Helmut Newton — Brad Cran & A Laurel Leaf

Photographs — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

For any photographer who might stumble on this blog today you should know that there is a measure of practical experience to be obtained if you read on. The pictures here, one taken by Helmut Newton (that has almost disappeared from sight but there it is in my September/October 1995 American Photo — Collector’s Issue) and three from a series that I did of The Czar’s Daughter at the Marble Arch Hotel in the late 90s and two more that I took just last week all show the progression of a photographer’s style, mine. In a new world where the digital point-and-shoot and the cell phone camera has evened out the playing field much like the Colt Peacemaker of the 19th century did, style has become more important than ever. Important because if you look around you might see that style has all but disappeared and most everybody’s captures all look Flickrd (my coined use for a uniform sameness).

Lisa Taylor — Security New York III, Helmut Newton

The picture of model Lisa Taylor from Helmut Newton’s series called Security New York III impressed me/shocked me when I first saw them. In others in the series there are pictures of a woman fully clothed looking quite dead (there is a pool of blood) as she lies on a balcony floor. Looking down you can see on the street below that all the cars are all Yellow Cabs. Obviously and Newtonian tour the force. But it is the picture here with the specter of impending implied violence that really grabbed my guts. The picture has remained in my head since and it confirms what few modern Hollywood directors do not seem to understand and that is that as you ratchet up violence with ever more special effects and more blood we all become deadened to it. Implied violence packs much more impact. When I photographed A I was not ready for someone like her. I was still with the idea that women had to be glorified with film. They had to look glamorous and effortlessly beautiful and calm. I was not ready for a woman who showed interior feelings that were far away from those I mention above. She was her own woman and there seemed to be an inner anger I could not fathom or handle. She seemed independent and yet I felt that her vulnerability/despair which sometimes seemed to reflect from her face into my viewfinder was at odds with it.

When I looked at the contact sheet I was not too happy and I am not sure exactly how A might have seen them. Years later she told me she was very happy with them. Perhaps she was humoring me along. In this blog I write about a project I am about to embark. I write that I do not know exactly what to do or what direction to take. And yet as I look at these pictures of A I know that I have already pretty well achieved the challenge to go beyond glamour to a messier, complex and not so flattering look at what lies beneath a beautiful woman’s skin. You might wonder what the two portraits of Brad Cran, Vancouver’s Poet Laureate, taken only last week have to do with anything. I gave up my studio in September 2010. People keep asking me how I take photographs without a studio. In the case of A, the studio was an interesting and seedy location. In the case of Cran it was the front door of my house. I had the idea of taking a dramatic semi gothic portrait of a poet. I knew that with my 2x3 ft softbox I could light his face and with my camera’s shutter I could control the darkness/lightness of the background. I took exactly 10 shots but I could have easily taken two or three. Because I am an old man (69) and I am a gardener I know that laureate comes from laurus. I know that laurus means laurel. Triumphant Roman generals and speedy Greek runners were rewarded with laurel wreaths. The laurel hedge leaf from my garden was simply an understated little joke between us. If anybody who opened a Georgia Straight this week looked closely and saw the leaf that would make me happy. But if nobody did, that is not important.

Going back to Helmut Newton I must explain that the path to an individual style is through the copying of the style of someone we might admire. We copy and we copy until one day the style we copy becomes ours because the copying has evolved beyond the original to modifications. Yes the picture that I took of A by the door was directly inspired by Newton’s much more ethereal one. But I believe mine has grit. If you do not like torn stockings then I cannot suggest anything more!

These pictures that I have admired are always in the back of my memory when I take pictures. Even if the pictures we take with that influence do not resemble the picture in the head at all, that does not matter. It is the inspiration behind it that pushed me to my own style. In fact the picture of Brad Cran by my doorway was inspired by another I took some years ago of the now deceased mystery writer Michael Dibdin.

Brad Cran, Vancouver Poet Laureate — 2011 — Photographs Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Link to: Helmut Newton — Brad Cran & A Laurel Leaf

Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.