A snapshot of the rich and famous
Renowned photographer John Swannell talks about royal pressures and Posh’s entourage
�Top photographer John Swannell believes in chance and says: “I have had so much luck in my life.”
Although he grew up in working class Finsbury Park and left school at 16, he now photographs Prime Ministers and Royalty.
Four decades ago, when the 65-year-old started making money, he moved “up the hill” to Highgate.
He’s lived there ever since, maintaining an enviable career as a renowned fashion and portrait photographer, whose recent work includes the jacket for Tony Blair’s autobiography, and Princess Anne’s 60th birthday.
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A selection of his photographs, including Bill Nighy, Jeremy Paxman and George Michael, are on show at the National Portrait Gallery until December.
And the man who learned his craft as assistant to David Bailey, has tales to tell about the famous faces he’s snapped over the years.
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“I’ve photographed the Queen’s jubilee, Princess Diana, and did a stamp for the marriage of Edward and Sophie Wessex. But the hardest royal job was the Queen Mum’s 100th birthday, when I had to get her, the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William all in the same picture – but I only had 10 minutes, so no pressure.”
Swannell says the royals demonstrate polite compliance when confronted with his camera.
“The Queen must be the most photographed person in the world and I never have any illusions about my role. I go in like a plumber or a carpenter to do my job, pack my gear and make sure they like the picture.”
By contrast celebrity royalty – like Victoria Beckham – come with a coterie of assistants.
“Thirty five years ago, someone like Pete Townsend would turn up at the studio with just his chauffeur, have a cup of tea and a chat. These days the people who surround pop stars are a nightmare. When I did an album cover for Rod Stewart, who is one of the nicest guys I have ever photographed, his management rang to request �600 worth of smoked salmon, Chablis and Champagne. But when he turned up he was so laid back and didn’t want any of it.
“Posh Spice arrived with seven or eight people who all had their opinion on the dress, hair and shot. At some point you have to say enough’s enough, stand back and let me get on with the job.”
Swannell’s favourite portrait in the exhibition is of movie director Christopher Nolan, who grew up opposite his Highgate home.
“It wasn’t a commission. I asked his dad Brendan if I could photograph him because I think he is a genius. I asked him to bring along a dark coat and he popped across the road one morning, and was so relaxed.
“I shot in black and white, a head and shoulders of his white face on a grey background holding the dark coat together.”
For Blair’s memoir A Journey, they tried several outfits before choosing a dark shirt and jacket.
“They wanted a nice appealing shot of him and he looks great. I know not everyone agrees, but I like him. I did a Christmas card for the Blairs at Chequers and he’s always very easy to photograph, amenable and considerate. At the end of one shoot I did a picture for myself, how I saw him. He has his arms out, his hands open as if to say ‘take me for what I am, I can only do my best.’”
At school, Swannell preferred taking pictures of school plays over studying. Upon leaving, he took several jobs in studios, learning how to process film and print pictures, before working for his mentor David Bailey for four years.
“I’m dyslexic, not academic, we tend to go into the arts and creative side because it’s easier. Bailey is also dyslexic, and also from a working class background, we had a rapport because we both had tough childhoods. With him I got to work with the best models in the world and I re-learned all the things I learned before.
“He taught me how to handle people. He doesn’t suffer fools and he effs and blinds, but he’s incredibly entertaining, funny and charming. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. When I left to set up on my own, he paid me for a year and gave me a box of cameras worth thousands.”
Swannell is also giving a talk to raise funds for the Autism Society’s Transforming Lives project which helps autistic youngsters once they leave formal care and education.
As the father of 22-year-old Charlie, who has Aspergers, Swannell understands how hard it can be.
“He’s a lovely kid but he’s been up and down and had a mental breakdown at 18. We went through hell. When these kids reach adulthood, all the provision of special schools stops, and there’s no back up.
“We are lucky, Haringey have been fantastic and Charlie is in a special residential school, but a lot of people don’t get that.”
n The Now and Then exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery runs until December 31. John Swannell’s fundraising Autism Society talk is at the Royal Geographic Society at 7pm on June 7. Tickets �15 from www.autism.org.uk.