When this set of photographs, one of the last of her, was taken Dame Iris was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s and her husband described her as being like “a very nice 3-year-old,”. She died in Oxford on February 8, 1999. In his memoir “Elegy for Iris” John Bayley portrays his brilliant wife lovingly but unsentimentally. He was in turn very much in love with her and very caring about her when I spent a brief time shooting this set of pictures. She was unaware of who I was or what I was doing but his hand was always in hers and she seemed to accept that everything was OK because of that.
The Times Higher Education Supplement was running a review of Professor Bayley’s book about his wife and the Picture Editor had asked me to drive to Oxford to shoot his portrait. While I was driving between London and Oxford I was told that at least two other photographers would be shooting before me and that it was “unlikely” that Dame Iris would be in the pictures. I don’t mind doing portraits of authors on those days when you form an orderly queue with reporters and television crews for your chance to do the same five minute job but this one seemed a little less “organised”.
I arrived in that part of Oxford where it seems every second home is owned by a Nobel Prize winner or a celebrity academic to find their house looking a little sorry for itself. The front garden, the fences and the paintwork all needed some TLC and I quite like to shoot portraits around those areas. I had twenty minutes to wait and started to think about the light, the colours and watch for other photographers and journalists to come out. Nobody appeared so I grabbed my gear and knocked on the door. When Professor Bayley answered, he looked like the gardener but spoke exactly how you might imagine an Oxford Professor would.
In the film “Iris” which stars Dame Judi Dench as the older Iris Murdoch the house is untidy. Actually having been there I can tell you that untidy doesn’t even come close. There were books and newspapers everywhere. Televisions were on the BBC in almost every room and there was Dame Iris herself sitting quietly at the kitchen table. I was nervous about asking if she would be available for the pictures but Professor Bayley seemed to know what I wanted to ask and told me that he wanted her to be in the pictures with him but that she found flash disturbing. I was shooting 35mm colour negative film at the time and so we decided that the house was too dark and too untidy to be a good location for a portrait. Ironically these days I would have probably done some pictures on my 5D MkIIs using the small amount of available light indoors at 3200 ISO but there was no way that 800 ISO colour negative would cope.
The beauty of these pictures is that nobody from the publishers had been round to tidy up, dress them up or even attempt to sanitise the images. Because of that we were able to make some lovely portraits. We chatted about garden birds, foliage and the English weather. It was a surreal time.
In the end I shot 72 frames (two rolls of 200 ISO Fuji Colour Negative film) which I drove back to London where the film was processed by the newspaper darkroom and all scanned onto a Kodak Photo CD at a resolution unthinkable for a digital camera at the time – the equivalent of a 6 megapixel camera when the Kodak DCS520 was just becoming available with it’s 1.9 megapixel chip. The cameras used here were a Canon EOS1V and an EOS1N with 28-70 f2.8L and 70-200 f2.8L lenses.