The early 1980s were, for me, the best and the worst of times. The best because I met a lot of people, saw a lot of films, had a lot of sex, took a few drugs and a lot of photographs. The worst because I had no money (each time I wanted to go out I had to schlep all the way from Kennington to Notting Hill to sell some albums at the Record & Tape Exchange) and, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find regular work.
I did a stint as a cinema cashier, filled in as a dinner-lady at a ballet school, took still photographs on Bernard Rose’s student film, made signs for bookshops, filled in as film listings compiler on Event magazine (where I wrote my very first film review – of Insatiable, starring Marilyn Chambers), but a full-time job which paid a living wage eluded me. I applied for posts as a barmaid, museum attendant, dance editor, waitress – none of which I was remotely qualified or even able to do.
And I doggedly did the rounds, with my photographic portfolio, of all the newspapers and magazines in town, many times. I can see in retrospect that my portfolio was a little unusual and not remotely commercial. Art and picture editors, on the whole, made encouraging noises – but the only one who actually took a chance on me was the very lovely Adrianne LeMan at the Illustrated London News, who commissioned me a couple of times – the first job, especially, was brilliant fun and involved travelling around England, photographing a cricket ball factory, a felt hat factory and a brass instrument factory for an article on small trade unions. The photographs turned out (I think) pretty well and I had high hopes of forging an exciting career doing this sort of thing for the rest of my life.
But alas, it wasn’t to be. I had a few photographs published in Event – pictures of the Salvation Army at their HQ in South London, a portrait of French film-maker Nelly Kaplan, and a series of Still-lifes with Miaowmix for The Taste of Preston, a conceptual piece in collaboration with Roger Parsons. And I snapped a serendipitous triptych of Stephen King overreacting to a fish-paste sandwich, which was my first job for Time Out.
But mostly I stayed at home and took photographs there. Sometimes these were of long-suffering friends, but more often they were self-portraits – because I was always available and willing. Many of them were experiments with lighting, flash and filters. It was at this period of my life, in my late 20s and early 30s, that I was probably at my most photogenic. This may have been partly because I had Dietrich-style cheekbones at last – while in Japan in 1979 I’d had an ovarectomy which appeared to have altered my metabolism, and after a year of Japanese-style food, I suddenly found the British habit of serving everything all at once, on the same plate, unpalatable and excessive. I lived off milk, avocados, Pot Noodle and cigarettes.
But it was also, I suspect, a result of my having had my self-confidence boosted by a year living abroad (something I would recommend to anybody – you don’t have to have money to do it – I did it and I had no money at all), as well as the relaxed attitude that followed the realisation that even if I looked horrible in one photograph, I could easily zap off another couple of dozen, and odds were that I would look reasonably good in at least a couple of them. And since I was the one in control, I could dictate expression, make-up, angle, exposure and lighting. I was a one-woman show. My favourite props were cigarettes (was there ever such a vile habit that looked so ineffably cool?), items from my vast collection of skulls and rubber swamp creatures.
The trick to self-portraits, I decided, was never to try and conceal my flaws, but to exaggerate them. If my skin was bad (as it so often was, as a result of the beer, cigarette and Pot Noodle diet) I would point a lamp at my head so that half my face was lit up like the light side of the moon, craters and all. Or I would deliberately trowel on an impasto of crude make-up so the texture would show up. My skin in these photographs looks quite perfect to me now – but at the time it seemed anything but.
Nor was I interested in “natural” beauty. I was still stuck at the JK Huysmans-meets-Kenneth-Anger stage of art student aesthetic. Hence fake-looking false eyelashes, lace gloves and skull earrings. It was all a bit samey.
This situation came to an end only gradually as I started writing film reviews for publications such as Time Out and Monthly Film Bulletin. For a while, I continued to take photographs too – sometimes of the people I interviewed. I wish now I’d taken more. But writing and interviewing was extraordinarily hard work, because you had to summon two different personalities (or so it seemed to me). And photography also meant developing the film and printing up the negatives, and then watching as the art department either lost the pictures (some of the nicest photographs I’ve ever taken – of Dutch actress Renée Soutendijk – never saw the light of day thanks to sloppy filing), or cropped them down to the size of postage stamps on the page. Time Out was not a photographer’s magazine. It was dispiriting. And so, gradually, the writing began to take over.
And then, just as I hit my thirties and everything fell into place – for the first time in my life I was getting paid to do work I really enjoyed, was finally living in a flat that I didn’t have to share with anyone, and had a boyfriend I didn’t have to share with anyone either – God looked down, decided I wasn’t allowed to have it all… and gave me psoriasis.
To be continued…
The glitter, black eye (a result of having been sexually assaulted by a complete stranger in Kennington Park Road), striped dress and pink scarf photographs were taken by Tom Dawson.