Saving an author’s life

This is not a claim to any act of great heroism, it’s not even a particularly accurate heading but I’ve been wanting to tell more ‘stories behind the pictures’ for quite a while and I’ve decided to give them all pretty eye-catching headlines. This portrait of the author Philippa Gregory has a story behind it that I have enjoyed telling many times over the years since I took it in 2004.

©Neil Turner/TSL. Philippa Gergory, October 2004.

©Neil Turner/TSL. Philippa Gergory, October 2004.

I was shooting a lot of portraits of authors and academics at the time and I was given the job of meeting Philippa Gregory who had just written “The Other Boleyn Girl” and shooting her portrait to accompany an  interview in one of the magazines that I worked for. No problem, run of the mill? Well… yes and no. The location that I was given was rapidly becoming an issue.

Let me explain: in the three or four years leading up to this particular job I had been sent to shoot three portraits of authors at a particular hotel in central London favoured by one or two publishers as a place for them to stay if they needed a hotel or as a great place to hire a private room for interviews and photography when they were on the publicity trail promoting new books. Once again, pretty run of the mill stuff. Except. Except the three previous subjects that I had shot at this particular venue had all died within a few months of having their picture taken by me. I’m not superstitious. I live at No13 and I couldn’t care less about black cats crossing my path. I have a healthy respect for ladders and I try to avoid blindly walking under them – that’s a mixture of common sense and the fact that my Father once dropped some turpentine on me when he was painting our house when I was about six or seven years old. Superstitious I am not but I did have a 100% record of people that I photographed at this hotel being dead pretty shortly after having their picture taken.

This presented me with a few issues.

  1. I didn’t know how well I would be able to put the idea of another ex-author on my hands when shooting if I decided to ignore what was rapidly becoming a curse.
  2. If I wanted to go elsewhere, how was I going to explain that idea in mid-October to the author and her publicist?
  3. Where else could I go and how far should I be away from the hotel to avoid worrying?
  4. What would the reporter who was doing the interview think?

Driving to the location I decided to try my best to get the subject away from the hotel. Hyde Park was only a couple of hundred yards away and  it shouldn’t be too tough to get her to cross four lanes of fast moving traffic in heels just to have her picture taken under the trees. Well, I arrived nice and early and I spoke to the publicist about atmosphere and about getting a picture that nobody else was going to get. I laid on what little charm I have and we agreed that a short walk (using the underpass rather than running across the road) was going to be OK. I got in before the interview, Philippa Gregory seemed happy to get some fresh air and we had ten productive minutes under some trees shooting a pleasant set of portraits. I even delivered her safely back to the hotel-of-doom in time for the interviewer to do her bit.

Now I’m not claiming to have actually saved the author’s life as such. I don’t even believe in curses or even in extended coincidence and the real truth is that all three of the authors that died were in their late 80s and 90s when I took their pictures. I was telling this story to an author’s agent the other day and she asked me what I would do if I was sent back to the same hotel to photograph an elderly author who was, for argument’s sake, wheelchair bound and it was a day when it was bitterly cold? Tough question…

For those amongst you who always want to know about gear and settings:

  • Canon EOS1D MkII with a 70-200 f2.8L IS lens at 145mm 
  • 1/22nd of a second at f5.6 on 100 ISO
  • Lumedyne Signature Series flash kit with 32″x24″ Chimera Softbox

The man who wrote “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”

Everyone who has ever read books to very young children should have seen “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. It’s an absolute classic and, back in 1999 I had five minutes to shoot a portrait of Eric Carle, the American writer and illustrator who created it at a London Hotel. I should have had longer but I was badly late because I’d been given the wrong address but he was charming, patient and his PR people were relaxed as well. At the time, he was 70 years old and the book was coming out as a 30th anniversary edition.

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 1999, London.

As soon as I got there, I set up my Lumedyne battery powered light with a simple shoot-through umbrella and started to work.  The author was sat in a high backed chair and I decided to work around where he was already sitting – he looked relaxed and I was still in “full apology mode”.

Although this was nearly 13 years ago I can still remember a random throughout that came into my head “if I were casting someone to be Santa Claus, it would be this guy”. From then onwards all I could see was a really nice bloke with a twinkle in his eye that children would adore. The fact that he must have illuminated millions of childhoods was certainly in my mind and we shot some very nice pictures very quickly.

©Neil Turner/TSL. May 1999, London.

This set of eight pictures is all that remains from the shoot. Back in 1999 storage was still expensive and the company policy was to use Zip discs (remember them?). My laptop had a zip drive and I put the wider edit onto the “official” zip disc and kept the tight edit on another disc for my own records. The official disc with the Kodak RAW files was lost somewhere in the mists of time and we didn’t discover that it was gone until we started to upload the entire back catalogue into a managed and backed-up library a couple of years later. You learn from your mistakes.

I like the simple and innocent tight composition of frame 004 and I love the expression of frame 007. I have read his books to young members of the family ever since and I try really hard to do so with the same twinkle in my eye that the author had.

This was still the early days of digital and I was using a Kodak DCS520 (Canon D2000) with Canon 17-35, 28-70 and 70-200 f2.8 lenses. At 200 ISO, with good light and if you didn’t need to use the pictures too large the quality of the files was actually very good indeed.