No, that’s not a comment on the recent political shenanigans; it’s a reference to my latest project, where I try to understand why a group of people get up at 5am and go rowing in the dark – backwards.
I’ve been spending time at Molesey Boat Club in Surrey photographing the rowers and coaches as they set about their training programs. The club consists of elite athletes and top drawer enthusiast rowers; the elite athletes are there daily, rowing, working out and consuming bucket loads of calories.
The enthusiasts have to fit rowing around their daily lives, which brings me to The Breakfast Club, as they are known at MBC. These are a group of individuals who get up at 5am and head out on the water for a training session – all before breakfast. As they often row in teams of 2, 4 or 8 having a sneaky lie in doesn’t make you any friends. In the winter it is pitch black at 5am (not to mention freezing cold) and they row backwards in to dark nothingness. When they get back off the water a couple of hours later they head off to work.
These photos are a series of portraits and reportage shots taken during these sessions – and yes I went out on the water with the Breakfast Club; admittedly I had to wait for the Spring/Summer seasons to arrive so I had some light (honest – it was all about the light; nothing to do with it being freezing cold and having to be still in a boat close to water on exposed rivers!)
Before I started this project I imagined that there would be a lot of individual rowers going out on their own (sculling as I learnt it’s called), but in reality there are mostly teams and I was struck by the camaraderie of the rowers – even first thing in the morning.
As to why they get up at 5am and go rowing backwards, I’m still in the dark…
I photographed Jeremy Smith, Editor-At-Large for OX Magazine last year. He wrote this about the experience in OX Magazine (which you can see here ). All words from this point on are his own.
You may recognise these photographs of five men and five women; they are, in no particular order, Albert Einstein, Raquel Welch, James Dean, Betty Grable, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Farrah-Fawcett, Audrey Hepburn and Salvador Dali.
You may not be familiar with the cause of their fame or achievement but you will, undoubtedly, be familiar with these portraits.
Because these are pictures that define so much more (a whole universe more in fact) than the two- dimensional profiles they present.
I, thank god am neither famous nor, sadly, an outstanding talent, but I do share something in common with these icons of science, art, cinema and music; I have a photograph.
A photograph that embodies a micro second of existence yet also a whole human lifetime of success, failure, ignorance, enlightenment and resurrection.
It was taken in August of 2016 and has, quite simply, changed my life…
There is great speculation yet its precise inspiration remains obscure.
Not that it especially matters: “A picture is worth a thousand words” simply endures as one of life’s great truisms. But until August 2016 it held little personal relevance.
It was a Monday morning, and save for the fact the sky was blue and a slight chill lingered in the air, it was ordinary.
I was about to be photographed and sporting a wardrobe I had spent more than a week clinically appraising. Not that it was a fashion shoot or anything so alluring. Just a shoot of me attempting to own, rather agreeably, my recent disability.
In my head of course I envisaged it as infinitely more profound: a statement if you will of everything I had fought to overcome since falling so gracelessly 18 months earlier.
You see, the slip, the trip, the tumble of 40 feet which had left my frame so scrambled had left me wheelchair bound (and that, trust me, was an unimaginable bonus; it had looked for many months as if I might remain bed-ridden).
But I didn’t, I’d persevered and I was proud of what I’d achieved. But ‘proud’ perhaps in a way that was slightly atypical.
I hadn’t wanted to use sport to redefine my rehabilitation as so many spinal injury patients do; I wanted to use attitude. And I don’t mean defiantly or grittily. What I wanted to do was nail my colours to the mast… sartorially.
And no, even I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant.
Spinning in my head since the early weeks of my trauma, and doubtless morphine induced, I nevertheless sensed that my journey to recovery was to be as aesthetic as physical. Yet I couldn’t then nor 16 months later crystallise what that meant. It was just an intuitiveness without form or substance.
However, on this particular morning I had been more doubtful than excited. I had explained to photographer Douglas Kurn the ‘statement’ I was after (and yes, I now cringe at how pretentious I must have sounded). He in turn had simply acknowledged my grand ambition by readying the location (Oxford’s Bodleian library) and appraising my physical prowess.
Clearly, I could stand but for seconds rather than minutes. And to complicate matters even further, I wanted to cross my legs.
I think we both knew from a clinical perspective it was unwise but I was adamant it would pictorially translate as ‘rakish’ and felt buoyed by my outlandishly arrogant percipience.
And so it was after several false starts, spasms and near falls that Douglas’s camera came alive.
Naturally, my perpendicular fragility allowed for a window of maybe only a few seconds, but within such a constrained time frame, Douglas invented, initiated and improvised blurrily.
I’m guessing this shot took only 10 minutes from start to finish and although quietly confident about the result I expected, I was depressed too by the sudden, all to apparent naivety of my design. After all, how could I hope that such an everyday morning could be transformed into something so visceral and life reaffirming?
And indeed, that is how sceptical I remained. Not cynical or pessimistic but frustrated and impotent by the sheer folly of what seemed such an illusory goal.
Heck, if I couldn’t put into words the sense of what I so desperately wanted to project, how could I expect Douglas to capture it?
Not that I had long to wait…
I remember every breath of that early revelation and like many revelations and life-changing moments today, it came via email. And what I saw made me cry. Openly and unapologetically. It was me alright, but as I’d dreamt me, stylish, savvy and oh-so-chipperly defiant. And today, almost 10 months on it still makes me cry.
Appropriately, there are no words that can capture my joy.
Pictures? Yes. Plenty of them, which explosively chart the recapturing of dreams, hopes, and faith (in me). But none that will ever match this one, defining millisecond out of 475,000 (approx.) grasped, lived, and wasted hours.
Douglas Kurn’s photograph quite simply embodies the best of me.
It’s truer and more honest than any epitaph (one doesn’t even need to look closely to see the vanity, the arrogance, the childlike dream to better myself), and for that I will always be eternally grateful…
I learnt recently that if you have run your own restaurant you’ve earned the right to be called “chef” by your peers – it’s a matter of respect; even if it is a bit confusing in a kitchen full of “chefs”!
Why was I surrounded by culinary creators? It was a commission for Compass Group who were completely revamping their corporate website, and they needed new portraits of their executive chefs.
For a few days my nostrils were filled with the aroma of spicy, tangy and sweet food, and my stomach rumbled and growled, as we travelled to various kitchens in and around London, setting up lights and trying to stay out the way of the very busy kitchen staff. I’m guessing the lack of Gordon Ramsey-esque profanities hurled in our direction meant that we managed it, or maybe they were just too busy to care!
Oh, and I also learnt that doing the cooking at home doesn’t earn you the right to be called chef….
Okay, I’ve been away; I’m sorry. I’ve spent most of the time out and about exploring the streets. It’s been fun, although my feet haven’t always agreed. I’ve met some great people and photographed most of them. I’ve also been surreptitious; I’ve been doing some street photography and below are some of the results.
Another artist with a studio within the Chertsey Artists commune is Mary Hayward-Smith who is a ceramics artist and also paints in oils. She is Head Of Art at a school in Twickenham, and you can see some of her work here.
I photographed Claudia in her Chertsey Artists studio on a fabulously sunny afternoon with lots of lovely day light streaming through the windows. Claudia is a mixed media artist and you can see some of her work here.
Chertsey Artists are a very talented bunch of artists who run a variety of workshops and art sessions from their studios in Chertsey. However their premises are under threat of redevelopment and they contacted me to help underline what they do for the community and the arts, to see if the development could be avoided or a new home could be found. As well as creating portraits of some of the artist in their studios, I attended some of their portrait sessions to capture the artists at work, which you can see below.
However this did mean I had put myself in the firing line and was cajoled in to sitting for one of the portrait sessions. Sitting still was my main concern but somehow I managed it. You can see the resulting portraits at the end of this post.