Jamie Morgan, photographer, on a contact sheet.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
JM As much as I love beauty, I don’t collect beautiful objects, so I couldn’t find many possessions to choose from for this. I tend to pass things on rather than holding on to them. I’m a ‘living in the moment’ kind of person. But this contact sheet means a lot to me emotionally and creatively. Contact sheets are very rarely used nowadays, so that’s a reason it’s become an object of beauty for me. I shoot film still but most people just shoot digitally. This particular contact sheet has been around for over 30 years, so it’s worn and it has the marks on it that I made the week I shot it. Seeing it triggers me back to the way I was feeling on the shoot and the life all around that – the experimentation of my work. This was a moment when I thought I’d created something original, so there’s the mark, the circle around that picture. When I look at all the other pictures, they’re not that good but there’s this one towards the end of the roll. I can remember that moment of realizing, “I’ve got it,” That was what so beautiful about shooting film. You got to know within yourself that you’d got it and then you’d move on. With digital you can just shoot and shoot. With film you have to really be connected with the process of working through the camera, so you know absolutely that you’ve got it. And there it was, this perfect shot and if I hadn’t shot that one I might never have created this iconic image. It’s just bang on, exactly as it should be. It was such a significant part of my life journey – the moment when I had that in my hands and showed it to Ray Petri who got super excited, then took it to Neville Brody at the Face – and everyone agreed it was a great image. The contacts are really precious to me now, like little jewels.
GB Tell me about the day of the shoot and how it was commissioned.
JM Nothing was ever commissioned at the Face. It wasn’t like these days when you have an editor telling you what to do. I had a good relationship with Nick Logan, the publisher, and he would just ask how many pages we needed. We’d say we reckoned we had a twelve-page story and the cover and he would hold those pages and the cover for us without knowing what he was getting until we walked into the office. For me, the concept came primarily from a photographic point of view, from old-school black and white photography. I was looking at people like Ralph Gibson, Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, the most amazing black and white photography. Vogue at the time was full of weak colour fashion images. I wanted real photographic integrity, so 35 mm black and white, and not just girls, but this mix that became the Buffalo aesthetic; a young boy dressed as an elderly gangster, a twelve year old boy who looked like a beautiful old female Hollywood movie star, Lindsey Thurlow who was a thirty year old woman but looked like a boy. I asked Ray for black and white clothes. It’s the classic Buffalo style; a white polo neck with a black jacket and a hat with ripped newspaper. I’d worked with Ray for two or three years at this point so we knew where we were heading. We always had references, a mood, a feeling in mind but then on the day we’d have to just find the shot. I like that element of not knowing. I think if you know before you walk in, it’s pedestrian.
For the first few years of the Face, it was just a straight up music and street style magazine like i-D, but because of my training as a photographic assistant in fashion coupled with studying reportage, I made a suggestion. I wanted to take the standard outdoor street style shot and mix it up with fashion and shoot it all on a white background like Avedon, turning the street subculture into a fashion story. Nick Logan’s initial response was, “I don’t want to do a fashion magazine.” But he still loved the idea so we said, “Call them style pages!” And Ray said, “Well I’m a stylist then.” So the fashion editors of the day all became ‘stylists’.
GB So when you’re looking at a contact sheet, searching for that one perfect picture, is beauty a part of that?
JM For me, it’s the most important thing; the form, the light, the graphic, the expression. All of that is beauty for me, even if it’s “savage beauty”, to quote the new McQueen exhibition. It still has to have an aesthetic. I don’t do things that are ugly.
GB I guess with your technical ability, you can take a beautiful picture of anyone?
JM Well I can, because everyone has value. To take a beautiful image, it’s an approach, an intent. I intend to get the best out of somebody in my photographs, even if I’m changing who they are through the shoot. My intention is to create something with beauty, respect, poignancy, emotional value, and that has the possibility of being an iconic image.
GB Can you take a beautiful picture of someone even if you don’t like them?
JM Yes, probably but then my viewing of the picture wouldn’t be the same. I took a picture of Taylor Swift the other day. I had five minutes as part of the fodder press pack and I had no control over anything except the lighting. She looks beautiful in it but it has no resonance for me at all. I have to have a relationship with the photograph for it to be beautiful to me.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
JM I think I answered that with what I said about the integrity with which it was formed. So, all nature, even in it’s most callous form, is perfect and has the right to be called beautiful. And when it comes to beautiful objects, they have to be crafted with intent. Ray Petri taught me a lot about the beauty of objects because he was trained at Sotheby’s. We’d be doing a shoot in Milan and he’d make me steal the porcelain coffee cup or the napkin. Wolfgang Tilmans said that if one thing is of value, everything is of value. I see that, because you can photograph anything and make it beautiful because everything has value if you approach it with integrity and the proper intention.