In 1976, I was working in Photographers Gallery in London. The great French Hungarian photographer Brassy An exhibition opened there and he was coming from Paris. She rushed with me, wanting to meet him. Brassie heard Ansel Adams He was also in town for his own exhibition at Victoria & Albert, so we all huddled in a cab, and turned to my apartment to pick up a Gandolfi tablet camera—an exciting decision for the moment. At V&A, I was notified of this Bill Brant They have come to see the Ansel exhibition as well. So I gathered them all on a bench in Victoria and Albert Park.
They were all at the end of their careers. I don’t think Ansel did any substantial work in the remaining years of his life. Brandt in those days considered himself an “artist” and made these very strange collections of things he found on the beach. They were bells, basically. Someone should have said, “Look Bill, stop sticking trash in glass cases.”
The three of them had never been together before. In this picture, you have the certified Englishman, Bill Brandt. You have the new world that Adams represents. And she’s got a Brassaï in the middle. It wasn’t until then that I thought the shot reminded me of the three wise monkeys.
I didn’t need to make them at ease. They just sat down and started chatting. They were very different personalities. Brandt was a man of few words and it was unusual to see him with such liveliness. Brassie seemed to be left out of the conversation, but he was the one who had the twinkle in his eye. If you think about his pictures of brothels in Paris in the 1930s – he was a boy, you know?
was like The famous dinner between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx It’s 1964. You expect them to talk about unusual philosophical things – and what they’re actually talking about is that the coffee isn’t very good. But as long as these three were talking, I didn’t care if it was football or how many wives they broke up.
They all responded to the fact that I was under a rag with a Gandolfi camera. It was an impressive mahogany and brass, handcrafted London model that I bought in the early 1970s. You had to go under the fabric because the amount of light falling on the screen wasn’t enough to be able to see properly in broad daylight.
It helped me when I filmed the comedian Spike Milligan, very. He was a very wealthy man if you didn’t know him. Then he saw my camera and said, “Oh, cool – where do you want me?” He was used to seeing people with small 35mm cameras, taking pictures, and here was someone with the full equipment.
My concern is always that I had one chance and it had better be good. You worry about whether you put the chip in the wrong direction, or whether there is hair in the lens. After the triple shot, I took singles, and Ansel asked if I had used his zone system. It’s a way of regulating exposure based on conditions and the film you’re using. Ansel wrote five volumes on the subject and you had to be an Oxford-trained scientist to actually understand it. So, feeling a little embarrassed, I told him, “Well, I kind of have my own system.” He said “Oh”. “You’re probably subconsciously using my language anyway.”
I’ve always focused on technical areas that I knew something about. These are the people I admired and the people I wanted to photograph: a picture of my Samuel Beckett, pinned to litter boxes, or a picture I took of Quentin Tarantino when he had just made Reservoir Dogs and no one knew him. More difficult topics? Novelist Jean Rhys was drunk at 11 am. She tried to photograph her and her wig fell out. So I had to come back a week later.
This was an extraordinary moment with three giants. But I think this image has gained traction over the years. He was Susan Sontag Who said photography is mainly about death, because when you take a shot, you define a moment in life, knowing that you are nearing the end.
Paul Joyce Biography
Boy: Winchester, Hampshire, 1940.
trainee: Dulwich College, London College of Film Technologies, then The World.
Effects: Paul Nash, August Sander, David Hockney, Bob Dylan, Antonin Dvorak, John Clare, Peter Maxwell Davies.
high point: “Directed by Doctor Who’s Gate of Warriors in 1981.”
low point: Episode “Warriors’ Gate” from Doctor Who. It’s the best and worst thing I’ve ever done.”
Most important tip: “Always keep one spare bullet in the room.”
Paul Joyce’s exhibition, A Life Behind the Lens, begins August 27 and runs through November 10 at the exhibition, Winchester Discovery Center.