Influential photographer Brian Griffin tells Alison Jones how a career U-turn has shaped his work.
Photographer Brian Griffin is almost instantly embarrassed when he describes himself as being “like a star in France” yet virtually unknown in his native Black Country.
“I am ‘well known’ I should say,” he says with a laugh.
He is being modest about his accomplishments.
Last year 90,000 admirers of his art trooped through his show at the photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles, in the ancient French city which inspired Van Gogh and where Brian is held in such high esteem he was actually awarded the Freedom of it in 1987.
And the Parisians like him so much they offered him carte blanche to prepare an exhibition on a subject of his own choosing to fill the walls of a renovated 15th century chapel next to Notre Dame.
“England is relatively backward in its appreciation for photography,” says Brian by way of explanation for his comparative anonymity over on this side of the Channel .
“Other countries are far more advanced. France is one of them. Essentially France and the United States are the leaders in photographic appreciation.”
Commuters in Birmingham are currently being exposed to his work, however, in the form of an open air retrospective, Face to Face, which is being staged at Snow Hill Plaza, until November 21.
Curated by Pete James, head of photography at Birmingham Central Library, it is complemented by two indoor exhibitions at One Snow Hill – The Water People, a mythic tale of an expedition across Iceland, and Team, documenting the people who built the high speed rail link to St Pancras – which were originally shown in Arles.
“I think outdoor exhibitions are the modern way,” muses Brian. “I was a little bit reticent a few years ago because you have to surrender quality in order for it to be vandal proof and weather proof.
“But politically it fits in perfectly with me because it means the general public see it.
“A lot of people don’t like to go in the rarified atmosphere of a gallery so it’s great that everybody passes through and can have a look.”
The location also has more of an emotional connection for Brian. It is just a short walk away from Birmingham Children’s Hospital (then the General Hospital) where he was born in 1948. And Snow Hill was the station he spilled out from every morning back in the late ‘60s, on his daily commute from Lye to Birmingham and his job with British Steel at Lloyd House, now the West Midlands Police headquarters.
He has bitter-sweet memories of his time there after being unceremoniously thrust into the working world by his parents.
“I was quite a bright boy at Halesowen Technical School and I was going to further myself by taking my A levels and going to university.
“It was unfortunate that at the age of 16 mum and dad said ‘you are leaving school now’. They took me by the back of my collar and threw me in the factory.”
This seems completely contrary to most parents hopes for their children, that they should better themselves through education. But Brian understands now why they did it.
“They had spent their lives in factories. That is what they understood. Secondly they needed some money coming into the house because we were really working class – bottom rung income level. Terraced house, no bathroom, behind the factories. They needed my money.
“So I spent from the ages of 16 to 21 working in offices and factories and I ended up working for the British Steel Corporation.”
It was a rough, tough show of love for their child that also motivated them to refuse to support his teenage ambition to become a speedway rider.
“That’s all I ever dreamt of. They said no way are we going to buy you a second hand speedway bike. They insisted I go on the road and become a road racer because speedway was too dangerous.”
Young Brian was understandably frustrated by the fact his parents seem to be holding him back and as soon as he was old enough he broke free from the world of industry.
“People had said I should just leave home, but that wasn’t part of your psyche growing up in the Black Country,
“Then I had a girlfriend on the seventh floor of Lloyd House and she went off with the department store floor manager of Lewis’s. It just broke my heart so I thought ‘I am going to get out of this tedious, boring life that is going nowhere’
“So I applied to photography colleges just to escape.”
His parents, predictably, were horrified.
“They couldn’t do anything about it though because I was 21 and I could make my own choices in life.”
When he qualified he had visions of making it big in London.
“I left art college and I thought I would land in a nice job like a photographer on a top fashion magazine but I ended up in the business sector working on Management Today, so I had to make a go of it.
“I found new ways portraying what was regarded at that time boring subject matter in desperation to succeed.”
The work he started then has led to him becoming, in the words of the British Journal of Photography, “the most unpredictable and influential British portrait photographer of the last three decades”.
He concedes, however, that his parents actions, as devastating as they were at the time, have helped to shape him as an artist.
“It is almost schizophrenic,” he agrees.
“Certain decisions my mother and father made for me I utterly disliked or hated. Yet through life’s circumstances they have actually turned out to my betterment.
“It seemed like they were stultifying my progress at the time but looking back now, at the age of 62, they actually enhanced it, so I have like really mixed feelings about it.”
It meant that when he came to photograph businessmen they had a common ground. Consequently he was able to gain their trust as he created slightly surreal images, a world away from the formal poses one normally associates with men in suits.
“I had only left Lloyd House about three years before and I was like a fairly top engineer in my own way so I could have a discourse with these managers. I was on their level.
“I was also very good at chess at school and knowing when to make a move is vital in portrait photography, when to actually say ‘will you do that?’ whatever it might be.
“There is a real technique in enshrouding the sitter in a ball of not knowing where they are. Where the sitter comes out of the experience and doesn’t really know what happened.
“I am quite a good actor, I think. It is creating an environment round your subject where you can manipulate them.
“I can tell almost immediately when I meet another photographer whether they are going to make it as a portrait photographer – without even seeing a picture, just from the feeling that emanates from them.”
He considers the managers among his favourite subjects to photograph along with actors, whom he finds willingly malleable. His portfolio features striking shots of the likes of Donald Sutherland posed in a doorway, his hair in Einsteinian disarray, with a chair balanced over his head. Helen Mirren appears crouched under a table, Jeremy Irons is a floating head behind a pile of ballroom chairs while Sir Michael Gambon has thrown dignity to the wind and just collapsed across the back of a sofa.
“They are the best in the world to work with, those actors, You can give them an orange and they will think of a thousand things to do with it. It is a joy, a sheer joy, and all you have to do is direct them.”
Brian is also famous for some of the extraordinary images he has created with and for musicians.
He began working with Stiff Records in the late ‘70s, photographing Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Throughout the post-public and New Romantic eras he worked on portraits, film, videos and record sleeves.
His image for Joe Jackson’s Look Sharpe in 1978 is listed among the 100 greatest album covers of all time, while his shot for Depeche Mode’s 1982 album, A Broken Frame, was featured on the cover of Life magazine’s “The Greatest Photographs of the ‘80s”.
He candidly admits that sometimes he used to dread being booked for groups.
“I adore music and it’s been a great inspiration in my life but I found bands the most tedious and boring things in earth to photograph to be honest.
“They all looked like a lump of sacking most of the time. They’re all worried about their hair. They have all got their egos, their feelings about each other. They will go two or three years and all break up and fall out and never speak to each other again. I found them a pain in the arse.
“I always prayed for the individual artists like Iggy Pop, Brian May or Brian Eno.
“I did an awful lot of album covers where I didn’t have to photograph the band, like the first six I did for Depeche Mode. They are never in the pictures.
“No disrespect to the artists. The members used to generate interesting ideas in order for me to go off and take photographs. I am talking about bands physically as a bunch to photograph.”
More recently he has been in demand to record industrial achievements such as the Eurostar project at St Pancras and the construction of Broadgate in London.
Once again his unconventional approach is to the fore. For the latter commission he posed the workers like knights on a tomb, their tools held to their chests like swords. It is a visual eulogy to his late father who succumbed to an illness caused by industrial pollution.
A request from Reykjavik Energy to come to Iceland, birthplace of his second wife, the supermodel turned jewellery artist Brynja Sverrisdottir, resulted in a fantastical journey across “a netherworld of gaseous, ethereal landscapes”.
“Icelanders are very similar to Black Country people,” says Brian, surprisingly. “The fire, the earth, the people. It is extremely elemental, like the Black Country was when I was a boy – all fire, earth clay and hot steel.”
Brian’s past and life experiences have always bled through into his work in some way but he will confront it more directly in the exhibition he has prepared for the Parisian chapel, about his childhood in Lye.
The exhibition, which will also be displayed at Walsall’s New Art Gallery next spring, is not just a revisiting of old haunts but a recapturing of memories.
“The whole show is about my mum and dad who were factory workers and my grandparents who were chain makers.
“It is dedicated to my late mother really, she is the star. I have recreated people from my childhood. I’ve cast them, costumed them and photographed them, people who are no longer alive, including my mother and father. I play the part of my father because I look exactly like him and I got an actress to play the part of my mother.
“It is almost like a children’s book, full of text and family photographs of me growing up.
“A friend emailed me the other day and said ‘you are making Lye world famous’. That is the aim actually.”
* For more information about Brian's work and the current exhibitions go to : www.briangriffin.co.uk