Monday, 1 July 2013

Q & A with Chalkie Davies

When I was a child, my local library in Manor House Gardens in South London had a copy of Pointed Portraits by Chalkie Davies. I borrowed this book dozens of times as I loved all the brilliant photographs of my favourite bands and singers. I would sit and look for ages at these images some of which were portraits of my heroes. When I was at primary school one of the records that meant most to be was the debut album by The Specials. Again, I didn't own actually own the album but my aunt loaned it to me and because I wasn't sure when she'd demand it back, I played it an awful lot. Before going to school I would sometimes stand in the mirror and try and copy the pose of each member of the band. In my eyes the photographs of Chalkie Davies seemed great then and they seem great now. I was delighted to see Mr Davies was on Facebook and up for answering a few questions.
The Rebel: What's your favorite camera and why? "A Sinar P2 8x10, it takes a single photograph at a time, and each Polaroid is literally an eight by ten print. Barry White found this camera most interesting. The sitter appears upside down and back to front in the viewfinder, so its really difficult, but very rewarding. It's the ultimate camera, you work your way up to this one, it gives a level of clarity, detail and reality that is way beyond all other cameras, and the way things fall out of focus is truly beautiful, but, it's not for the feint hearted. They call it the f.64 Club."
The Rebel: Who spotted your gift at taking great photos / when did your talent become apparent? "My English Teacher, Fred Leech said I would eventually do something creative, but first I became an Aircraft Engineer, fixing broken Autopilots, then borrowed a camera and I did two David Bowie Shows on the Ziggy Tour, Earls Court and the last night at Hammersmith, the photos were really good, I knew I wanted to do this for a living. Within two years I was a staff photographer for the NME."
The Rebel:There's a DVD compilation of Elvis Costello videos - Costello does audio commentary and he's very amusing, making fun of his old "angry young man" image circa Pump It Up. He's quoted at the time of those early records as saying his role is to be an irritant and the only emotions he knows about are guilt and revenge etc. How did you find him to work with? Was he very serious and intense? "Elvis and I became friends immediately we first met in 1977, so I was in on it from the beginning, I was allowed to go anywhere with them so I saw a different side, sure, he was a little intense at times, when the role called for it, a little emotional at others, but always humble and very approachable in private, he's great to work with, because we are both there for a purpose, to make pictures we hope you will remember."
The Rebel: There was a recent documentary about Graham Parker. In which your photo of Parker with Dylan is featured prominently. Can you remember anything about the meeting? "I was talking to Graham Parker, he had just come offstage and then from behind us we hear... "Hey, man, I just want to say, man, that I really like your albums, man" GP and I turn around and see Bob Dylan standing behind us. Graham turns to Bob and says... "Thanks, do you know my Photographer, Chalkie" I offer my hand and get the lamest wet fish handshake ever, I ask to take a photo, Bob happily agrees, so I rattle off three frames and shake like a leaf. GP and Bob then have a long, deep and meaningful conversation, can't remember how long it lasted as I was still in shock, Bob wandered off into the sunset."
The Rebel: I love all your photos of The Specials. I know Jerry Dammers was a big fan of The Who so I'm guessing the picture on the front of their debut album was a homage to the My Generation album. Whose idea was the photo on the back of the sleeve (side profile)? "Yes, Jerry showed me the My Generation sleeve just before the shoot. The front cover was taken from the first floor of an abandoned building, looking down at the Band who were standing in a triangular shape. But Starr, my partner in life and crime took an SX 70 photo of the same shot from the side, at ground level. When I got down the stairs she showed it to me and I told the Band to stay in position, I sized it up the the Hasselblad viewfinder, gave minuscule directions to each musician to get the image perfectly composed and clicked the shutter. Once. One single frame. I must have been nuts not to take a second, but the roll was finished, so I never took any more. It's probably the best group shot we ever did, and it certainly passes the test of time. It's essentially an Architects Drawing, side and top elevation, not that the Two Tone fans were supposed to get that straight away, but it gives it a cohesive quality, the front and the back are carefully linked together but you don't quite know why at first glance."
The Rebel: Which of the following do you rate the most (and please say why) - Bill Brandt, Lewis Moreley, Angus Mcbean, Nick Knight, David Bailey. "Nick Knight, the best photographer of the late 20th Century. 11 Bill Brandt, best tonality, best shapes, best viewpoint. 10 David Bailey, Avedon called him Penn without Ink. 9+ Lewis Morley, the Christene Keeler photographs never left my mind once I saw them, I was eight. 9 Angus McBean, sort of Beaton with a twist. Or should that be a twisted Beaton. 8+"
The Rebel:Who is the most interesting star or artiste around at the moment? Who would you most like to capture? "I don't get Cable TV, or listen to the Radio, so I have no idea who anyone is or what they sound like. I listen mainly to 16th Century Polyphonic Music and Morton Feldman. Morty was a good friend of Mark Rothko and John Cage, I believe in 500 years they will say of Cage, remember him? He was that friend of Morton Feldman. But, I like Dave Grohl a lot, I think I would like to capture his soul. I met him when he played with Elvis, Bruce Springsteen and Steve van Zandt at the Grammy's in 2002. He was a real nice guy. They played London's Calling as a tribute to Joe Strummer, I stood on the side of the stage behind the PA, best four minutes of my life." The Rebel: Of all the people you photographed who was the least enjoyable to be around? "Lou Reed, and I did him twice. Same both times."
The Rebel: What's your fave album cover? "Atom Heart Mother, no question about it. To photograph a Cow instead of the Floyd, that's genius, it made me want to be photographer, I was fifteen."
The Rebel: What's your fondest memory of Barney Bubbles? "Every moment I spent with him was magic, he was really, really, special."
The Rebel: Were you interested in the rise of Wolfgang Tillmans and the fact he won the Turner Prize? Are you interested in showing your work in galleries? "Truthfully, I don't know who he is, I'm just starting to sell my work via Galleries, Museums are next on my agenda." The Rebel:Is there any advice you wish you'd received when you started out as a photographer? "Blurry pictures can be cool too. I spent way too long doing sharp ones." The Rebel: Has 2013 been a good year for you so far? "Yes, I did a huge job shooting 28 different Yoghurt labels, I spent six weeks in post production. I celebrated 40 years as a photographer. Scum came out on BluRay. Black Sabbath's first album was released in Japan for $70 as a SHM-SACD and I'm an audiophile. I live in Manhattan but can't drive so I don't have a car, but I have a killer stereo system that costs the same."
The Rebel: What's the punchline to your favourite joke? "Unforgettable, that's what you are."
The Rebel:What was your take on the recent Nigela Lawson/Saatchi photo scandal? Does the camera ever lie? "It always lies, well, it is capable of always lying. Take a portrait of someone who is not used to it, flip the negative and make a print, the person will say its the best photograph they have ever seen of themselves. Why? because its the only photo in which they look like they think they do, because they only know what they look like when they look in a mirror."

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