Ten questions for milliner Philip Treacy's photographer of the last 20 years - Kevin Davies
The photographer on how to please Valentino, the etiquette of shooting Princess Anne, why it's sometimes important not to follow the brief and being the best dressed man (in a Philip Treacy hat) at The Edge's wedding
Photographer Kevin Davies met miliner Philip Treacy almost a quarter of a century ago when both were fresh from college, starting on their respective careers. As Philip's reputation grew so did Kevin's success as a photographer, with prestigious shoots for Vogue, The Face, NME and ID in which he photographed subjects as diverse as Manolo Blahnik, Lucian Freud, Barry White, Martin Sheen, Shane MacGowan, Princess Anne, Stella McCartney, Amy Winehouse and Zaha Hadid. Their friendship remained constant throughout this time with Kevin shooting Treacy in his studio at every stage of his career. Those photos can now be seen, alongside some great stories of the time from Philip and Kevin, in a wonderful new book, Philip Treacy by Kevin Davies. We sat Kevin down and asked him 10 questions about it.
What were the first photos you took as a kid? I think my grandad gave me my first camera. My earliest photographic memories are from when we moved to Cornwall. The school I went to had a brilliant art teacher and art and printmaking departments. Then I went to art school and wanted to paint but I couldn’t do it to save my life. Then I tried print making and sculpture. For my degree show I took photographs of my sculptures. I had fibreglass arms coming out of the walls to hold the frames – not very intellectual! The tutor told me the photos of my sculptures were far superior to my sculptures. I left college, came to London and lived in a squat. I worked in a framing shop and met this guy who had a dark room and he said you can come in and process your pictures there. I went in at weekends and used all his lighting and everything and shot portraits of friends. I took about 15 pictures in a photographic print box to The Face. I didn’t even have a portfolio! And they gave me a job straightaway. I think my first proper editorial commission was Nic Roeg for NME. He was a bit frosty. He had a cast of Theresa Russell’s head on the bookshelf which looked quite odd. After that It didn’t matter what he did, I was only in interested in the cast.
The book tells a funny story about your first meeting with Philip at a Vogue shoot with neither of you really wanting to follow the brief It’s true. I’d been given a brief by American Vogue and Philip said, ‘well what do you think of that?’ I tried to be very careful about it, but he thought the idea wasn’t right. And even though at that point he was only out of college a year, being Philip he said ‘let’s do something else’. And I think that’s what we both saw in each other. That was the important thing - not trying to please somebody else, somebody who isn’t even there. His show in September was a good example of that. (Treacy dressed his models in Michael Jackson’s stage costumes). It was amazing. It was a hell of a gamble, taking the decision to use those clothes, even when you know you’re not going to get the clothes until like three weeks beforehand. To base everything around that and use all black African models, again it’s quite a strident thing to do. He just does his own thing and there aren’t a lot of people doing that.
You photographed him over a period of 20 years, how did the process work? I’d generally go in to his studio after lunch or mid-afternoon and stay late. When people left at midnight or 1am he’d stay on ‘til 3 or 4am. If there was a show he’d stay up all night to get things done. If he was there on his own, I’d stay on a bit longer and it was just us and his dog, Mr Pig. I suppose once you’ve done that a few times you do become part of the furniture. I think he just felt, ‘oh here’s Kevin again’. I didn’t get in his face - not keeping a distance, but I wanted the whole picture anyway. I’d make him a cup of tea and he’d ask what I’d been up to and we’d just laugh about things. The only time he deliberately did something (pulled a pose) was when Princess Anne made a Royal visit. He asked to measure her head because she doesn’t wear hats. And she agreed. He kind of went to move a foot or so right or left so that I could get a good picture. I was very surprised, but he obviously thought ‘wow, this is a moment’.
And how does Philip tend to work? "They’d often turn up at a show two or three days before a show and they still hadn’t finished or they’d suddenly come up with an idea and just make it on the spot. Incredibly exciting. They’d have all these boxes of stuff they bring with them. I think that comes from when he first went to someone like Valentino and was shown into a room and a model would come in and Valentino would go, ‘what do you think?’ and Philip would have to get some fabric and just do it. I think that first time it was probably a bit ‘Help!’ after that he probably realised OK that’s that way you work, I can do that."
How many photos did you have on the initial edit? I had about 10,000 – not a lot actually. If that were 20 years of digital it would be 10 times that. I have the habit of being quite economical. When it came to making the book, I’d go over to Philip’s and show him a selection of pictures. I wanted him to be involved in it and I could see him looking at them and going back in time. That was definitely the case with that Grace Jones picture (page 50). He always liked that picture from the very beginning. I don’t know exactly why. And I also love his face in the picture with Grace, (page 10) – you can tell he’s like, “I’m working with Grace Jones!” because he’d only just met her. And I love that picture, even though it’s out of focus, it gets that wonderment of, I’m here doing this! This is where I want to be. That’s changed in 20 years. I wouldn’t have seen that picture in the same way 20 years ago.
Do you think he recognised a creative kindred spirit? He seems to be someone who loves to roll his sleeves up – in the book he says he’d almost rather create than design I don’t really know. I think it just really worked from that very first picture. He’s quite unusual in the sense that he does tend to ask people a lot of questions. If he sat down with you – even you as a journalist - for the first 20 minutes you wouldn’t be able to ask him anything. He would be asking the questions. He’s a very inquisitive person. Whether that’s a deflection of whatever, I don’t know. But he certainly seems naturally interested, in that typically Irish way.
The first picture of the studio in the book in a way is almost indecipherable yet it immediately tells you what that Elizabeth St studio was all about in the early 1990s And that to me was the point. If anybody had sent me to take pictures of Philip and I came back with that, they would be very unhappy because they wouldn’t be able to put any type on it or if they managed to it wouldn’t work very well. If you’re a portrait photographer, you’re interested in saying something about the person. When I started doing photos of Philip on my own it was because I didn’t want anyone in my ear saying ‘we need a double page spread’ or ‘it’s a cover’. As soon as anyone says that to you, you have to think in those terms. I wanted to take pictures that nobody could fuck around on. That studio was a really messy, chaotic, ‘sweatshop‘ place – we didn’t think it at the time but now we can look back on it and see that. It was a very creative atmosphere.
Did shooting in low light present any particular problems? Obviously his hats are sculptural in the extreme and, we imagine, demand painstaking lighting I don’t think he minded that too much. Every major photographer has shot his stuff. When you’ve got Irvin Penn photographing a model in your hat I don’t think it really mattered too much that I wasn’t getting that! I actually liked the light because it was a flat even light. The house model looked pretty good I thought. I do think now that people are so obsessed (with clarity) that you’ve got to throw loads of light at everything. But I think If you’ve grown up with photography where you go outside take a picture of something, then you go home, take the film out, you process it and then you do a print of it you have an understanding of that whole process. It gives you a better idea of what the light’s doing and how it affects things. A lot of people think daylight doesn’t look very good but it depends what you do with it. There’s hardly any retouching in the book at all which is remarkable.
Yes we noticed Christy Turlington’s number written in felt tip on Philip’s wall in one shot And you didn’t ring it? My wife tried it, just to make sure it wasn’t current. It’s pretty good that we didn’t take it out! But see, if you took that out it wouldn’t have made any sense putting that picture in the book would it? He still does that. He still writes numbers on the wall. I’ve never seen him with an address book. He’s just not that kind of person.
You must have learned a lot about hats over the last 20 years. Give us your key bit of hat advice? Actually I don’t know much about them at all. I’ve watched him work but I’ve never analysed it or even heard most of it. I’ve been tuned-out, just concentrating on getting the picture. He did make me a very nice hat though. When I was invited to Edge’s (U2 guitarist) and Morleigh’s wedding in Eze, in the south of France Philip offered to make me a hat. In fact he made two. He put the first one on which had a short brim, and then he took out another one that had a four-inch wide brim and I remember looking at myself and thinking, please don’t say this one, I haven’t got the balls to wear it. And, of course, he said, ‘definitely the wider one!’ I had it in this huge box on my lap all the way on the plane. In the morning I put it on and said to my wife, I just haven’t got the confidence to wear this. She said you’ve got to wear it, Philip would be upset. Anyway I decided to wear it. We went in the lift and went down one floor. The doors opened and it was Gavin Friday (singer, actor and painter) waiting to get in the lift. And straight away he said, -‘It’s the man who fell to Eze. Brilliant! Thank you!’ There was a freak heatwave, they had to put the wedding back a few hours because it was at the top of a hill in a tropical garden and you had to walk all the way up. They provided everyone with parasols and bottles of water but everyone wanted to get under my hat – I was the only one who wasn’t hot. Afterwards we went to a restaurant, then back to the house for the dinner. My wife said -‘Before we leave, you’ve got to make a decision: are you going to wear the hat for the whole day - or are you going to take it off.’ I took it off for a while, but went to check to see if I had a line...no line whatsoever. I know now that the hats he makes for me will just fit perfectly. Bob Geldof, was there too and Bob being Bob he couldn’t resist trying to pull the hat off my head, but it wouldn’t move, which was a relief. As we were leaving, Bono and (wife) Ali were saying goodbye, he added –‘we’ve all decided that you two are the best-dressed people here today.’ And that’s the incredible thing. Philip always says a hat can make you feel completely different. He’s right. I love it dearly.