Fergus Greer- Interview

Fergus Greer: Interview by Clare Freestone, Assistant Curator of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery

27 February 2006

One of the earliest photographs in the display is of Molly Dineen. Did she inspire your film directors project?

No. One of the criteria for my 'film directors' was that they had to have done at least one, if not more, feature films. Also, I didn't include documentary filmmakers, like Michael Moore for example.
I had seen The Pick, The Shovel and The Open Road and then The Angel and had been hugely impressed by them. So I found out Molly Dineen had made them and contacted her, asking her if I could take her portrait. Fortunately, she said 'yes' and this is one of the resulting images. We have remained friends ever since and I have photographed her subsequently a number of times.

Her work was unique and original, and still is in many respects; both stylistically and with her approach to her narrative. I think there are many relationships between her work and mine and strong similarities. Hers is a filmic version of my portraiture and projects.
I think an essential quality that is apparent in our common approach is allowing for a relationship between subject and artist. In Molly's case, she gives the relationship with her subject time to develop, therefore reaping a 'closer truth' than quickly conceived ideas would enable.
Molly envelops herself in the subjects' lives for a year or more. The quality of random dialogue and the relaxed nature, even with a camera being there, is essentially completely natural. Also, she doesn't put herself in front of camera any more than is necessary and there is not too much dialogue from her. None of her dialogue is judgmental or opinionated. All questions coax the subjects to reveal themselves or their thoughts to us in a very understated way, which is simply wonderful portraiture! (So subtle that it becomes unbelievably strong in its 'truth'!)

Are you often working on a self-set project to photograph groups of people of those from certain professions?

I am continually working on a number of projects. Some, by their nature are completed within a short period of time, whilst others are open ended. I never lack ideas for them, but have to continually address where and what each is about and if they mean something to me. All are self-set and inspired by something that captures my imagination and passion to explore the subject photographically. They also have to have intrinsic integrity. I must feel passionately about them, as they will often take years to complete and cost me a lot of time and money.
Initially the projects have no purpose other than fulfilling a passion, whereas over time an awareness of others often builds and my viewpoint becomes relevant. If one looks at Leigh Bowery (Leigh Bowery Looks: Photographs 1998-194 (Violette Editions, 2001)), television memorabilia is beginning to pick up and generate a huge amount of interest in it. This indicates one hopefully is doing something that stimulates thought and interest.

The display contains studies of several actors including Hugh Grant, Julie Christie, Ray Winstone, Steve Coogan and Michael Caine. Which of these was the most interesting to photograph?

I find everybody interesting: it's a bit like the Einstein analogy to explain his theory of relativity, using the moving train. One cannot tell, on any given day, at any given time, what someone will be like. The most engaging person on one day may well be quiet and reserved on another, perhaps for no reason other than a late night, or toothache! The process is always fluid and that is often the most challenging aspect.
Clearly there are occasions when one finishes a portrait with a greater sense of collaboration with the subject and a natural empathy with them. But one can also have a less conducive time with the subject and come away with an immensely strong image...so everything has its checks and balances.

Would you say Richard Avedon and Terence Donovan are two of your greatest influences?

I think that for anyone coming through the 'apprenticeship method of learning a craft, for example as in the Renaissance, there is a natural period when the pupil is using the tools that his 'master' uses to try to express himself. Eventually, through time and application, through the creative process he will hopefully find his own voice. This is what I feel; with Terence (Donovan) I still see value in applying much of his work ethic philosophy to the 'business' of photography and his technical brilliance. But stylistically, I think, there was little time, or none, where I was really implementing elements of his 'signature' style.
I think Avedon has had more resonance to my artistic sentiment; in trying to capture the essential qualities of portraiture and of the subjects and to have a delicate balance, so as not to let technique become too obviously apparent in the work and dominate the subject.

If I had to say who my influences are, although I continually look at as much work as I can see both old and new, I keep coming back to a number of photographers whose 'truth' I admire and when looking at their work I feel stimulated. The selection is quite transatlantic and eclectic but I think that is largely due to my ten years in the US. Old and new. I am thinking of Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Dorothea Lange, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, Robert Frank, Weegee, Lewis Carroll, George Hurrell, Horst, David Bailey, John Deakin, Bill Brandt, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Andreas Gursky, Annie Leibovitz, Peggy Sirota, Brassai and Arnold Newman the list goes on! But I suppose for those with the most stylistic influence on me are Avedon, Brandt, Deakin, and Bailey.

You took several shots of Robbie Williams that appear on his official 2006 calendar...was this a fun or complex shoot? How did you make the selection?

I spent a couple of days with Robbie and his management company taking shots of him, a number of which are in the calendar and three were used on various covers to his recent singles and DVDs for Tripping. He is the consummate pro but with the added extra of making the whole thing fun.... this has a very infectious quality about it, which means the results usually have that feel and the selections just stand out, like they so often do.
I find one of the hardest questions often asked by a subject is 'why do photographers need to take so much film?' The basic guttural response is, though it does sound logical, is that 'you know when you've got it or not', and I think that is pretty much how it is. I can take a roll and leave it at that knowing I have a great frame or I can shoot 20-30 rolls and still not be sure of having a very strong image. So by the time you get the proofs you pretty much know where to head to find what you thought was right. Not always but 90% of the time and the other 10% makes it all exciting when something comes out completely differently from what you thought!

I think Quentin Crisp (1989) is the earliest portrait in the display...can you recall photographing him in New York?

I was a huge fan of Quentin Crisp. This stemmed from seeing a series of TV shows when I was very young of after dinner speakers, of which he was one, and extremely sharp, quick, and witty too, and later, when I read The Naked Civil Servant, which was extremely good.
So when I eventually was on the road to becoming a photographer and got my first assignment to NYC, I managed to track down his number from a friend of mine and called to ask him if I could take his portrait. He sweetly said yes, being the open-hearted person he was, and we met at the diner where he used to eat lunch most days on the Lower East Side, around Alphabet City. Though this portrait is not from that shoot but from a subsequent one I did when I revisited NYC on another assignment and called him again and asked if we could do some more pictures please!
This shot, I think, is particularly poignant and reminds me a bit of Avedon's portrait of W.H. Auden in the snow. Quentin Crisp was having lunch and I went to meet him. It was cold and he was pretty fragile by this stage, so I noticed he had his empty Guinness bottles to return to get money back for them and get his next week supply. So I said 'lets just do the pictures on the way there' to save him having to stand around in the snow. The shot is where we got to a crossing and are just waiting for the lights to change. A brief moment really.

Can you tell us about your Historians group (photographs of Robert Lacey, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Andrew Roberts are in the display)...was that a self-set project?

Yes, in a way, for some reason, I have a large number of friends who are extraordinarily good, successful historians, and their intellect and knowledge completely fascinates me!

You were keen that we include the portrait of poet Thom Gunn taken shortly before he died...was this due to something special you felt about the man?

Thom was like a piece of thread in the tapestry of my life, so it was with huge regret when he passed away so suddenly (in April 2004). I had been introduced to his work when I was seventeen and had been handed a book of his complete works, although the particular poem I was being introduced to was Tamer and Hawk. I read the complete works and anything else I could find of his.
He was without doubt in my mind the greatest contemporary British poet. I am sure if he had resided in the UK and not the US for many years, he would have been the Poet Laureate. He was the greatest exponent of metaphysical poetry with the direct lineage going back through T.S. Elliot and rather relevantly for the National Portrait Gallery to John Donne*. I have always strived for and it would be great to have a sense of metaphysical elements within my photographic work, although I think, the implication of human detail captured, brought about by genes and life experience, is probably more than enough to trigger the emotional imagination!
(*A portrait of the metaphysical poet and writer John Donne (1552-1631) is currently on offer to the National Portrait Gallery.)

When I moved some ten years ago to Los Angeles I had contacted Faber and Faber in New York to ask if I could make contact with Thom Gunn. I had read on a flyleaf to one of his books that he had spent the past twenty years living in the US, although I wasn't aware he was based in San Francisco as a Professor at Berkeley University. That night the phone rang and it was Thom. I explained that I would like to photograph him and he said he would be delighted and I got on the next plane to San Francisco and caught a cab out to Haight-Ashbury, where he lived. We became friends over time and were going to collaborate on a book together if we could find a mutually inspiring subject. Sadly we didn't before he passed away.
As can be seen from the relationships with Molly Dineen, Quentin Crisp and Thom Gunn, if I admire someone and want to photograph them, I approach them and ask if they will participate and be photographed. Most often people agree, and often, it is a beginning of a relationship of some sort. Perhaps friendship would be too much to call it, as it would appear a callous representation of what 'friendship' means in my mind. But certainly, a fond acquaintance and mutually stimulating, I hope! And a collaborative approach will develop when taking photographs of them.

Was it daunting photographing someone like Damien Hirst who quite often acts up for the camera?

No he was great. The brief I had from The Sunday Times Magazine was to photograph this new, young, happening artist that they wanted to put on the front cover. As no one knew what he looked like, I needed to come up with an idea that would get people's attention. I came up with a number of ideas. When Damien and I met at his studio, which at that time I think was in Peckham, amongst old scrap car dealers, I presented some ideas for the shoot. We discussed and refined them.

This is one of the more straightforward portraits of him, and the one I most prefer, but the cover was a tight headshot with flies on Damien's face. The opening spread was of him naked over a formaldehyde pool of carcasses where he kept his raw material. No pun meant!

You've photographed a lot of people in the computer industry including the founders of Google. Was this partly due to your American base? Is this a subject that particularly interests you?

Yes, I was incredibly lucky to be on the West Coast of the States at the time of the tech-revolution coming into its height. When I went to the US no one had email! Over the ten years I was there and particularly during the silly time, on endless money investment until the crash, I would go up to the Bay Area and Seattle pretty much twice a week on assignments to shoot people doing new things, with new ideas! I hope that at some point in the future I may put a book together of those heady times.

Can you tell us about taking the portrait of Margaret Thatcher?

It was an assignment for The New York Times Magazine. It was about a year after being deselected as head of the Conservative Party. She was a titan and hugely charming turning up with her four or so bodyguards. She was chatting with the crew, talking makeup with the makeup artist and generally being great fun. I believe I was dressed up in my best suit and was wearing my Brigade of Guards tie for the event. At some point, she joked;
'I recognise that tie...I had a number of people who wore it in my cabinet at different times' (probably referring to William Whitelaw, Michael Heseltine and Lord Carrington!).

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