I drove from London to Oxford with my assistants to photograph the great writer and scholar Philip Pullman for The Sunday Times. Jane Moore the picture editor said “Get a picture of him with a scarecrow as they feature in one of his books”. The SUV was crammed with cameras and lights, that rattled away as we drove through the stunning Oxfordshire countryside. The autumn leaves swirling around the car, like so many mistresses and memories of lost love affairs and lost money, call me a sentimental fool if you will, as I contemplated meeting this gifted Oxford Don.
I realised as I was driving down and my thoughts had became increasingly literary that the muse had overcome me. As I was going to Oxford I thought I needed to speak in a more eloquent Oxfordshire manner.
We arrived at a beautiful, rustic, converted barn and country house. I made my assistant go to the front door as I thought I could hear dogs barking. I have always been fearful on canine teeth sinking into my person, since a spaniel savaged me as a young child. Fortunately I was mistaken. The sky was getting ominous and dark and I wondered if Mr Pullman would cast a spell upon my assistants and myself. I imagined that if I rang the doorbell a resounding ominous chime would reverberate across the Oxfordshire countryside, like the chimes at midnight. However the mundane chimes of a standard dinging doorbell broke my exaggerated fantasy. The door creaked open and there was a smiling Mr Pullman. “You must be the photographer from the Sunday Times” and I said “No, we’re boy scouts selling cookies for Christmas”. Philip smiled a knowing smile.
Philip guided us across the yard to his studio, I directed the assistants to unpack the equipment, as we were due to shoot inside and outside (with the scarecrow). By now the sky was swirling into an autumn early evening and I wanted capture some of the light. We set up in the studio and photographed Philip inside with an incredible carving of a horse, which was unfinished. I said ‘My Pullman is this your work?” referring to the horse. “Yes, he said to me, “Please call me Philip”. “I said, “The horse reminds me of the Parthenon Frieze in the British Museum. In progress of course” He smiled and said ‘I’m making it for a relative”.
I then noticed this beautiful Spanish guitar on a stand in the corner. I said, “Oh what a wonderful guitar, do you mind if I play it?” He said “Yes, try it” and I strummed a couple of chords and was about to demonstrate my prowess as a rock guitar player when Philip said “Yes, I teach classical guitar.” at which point I immediately placed the guitar back on the stand, completely overwhelmed by the talents of this polymath. Not only is Mr Pullman a writer he is also a gifted sculptor and musician. I was starting to believe he was superhuman.
We went outside and I started to shoot Philip in front of the scarecrow. Philip Pullman is a serious and considered man and chairman of The William Blake Society. There is something about him that exudes knowledge. I wanted to get some of the drama and wisdom of his writing into the portrait. For me he is the epitome of an Oxford scholar, and a master of English prose.
I asked Philip if he ever wore a hat. “Yes, I have one, my wife bought for me” He then went and got a rather marvellous hat, which he told me was either Dolce & Gabanna or Burberry or something like that. I shot a few frames of him lost in thought with the fire of his imagination emanating from his eyes. It must be wonderful to have been one of his students I thought, in a way I was for an afternoon.