The art of cooking: Portraits by Barry Marsden

See also: Interview with Barry Marsden on the day before the hanging of the exhibition

Barry Marsden being interviewed by Susan Bright - © Terence Pepper

Barry Marsden being interviewed by Susan Bright
© Terence Pepper

Barry Marsden was born in 1954 in South Yorkshire. He attended Loughborough College of Art from 1972 to 1976 where he gained a first-class honours degree in Painting, with commendations in History of Art and Electronic Music. He stopped painting as soon as he left college, however, feeling that he was, in his own words, 'one of those people who had nothing to say through the work even though I had a facility for it'. Having gone through a variety of jobs, it was in 1981, whilst working at the Royal College of Art as a technician in the art history department, he recognised that taking photographs was the next logical step for him.

He saw it as a way of earning a living, making pictures and being creative all rolled into one. He had at this point, however, never taken a photograph in his life and did not even own a camera! After about three years of taking photographs, he decided that it was time to jump in with both feet and attempt to become a professional. He was at this time thirty years old - a late starter in the extremely competitive world of professional photography.

His big break came with Time Out. He had shot a series of images of London's football managers for his own portfolio. Following the resignation of the then manager of Arsenal Terry Neil, Barry made five prints of his portrait and sent copies to the four major broadsheets. He was about to put the fifth one in the bin, when he decided that having printed it, he might as well send it somewhere. His covering note to Time Out said that he had more shots of managers if they wanted them. The series 'The Soccer Bosses' used all his prints and commissions for the magazine soon followed.

Terence Pepper, the curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, had seen some of Marsden's photographs in Time Out and elsewhere and in 1987 wanted to use an image of the contemporary dancer and choreographer Gaby Agis (published in Tatler earlier that year) for a Portrait Gallery publication featuring the work of young up-and-coming photographers. The photography collection now holds sixty-eight of Marsden's portraits.

The exhibition 'The Art of Cooking - Portraits by Barry Marsden' was the result of the Gallery's commission. The interview below was undertaken on 21 September 1998 at the Dorchester Hotel when Barry was about to photograph Ken Hom. All the images form part of the exhibition. Susan Bright was at the time the Photographs Collection Assistant at the National Portrait Gallery

SUSAN BRIGHT: How did the commission come about?

BARRY MARSDEN: The Commission was a complete surprise to me really. Terence Pepper (the curator of photographs) paid a visit to my home and I gave him a list of projects I was working on. As I remember he saw that I had two pictures of Antony Worrall Thompson and he took them away as part of the package he had collected that day. He mentioned that there was going to be a Cafeteria opening at the National Portrait Gallery. He also said that there was going to be an exhibition in association with that. I thought he took my pictures of Antony away to put them in front of a committee to see whether or not they were suitable for inclusion.

I thought the exhibition would be a group show. That was pretty much the last I heard of it for a long, long time. It was only after quite a while that he let me know that there was a potential commission. A commission for an organisation like the NPG is something that I have never had before and I felt very, very nervous that I might get it. He then let me know sometime after that that it was down to two of us. I was chuffed to bits to actually be considered in the first place and to have got that far in the second place. I picked my wife up one Friday afternoon from work and as we were driving home through Docklands in a traffic jam Terence rang me to tell I'd got the lot. I really felt nervous then.

SB: What was the next step after that?

BM: I tried to sit down and think how it might be different to my normal work which is 99% magazine work - one shoot and then that's it, off to the next job. I couldn't come to any conclusion at all. I was completely baffled about the whole thing. I didn't really know how to approach it. Then I came into the gallery and had that conversation with you and Terence. We pretty much reached the conclusion that only way I could approach it was to treat it as I would any other job and respond to every given opportunity. I suppose that meant taking a risk on continuity. Its perhaps a good job that we did decide that because the situations so far have all been so different. I think that the range and variety has added something to the shots.

SB: Is your equipment different for these shots?

BM: I use the same equipment the whole time. I use a 6 x 7 Mamiya RZ camera, and a twin-lens reflex Mamiya C330 - which is an old-fashioned Rolleiflex-type camera. It is really outdated and clunky but gives a different effect. And I use lights virtually the whole time. I have however done some of the shots in available light under the encouragement of my assistant David Vintiner.

SB: Do you approach each subject in a systematic way?

BM: I suppose I do in some respects. I get there early and have a look at the place. I always work it that way. I always think of where the person is going to be and how I am going to light it. I like to think about what other elements could be used in a picture before the person actually comes along. If you start thinking along those lines while they are there they are going to get very impatient. You're going to be wasting their time and the situation gets very uncomfortable. I hate being thrown into a room when the person is there already and I have to start getting my gear out - they don't need to see that. They want you to be prepared and take things very smoothly and most of all - be slick. I like my sitters to get swept along by it rather than having to win them over half an hour after getting my bag out.

SB: The work that you have shown the Gallery so far uses three or four different presentations of each subject - is this usual for you?

BM: I suppose that's out of habit due to years of dealing with magazine art directors and picture editors. I've always been wary of the person who says they do one print, give it to the magazine and claim that it is the one they have to use. I tend to try and spoil them a bit and give them two, three or even four ideas. Surely that's what they want - they want variety.

SB: Of the different approaches to portraiture that you use, which do you enjoy the most?

BM: I like both the close headshot and the also the environmental shots - where there is something else in the picture. I would never do a range of work if I was just fixed on one particular approach. Also each time feels like I am starting from the beginning. I like to be very organised but I like to do different stuff.

SB: Have there been any logistic problems specific to photographing chefs?

BM: Well the majority of them so far have not wanted me to photograph them in their kitchens. Which is a surprise as I have photographed chefs before for magazines and papers and they have all been done in their kitchen. I don't understand why that has changed. Kitchens utilise every square inch of space and if you were actually working in there you would be terribly in the way.

SB: What have been some of the other difficulties you have come across?

BM: Coming up with something different each time especially considering that nearly everyone that I have photographed so far is a chef. I'm trying to avoid what would be a regular magazine type shot - you know a chef looking cheerful, his knives out, some ingredients on show and maybe chopping an onion. They look gorgeous in their whites and that is a very sexy image - these guys in their pristine clothes working in a hellhole. Given that I'm not trying to approach this in any kind of documentary way it's really the things that I have been trying to avoid. Other things have been, and this is the problem of working on location anywhere, things that you wish you could move because it ruins the shot.

Richard Corrigan - © Barry Marsden

Richard Corrigan
© Barry Marsden

For example in the Richard Corrigan shot there was the most incredible Rococo carved fire place with a similar style mirror over the top of it with candelabras either side of it. I wanted him to just sit on the mantelpiece. You could see a kind of 1970s spotlight through the mirror and that's a real shame. I felt it was still worth doing the shot. If we could get the computer on to that then I would be even more pleased with it! So it's logistical things and clichés.

(In fact the final selection for this sitting was a black and white shot with Richard Corrigan in his restaurant. Although the colour shot was very powerful we felt the black and white portrait reflected the poetic nature of the interior of Corrigan's restaurant - the Lidnsey House)

Rick Stein - © Barry Marsden

Rick Stein
© Barry Marsden

SB: What has been the most enjoyable shoot so far?

BM: It's a shame you're not going to ask me after next week as I would say Rick Stein - I know that is going to be brilliant. I enjoyed Derek Cooper. I also really enjoyed Richard Corrigan because he was just such a matey, friendly guy and actually he was the only one who spoke to me in a way that that suggested he respected my job. I think the words he used were, 'Take your time, do what you usually do and I'll fit in with you. Just do what you want with me.' Not many subjects say that.

Richard Corrigan
by Barry Marsden
4 September 1998
NPG P718(9)

Antonio Carluccio - © Barry Marsden

Antonio Carluccio
© Barry Marsden

SB: Following on from that - what picture are you the happiest with so far?

BM: That's the kind of question where I swing from one opinion to another. I could tell you one thing now and in thirty seconds I could say something completely different. But the one that is freshest in my mind is Antonio Carluccio with his enormous mushroom. We knew we were not going to be given much time. In fact the least time that anyone has given us so far, so we got there really early, got ourselves set up and ready to go. There was a huge box of mushrooms on the floor, some of which had been left there specifically for us to be used as props. I had asked beforehand as I knew what kind of picture I wanted. I went in there with a fixed idea and got it. There was a mushroom there which was much bigger than a football - about the size of a medicine ball like one of those things they used to throw around in gyms in 1940s films. It was huge and looked kind of pock-marked and really weird. (The image in the exhibition shows Carluccio holding a variety of mushrooms to illustrate his passion for the variety of fungi available.)

Antonio Carluccio
by Barry Marsden
17 September 1998
NPG P718(4)

SB: So what is the final image like?

BM: Using the puffball? Again I did shots with that, shots with other mushrooms and shots with none at all - just face shots because he is such an extraordinary looking chap. He looks like the brother of Eduardo Paolozzi. The image of him with the puffball is just him holding it in front of his chest quite dramatically lit. The thing is enormous. He is a big man and the thing practically covers the whole of his chest.

SB: Do you think chefs deserve their somewhat feisty image?

BM: Chefs are temperamental people. They work in an industry which I would certainly never have wanted to. It just seems so relentless, everyday going into that. I can understand why some of them have got the reputations that they have. We were treated to a bit of temperament by one chap. The women so far have been wonderful. But he will go unnamed.

Anton Mossiman - © Barry Marsden

Anton Mossiman
© Barry Marsden

SB: You have told us about the props you used with Antonio Carluccio. What other props have you used in these shoots?

BM: I think Anton Mossiman was a gift. He's the only chef that I have ever photographed that wears his chef's hat and I think he probably does that as a prop. I don't think he wears it in the kitchen. Also his coffee. The chocolate that is spread on the top of a Mossiman cappuccino is spread through a stencil in the shape of an M, so when you go to sip your coffee it has a chocolate M on the top of it.


SB: How did you use that?

BM: We had him with a cup of coffee between his hands. We kept it very simple. I knew about it as I had photographed him before and had one of his M shaped cappuccinos.

SB: Is it easier to photograph people that you have shot before?

BM: It depends how it went the first time! I also don't know if they remember you. The first time I photographed him it was to do with his 16th and 17th Century recipe books that he still refers to. I photographed him with the actual things. They were the most gorgeous objects. To do that for this commission however would have been too specifically about one subject. The other props tended to be bits of location - like Derek Cooper's window blind. I tend to use graphic devices and places that give off an atmosphere.

SB: Have you changed you mind about the image that you like the best yet?

BM: No. No I haven't. Not yet, but I will do.

SB: You mentioned that you are looking forward to doing Rick Stein. Is there anyone else you are looking forward to?

BM: From what I've heard I'm looking forward to going up to Scotland and doing Gunn Erickson. The location sounds astonishing. Its incredible how she can make a restaurant that you can only get to by boat work so well. I have talked to one or two people and it sounds a bit like a foodie pilgrimage. I've photographed Terence Conran before and if he agrees to do what I want him to do then I'm looking forward to that one too.

SB: Do you usually have an idea of what you want to do when you go into a session?

BM: Sometimes. Its not always generated by what a lot of people would do if they were given someone to photograph - that being a bit of background reading and so on. It would be difficult to do background reading on the majority of these people so it's a bit unfair to have done it on any of them. I'm going down to see Rick Stein with a definite idea in mind. He has seen it in the form of a fax. I'll be doing Gary Rhodes with a very definite idea - again because he can only give me very limited time. Sometimes you have to go in with an idea just because of time, and sometimes you have an idea because you know if you just go in nothing is going to happen. I'm going to have to make sure Gary Rhodes sees a fax of my idea before the shoot and agrees to it because logistically it will take some setting up.

SB: Talking of setting-up, Ken Hom is coming so I better let you get on with it. Thank You.

Next page...Interview with Barry Marsden

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