Jamie Morgan. All Killer No Filler.
“It was a blessed, incredible time to be creative and be in London. And everyone was in the same clubs together. So you were dressing to kill, because you were up against some serious, serious competition. You better turn up correct!” Jamie Morgan might not be the most prolific photographer, but his work is totemic of an irreproducible era of unbridled invention and creativity. All killer no filler.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM Photography JAMIE MORGAN
With the stylist Ray Petri he reinvented the fashion image and formed the Buffalo crew. For Beauty Papers Issue Seven: Glamour, Jamie teamed up with hair wizard Soichi to create ‘Fly’ – a Little Richard inspired tribute to peacockery.
BP: Alright, talk to me about Little Richard then.
JM: Well, I think he’s a little bit of an unsung hero. He was one of the original crossdressers. He dressed how he wanted, completely free in his style. He was a maverick. He’s playing with gender identity. All the stuff that is now very prevalent he’s been doing forever, and Buffalo also did the same. It connects to those themes that we’re always playing with, mixing things up a bit.
I worked with Nick [Royal, the stylist of the shoot] and I loved his approach. He really understands the level of quality and detail that I would like when you’re referencing and looking at stuff. He’s not just at the back of the studio on the phone, he’s right there and he’s prepped, he’s brilliant.
I’m calling it ‘Fly’ by the way. It’s a big deal for me, I put a lot of work in. It’s a big story for me. It says a lot about what I like to shoot and the lighting and the attitude, but it still feels like “Oh, wow, I’m discovering something.”
“I need to work with somebody who understands that there’s always something else. Not just a fashion picture, it has to have a cultural reference, a social reference. It has to have layers in the picture otherwise it doesn’t last and it’s not interesting.”
BP: I think you did a beautiful job on it.
JM: Really beautiful. It’s authentic but it’s also quite modern. It took me a long time to do the casting actually. I did it with Najia Li Saad from Anti Agency. As well as some of the agency boys we also went to street casting. There was this older guy in Paris in a club and it turns out he’s an old school jazz guy who’s a choreographer.
BP: With all of the next gen agencies like Anti, Nii, Tomorrow Is Another Day, Do you feel like the industry is more diverse or do you just think we’re talking about that more?
JM: No I think it definitely is and it’s become a conversation, which it needs to be. Obviously with that there comes a slight political correctness. Yeah, I believe you need a certain amount of affirmative action on all areas. At the same time you wanna be able to shoot who you want. It’s about the individual, it’s always been about the individual. Not a race or a brand. So it stays like that for me.
BP: The stylists are quite integral to your fashion work. How do you set about working with a new stylist? How do you form that relationship?
JM: Sometimes you can just tell from someone’s work whether they care enough to put the effort in, because I don’t shoot very much and I like put more time into it. I need to work with somebody who understands that there’s always something else. Not just a fashion picture, it has to have a cultural reference, a social reference. It has to have layers in the picture otherwise it doesn’t last and it’s not interesting. So someone who understands that culture who’s obviously got a good eye, who I’ve got a rapport with who’s gonna get the references, bring other references, have a good dialogue, talk any time.
BP: I guess the same with hair and makeup, how do you communicate your sensibility?
JM: Back in the day with the old Buffalo stuff and early work, the hair was never really… It was really the last thing. It was about the face, the photography, the pose, the attitude, the cultural stuff and the hair just kind of fitted on top. There was never any makeup. But I like this story for Beauty Papers, which is so much about the hair, and that was Soichi. I’ve been doing a book with him. It’s called The Next Generation and it’s all the kids of people I know. So it’s a little bit like when I did Felix [Howard]. That was such an iconic shot and I just started to go back to the idea of using kids on the cusp. Not teenagers, not kids, but just on the cusp. Soichi and I had been doing this thing and we just got very close. It was Maxine actually [who] said “Do you want to do a hair story with Soichi?” Because she saw the stuff that we’d one on the book, and I was like, “Yeah, I’d really like to do something,” and we went down the line of, “Should we do a really big hair story?” And then if it’s just all about hair, then what’s it about?
So it can never be about that. And then I came across this Little Richard image and the hair was just so brilliant, the wig. Then we started bringing in makeup looks, glitter, and other seventies influences – whether it was Prince or James Brown. So the Little Richard idea opened up into a whole idea of men’s beauty, in terms of wigs, makeup, glamour and clothes.
[Jamie takes a swigs from a cup of tea]
BP: Was that a Judy Blame mug I saw you drinking out of?
JM: You know what, it actually wasn’t but I was there last night at his beautiful, amazing, emotional, inspiring memorial. I did buy loads of badges and t-shirts. But you know it was actually amazing, seeing his body of work all in one place. To see that integrity from start to finish and the collaborative process. It was just really inspiring and reminded me of what it should always be, and how it gets a bit harder to be like that as time goes on. Everybody wants it quicker and because it’s so quick they don’t care so much about the content or the quality.
“In those days there where the Buffalo boys, and then the queens. People say to me ‘Where were you brought up?’ I say ‘I wasn’t brought up, I was dragged up by queens on the streets of London.'”
BP: Do you remember when you first met Judy?
JM: When I first met Judy I was scared shitless. [laughter] He was just this kind of wild queen dressed deadly with a viper tongue that would wipe you out in seconds if you said something stupid. For years I was a little intimidated by him and then I got to know him a bit more through Neneh [Cherry] and through our Buffalo connections and working with him. He loved Ray [Petri] and Ray loved him. Over the years I got to know him, bit by bit, more and more and it turns out he’s so lovely and funny and all of that… But yeah, to start with I was terrified of him. In those days there were the Buffalo boys, and then the queens. People say to me “Where were you brought up?” I say “I wasn’t brought up, I was dragged up by queens on the streets of London.” [laughter]
BP: Brilliant! How about Ray then, when did you first meet Ray?
JM: I met Ray when he came looking for assistant work. He’d just left Sotheby’s where he’d done a course. He was interested in photography but that wasn’t really his thing. It was more about art and architecture and all this kind of stuff. So through a friend he came as an assistant to me and I was teaching him photography. Then I was working at The Face doing some womenswear stuff, and Nick Logan was like “Do you wanna do this with men?” And Ray was literally there and the best dressed guy I knew and the guy with the most style I knew, so I just asked him.
And we did this shoot, it was one of the very first sportswear ones that we did. It was received really well by Nick. “This is fantastic.” And so we ended up doing another, and then another and pretty soon it became about the men’s fashion and I actually found it more comfortable shooting men. I didn’t know what to do with girls, because being heterosexual it was like oh, they’re really sexy, and I didn’t like that kind of relationship with the camera. So with guys it was really straightforward. With Ray actually it was a little more awkward because he was attracted to guys, so we had this perfect little double-act: straight boy, gay boy.
So he’d work the girls for me and I’d work the guys for him. [laughter] But I mean, you know, it was really more creative than that. We where these two very different individuals. He was ten years older than me and gay and more of a mentor and I was a bit more punk and street and came from a different place.
BP: I’m interested in how long it took… That visual language that became so clear and is so timeless, still inspiring people. The amazing mix of ingredients. How quickly did you both figure it out?
JM: It happened really quickly. It was like the floodgates opened. What happened was we were doing these little kind of test shoots. Sportswear, cycling gear. We had a cycling jumper from the Tour de France with slightly punk armbands, and we were just kinda realising that you could mix functional stuff: utility, military with fashion and sports and music. We just suddenly thought you can mix all this. Once we sussed that I went to Nick Logan at The Face. Because I had been an assistant I understood a lot about Avedon and all those classic portrait and fashion photographers. I said to Nick “Why can’t we do what we’re doing, this kind of street mix and put it in a fashion context of white backgrounds, full length covers?”
BP: Really glorify it?
JM: Yeah, well in a way to pedestal it, to glorify it – because it wasn’t street photography, it wasn’t this, it wasn’t that – but in a way to create a new template. To put it in the context of full page stories, eight to ten page stories, when before it wasn’t, they’d just done a couple of pictures with a band or the people on the street. Nick was like “Right, you’ve got ten pages and a cover,” and we did seven in a row and it happened really really quickly.
BP: It might be a tricky question, but what do you think Ray would be doing now if he was with us?
JM: Uh, it’s an unanswerable question, really. I think he was destined to die young because I don’t think he wanted to grow old. Maybe he would have enjoyed the respect from the industry, because he didn’t have it really. He didn’t get any work. When he was very young he was offered his first real big job, which was Armani, but they didn’t give him much respect. They didn’t organise stuff for him, they just threw him a bit of money. They didn’t treat him as they treat stylists now. So he never really got that, so I think he would have enjoyed that.
Maybe he would have just done what Judy did which was just settle down and start working collaboratively with people but still keeping his integrity. Actually I would have hoped he could have done that. But he was a bit troubled in some ways, always falling in love with the wrong guys. And he really didn’t like getting old.
What happened for me, is that when Ray died I stopped photography for a long time. I wouldn’t say that the work I did for that five years burnt me out, but when Ray died I didn’t know what to do. You know, it was like “Who am I going to work with?” I tried the odd shoot and it just felt like nothing compared to what we had been doing.
“In one sense for my career it wasn’t really good to walk away, because a lot of the photographers that stuck at it are super successful and very well paid. I’m not really in that area. So I still have a certain naivety and something to prove and more to explore, so that’s a positive for me.”
So I kind of moved on, I got into music and film – which I still very much love. And then for the twenty year celebration of Ray’s death, Arena asked us to do a whole issue in the magazine. “How the hell am I gonna do this?” I decided to work with Barry Kamen and Mitzi [Lorenz] and that was just a revelation. We did Neneh’s kids, some of the younger generation, Simon de Montfort. I went back to the original lighting I had used in the eighties, the black and white. I’d not really shot for ten years. It was like an immediate trigger, and I started working with Barry. I had three years with him before he died.
In one sense for my career it wasn’t really good to walk away, because a lot of the photographers that stuck at it are super successful and very well paid. I’m not really in that area. So I still have a certain naivety and something to prove and more to explore, so that’s a positive for me.
BP: When you very first started taking pictures was it in the street or was it in the studio?
JM: Street. I was a photographic assistant for a couple of years and that’s when I started learning studio. It’s a lot easier having a location because you’ve got something straight away. With studio you have to create a narrative within the portrait. That’s what I like about my approach, it’s what I do really, I try and create the narrative within a portrait, on a white background or a black background. I like it because it’s contained. I like having the music and everyone comfortable and being able to move things around. That’s what I had with Ray and Buffalo, really, it was a vibe.
We’d be at our flat, we all lived together. So we’d be at home smoking spliffs, playing some tunes, take the cassette out of the machine [Laughs], put it in the car, put on the same tune, roll another spliff, put in the tune, same tune, roll another spliff and shoot half the people that were in the car! And the studio was just around the corner and we stayed there a lot, we’d spend hours there into the evening. So working in the studio reminds me of this very safe, lovely place to experiment. It’s a comfort.
BP: Do you remember when you were starting to take pictures for yourself – not assisting – was there a particular sitting or particular picture where you felt that you really started to find your voice?
JM: I started to find it when I was doing the New Romantic kids on the street. Jeremy Healy, Boy George, Haysi Fantayzee, Marilyn. So I had a stint there where I started to find my voice, because I was actually living in the West End and so were they. George was round the corner and the clubs were in Soho. But it was only with Ray when it all clicked photographically, styling, casting. The fact that it was from us.
BP: Did you go to The Blitz?
JM: I went to all those clubs, yeah. Club for Heroes, Taboo, Blitz, there were so many. I mean those were pretty amazing times. Because it was so tribal. You had all of these people: Chris Sullivan, Sade, Spandau, Steve Strange’s lot, Visage, Boy George, Marilyn, Haysi Fantayzee. Every fashion element. If you think about it, like ten fashion and musical movements in a few years in central London, all in the same club. And then on top of all that there was Leigh Bowery, the art, John Maybury, video-makers, Baillie Walsh, Massive Attack. I mean, if you think about that era, how actually astounding it is the amount of stuff to come out of one place in such a short amount of time. It was a blessed, incredible time to be creative and be in London. And everyone was in the same clubs together. So you were dressing to kill, because you were up against some serious, serious competition. [Both laugh] You better turn up correct!
BP: I mean you must have just dropped on the floor dead when you first saw Sade?
JM: Yeah… It was interesting, actually. The truth about that was that she was very understated and she wasn’t like a superstar. She just kind of crept in around the back with a band called Pride. You hear Robert Elms talk about it and it was like he was Sade’s girlfriend and they needed another singer for Pride and she said “Oh I can sing. I can sing! How hard can it be?”
And slowly she became this Sade through her understated amazingness and the band they put around her. I did that cover of her, you know The Face cover? Have you seen that one? It wasn’t easy photographing Sade, actually and in retrospect, yeah she’s amazing but she only had one look, she didn’t give a lot to the camera. It wasn’t like: “Oh wow, here’s Sade the most beautiful and amazing…” it was like: “Oh, it’s gonna be quite hard to get a killer picture.” You know?
BP: [Laughs] Who was it never difficult with?
JM: Nick Kamen. We were all pretty good looking boys, you know? James LeBon, gorgeous. Mark LeBon, gorgeous. Nick, Barry, De Montfort. But you walk into a room with Nick Kamen and you just cease to exist basically. It’s like one of those movies, you just kind of suck back into the background as all eyes light him up light like a star. He was just so gorgeous.
"I went to all those clubs. Club for Heroes, Taboo, Blitz, there were so many. I mean those were pretty amazing times. Because it was so tribal."
BP: It seems like there was complete freedom in the Buffalo days. It’s changed for most of us, for you has it changed?
JM: Well yeah on some levels it has, that’s why I hunt out things like Beauty Papers, because you are not credit obsessed. Something that has changed… I think a person’s lifestyle and who they were as a creative and social being related very much to their work. It’s like with Judy, he is who he is. The integrity and truth is there. Whereas now you can produce cool, so there are people producing very “cool and edgy” stuff but they’re not, and their thinking isn’t. You know I guess a good example is Topshop. You can go into Topshop and you can buy The Clash look. Worn denim jacket, ripped this, ripped that. You can buy the whole look. Back in the day you had to wear it for ten years to get it like that. You had to be it to have it. Now you can literally just buy it off the shop or put an app on. Which is great because there’s a lot of amazing photography and creativity out there. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t harp back to the old days in any way. I really love what’s out there, but if you’re asking what’s different and what is easier is the fact that you can just be eclectic and go “I shoot like this. I do it like this” whereas we had to work out who we were a bit more through time. That’s why I think people still look to the eighties and Buffalo and Judy, because of the authenticity and the fact that it happened for the first time, and now things happen so quickly and with styles and looks, the turnover is so quick. It can never be as impactful, it’s just too quick. There’s no underground. It’s all out there straightaway, immediately. No time for anything to ruminate or to grow naturally.
BP: What do you think your first memory of glamour is?
JM: You know what, I have to say I think glamour is an illusion. So I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it. I experienced some people pertaining to being glamorous and I could look round and go “Ooh, this is glamorous” but essentially I don’t buy into it. I think to me glamour is just being fabulous and dressing up, making an effort. It doesn’t have to be expensive clothes. It’s like Judy, he made glamour out of shirt buttons and safety pins as a point, as a cultural and social statement. That to me is the truth of what it’s all about. You make your own glamour! Judy would make rubbish the most glamorous outfit, get the bus, walk into the most shittiest pub. That’s glamour. That is pure glamour. Not turning up in fake freaking diamonds in a limousine at some crap event.
“I think to me glamour is just being fabulous and dressing up, making an effort. It doesn’t have to be expensive clothes. It’s like Judy Blame, he made glamour out of shirt buttons and safety pins as a point, as a cultural and social statement.”
BP: How about the world of style? You were a fashion assistant. What was the first thing that really caught your eye in that world of style or fashion?
JM: None, cause I never really liked any of it, which is why we started doing what we did. I didn’t like any of the photography at the time. It was the techniques that I learnt. This guy I worked for, Terence Donovan was one of the old school dudes and they don’t fuck around. You shoot a roll and you go upstairs and process it right there and then in the dark room. Nine minutes. Nine minutes, twenty five seconds. “Come on! Come on you fucking wanker, get on with it!” [laughter] Standing outside the door and you’re still kinda fumbling around trying to bloody load the thing in the dark! So it’s like training, I was trained up by these guys working quickly under difficult circumstances, making creative decisions. It’s that. Nothing about style or fashion for me.
BP: Right last question. What is next?
JM: Interesting, interesting. I mean, I’m very happy that I’ve come back to photography because it is my first love and I actually had an epiphany when James LeBon died, which was that my…I don’t like to use the word ‘talent’, but my gift – if you like – in photography I never really treated with respect and I think your gifts and talents you should. You have a duty to yourself and the things that you’ve been given and I feel like I really haven’t finished there yet. I still think I’ve got a long way to go as a photographer. But it’s harder and harder to find the right people, but there are a few. I really feel with that Beauty Papers story I did something I really wanted to do. I made a feature documentary that I really enjoyed and I would like to do a book. I’m not quite sure what it is. I’m going to do a photography book, but I’d also like to write something, which is a much harder process for me. But essentially I’m just on the photography right now. It’s a torture because it’s like if you put your bar up really high it’s very hard to jump over it every single time.
When I started to get back into photography I gave myself what I call the eighty percent rule. Which is, if it’s eighty percent good then you just let yourself off [Laughs] and go “Yeah! It’s eighty percent.” Buy that, because otherwise it’s never good enough and eighty percent is a pretty good level. You generally get higher and aim higher but that just gives you enough leeway to keep doing stuff and looking to improve. Always.
Issue Seven available here
Photography Jamie Morgan
Hair Soichi Inagaki at Art Partner
Beauty Natsumi Narita
Styling Nick Royal
Casting Najia Li Saad at Anti Agency