Breitling Store Opening
Photography is 1% talent and 99% moving furniture. Arnold Newman
This is a wonderful quote and it often feels so true. I have a good story that relates to this quote very well. I used to be Michael Roberts assistant many years ago and what an incredible experience it was. I have quite a few fun tales from working with Michael and even how I came to assist him is interesting. I was fresh out of Art College and full of cocky confidence. I spotted Michael talking to Tim Jefferies in the Hamilton’s Gallery Mayfair. I recognized him from various television appearances and figured this was my chance to impress. I knew he lived in Paris and so I promptly went over to Michael and Tim and in my best schoolboy French declared that I was prepared to move to Paris to be his assistant. I had a muted response perhaps due to the fact that my French was so poor. I had possibly said something utterly embarrassing such as the ‘pen of my aunt’ or ‘the monkey is in the tree’ as one is taught in school. However a few weeks later I received a phone call asking me to meet him at his hotel for an interview. Incredibly I was taken on as second assistant and later working as his first assistant on many exciting shoots.
Now one shoot is worthy of a mention connected to the above quote and is a lesson that has stayed with me ever since. Michael was commissioned to take the portrait of a female opera singer for The Independent Magazine. At the time this publication very much celebrated and championed black and white photography. So off we went to Hampton Court Palace to undertake this commission. We wandered through the palace looking for a suitable location to take the portrait. As we searched for a spot we came across another photographer and his team of assistants setting up their kit to take a portrait of the same opera singer. Now their set looked like the lighting display in a camera shop. It was as if they had used every piece of photographic kit known to man. There were boom arms, scrims, tubes, wafers, heads, mono blocks, power packs, reflectors, extension leads like fireman's hoses, poly boards, snoots, wafers, big stands, small stands, umbrellas, dark cloths and so on. They were set up in a library or drawing room and much furniture had been moved to allow for this set to be built. Now this is Michael’s worst nightmare and we paused, assessed, gave a respectable nod and moved on to continue our search. What Michael settled on is such a far cry from the previous scene and a lesson in how one can visualize something in their mind and then create the image in such an unexpected place. We came to the dark, dusty empty space directly below a large staircase. It was the least attractive part of the most glorious, beautiful, ornate palace. It was blatantly ignoring all the artistic glory and history of this grand historical home. It was more NCP parking lot than grand palace. What I was not seeing was what Michael was seeing in his mind and all was to be revealed by the Maestro.
The next challenge was working out the correct exposure. This was back in the film days and we shot on black and white roll film using black and white Polaroid’s. Whenever I worked with Michael there was always the necessity to juggle the exposure extensively bearing in mind there were so many different variables to take into account. I became very skilled at getting the exposure perfect and took pride in my ability to read the exposure and then make subsequent adjustments to the camera to achieve the desired result. A skill I like to think kept me in work. The relationship was along the following lines. I had to always overexpose on the light meter to allow for the fact the speed of the film was never quite what it said it was. Essentially opening up a fraction each time. I then had to take into account the fact the speed of the polaroid was possibly two stops different to the speed of the film and so I had to allow for that variation in order to see a correct representation of the desired image on the polaroid. Then take into account Michael wanted a particular feel and colour to the blacks and how could we get that. Then allow for the fact he is not a big fan of tripods and this needed to be a hand held shot and so we were pinned down to a workable minimum shutter speed. Then of course taking into account the aperture needed to be such that we would have sharpness to a particular depth. Then on top of all of that take into account that we wanted to push the film in processing to get a different feel to it with the contrast and so needed to factor in that change too. And not forgetting we needed to drastically over expose anyway because we wanted to shoot the sitter in an extremely dark place avoiding the use of any flash. At the end of a day working with Mr. Roberts my arm would be black as I would scribble my workings out with a sharpie pen as I went along, making calculation changes as I tried to juggle all of these factors.
Now when the grand opera singer made her appearance, after a brief introduction Michael directed her to stand under the staircase in the dark and gloom. I'm sure she and her entourage wondered what the hell! A quick Polaroid to check all was as expected and then two quick rolls of 120mm film were shot rapidly with a little direction. Not a single piece of furniture moved and no flashy equipment used either. We had completed the shoot in maybe 15 minutes and were back in the car on our way to Michael’s hotel. Job done. The resulting image was sublime. It was as if the opera singer was floating in a grey sky. Only Micheal could have known what he was aiming for and what he had seen in his mind. The subject was a floating vision of beauty in this moody grey stony sky. I loved the picture and from that moment tried to think totally out of the box and approach locations with a new way of thinking and seeing. I am sure the other photographer’s portrait was great and what he had aimed for. It’s not a case of him being wrong and not as talented. It’s subjective and his style and approach is different and possibly suited the client he was shooting for. I myself have set up many lights to shoot a portrait and I'm sure I will continue to do so. But working with Michael on that shoot was for sure very inspiring.
On this particular commission there was thankfully no furniture to move but I did have to deal with a jet fighter. The jet was way too large to move and so I took the easy route and asked the people to move around the jet to get the intended light and angle. I was commissioned to shoot the opening of the new Breitling watch store in Manchester. The famous Breitling jet team was in attendance complete with wing walkers. This is the largest civilian aerobatic display team in Europe and what a pleasure to meet and photograph this team. It was a great to chat and listen to some stories from the team and all round it was a wonderful day. The only furniture adjusted was moving a small stool to stand on whilst snapping some canapés! Such bliss.