S&L. The story so far has to be that you depended very much on your strength of personality to charm and inveigle your way into the hearts of your sitters so that they couldn’t refuse to reveal something of their inner selfs to your camera. Then by doing your own performance behind the camera just for them alone they felt more comfortable, probably thinking that they could never seem as crazy as you?
GG. And this is where the Hasselblad came into it’s own once again. By using the basic form without a prism I had to lift my gaze from the camera to look directly at the subject each time before I pressed the shutter.
S&L. So you found this beneficial for your process?
GG. Naturally! It meant I had a direct connection, eye to eye with them. I could do my own performance from behind the camera & shoot at just the right moment. No other camera gave me that facility.
S&L. You do realise that if you were working today someone would be making a little ‘behind the scenes’ movie of you at work then posting it across the social media? That way we could all see you in action.
GG. Yes, yes, I know. But would anybody really give a f**k? (laughs)
S&L. Well this way we all just have to imagine the scene.
GG. A picture I’ve always liked was this one that I did from Eurodisney. It’s interesting because I was lying on the floor to get a low viewpoint on this giant Mickey Mouse with a little girl who obviously looks frightened. And the PR woman said, ‘Gil you aren’t trying to make our Mickey Mouse look ridiculous are you?’ And I said, ‘Me? Make a 6 foot mouse look ridiculous’.
S&L. Tell me something about Brian Eno.
GG. Eno was for The Sunday Times and I went to his studio in south London and the only thing I noticed was that he had what I would call an art construction where he had a television that was on it’s side but the picture was the right way round. So that became an easy shot for me. And he’s still using that shot to this day as a self promo picture.
Basically he was looking directly at the camera & it was boring.But when he looked away it became a stronger shot so that’s what I got him to do. So again it was a very quick shot, all done within 20-30 minutes.
S&L. Yes, that’s the usual amount of time you get given.
GG. I always found that I worked at my optimum under that kind of pressure because I could get an image that was strong, not just ‘stand there’ and which is not a ‘character shot’ which is something I used to hate. There were a lot of those sort of images around and they were popular because there was an absence of fuss and often no lighting. And I know that those photographers despised my work too because they felt that I lacked gravitas.
S&L. So perhaps this is a good moment for the story behind the shoot with the aristocrats daughter?
GG. She was the daughter of a duke. I went upstairs and took a picture of her on the four poster bed. And she was unbelievably gauche, when I said, “move to the right”, she would move to the left, I’d say “face me”, and she’d look away. She just wasn’t able to follow instructions at all. Then I realised that she couldn’t understand my accent and I got intimidated by this. So eventually I went over to the bed where she was sitting, I grabbed her by the thighs and moved her, physically. As I did this I realised what I was doing and I dripped sweat onto her pale yellow skirt. The material showed my sweat stains very clearly on her lap so I then started to rub it with my hands in the hope that it would go away.
GG. and S&L. (Uncontrollable laughter)
GG. And then I freaked, you know? And I thought, ‘My God, my God, how do I fix this?’ So I asked her to go and change the skirt so that I could finish the shoot. When it was all over she told me that “Daddy wants you to come down for a sandwich with him before you leave”. By which time I’m a nervous wreck. I have no assistant so I grab all my gear and go downstairs. I opened the door to the banqueting hall to be greeted by a scene straight out of the 18th century with all of these local English aristocrats dressed to go out shooting and all carrying guns. I immediately felt incredibly uncomfortable because only moments before I’d been upstairs wiping sweat from the daughters skirt and now here I am confronted by this improbable scene. I took one bite of my sandwich, said made a hasty goodbye to everyone’s amazement, jumped into my car and in my haste to leave I drove straight across the flowerbed in front of the house whilst waving goodbye out of the window with my free hand.
S&L. What a story!
GG. And I no longer have the picture that goes with that story. It was an unusual experience because on that day I completely freaked and under those circumstances I felt the weight of who I was because I was right in the heart of the British aristocracy.
S&L. Well why not follow that tale with the story behind the man with a camera in the tank of water?
GG. Now that’s in America, LA.
GG. I was driving along and saw a sign saying ‘Underwater Cameras’. I was bored and thought it looked promising so I went in with no intention to take a picture. I told the owner I was working on the 24LA book project and that I wanted to see his underwater cameras. He took me to the back of the building then suddenly removed his trousers in front of me. I went, ‘Jesus Christ, I’ve stepped into a Los Angeles problem.’ Anyway he then climbed up behind the tank and jumped in whilst trying to explain with signs how to use the camera. I was just fascinated with his gesticulations so I asked him if he’d do it all again so that I could set up my camera & lights.
GG. Jeremy Irons on the other hand was having a row with a neighbour when I did this shot. And he was also in character for a play that he was doing so was talking to me like an 18th century gentleman.
S&L. Now let’s move on to George Melly, that shot stands out for me.
GG. Ah…but George Melly is easy though.
S&L. Maybe, but it’s full of life & passion.
GG. I would get on well with performers because it wouldn’t take much to whip them up. All I had to do with him was to get him to march up & down the room, back and forth, back and forth. We put some music on and he just enjoyed it. I like it because it’s a powerful image of him, it says what it is of him. And he related to me because we fucking finished off a half a bottle of whiskey before shooting!
GG. And Ray Davies of the Kinks, he and I found a lot in common because we both lived in Muswell Hill. I like it because it’s a strong portrait that I did in his studio.
S&L. Muswell Hillbillies then.
GG. Everyone I photographed said they enjoyed it and that I was the quickest photographer in the world.
It’s worth bearing in mind that after he retired Gil threw his entire archive in the trash! All that remains is but a small fragment of his overall output.
The techie stuff:
Hasselblad 500C/M with 40mm, 50mm, 80mm & 150mm Zeiss lenses. Multiblitz portable lights and Norman battery operated flash. Kodak Ektachrome 64 and later Fuji 100D then Fuji Provia 100D whilst proofing with Polaroid Type 668 or 699.
All images © Guglielmo Galvin
The web links:
Martin Plimmer’s obituary of Gil in The Guardian
Gil’s work in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery
And the closing shot…