Jack English, born in 1948, is a photographer, known for his work in the film and music industry. Before becoming a full-time photographer, he worked for oil companies in Madagascar, Nigeria and rigs in the North Sea and as a stylist in the 1970s and 1980s.
English’s interest in photography grew from a longstanding love of film that was inspired by his work in the fashion industry. He got his start when, in 1989 using a borrowed camera, English photographed jazz musician Chet Baker after a chance encounter in Cannes, followed by a portrait of Andy Warhol that was published in The Sunday Times magazine. Eric Clapton hired English to photograph his 1992 tour of the USA with Elton John, as well as shoot images for the liner notes of his 1994 blues album “From the Cradle”. English has worked on films such as “The Fifth Element”, “Joan of Ark”, “Magic in the Moonlight” and “The Imitation Game”. Below, English describes using the Leica M Monochrom for the first time in Los Angeles.
Q: These images were taken with the M Monochrom and it was your first time using the camera, correct? Can you briefly describe what your experience using the camera was?
A: It was my first time using the Monochrom, yes. It’s a great digital camera, and I was especially impressed with both the dynamic range and the tonal range, as well as what it’s able to provide in low light conditions. I also just had a 40×30 print made of one of the images and the detail was amazing.
Q: What appeals to you about shooting in black-and-white?
A: All my earliest recollections and influences of photography were in black-and-white, and there’s a kind of romanticism to black-and-white that moves me. It also comes back to my love of shooting on and working with film.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I find that almost impossible to answer; I like to leave that to the viewer. I will say that I like to photograph how I see the human condition, whether it be a homeless person or a movie star.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?
A: These were all shot in Los Angeles over a four week period. I’d always been curious about the Monochrom and was pleased when Leica offered me the opportunity to try one out. I was keen to try the camera out under different conditions to see what it could do, and as I was staying with my friend Gary Oldman, he was my first subject.
There’s an antique shop that I really like in Culver City called Obsolete that has an interesting mood. They were kind enough to let me shoot in there and so this provided me with an opportunity to try the camera out in low light.
I’ve been going to the Downtown area of LA for twenty years and have always liked places like Union Station, the Bradbury Building and Angel’s Flight. Ten years ago I roamed around down there with an M6 and 35 mm lens, using Kodak VC film, shooting the homeless population. It’s always something I go back to, perhaps the disintegration of the American dream.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: Intuitive and experimental.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, and profession?
A: I’ve always been moved by good photography. My late father had an album of photos taken during World War II that fascinated me. Some of them were disturbing – pictures of Dutch women who had fraternised with the Germans and were punished by the local population, their heads shaved and painted as a form of public humiliation.
As a teenager I loved early black-and-white British cinema – films like “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “The Hill” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. Although I’m not sure I was conscious of it at the time, it’s fair to say that they probably influenced me heavily, both in visual terms when it comes to my photography, and professionally now that I sometimes work on film sets.
Q: What genre are your photos?
A: I don’t think I work in any one genre especially. I shoot on film sets, in studios, on the street, using different cameras and working in different formats.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: Eric Clapton collects Leica cameras and he’s been a good friend for many years. I’ve often done photographic work for him and one Christmas he gave me an M2 which I still have, and later an M8 for my 60th birthday. I used an M9 of his, when they first came out, to shoot a family portrait for the Getty Foundation.
Q: Aside from using a variety of different cameras and formats, is your approach to creating images essentially the same when shooting on film sets, in studios, and on the street or do you modify your approach based on the circumstances and the wishes of your clients?
A: I’d say I modify my approach but with as little compromise as possible.
Stills photography on film sets is much more discreet and voyeuristic due to the circumstances – you’re not in charge, you’re part of a team, and you’re capturing your work without encroaching on the main action. There are so many elements to consider when shooting on a working set: you’re using someone else’s lighting, you have to be silent because they’re recording sound, you have to be careful not to intrude on an actor’s eye line and distract them while they’re giving a performance. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. It’s second nature to me now and I think I feel strangely at home on a film set due to the surreal nature of it all. With regards to format, within the last four years I’ve somewhat reluctantly moved from film to digital when it comes to on set work. The convenience and speed with which people can see and send images is paramount in that kind of situation, although I do shoot on film for myself when I feel like it.
Studio photography is very different. On a film set everyone is there to make the film and you capture photography around that, but in a studio everyone is there for the photography. It allows me to be in charge and in control and I rely on a very good team, headed by Ross Sterling, who help me achieve the look that I (and the client) want. Primarily we use medium format cameras on these kinds of shoots.
I’m not someone that normally carries a camera around with them all the time. On the street, when I do decide to take a camera out, it’s just me with one camera and it’s much more intuitive. Sometimes I’ll go out and not take a picture at all if it doesn’t feel right. I like Leica cameras for that kind of thing because they’re very unobtrusive.
Q: Some of your images were part of “The Art of Behind the Scenes” exhibition at Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc (Antibes), which coincided with the annual Cannes Film Festival. Can you describe the show and will it be displayed elsewhere?
A: It was an exhibition created and produced by Finch Partners in association with Jaeger-LeCoultre, consisting of a series of 30 behind the scenes images from film sets, ranging from the 1950s up to the present day. I had three images in the exhibition, all of which were shot on film with two of them from my 1960 Leica M2. It’s a very interesting, well presented exhibition and I do hope that it will be shown elsewhere.
Q: There is a wary and defensive quality in the body language and expressions of the two men here, but there is also a clear sense of their dignity as human beings that makes this image something special. Do you agree, and can you provide the tech data for this image?
A: Yes, I suppose I’d agree with that, although with the caveat that I don’t think it’s my place to judge my own work. I initially approached those guys because of the haircut of the one on the right. They were interesting, cool looking guys, and to me that afro was something you don’t see much anymore, like something out of a ’70s movie. It wasn’t until I’d started taking their picture that I saw they were using crack. I shot it with a 90 mm lens at f/2.8.
Q: This engaging image shows what looks like some oddball 19th century optometrist’s gadget or maybe something an oculist would hang in the window. What is it, where did you take the shot, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: It’s taken at a shop in Pasadena called ‘Old Focals’ that sells vintage glasses. It’s a very old opticians sign that reminded me of the one that features in “The Great Gatsby” that looks like it’s observing you. It’s a good shop; I bought a pair of old yellow 1970 Persol frames from them.
Q: There is something very compelling about your portrait of Gary Oldman. At first glance it is very straightforward, but as you engage with it, the masterful off-center composition with softly clenched hands in front of the face, soft background and contemplative mood lends it an amazing emotional depth. What do you think this image says about Gary Oldman, and what was the subject’s reaction to it?
A: Gary liked the image. He and I have been close friends for a long time. We have similar tastes in music, film, art and photography, and so he’s someone I feel very comfortable with and I think the feeling is mutual. When I first met Gary he was directing “Nil By Mouth” and dating Isabella Rossellini and I was very much in awe of him. As twenty years have passed and we’ve become friends, I like to think my photographs of him get past that celebrity to the man beneath, and this is how I see him now.
Thank you for your time, Jack!
– Leica Internet Team
To connect with Jack, visit his website.