he did a very interesting
thing when he arrived, he looked at all the pictures on the walls and for a British man
that is almost unheard of. And then he sat down and he said “Nicholas, make me a cup
of tea and once I’ve had the tea, if you want me to stand on my head I will stand on
my head”. And of course what he really meant was “I will give myself to the session”
and he did, he gave himself a hundred percent. He was very focussed, very present and very
committed to the portrait session and it really shows. After that I photographed Alec Guinness, Greg
Wise, Josette Simon, John Mills. So between the circus and the artists there was this
period when I was photographing British actors. And it was during that period that I really
learned how to use studio lights and how to work in a more controlled way where with the
circus it was very spontaneous, you really didn’t know what was going to happen, things
were happening so quickly – lights, music, costume, animals. It was an environment where
you were forced to work very quickly, to react very quickly, where in the studio it was much
more measured, you could take your time, you could make decisions in a more calculated
way. The Artists I’ve always worked in series in my career,
right from the very beginning and the longest series of pictures I’ve made has been of
British artists, portraits of British artists, and it began in 1987, more or less by accident
actually and photographed an artist called Kyffin Williams, a landscape and portrait
painter. I photographed him in his studio against one of his own pieces of work, an
oil painting of Welsh mountains and a very turbulent kind of sky. And what I was trying
to do in the portrait was get the connection between the artist and the work, to see the
similarities, so that when you look at the picture and then you look at the background
of the picture, you get the sense that it’s what’s in the artist’s mind. And that picture went into the National Portrait
Gallery’s permanent collection quite soon after I took it. And then the second artist I photographed
was John Piper, and again a landscape painter, a wonderful landscape painter, one of Britain’s
best. I photographed him late in life and I was really struck by the kind of haunting,
spiritual quality of his expression. It was almost as if he was half in the spirit world
already. He died several years later but when I photographed him, I think he was in his
late 80’s, it was though part of him was in the real world and part of him was off
in a different world. And it was his expression that really struck me, so I moved in close
and just included his head and concentrated on the eyes so you get this very strong expression
into the camera. And then in the early 1990’s I began the
most intensive period of photographing artists that I ever went through and the second artist
that photographed was Anthony Caro, one of the most important British sculptors. I photographed
him in his north London studio against a white wall. I placed him quite low in the composition
and above him was a series of iron hoops suspended by a bracket at the top of the picture, and
then coming down either side of him. So you’ve got one hoop coming right down into the line
of his eyebrows, one just across the top of his head, another one coming down to his shoulder,
so that where ever your eye is in the composition, it always leads back to the man himself. And
because he had a strong, intense gaze into the camera I knew that I could get away with
pulling back and including a lot of the studio in the composition. With Peter Blake, one of Britain’s best
known Pop Artists, I used a waxwork in the photograph and also two Japanese Sumo wrestlers
and I use them because as a Pop Artist Peter Blake is using elements of popular culture
and sport and pop music and fashion are all things that he brings into his work. And there was a lovely story he told me when
I was doing the portrait. Sonny Liston had just lost the heavy weight title fight to
Mohamed Ali and he knew that the waxwork in Madame Tussauds would become redundant so
he phoned them up and he said “Can I have it?” and they said “Yes”. I mean that
would never happen today but in the 1960s they were obviously more relaxed and they
said yes so he borrowed a van from a friend and he went and picked up this life size waxwork
of this heavyweight boxing champion and put it in his studio and I turned up twenty five
years later and there it was. And when you walked into the room it was really impressive,
I mean bigger than both of us. It appears smaller in the portrait but in real life it
was considerably bigger. So I placed the artist between the waxwork of the boxer and the two
Sumo wrestlers. With Gillian Ayres, which is one of my favourite
portraits, and I think she is one of the great British abstract painters, I place her in
front of one of her own abstract paintings. She’s holding a cigarette, she smoked continually
throughout the session, so I thought well use the cigarette so I got her to position
it so that it worked graphically. As soon as I walked into the studio I saw this chair
encrusted with oil paint. I think she’d had it for decades and it had just gradually
got more and more covered in oil paint so I used it in the foreground of the picture
as a kind of graphic structure, so you’ve go the chair, the artist, the cigarette and
then the background. So when I am composing photographs I’m thinking
not just of the expression, not just of the contact with the eyes and the face but of
every square millimetre of the photograph, every square millimetre of the portrait is
important for me and I am trying to make everything work and everything gel so that it all coalesces
together. Coming much more up to date, at the very end
of 2013 I took what I think is one of the best portraits I ever took of an artist called
Celia Paul. She’s a figurative artist, a portrait painter. She has a wonderful, very
atmospheric, very austere studio overlooking the British Museum in London and as soon as
I walked in I knew that the setting was wonderful and that it would give me a really magical
portrait. And she did something interesting, she withdrew into her own inner world in this
portrait. Sometimes people are very up front, they are very present, they are very concentrated
on the lens. Other people create a barrier and Celia Paul just withdrew into this other
world but it worked really well because of the austerity and the very subdued pastel
colours of the studio. And because she remained very still throughout the portrait session,
she wasn’t moving around, she wasn’t talking, I was able to make a double exposure. So the
camera was on the tripod. I made the exposure, I then removed the back, wound the camera
on and shifted the position of the tripod and then put the camera back back on and made
a second exposure. This was shot on analogue, on film, so I didn’t know what I was going
to get and it was a complete surprise to me but a very interesting surprise and it just
showed me how chance can come into the creative process and chance does and should come into
the creative process. It’s a really important part of it. So I was able to get a slightly
magical portrait. And then one of the more recent ones was taken
here in Berlin of one of Germany’s best painters, Johnathan Meese. Really wild looking,
intense, brilliant painter in my opinion . I placed him against one of his own portraits
of himself and although when you look at the portrait you are not immediately aware that
it is a self portrait because it is balanced between representation and abstraction, there
are nevertheless clues that is a portrait of the artist. The Chameleon Body In the mid 1990s my career took a change of
direction and it really happened after a chance encounter in Brighton. I was walking into
a cafe and as I was walking in a young man called Ralph was walking out. And it was one
of those moments, as a portrait photographer, where you know a hundred percent instinctively
this is somebody you have to photograph. And when he came to the studio and when I looked
at him through the viewfinder I realised for the first time that he had an almost perfectly
symmetrical face. Most people don’t. Most people have got one eye bigger than the other
or the mouth is off to the left or right, but Ralph’s features were so even I thought
instead of going against the symmetry I would go with it. And I did this by placing his
nose ring exactly in the centre of the photograph and in fact if you draw a diagonal line, top
left down to the bottom right, top right down to bottom left, where the lines intersect
they pass straight through the nose ring. And he had such an extraordinary face that
I knew I could let the face fill the entire frame and that’s what I did. Soon after that I had a phone call from Brighton
Museum and they asked me if I would make the photographs for an exhibition on fetishism
and because I had already had one photograph that I felt confident with I realised that
this was something I could do and so I accepted their offer and the second person I photographed
was Fabian, dressed as the angel of death, and I remember him coming to the studio and
he swept in, in a full length fake fur coat as if he was Marlene Dietrich and then he
opened the coat to reveal this leather outfit. It was black leather, with zips, with straps,
with a headpiece, with piercings in his face, in his ears and in his nipples and wings as
well and this really gave me my second strong photograph for the exhibition. I found a Dutch man called Dicky Dick who
had a full body tattoo, literally head to foot. And I was told at the time that this
was quite rare, there were only about ten people in the world with literally complete
head to foot body tattoos. I photographed a women called Polly who at
the time was one of the most photographed fetish models in London. And she was wearing
a design by Anthony Gregory, what he described as medieval body armour. I assumed that I
would photograph her from the front but when she turned round and I saw the design from
the back I realised that this would make a much stronger, much more graphic image. It
was as if the spine had been lifted out from under the skin and placed on the surface of
the skin. I photographed a wonderful woman called Christine
Bateman who at the time was modelling for the German artist Lucien Freud. And she told
me Freud had booked her every morning and every afternoon between now and Christmas
but that she had one Tuesday afternoon that she could offer me and I said “I will be
there”. And I went to her North London apartment and
for the portrait I placed her in the doorway of her bedroom. She had covered the bedroom
walls with mirrored panels to give the sense of expanded space and she had also put mirrors
on the door and by very carefully moving the door I was able to create a triptych within
the photograph so you have the real Christine Bateman in the centre and then to her left
and to her right you have reflections so you’ve got three different versions of the subject. I photographed another Dutchman called Mark
who had what looked like a leopard or a cheetah tattooed on the left hand side of his face
so I moved in close so that his head fills in the entire frame and I asked him to close
his eyes and I did this because I felt that if his eyes were open the viewer would be
drawn to his expression where if his eyes were closed you would travel more evenly across
the whole photograph. I’m very conscious when I am taking photographs of how the viewer’s
eye will travel, the journey it will take and the way I can guide that journey. And
I think of it not just as a visual journey but also as an emotional, psychological journey. I knew that I wanted a Mohican in the series
and to photograph a Mohican at its best it should be made in profile, so I needed somebody
not just with a really good Mohican but also with a good profile and I found a woman called
Jed Phoenix who has a beautiful, slightly Egyptian profile and I knew when I first met
her that she would work perfectly for the photograph. And even the ring in her lower
lip adds a little accent to the picture. And an interesting thing happened. I put down
the photograph of Jed next to the photograph that I had taken of Wendy Hiller almost eight
years earlier and I realised that they were more or less the same photograph – same camera,
same lens, same camera to subject distance and also a similar mood and it occurred to
me that I was using the same classical portrait techniques for these people as I had done
eight or ten years earlier for the actors and the actresses. The Books Because I’ve always worked in series, the
natural way of presenting a series is in book form. Where when you work with magazines or
newspapers you may get a single picture or a double page or four or six pages, with a
book you’re working with twenty, thirty, forty, fifty pictures. My first book came out in 1996 and that was
the culmination of the work I had done with people with body piercings and tattoos. I
published a book on the Italian performance artist Franko B. I had met Franko when I was
working on The Chameleon Body photographs and we spent three years working together,
collaborating. I was photographing his performances. Two years after that I published a book called
Crossing the Water which was a series of landscape photographs taken on the perimeter of a small
lake in Southern England. I photographed the lake at different times of day, under different
weather conditions, different seasons and I started in January and worked right though
to December so there was a whole year just on a small lake. My book after that was on Berlin and I was
working in Berlin in that period when the renovation was beginning. It then intensified
after I finished the book and a lot of what is in the book has now disappeared but I was
photographing the graffiti, the walls, in a way the skin of the city. And that was followed by a book called Five
Cities and I decided to take five European Cities. It was Istanbul, Palermo, Berlin,
Paris and Budapest and each city would have five photographs, five interrelated photographs.
And I got the idea from a wonderful film called Night on Earth by Jim Jarmusch where he takes
five taxi rides, he films five independent taxi rides in five different cities all simultaneously.
And it’s a film I love, I mean I love Jim Jarmusch’s work and I thought I would apply
the same principle but to a book of photographs. So in Budapest I found these extraordinary
public telephones. In Palermo I found a small park, a Garibaldi Park, and I found a Banyan
tree, in fact a series of three or four Banyan trees with intertwined branches and tree trunks.
And in Berlin I went to the Mauerpark to an iron bridge and I found a series of faces
just in white outline – profiles, close-ups of eyes, full face and so I made a series
of those and published the book in 2010, and the book is called Five Cities. The Studio I’ve recently been working with the German
fashion designer Florian Schulze and what attracted me to Florian’s work was the way
he draws inspiration from different cultures and from different centuries. He takes you
on these wonderful visual journeys and you never really know where you’re going with
him. You could for example be in ancient Egypt during the reign of Cleopatra, or you could
be in a Grace Jones video in New York in the 1980’s or in a production of A Mid Summer
Night’s Dream and I think it was this challenge of not knowing, of photographing a very wide
visual imagination, that I found so interesting. To achieve this degree of simplicity in the
photographs takes time and it takes attention. I give a lot of thought to the way the light
is falling on the face and on the garments. I look at the graphics of the photograph.
I’m interested in the way the lines work and how the garment fits the body. And I’m
concerned also with backgrounds, how the subject stands out against the background, so that
when you look at the final photograph everything seems to fall naturally into place, it just
feels instinctively right. Hair and make up are crucial in these kind
of photoshoots, accentuating the eyes and the mouth so that you are aware not just of
the fashion but also of the character of the model herself and you need to achieve a balance
between the two things. And I knew that I wanted a different kind
of atmosphere in the photographs so as well as shooting on digital I was also working
with a vintage Polaroid camera from the 1970’s and I was using deliberately long shutter
speeds, sometimes as long as eight or ten seconds so that you get this sense of movement
in the photographs. And that means that when the viewer is looking at the final image there
is a sense of movement and that helps their imagination to travel off in a different direction. Because Florian’s work is so dramatic, so
theatrical, I knew that we needed a model who could carry the drama, who had conviction
and who had poise and we found a wonderful, beautiful Chilean model called Macarena and
she was perfect for these designs. And there was a lovely soulfulness as well in her expression. I think of the great models as being like
dancers or actors. They arrest our attention, they heighten our awareness of the image,
they bring something special to a photoshoot and this is why they are so interesting to
work with. When I’m editing a photo shoot the first
thing I’m looking for is the expression in the eyes. For me it’s the single most
important element in a portrait. It’s that moment when you connect. It’s when there’s
a sense of recognition and that’s what makes a portrait I think so compelling. We bring
our own memory and our personal history to the moment. And when you get it right in a
photograph it’s a very powerful thing.

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