I did this ad for nothing.
My theory was; get freelance work, do it free in exchange for a free hand.
I thought it would allow me to get together better work than I could in my day job.
At the time asking John Claridge to shoot your layout was like asking Jay Z to write your jingle.
The chances are he’s going to say no, but if he said yes, you’d almost certainly have a good ad.
He said yes.
The result was probably the first ad I made that actually looked good.
DAVE: Like Me, you grew up in the East End of London, how was it for you?
JOHN: Growing up in the East End, the old East End that is, was fantastic.
I loved every moment. Great parents, great mates.
I boxed for six years. I also represented West Ham at athletics and I loved motorcycling (I still have a couple).
Got into a bit of ‘trouble’ but most of all I took pictures.
DAVE: When did you take your first picture?
JOHN: About the age of eight, I spotted a plastic camera at a local funfair in the East End. I just had to win it, it was as simple as that.
I wanted to take home all the memories of that day.
Obviously, I adore eels, stewed or jellied.
We’d go on holiday to Southend and eat fresh seafood, so I thought I’d send this postcard back to everyone.DAVE: When did you start to take it seriously?
JOHN: My first serious camera when I was fifteen, bought by hire purchase.
I still have it, but it’s resting now.
DAVE: What was your first job?
JOHN: The West Ham Labour Exchange sent me ‘up West’.
For a job in the Photographic Department of an Advertising Agency, McCann-Erickson.
Which I got.DAVE: So what was a normal day for you in the McCann Erickson Photographic Department.
JOHN: When I started, the college graduates wouldn’t speak to me, I was told I was from the wrong side of the tracks.
DAVE: You were at McCann’s the same time as one of my favourite designers – Robert Brownjohn. Did you meet him or work for him?
JOHN: Yes, I not only met BJ but also worked with him on a few projects and I took pictures for him for Typographica Magazine.
We would also spend time in the darkroom experimenting with different types of photographic techniques.
We also experimented with sliding the emulsion off glass plates that I had exposed to different typefaces.
I then manoeuvred the emulsion into different shapes. The plates and emulsion were then dried and projected onto photographic paper showing what could be achieved with distorting typefaces. DAVE: How, only a year or so after getting your first job, did you get yourself an exhibition ?
JOHN: BJ and Ross Cramer, as well as many Art Directors, liked my East End documentary pictures, and one day BJ said “You’re going to have an exhibition, kid.”
An offer I couldn’t and wouldn’t refuse.
The exhibition was said to have shades of Walker Evans. That was when I was seventeen. DAVE: Who were your early photography heroes?
JOHN: Walker Evans, Bill Brandt,
Irving Penn, Robert Frank,
Avedon, Man Ray,
Eugene Atget, Robert Doisneau,
Andre Kertesz, Brassai
and Josef Sudek.
DAVE: I read that you just turned up on Bill Brandt’s doorstep one day?
JOHN: Yeah, I went to his home in Hampstead to give him one of my prints.
I was seventeen.
He was lovely, gentle and polite. He invited me in and asked my opinion on some work he was doing I walked away feeling ten feet tall.
DAVE: What did you learn from David Montgomery?
JOHN: An invaluable door opened to a new way of thinking about editorial and commercial work. David also allowed me to print, not just for him, but also for
Jeanloup Sieff, Don McCullin
and Saul Leiter.
DAVE: I only discovered Saul Leiter three or four years ago, he went straight into my top five photographers, what was he like?
JOHN: A good man, a real pleasure to print for. Also very laid back.
DAVE: You go it alone at nineteen, opening your own studio, you must’ve been a confident kid?
JOHN: I just needed to take pictures.
DAVE: What was the first job you got as a photographer
JOHN: My very first commissions were for Management Today, Queen, Town, Harper’s , and Nova Magazines. DAVE: Who were your early clients?
JOHN: A lot of cars and countries; Bahamas, Indian Tourist Board, English Tourist.
Cars? Audi, Rolls Royce, Porsche, Citroën, Ford, I’m sure I’ve missed a couple. DAVE: What was “Five Soldiers”?
JOHN: A film I did based on an American Civil War tale, comparing it to the war in Vietnam.
It caused a riot amongst the students when it was shown at a university campus in the US, and ended up getting banned, but made its way onto the underground circuit.
The press compared the film to Luis Buñuel.
DAVE: Unusually, you’ve done great stuff across the map; portraits, landscapes, still life, cars, reportage?
JOHN: Yeah, I’m a photographer.
DAVE: The ‘India’ campaign still looks great. Were there layouts or did you just find the shots when you got there?
JOHN: With headlines from Geoff Seymour, rough layouts from Graham Cornthwaite, Graham, myself and my assistants went off to India to explore and discover what we could do with their brief.
DAVE: Did you prefer Art Directors to give you a tight brief or an open brief?
JOHN: I have no problems with Art Directors giving me any type of brief.
DAVE: You’re then asked to –
a) Pick some of the most beautiful women in the world.
b) Take them to a tropical island.
c) Ask them to take their kits off.
d) Bank a large cheque for the above.
Nice gig the Pirelli Calendar?
JOHN: Course it fucking was.
DAVE: I’ve written about Qantas Art Director John Knight, very underrated?
JOHN: John Knight was and still is underrated.
Had a lot of fun working with him.
Not only a great mind, a great sense of humour.
Also, he swore more than me.
DAVE: Rumour has it that you knocked out a couple of Art Directors? And I don’t mean with the quality of your pictures.
DAVE: How did you start shooting the jazz portraits?
JOHN: I shared the lease of 47 Frith Street, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, with Ronnie, (below) and Pete King for fourteen years.
I had the two top floors of the building where I had my studio, office, darkroom and lived. So each night I used to go to sleep listening to jazz, which was great (that is, if you loved jazz).
DAVE: My favourite was Chet Baker, what he was like?
JOHN: Chet Baker was a very charming man.
While I was telling him about the first time I ever heard him play was on an EP called ‘Winter Wonderland’ that I had bought when I was thirteen; he hesitated, thought and told me the line-up and then just looked towards me with all his memories.
Then I took the picture.DAVE: You’ve shot Britain’s most famous comedians, who made you laugh most?
JOHN: Tommy Cooper.
When he looked at me, it was very difficult not to break into laughter.
We did three rolls of film and it was getting intense, quite serious.
He said ‘This is serious, isn’t it?’, and I was in fits of laughter.
He was courteous to me, and when I said I loved Laurel & Hardy, he started doing impressions of Oliver Hardy until I had tears running down my face, I had to stop him.
I think the pictures tell the story, there’s some fun photographs and some serious photographs – I know he had demons, but I found him a very lovely man, very gracious.
The Frankie Howerd shoot was interesting.
He was up and down. Funny one minute sad the next.
Quiet a few demons I think.
Spike Milligan came to my studio.
We sat around listening and talking about jazz for a couple of hours before I shot a picture.
Another lovely man with a very deep sense of humour.
DAVE: The ad you did with Derrick Hass for the Covent Garden Art Company is amazing, it could run tomorrow unchanged.
(If they were still going…people sent out for artwork…computers didn’t exist…)
JOHN: It was hard to find the model for that shoot.DAVE: You spent a bit of time modelling, the other side of the camera?
JOHN: Ha Ha.
DAVE: Who was the best Art Director you worked with?
JOHN: This is very difficult to answer as I worked with all the best Art Directors in the business. Not just Art Directors, but Designers, Copywriters and Typographers.
DAVE: You seemed to create a new, very distinctive portrait style, with those very dark, moody Klaus Kalde lith prints?
JOHN: I, myself, in the darkroom was exploring different printing techniques for portraits and separately with Klaus exploring Lith printing.
DAVE: What ad were you most pleased with?
JOHN: Without question I worked in the golden age of Advertising with like-minded people who all had an opinion and passion about communication. It was not run by a committee of visually illiterate people with no soul, which seems to be the norm these days.
However, I must say that, in my mind, there are a few exceptions but sadly very, very few. So I feel I was extremely lucky to have had a great deal of fun, crazy times,
seen the world and produce, I think, some important work.
Many talented people made that possible.
DAVE: Do you think digital technology has helped photography?
Experimenting is now easier, but I see less of it?
JOHN: Like any new technology, it has it’s pluses and minuses.
For me photography should come from the heart. not the head.
Which ever way you want to run with it.
DAVE: Did you meet Avedon, Penn or any of your photography heroes?
JOHN: Just Bill Brandt. Not just a great photographer, but also a very charming man.
DAVE: What do you shoot with today?
JOHN: Cameras. Anything, I’m not a camera freak.
DAVE: Do you still print your own stuff?
JOHN: Of course.
DAVE: What photographers do you admire today?
JOHN: Robert Frank. Sebastiao Salgado.
DAVE: You seem seem to be publishing more books these days than J. K. Rowling?
JOHN: Hopefully a very important one next year. Will keep you informed.