Portrait Photography

The camera is an efficient tool for gathering information. The photographs here however were taken entirely for pleasure except for the two of Lincoln Kirstein, which I took as reference to paint from. All of them date from the photochemical era - digital photography had yet to be invented.

I processed a film for the first time in 1967, passing it nervously from hand to hand through developing fluid in a darkened room. Not surprisingly many of these early films were very overdeveloped. I soon discovered, however, that even the densest negative could lead to a print as seductively grainy as a Seurat drawing - a result I much preferred to a regular print. My photographs of Desmond Heeley, clad only in a linen table cloth, show him looming like a biblical prophet in a desert sandstorm or standing in front of what appears to be an ancient city wall, (actually the plain white wall of my studio!) The first five pictures here, plus some later ones of William Pierce as the god Pan, were lit by a single 100 watt bulb. All the others, but for a few shots taken out of doors, were lit by daylight flooding into a room.

I first met Desmond Heeley the theatre designer in the early sixties and through him, got to know two of his fellow designers, Tanya Moiseiwitch and Anthony Powell, (a three time Oscar winner for his work in Movies). One day when we were all together at his house in Blackheath, trapped indoors by bad weather, Anthony picked out some garments from his private collection of authentic period clothing and set about transforming Tanya, first into an Edwardian 'Grande Dame', then a sophisticated woman of the thirties and finally, a stylish, forties heiress. Fortunately I had my camera with me.

My earlier photo sessions back at home had largely depended on improvisation. With the help of David Walker another costume designer/friend I made the most of Hugo Clarkson's aristocratic profile by dressing him in a borrowed ruff, a small Turkish carpet, some junk jewellery and my grandfather's pocket watch. (Later in the session, using the same ruff, I too was nudged into the sixteenth century!). Such enjoyable experiments led to my having a much better feel for period costume. This proved invaluable some years later, when working on my 'Portraits in Time' - drawings that pitch contemporary people back through time to earlier periods.

As a rule I directed my subjects rather than expecting them to simply 'be natural' in front of the camera. This I found helped them to relax. Along with several other guises, William Pierce took on the character of the pagan god Pan with vine leaves in his hair and horns made of pipe cleaners and sticky tape. Acting up a storm, Geoffrey Rogers contrived to invoke the madness of Bedlam and wrapped in a blanket, Michael Stennett morphed into a doppelgånger of Egon Schiele. Ian Judge, also wrapped in a blanket, inhabited the character of Death from Ingmar Bergman's famous film The Seventh Seal. Occasionally, I would isolate a head in a void by asking my subject to lie down on a dark carpet wearing black and then photographed them from above. (Nuala Willis, Desmond Heeley and Lars Erikson).

When visiting 'out of town'friends, such as the Colemans or the Murphys I invariably took my camera with me. Calling in on Roy Strong and Julia Trevelyan-Oman at their Regency cottage in Brighton, shortly after their surprise elopement in September 1971, I was conveniently on hand to celebrate their newly wedded bliss.

Gradually over time, my photographs lost some of their coarse grained quality and took on a more documentary tone. Astrid Zydower the sculptor and Yolanda Sonnabend the theatre designer both sat for me in the context of their studios. Surrounded by his family Paul Harbutt, the painter, posed within the confines of a large Italian picture frame.

Although reputed to be camera shy, Jim Farrell, the Booker prize winning novelist, seemed at ease in front of mine. Tragically, only a month or two after our relaxed and enjoyable photo session, Jim slipped off a rock into the sea while fishing and was drowned. Lavinia Graecen, his biographer, later featured several of my pictures of him in her compelling book, 'J.G.Farrell: The Making of a Writer'.

Others appearing here include the painter R.B.Kitaj, the fashion designer Bill Gibb, the animatronics expert Marion Appleton, the dancer Sean Avres and three of my regular models; Joe Kiernan, Ken Neumeyer and Barry Mackenzie. I am grateful to all of them for being so generous with their time.

© Michael Leonard