I was delighted to receive an email from the one-and-only Tim Andrews asking me very politely if I would be interested in taking part in his photography project, Over The Hill, in which, over the past nine years, he has had his portrait taken by some four hundred different photographers. For anyone interested in portrait photography, I reccommend a visit to the website where you can read Tim's explanation of the project's origins and evolution. In a nutshell: at the age of 54, Tim gave up work as a solicitor after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system mainly affecting the motor system for which there is currently no cure. Shortly afterwards he replied to an advertisement asking for photographic models. Other such shoots followed and a year later he realised he had created an accidental art project in which he would be both subject and collaborator.
Knowing a number of people who have shot Tim over the years, I was pleased and flattered to be asked so my immediate thought was “absolutely!”, followed closely by a sense of dread whereby the hyper-critical bully who lives in my head started barking, “How are you gonna shoot a bloke who’s been photographed by so many good photographers?”, “How are you gonna live up to that?”, and my old favourite, “What if you fuck it up and they discover how much you suck?” Fortunately, having listened to this little Nazi for several decades, I am finally learning to tell the bastard to shut up.
A few days after I had readily agreed to feel the fear and do it anyway Tim announced on his blog that he felt the time had come to bring the whole epic endeavour to a close. At which point my instinctive reaction was, “Wow! Take a bow, man!” If I lived in a cartoon (which, frankly, I kind of do) there would have been a ping accompanied by the appearance of little lightbulb above my head. Thus was born my one idea for the shoot.
At some point I decided that Tim should take his bow surrounded by a flurry of motion blur as crowds of people passed all around him, a conceit that would serve as a metaphor for not only Tim’s Parkinson’s but for his incredible positivity and determination in the face of it. Involuntary movement (dyskinesia) is a common symptom of the disease and I had seen a video in which Tim’s hands were shaking uncontollably (though it's not really a symptom he suffers from these days). So the way I put it to him as I explained the idea over coffee just before the shoot was, “Tim, this time you’re the one who is going to be still!”
Tim was brilliant, of course, despite having to stand patiently in the middle of Oxford Street bowing theatrically as the world passed decidely impatiently around him. In fact, one of those joyous coincidences that sometimes accompany the creative process had emerged as we talked before the shoot. It turns out Tim comes from a theatrical family. His mother was a dancer, both his children are actors and indeed he once had dreams of being an actor himself. So that gave the idea an unexpected layer of significance that I could never have anticipated and it was fun to give him a chance to let that aspect of his personality show itself.
Anyway - full disclosure and all that - I kind of did fuck it up. The obvious way to do the picture would have been to use a combination of flash to make sure the subject was frozen, nice and sharp, and a slow shutter to allow the people in the background to blur, but, perhaps because that wasn’t quite the look I was after and I thought the flash would spoil the aesthetic, I decided not to do that. Instead I reckoned if I got Tim to hold really still, Victorian portrait style, I would get away with a quarter or half second exposure and no flash. Well not so much, it turns out! This may come as no surprise but in most of the shots he’s really not sharp, to put it mildly. Rookie error, right? Photography 101, right? Cue much swearing and self-flagellation. But, what the hell, I’m over it. It was great to meet Tim and an honour to be one of the very last photographers to be part of Over The Hill. And as Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
P.S. Read Tim's post about the shoot on his blog.