P.D James | On Commission - 02|12|12


Shroud for a Nightingale

My recent portrait for The Times of Phyllis Dorothy James, better known as P.D James - the English crime writer and life peer in the House of Lords.

The title of this post, if you hadn't guessed, is one of P.D James books, Shroud for a Nightingale, published in 1971. A quick scan of Wikipedia gave me the full list of published books. Shroud for a Nightingale sounds reasonably sweet and harmless, unlike the rest of her work which read like the set list from a Slipknot gig. The words death, desire, murder and sin appear in almost every title. Phyllis is not as innocent as she looks, there's a darkness behind those eyes.

I've never been particularly fond of wearing jewellery, I rarely even wear a watch but I happened to be wearing my new wedding ring the day I photographed Phyllis. I noticed she had an identical ring on her right hand which gave us a lovely talking point with which to settle into the shoot. Building a rapport quickly is for me one of the most important elements of a good portrait shoot. I always find shoots tricky if I feel as though I'm not gelling with the subject, I blame the unresolved childhood issue of needing to feel liked. I'm always proclaiming to anyone that will listen that being an adept portrait photographer is 80% being good with people. I've no idea what the other 20% is. Arnold Newman famously said "photography is 1% talent and 99% moving furniture". He's right, I might need to revise my percentages.

Baroness James of Holland Park (to give Phyllis her full epithet) has an extraordinarily great face for portraiture. I wanted to give the image some stature to suit her accomplishments, the pose in this shot fits perfectly with the lighting and shooting angle. Mostly due to the way I work (frantically) more often than not I don't realise I have a good image until I'm reviewing the set on a monitor. In this instance I could see immediately I had a corker. The beginnings of a smile on a face full of character.