Monday, 30 June 2014

Tony Ray-Jones Video


This excellent video was linked on Twitter a while ago but i thought I'd mention it again on the blog because it is such a fascinating watch.

The film looks at the the superb photography Tony Ray-Jones produced for the journal Architectural Review in 1970. Instead of using the journal's staff photographers, leading photojournalists were used on a themed series called Manplan. Tony Ray-Jones worked on the issue that looked at housing.

I was greatly surprised to learn that Tony Ray-Jones was refused membership of Magnum twice - the second time after a poorly received submission of his Manplan photographs. One comes away from the film with the opinion that the failure was all Magnum's for not recognising such a fantastic photographic talent.

A good collection of Tony Ray-Jones weblinks can be found HERE

Monday, 2 June 2014

Best Selling Image


Some more prints sold this week and by quite some distance it's the speedway shot above that is my most popular image. It seems to appeal to a lot of people - probably bikers or motor sport fans... or both!

It was taken quite a few years ago now at a speedway meet in the West Midlands and I've always thought that this image nicely captures the energy of the sport - that sudden surge of power and speed as the motorbike rearing up as it leaps off the line at the start of the race. It's the raw ingredient of all motor sport.

It's one of my favourite shots too. You could get really close to the action (so close you could probably use an iPhone and fill the frame) and the epic levels of engine noise and bursts of speed from the bikes (with no brakes!) was enough the raise the hairs on your neck. The atmosphere was fantastic.

As for the camera, well the image was taken with a Nikon F3HP with a motordrive and a 50mm lens. The film was Ilford HP5 which added a grittier feel. More images from the speedway can be found HERE

Monday, 28 April 2014

World War I in Photos


The Atlantic photography blog 'In Focus' has just launched a series of posts dedicated to photography from World War I. Released in ten parts, part one has just been added to the blog featuring 45 images.

Each Sunday, until June 29th, a new set of photographs will be added to their site, collected from various image libraries and archives from around the world. As the Atlantic photo editor Alan Taylor explains in his introduction ‘On this 100-year anniversary, I've gathered photographs of the Great War from dozens of collections, some digitized for the first time, to try to tell the story of the conflict, those caught up in it, and how much it affected the world.’

It promises to be a fascinating series. The introduction and the first 45 images can be found HERE

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

portrait of Michèle Breton on the set of Performance, 1968
Michèle Breton, 1968
This beautiful portrait of Michèle Breton caught my eye as i researched the film Performance. Unfortunately there is no photographer credit (it could possibly be one of the Cecil Beaton images taken on set that Warner Bros refused to pay for. Sandy Lieberson, Performance's producer, eventually paid Beaton's fee out of his own pocket ) for this image that acts as the holding image for the preview video on the Warner Bros Performance webpage. Surprisingly the page doesn't feature a photo of big name stars Mick Jagger, James Fox or Anita Pallenburg. No, they decided to go with a  fabulous image of seventeen year old Michèle Breton, who played Lucy, dressed in her Carnaby Street finery. It's one of the finest publicity portrait shots from the film, and yet of all of the main stars of the film, Michèle Breton's subsequent life after the filming of Performance finished remains one of the most enigmatic aspects of the film's history.

Type Michèle Breton's name into Google and you can easily find links, photographs, articles about the film, and more. Michèle's name even comes up in the auto suggestions list, yet a vast amount of the information relates purely to her role as Lucy in the cult 1968 British film. Information about her life afterwards is scant, poorly sourced and most often wildly inaccurate, which has really opened my eyes to how appalling unreliable the internet can be when there is an information vacuum. The less is known the more it seems people make things up. No sources, evidence or links. Just assumption, rumour and innuendo dressed up as fact. It isn't particularly helped by the fact that Performance is a cult film and is closely connected with the Rolling Stones story. Keith Richards also knew Michèle, briefly mentioning her (page 254 where he also reveals her nickname was Mouche - which means Fly in French - is the nickname a reference to one of her lines in the film?) in his 2010 autobiography called Life. However even books can get things wrong.

Marianne Faithfull's 1994 autobiography called Faithfull: An Autobiography is a perfect example of how an assumption or rumour can be made to appear as fact. So much so that it is still often quoted. A paragraph on page 155 mentions Breton which reads 'Michèle Breton didn't fare so well either. She became a heroin dealer in Marseilles shortly after the film and is, I think, probably dead by now'  The last line is the interesting section, where Faithfull uses the 'and is, I think, probably dead by now'. It's hardly a definitive statement of fact, which was fortunate as things turned out, although you can't really blame Marianne for thinking that way. The drug casualty rate after the late sixties was horrific as addiction took tight hold and reaped its deadly toll. Faithfull herself suffered many lost years of drug addiction, well documented in her book, but there does also seem to be an  fatalistic attitude amongst writers, especially those who lived through the sixties, who just assume survival isn't a likely outcome. Many didn't survive - Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, were just a few of the names who succumbed during the early seventies - but others, like Marianne Faithfull, did eventually recover. They did survive.

James Fox and Michèle Breton in Performance
In late 1999, Mick Brown, a freelance journalist and broadcaster, released 'Mick Brown on Performance', a book that remains an essential A-Z guide for anyone interested in the movie. In the book Michèle Breton is finally tracked down to Berlin where she casts some light on her life. Oddly Brown starts with an error, stating that Breton's only film role was in Performance. This isn't correct. The French actress appears (aged 16) in Jean-Luc Godard's well regarded black comedy film Weekend made in 1967. Michèle makes an uncredited appearance as a hippie revolutionary in the movie, approximately an hour and twenty four minutes into the film, dressed in a white top, red jacket and skirt with knee length boots, carrying a wicker basket. Very thin, with short curly hair, slightly longer than she had it in Performance, it's unmistakeably her. On screen for a total of about one and a half minutes - one scene even includes her dancing - there is a very good close-up shot where Michèle is easily identifiable, assisting a blood soaked cook. She is also listed on IMDB as playing Atena in three episodes of the epic 1968 Italian produced TV series Odissea though unfortunately i have been unable to find any footage of her as Atena from the series to confirm this.

Regardless of that small error, Brown's book is very revealing about Breton's life. Born and raised up in a small town in Brittany, Michèle, just aged sixteen, was given 100 Francs by her parents, put on a train to Paris and told by her parents that they never wanted to see her again! Drifting to St Tropez in 1967, she ended up meeting Donald Cammell who would later cast her in the role of Lucy. After Performance had been completed in late 1968, Cammell drove her back to Paris, let her stay two or three days and then said that he didn't want to see her any more. For five years she drifted around France ( according to writer Robert Greenfield, Michèle visits Nellcôte where the Stones were recording 'Exile on Main St' in 1971. Srangely Greenfield lists Michèle as 'missing in action and presumed to be gone as well' at the end of his 2006 article without giving any details about his search for her or why he presumes she's dead!) and Spain, being busted for drugs on the island of Formentera, from where she flees back to Paris on the run from the police. It was then that she decided to head east, following the hippie drug trail, arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan, regarded at the time as the Paris of central Asia, sometime in the mid seventies. For a year she stayed there shooting morphine, even selling her passport and possessions at one extreme low point, before finally deciding to quit during an LSD trip. After three months in hospital in India, she returns to Kabul, then Europe via Italy before settling down in Berlin in 1982 where Mick Brown finds her thirteen years later.

Michèle Breton as Lucy
Michèle Breton's story really is quite an impressive tale of survival, both during the making of Performance and in the life she led afterwards, described by Mick Brown as 'a  life of drug-addiction, destitution and mental breakdown'. Reading through you want to know more about the remarkable and painful journey that she made. The making of the Performance appears to have been especially tough and bitter experience for the then very young, understandably delicate and insecure actress. Only James Fox gets a positive mention for his behaviour ('he was very gentle to me') on set, the rest being on 'a heavy ego-trip'. To a large extent that gentle relationship with Fox comes across in the film too. Stoned most of the time on set, Breton herself later stated ' I was very young and very disturbed. I didn't know what i was doing and they used me'. Was she exploited? The evidence certainly points that way especially when you consider how quickly she was discarded by Donald Cammell (with whom she had been in a ménage à trois, along with Cammell's then girlfriend Deborah Dixon, since 1967), shortly after filming had finished. Her relationship with Cammell had lasted over a year. Keith Richards' damning assessment of Donald Cammell's character in his book Life (pages 253-255) would appear to be a pretty accurate one.

Mick Brown's book shows Breton alive and in Berlin up to the release of the book in late 1999, and yet the rumours of her death and suicide still persist. Robert Greenfield hints, in a Faithfull like fashion, at this in his 2006 Rolling Stone article and even the Guardian in 2004 clearly state that 'Pallenberg and Breton succumbed to heroin, Breton fatally so.' No obituary source is mentioned - the journalist Michael Holden probably just used Faithfull's brief mention of Breton as evidence. Holden's Performance article is further undermined by further errors including the death of cast member John Bindon, who the article says was stabbed to death in a nightclub, but who actually died of liver cancer in his flat in 1993. Poor research seems the likely culprit but misinformation like this spreads online, especially from 'trusted' sources like the Guardian. It's one of the reason why i wanted to create this post and state the known facts about Michèle Breton from a reliable source - Mick Brown's on Performance. So far THE only reliable source I've found.

An extensive search online (as of the time of writing - March 2014) relating to the possible suicide, overdose or death of Michèle Breton (since the Mick Brown interviews took place) has revealed absolutely nothing. So where next? Hopefully a read of Paul Buck's 2012 book 'Performance: biography of a sixties classic' may bring things up to recent times. If Michèle Breton is still alive, and i have absolutely no evidence yet to suggest otherwise, she will be 63 years of age. She told Mick Brown in 1995 'I've done nothing with my life. Where did it start going wrong? I can't remember. It's something like destiny'.  I just hope that in the time since Michèle's last interview, the years have been kinder and more generous towards her.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

On Performance



What do you get when you cross a film about London villains and the sixties counter-culture? You get the film Performance which, for some reason or another, has got its hooks well and truly into me recently. The 1968 film with its unique visuals and dark sixties counter-culture atmosphere seems to have hit a nerve, or maybe saying that it haunts you is a better way of putting it. From the books and website posts listed online, it seems it haunts other people too. What i find more perplexing in my case is why? What does this film contain that makes it so compelling? It could be the excellent cinematography of Nicolas Roeg whose work I've admired for many years, but it appears to be more than that, Yes, there is the superb soundtrack, great story, an interesting cast, a fascinating production history but there is something else there. Something unseen like a dark creative undercurrent or vibe that runs through the whole film. It's a puzzle or riddle. The film seems to leave you with more questions than answers. Without doubt, it is one of the best films of the sixties.

James Fox as the gangster Chas
For those of you who haven't seen the movie, i would recommend a viewing, although it is definitely one of those love or hate experiences. As Rolling Stone magazine once wisely advised you should not watch this film while on an acid trip. Actually it's pretty intense with just a cup of tea as a stimulant! Performance is really a film of two distinct halves, dealing with two very different cultures that clash in the middle of the movie. James Fox play Chas who is an extortioner for a South London crime boss called Harry Flowers. Chas is very good at his job but is a loose cannon in a criminal organisation that sees its role more as business acquisitions and mergers management rather than as a criminal enterprise. With Chas starting to become unruly, something has to give and eventually Chas ends up mixing business with pleasure and kills a new business 'associate' protected by Harry Flowers' firm. The line has been crossed and with the firm popping up on the radar of the police, inland revenue and others, Harry Flowers decides that the only option is to remove the problem. Find and kill Chas. To escape the wrath of his boss Chas needs to hide and through an overheard conversation, he ends up entering the gloomy, decaying, late sixties bohemian counter-culture world of 25 Powis Square, Notting Hill - the home of the fading, eccentric and reclusive rock star Turner (played by Mick Jagger) who has "lost his demon".

Anita Pallenburg and Mick Jagger in  Performance
At first glance, it appears to be the perfect hideaway and yet the poorly lit, decaying house exudes a deathly atmosphere which seems to saturate the film and the characters. Michèle Breton, who played Lucy, commented in a 1995 interview that when she watched the film in 1987 "I was feeling kind of sick looking at this. It was a feeling of death."  Even the décor retains an creepy evil presence right the way through the film although that could just be my aversion to sixties psychedelic art. There's definitely bad karma at number 25 and things are not going to work out for the better. Curtains remain firmly closed, rooms remain sombre and the colours somewhat muted, daylight seems to be shunned with Turner preferring artificial light. Patches of daylight amongst the darkness do appear occasionally and provide the same deathly aura of Colonel Kurtz's Cambodian jungle base in Apocalypse Now. Turner and his two female companions Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton) appear to want to block the outside world out including the light and exist in their own little world influenced by music, art, literature and plenty of drugs. Then the world arrives at their door in the shape of Chas but it soon becomes clear that the violent and unpredictable villain is well out of his depth. The rest of the film deals with the consequences.

Anita Pallenburg and Michèle Breton in Performance
Performance was unusual in that it had two directors working on set. Nicolas Roeg was brought in to provide the visual style and technical skill, but it was Donald Cammell who would really shape the film; writing and developing his original story, selecting and coaching the actors, developing the project to the point where the lines between film set and real life would blur to become almost indefinable. The production was described by Marianne Faithfull, Jagger's girlfriend at the time, as 'a psycho-sexual lab’ and a 'seething cauldron of diabolical ingredients: drugs, incestuous sexual relationships, role reversals, art and life all whipped together into a bitch’s brew’.  It has to be said that the more you read about Donald Cammell, the harder it becomes to like him as an person. Keith Richards, Pallenburg's then boyfriend, never forgave the director for what went on during the filming, describing Cammell in his 2010 autobiography 'Life' as 'the most destructive little turd I've ever met. Also a Svengali, utterly predatory, a very successful manipulator of women. . . . Putting people down was almost an addiction for him." Cammell's talents successfully created the exact authentic psychological and sexual atmosphere needed to create the film, however the emotional toll on the actors appears to have  been considerable. Lost years of drug addiction awaited for the two female leads, James Fox left acting for ten years and joined a Christian sect in Leeds, Jagger's relationship with Keith Richards was damaged causing major problems for the film soundtrack and the Rolling Stones. Even Donald Cammell didn't escape completely unscathed, going onto a frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying career in Hollywood, directing just three more films before fatally shooting himself in 1996.

Memo to Turner featuring the great slide guitar work of Ry Cooder

In the end Warner Brothers hated the film when it was delivered to them. The executives thought they were getting a Mick Jagger film that would appeal to sixties youth like the Beatles 'A Hard Days Night'. Instead they got a drug and sex riddled Performance and they despised everything in it. It took nearly two years, numerous edits and a change of executives at the studio before the film would finally get a release in August 1970. It received a mixed reception on release but has, over the years, gained recognition as a classic British film and as Marianne Faithfull observed, the film 'preserves a whole era under glass. Even Mick Jagger's official website recommends it as THE Jagger film to watch. Thankfully due to this classic status, and it has to be said an intriguing production history and cast, there is plenty of research material out there for interested film buffs like myself, with at least four books detailing the history, production and references within the film - the most recent book being released as recently as 2012. So I'm going to start with 'Mick Brown's on Performance' which, according to the reviews on Amazon, details everything that you'd ever want to know. If I learn anything revelatory, and find my demon, I'll let you know.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Street Knights


Street Knights is a great documentary about chess on the streets of New York. These guys play for money and the amounts they have earned is surprisingly high. It's a side of the game that isn't really shown that much and yet these guys are pro players as much as the Kasparovs and Carlsons of this world. The individuals shown in this film are street grand masters who know themselves, their park and their game well. Look out for the photographer who doesn't ask permission before attempting to take a few photographs.

Baron's film captures not only the characters who play in Washington park but it also show the game of chess in a different light, away from the usual clubs and professional tournaments. The chess often appears to be played in a blitz style - fast decisions and moves made against a short time limit. The conversations with the players also reveal a lot about them and their love for the game. Often they are almost poetic as they talk about the chess pieces and what they represent. 

Matt Baron's use of black and white is not only apt, considering the game involved, it nicely removes  any colourful distractions from the frame leaving the viewer to concentrate purely on the chess and paint a portrait of the players. Although money is often a key motivating factor with games, the lessons with the young players are especially touching as they encourage the young kids to play and win. 

Sadly the positive aspects of these park chess players didn't stop the park being closed. I just hope that it was opened up again or they found another place to play.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Largest, Fastest, most Luxurious Ship Afloat


This wonderful photograph of the RMS Empress of Britain, being completed in 1930 by the John Brown shipyard in Glasgow, was found via Twitter - a great resource for finding new and old photography. 

The image itself is impressive and was featured on the historical pics twitter feed, but the photo just had a short caption without revealing the ship's amazing history, for the Empress of Britain holds a unique record.

In 193, the ship was launched and went to work on the busy Trans-Atlantic shipping routes, running from Europe to Canada during 1931 to 1939. At the time, she was the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship afloat nicknamed 'The World’s Wondership'. Probably the ultimate example of the 1930's liner reflecting the romanticism of the era, the Empress' real footnote in history however would occur during World War II.


The Empress of Britain was requisitioned as a troop carrier by the British government. Her time in service as part of the war effort was short. On 26th October 1940, the ship was attacked by Luftwaffe aircraft and set on fire. With most of the crew and passengers picked up by the Royal Navy, tugs attempted to tow the badly damaged ship back to harbour but a German U-boat, U-32 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Hans Jenisch, saw her and fired three torpedoes finally dooming the rescue effort. 

The Empress of Britain finally sank just after 02:00hrs off the coast of Ireland and after nine years of service at sea, entered the history books as the largest liner (42,348 gross tons) sunk by a U-Boat during World War II. She sits, upside down, in 500 feet of water with most of her deck missing due to the fire.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Photography on BBC2 WWI Documentary

Sometimes a photography commission comes in that really makes you think. A recent one blended two passions of mine together - history and photography.

At the end of November i supplied a couple of images for a documentary about World War I due to go out on BBC 2 next year to mark the hundredth anniversary of the conflict.

The programme called Long Shadow looks at the legacy of World War I and the far reaching consequences that have carried on through the generations. We continue to be haunted by it.

ClearStory who are making the TV documentary state on their website :-

'Tracing the legacy of the Great War through a hundred years and eleven different countries, historian David Reynolds explores how the war haunted the generation who lived through it and builds a powerful new argument that the conflict unleashed forces we still grapple with today.’
It certainly sounds like a fascinating watch. More details will follow nearer the broadcast time.

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