MUGSHOTS PART 2: THE OUT-OF-FOCUS YEARS

This is Part 2 of my MUGSHOTS project. Click here for Part 1, which sets out the project’s aims.

Tokyo (1979)

There aren’t many photographs of me as a teenager. I affected to not like having my picture taken, and whenever it was taken I would scowl, as I did in my school photograph in 1969, just like the Melanie Lynskey character in her school photograph in Heavenly Creatures. (I nearly posted my school photo here, but decided against it – when you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all.) At the age of 13 I had instigated a poll in which classmates were encouraged to cast their votes to decide who was the prettiest or ugliest in the class; much to my secret chagrin, I figured on neither list. (I cringe to think of this now – obviously I was a pioneer in the Daily Mail art of making women feel bad about themselves – and would like to apologise to anyone whose life I so casually ruined.) So there it was – I was neither pretty nor ugly. I was kind of somewhere in between.

1970s mug shots
Vera Pim: from a series of pin-up photos for an art school project (1974)

My early career as a photographer was hampered somewhat by my not possessing a camera. I used to borrow a Pentax SLR from college (Central School of Art & Design in Southampton Row) but this had  its drawbacks; one summer holiday, another student was supposed to pass the borrowed camera on to me but simply disappeared on holiday without doing so, leaving me camera-less. But by the end of my Graphic Design course in 1976, I had finally saved enough money from weekend and holiday jobs (including a nightmarish stint as a shop assistant in Dolcis in Oxford Street, followed by slightly more tolerable stints in various London bookshops) to buy my own second-hand Pentax. 

Profile with Skull; Skull Condiments; Plastic Bat (1975)
Rubber Skeletons: Earring in Motion; Sheep’s Skull (1975)

I was also hampered in my early creative ambitions by having issues with things like focus, exposure and lighting, not to mention it took no less than THREE photographic courses (at Croydon High School, Wolverhampton Polytechnic and Central) before the basic techniques of black and white printing finally installed themselves in my feeble brain: things like Physics and Chemistry have never been my strong suits. Hence, many of the self-portraits I took in the 1970s are notable for their fuzziness, exacerbated by most of the images on this page having been lifted from old prints rather than taken directly from the negatives. (Which are no doubt somewhere at the bottom of one of those piles of boxes in my bedroom, and one day, when I have a few months to spare, I might even look for them. Or not.)

More or Less Correctly Exposed Self-Portrait with Skull (1975)

But the soft focus, excessive contrast and crude lighting in many of my early attempts at self-portraiture didn’t concern me because I thought it made me look like a silent movie star. When I look at my face in these photographs now (most of them were taken while I was in my early 20s), it seems soft and unformed, a bit spotty, and (depending on how many doughnuts I’d been eating to assuage a broken heart) sometimes even a bit doughy, annoyingly lacking in Dietrich-style cheekbone definition, but with regular features that were already proving fairly useful as a basic canvas. Also, I learnt that bad complexions look better when they’re over-exposed, that my quarter-profile was my most flattering angle, and that anyone can look good in a self-portrait, providing you have unlimited time and film, and total control over the lighting, setting, focus and printing.

Ocelot Coat (1977) (photographs by Sue Barnes)

My earliest photographic influences were Cecil Beaton’s society portraits, Irina Ionesco, Hollywood photographers such as George Hurrell, photographs of people like Marcel Proust or Sarah Bernhardt in their boudoirs, and writers such as JK Huysmans, whose Against Nature I embraced wholeheartedly as an aesthetic guide. For years I was incapable of taking photographs of myself or friends (female and male) unless we were a) plastered in heavy make-up, b) posed against cluttered backgrounds amid a full complement of quasi-Symbolist artefacts (especially plastic skulls, rubber swamp creatures, fake lilies from Biba) and c) wearing absurd outfits. Many years would pass before I realised none of these things were necessary; you don’t need to surround faces with wacky or exotic accessories to make them interesting. But what the hell, wacky and exotic accessories can be fun.

Tango (1978) (with Tom Dawson)

There was something of a turning point in 1977, when I acquired a Weston light meter and a cable release with a very long cable, and my photographs started to get a bit sharper and more accurately exposed. And then, in 1979, I went to Japan and lived in Tokyo for a year. While I was there I brazenly told everyone I met that I was a photographer (which was a lie) and, bless them, they believed me! I suddenly found myself rubbing shoulders with world-class professional photographers, and (I still can’t believe I managed to bluff my way through this) doing professional jobs for magazines, where I would be asked baffling things like (and I might have got this wrong) how many “grits” I wanted for a shot. To queries like that, I would just wave my hand and reply, airily, “Oh, the usual number.”

Fun with the Extra-Long Cable Release Cable (1978)

I once showed my little, home-made, amateurish portfolio to a Japanese photographer I’d just met and with whom I shared a lively interest in punk and New Wave music. And then he very sweetly showed me his portfolio, which was full of familiar pictures of David Bowie and Marc Bolan and fashion photographs I’d already seen around town on huge posters. Which made me think, “Oops…” So I was totally out of my depth, but everyone I met was so generous and encouraging that, instead of shrinking back chastened into my shell, I blossomed. 

Tokyo (1979) (photographs by Kenji Nozawa)

While I was in Japan I a) didn’t just sing in front of people (which would have been unthinkable a few years earlier) but wrote and performed my own songs in front of them (I hadn’t yet grasped that the guiding principle of karaoke, then in its early days, was that you were supposed to perform other people‘s songs), b) stripped off and appeared naked daily at the public bathhouse (the women’s section), c) appeared dressed as Dutch girl, alongside a famous sumo wrestler, in a TV commercial for a travel agent’s, d) recorded an English language tape which largely consisted of sentences like, “Cows moo. Moo, moo. Ducks quack. Quack, quack” etc) and e) had my photograph taken by people who made me look good. I also had my first photographic exhibition, at a Harajuku bar called East/West.

Tokyo (1979)

By the time I arrived back in the UK in 1980, just over a year later, I had literally been around the world and was – unsurprisingly – a completely different person. 
And up for anything. 
To be continued…

Honolulu (1979)

 

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8 thoughts on “MUGSHOTS PART 2: THE OUT-OF-FOCUS YEARS

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