Guglielmo ‘Gil’ Galvin had an illustrious career extending over some 30 years as an editorial portrait photographer based in London. One of very few photographers to work for both The Observer and The Sunday Times Magazines at the same time, some of his many other clients included; The Independent, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, ES, Hello, The Field and more besides.
We did this interview together in August 2012 but pressure of work has delayed it’s publication until now. Sadly in the intervening period Gil unexpectedly yet peacefully died in February 2013. He was an absolute master of what is now referred to as the environmental portrait and observing his wild, anarchic work process is something I can only equate with imagining The Ramones on amphetamine sulphate. He and I conducted this interview over a number of late night Skype calls and I hope that you enjoy reading it and that his unquenchable passion comes across.
All images © Guglielmo Galvin
S&L. The thing that strikes me about your style of working is that you have an ability to engage with the people and get behind the masks that some of us tend to project when being photographed.
GG. Let me give you some background first. Although I have an Italian name, I’m Irish. I left Ireland at 15 and found myself, an Irish republican, in England. I had no respect and I wasn’t afraid of the set up here, it didn’t effect me and I wasn’t humbled by it. This allowed me to approach people as an equal no matter who they were including members of the royal family.
I wasn’t bothered by who they were and quite often I didn’t know who anybody was anyway. I took a delight in that, in dismissing the social aspect of English society. However it occasionally bit me on the bum by turning on me when I became conscious of it.
So this together with the technique I used, the use of Polaroids which I only kind of glanced at. Other photographers perused them at length, I only ever really glanced at them because I was in a hurry to get on and achieve a picture that I had in my head. And to do that it was essential for me to keep contact with the subject by repartee. What I would do was pass the Polaroid to the sitter to see their reaction. I knew full well that I could manipulate them by either drawing their attention to something that in turn would take their attention away from something else that they may not have been comfortable with. The only time that this failed was with Anthony Hopkins. He very carefully looked at the Polaroid and then emphatically said, ‘no’.
S&L. How come?
GG. I wanted to get him to eat a packet of Smarties. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. It was for Colin Jacobson at The Observer, I was doing awards and they brought all these people in to me. I was required to do a completely different picture of each person. I tried with him but he was so self preserving that I completely failed, I got the most boring picture which I got rid of afterwards, I just wasn’t interested in it.
S&L.What other aspects of your practice do you feel helped you create such memorable images?
GG. My actual technique and my way of relating quite simply comes down to the fact that I love people! In addition I love my job, I love communicating and it didn’t seem to bother me who the people were. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that I was very, kind of, lucky to be an editorial photographer and I just loved it. Truly!
What I didn’t want to become was a studio photographer in the way that you did. You jumped into that arena, it was what you learnt as an assistant and you loved shooting 5×4 and all that. I hated it! I got a great buzz going out, finding places, driving all over the country and then achieving this….(pauses). Well you know what it’s like Julian, achieving a result out of nothing.
And all of that in 10 mins!
S&L. Yep, I know that feeling so well. Even now it gives me an adrenalin rush.
GG. You get 10 minutes. You don’t know what you’re going to do. And that’s the best way to do what we did because that way whatever happens, happens.
When I began I remember going to a shoot, I don’t remember who I had to photograph but I over prepared. When I arrived I tried to achieve a portrait that related to my preparation and to my pre-conceived idea of what I ought to be doing. It was only afterwards that I realised that the man was 70 years old and had a 23 year old wife. And I missed that! It was staring me in the face but I’d over prepared so never saw what was directly in front of me.
So I learnt that when arriving at a location the image I was there to make would be staring me in the face, I just had to learn to be open to it….
Over-preparation would spoil my spontaneity. I preferred to let things happen. That’s why I couldn’t look at the Polaroids because it killed the immediacy.
I learnt to play on my own natural attributes; my very Irishness because Guglielmo Galvin from the Sunday Times had to be a suave Italian (laughs). So when an Irish fellow with a thick Dublin accent showed up they were caught off balance and I used that to my advantage. People did as I told them because they thought that if I was trusted by the Sunday Times I had to be OK.
S&L. And that needs to be placed in the context of the period and the political situation and tensions that existed between Ireland and Britain.
GG. Absolutely and for some reason many have a lot of sympathy for Irish people.
Early on my approach had been to try and intimidate people with power rather than engage with them in a natural manner. I would walk away from those shoots knowing that I wasn’t doing them in my open, natural manner and I believe that I failed as a result.
S&L. I remember us all sitting together drinking tea at Rembrandt Bros and the approach towards the subject was one of the topics that used to get debated regularly.
GG. My nature is to laugh, to be a bit panicky. It was kind of messy, being photographed by me wasn’t a cool event.
S&L. I remember the way you used to operate. It was gloriously chaotic and wild.
To be continued….