It seems the only way I can make sense of the green cupboard is to go through it looking for 'firsts’, so here is another one; the first ever studio portrait I took in 1998. Even though it’s taken with the excellent Mamiya 645 medium format camera, there are a few flaws with the image - there should be more detail on the left-side of the face, the single light source would be better directed from higher up, and the aperture is too low which is creating a muddled depth of field, an f11 would be better. But – I like this image a lot. It shows a little of how I saw Shelley’s character at the time.
Keeping on the theme of firsts, it was the first of many studio sittings Shelley sat for me, and he was my best friend. I thought he would be a great musician and we would move to New York together and I’d be a great photographer, but alas, and luckily for both of us that didn’t happen… A year after this photograph was taken, on New Years Eve 1999, Shelley was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor (which he probably had a year earlier) and both our lives changed forever.
I found myself staying in London confused at what to do next. I decided to apply to Chelsea College of Art to do an Art Foundation and from Chelsea I went onto Central Saint Martins to graduate with a degree in Fine Art. By the time I left Saint Martins, Shelley was beginning to recover, as much as you can when you have an inoperable brain tumor, and your lifetime’s allowance of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. In the four years I'd been studying he’d had deep vein thrombosis, a pulmonary embolism, three shattered vertebras, Cushing’s syndrome, epilepsy, acute pancreatitis, complete organ failure, had been admitted into a hospice (and discharged) twice, a few nights in a coma from hypothermia (in the middle of summer) plus he’d been wheelchair and house-bound for a couple of years, when we lived in a second floor apartment with no lift.
During all this he slowly taught himself to walk again, and though he was now paralyzed down his right side, he taught himself to paint and draw with his left hand. He carried on doing music and helped keep my life in order, encouraged me to finish projects, stay focused, argued with me about Perec and Mallarme and generally made sure I graduated. Eventually he got mobile enough to leave the house and helped on the door of a club night I organized in Soho. We had developed a bond that was tighter than family and were helping each other adjust to our new realities.
Moving away from the theme of firsts, I thought I’d add the last photo I took of Shelley, around the time when he was learning to walk with the aid of a stick, but was still deeply affected by Cushing’s. Taken in the second floor flat in East Finchley, the kitchen was his domain, and he only allowed this image to be taken because I thought there would be a time when I would forget what he’d gone through (plus there was a portrait competition I wanted to enter). I asked him if he was comfortable taking his shirt off and as the photo shows, he wasn’t, but he gracefully permitted and turned away from the cheap medium format camera I was using at the time (it would be a few years till I got a Mamiya). The lens was foggy and the camera cut the usual 120 film into slivers, making it possible to turn it into 220, hence the black borders. I hand printed a selection from the roll of film in the darkrooms at Saint Martins and sent them away to the competition never to see them again, apart from this one uncomfortable reject.
If you know these two images are the same person, they make a painful pair, which compels me to take another photo of Shelley as soon as I’m back in the UK. I don’t want the kitchen image to be the last image – as it's now 10 years on from it and last Sunday was Shelley’s birthday. He celebrated it in London by being alive, going to the cinema and eating chocolate cake with his wife of five years and generally being awesome.