During the late eighties I began working with some of the most renowned British photographers of the time, such as the late, great Terry O’Neill and by the early nineties I truly believed that celebrity photography would be my profession going forward. On assignments, I would often ask my mentors how I should begin my own celebrity portfolio. The mirrored advice I received was to write an introductory letter to actors or sportsmen that I held in high esteem and would be honoured to photograph.
Having been brought up near to Wimbledon and a relatively short distance from The Wimbledon Tennis Championships, I initially intended approaching professional tennis players, but never did. I also contemplated trying to make contact with the great actor Oliver Reed but photographer David Steen advised me not to and talked me out of it.
I was also very much aware that a British ‘World Famous’ racing legend was living on my doorstep, a former Formula 1 World Champion. But a private photoshoot with James (for an unknown 21 year old) seemed completely and utterly unattainable.
But then, as luck would have it, on a night out in Wimbledon Village, I was astonished to discover that Anna; a friend of mine babysat for James’ children. The moment I learnt of this I pleaded with her to give me James’ home address and thankfully after some wine and gentle coaxing she did.
To this day, I have only ever posted one letter to somebody famous and that letter was sent to James. I honestly didn’t think that I would hear back but to my great surprise James telephoned a couple of days later accepting my proposal of a one-to-one fine art portrait session and we set a date for the following week.
I could not believe my luck.
A few sleepless nights ensued, all I could think about was how I would light his face. I was living with my parents at the time and so I discussed the many lighting options with my father Arthur Steel a renowned Fleet Street photographer who’d photographed many celebrities, including the British racing driver’s Jim Clark and Graham Hill and had even photographed James’ great friend Barry Sheene. After much thought, we decided to keep the lighting as simple as possible; one light – one shadow. I knew that James was good looking, that he had extremely high cheek bones and a chiselled jawline. It was a bit of gamble on my part but this meant that he should be able to handle a harsh, contrasty light in order to accentuate his masculinity.
I also considered what he might wear and what props I could introduce but decided that it was best not to include anything to do with motorsport in the pictures.
All I wanted to do; was capture powerful iconic portraits of ‘James’; the F1 legend himself.
Originally, we had arranged to carry out the shoot at his imposing house on Bathgate Road, but he telephoned me at the last minute and changed the location to another secluded property close-by on Wimbledon Common.
It was a perfect summer evening on 2nd July when I arrived at The Coach House on Windmill Road and at exactly 7pm, I knocked on the front door and James answered abruptly. He was wearing a blue singlet top with pale blue denim shorts and naturally, he was barefoot. Immediately, I wondered how on earth I was going to get him to change into something a little smarter. His sleeveless singlet was far too relaxed for the pictures that I had in mind and was aware that he could be quite strong-willed in regard to his attire.
Just inside the main entrance, to the right was the living area and James asked me if the space would work or not. The ceiling height was really quite low and the room was packed with furniture. The space wasn’t ideal but I had to make it work and knew that there was just enough room to capture the headshots that I’d set out to accomplish. I explained to James that in order to set up my lighting and background stands (for the canvas backdrop), quite a lot of the furniture would need to be moved to one side. Luckily for me, James bent over backwards to help, in fact, he couldn’t help enough. We moved a coffee table, some armchairs, and even lifted a couple of sofas together to clear a space. Whilst doing so, he mentioned that his girlfriend was also in the house, kindly letting me know that we weren’t entirely alone. James was hyperactive, full of energy, darting around the house the whole time I was there, whilst his partner seemed very shy, as she kept a very low profile and hid herself in the kitchen towards the rear of the house. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of her blonde hair when she popped her head into the room to see how we’d transformed the space into a studio and don’t recall James ever introducing us.
A while later the stage was set, and so I called out, “James, I’m ready!”, within seconds he burst into the room and said “Right, where do you want me?” quickly followed by “Is this alright?” tugging on his top. “Well” I said in a respectful way, “You wouldn’t happen to have anything black would you, like a crew neck?”. He turned around and marched back toward the kitchen, calling out to his girlfriend, “Darling, he wants me in black, do we have anything?”. I was so relieved that he was co-operating, as it would make all the difference to the pictures. A short while later he bounced back into the room sporting a black crew neck sweater and our photo session began.
Admittedly, I was a little nervous, as I was only 21 at the time, but previous experiences had allowed me to remain composed and confident. As soon as the 43-year-old F1 Premier Superstar sat himself down on the footstool in front of me, I took complete control while directing him; “Serious!”, “hold!”, “caught you blinking”, “chin up”, “look towards the light for me”, “back to camera”, “turn your shoulders more to me”, “straighten your back”…..etc, etc. It was actually quite intense for both of us at first, so as soon as I’d captured the powerful portraits that I’d set out to achieve, I relaxed the mood and we shared a few laughs together. The shot of James looking mischievously into camera; titled ‘Irresistible Charm’ was for me the icing on the cake and I knew the moment that I took it, that I had the shoot well and truly in the bag.
I had been there for over an hour but the actual photo shoot lasted no longer than 10 minutes, three rolls of medium format film, one roll of colour and two black and white, only thirty frames were captured in all and even though James seemed very happy being photographed I didn’t want to mess him around by stringing the session out, so I ended the shoot abruptly and said with a smile, “That’s it, we’re done! I hope that wasn’t too painful?” To which he replied;
“No, not at all, that was fun!…Are you sure? Is that it??!”
I don’t think that the timing could have been any better, both James’s hair and stubble were at the perfect length and I’ve since learnt that he was off cigarettes and alcohol at the time and very much into his fitness, cycling wherever he went. I felt privileged to have photographed him, in the raw, without make-up artists, hair-stylists, wardrobe, clients or hangers-on, it was just the two of us connecting. I can’t remember much of what I’d written in my letter to James, as I never made a copy, but whatever words I’d penned had somehow allowed me unprecedented access to motor racing’s King of Cool.
Once I’d struck the set and stacked my cases by the front door, James came back into the room and helped me put the furniture back in situ. When everything was returned to its position I began loading my gear into the car while James kindly held the front door open for me. He was an absolute gentleman, repeatedly offering to help me, but I kept declining his assistance, I just could not allow this iconic man to carry my bags for me.
Once my car was packed, we shook hands firmly and I thanked him very much, not only for giving me his time, but also for being so cooperative. I turned around and walked towards my vehicle and just as I opened the door and was about to get in, he cupped his right hand around his mouth and called out;
“JOLLY GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY!”
It was such a lovely thing for him to say, but little did I know, that they’d be the last words he’d ever say to me. As I drove away, I remember smiling from ear to ear and thinking to myself; what an incredible experience that was and what a lovely man.
James was only 43 when we met and seemed to be in very good health. I was totally unaware that he’d been through such destructive periods in his life, had had major financial problems and been divorced twice, however, he had clearly managed to turn his life around, and fallen in love again, was a wonderful father to his sons and appeared to be in great shape. That’s why I believe that he was more than happy for me to photograph him when I did, as it is possible that he felt the best that he had in years. So in my mind, the timing could not have been any better.
“…then James was better, then he was clean, like you wouldn’t believe. Worked for the last years of his life for the BBC commentating on races, completely fit, like you don’t believe and we were all happy to have James back with us.” – Niki Lauda