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An English Perspective

Interview with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy film stills photographer Jack English.

This is an edited version of an interview that appears on:
by kind permission

Lisa Giles-Keddie
Freelance Journalist

Legendary musician Eric Clapton calls him his ‘favorite photographer [who] does great work’. Now Jack English has another lifelong fan in actor-director Gary Oldman who describes him as ‘a true artist with a camera’. This British artist has worked his ever-evolving creativity worldwide in a number of areas, including fashion, music and film photography.

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyIn fact English’s big break into film stills came after Oldman saw a blues album that English had done for Clapton in a record store back in the 90s, and the debut director contacted the photographer to discuss doing the stills for his 1997 semi-autobiographical and harrowing drama, Nil By Mouth. With no experience of film photography, but a major passion for movies, English describes how it all happened as a major gamble.

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“Gary, who I thought was very hip, took a huge risk by hiring me, as I’d never worked on a film set before,” says English. “But part of the brief was that he didn’t want film stills – he wanted quite abstract images.”

English always thinks about the style and context of any film he works on, and how to replicate this in his pictures. He decided to bring an element of painter Francis Bacon’s vision to Oldman’s debut feature images to portray the character’s hardship.

“Fujifilm made Tungsten stills film back then and I actually shot on this,” adds English. “Bacon’s work influenced the stills with its colour, movement and the subject matter.”

From that moment onwards, English found his unique eye was in great demand on the international film scene. On Oldman’s recommendation, renowned French film-maker Luc Besson came calling on English to work his magic on the stills for his new sci-fi action thriller, The Fifth Element, starring Bruce Willis. It was quite a challenge and a change of environment, admits English.

Gary Oldman and John Hurt in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
It was on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that English – who got his first professional photography break in 1989 after photographing jazz musician Chet Baker with a borrowed camera after a chance encounter in Cannes, followed by a portrait of artist Andy Warhol which was published in The Sunday Times magazine – could explore his appreciation for the detailed and iconic black-and-white film portraiture work of late American portrait photographer Irving Penn, who died in 2009.

English who is also a fan of Alfredson’s work on 2008 fantasy horror Let The Right One In, met with the Swedish director and Tinker, Tailor’s producer Robyn Slovo, after another recommendation from Oldman – who stars as espionage veteran George Smiley in the Cold War thriller, opposite a star-studded cast that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds and Mark Strong. Alfredson, Oldman and Slovo were instrumental in helping English do what he wanted, with reference to Penn, using the “winning combination of” Hasselblad lenses and Fujifilm Acros 100 ASA black & white film.

“I thought the feel of film would suit the time period. When you’ve got great faces like John Hurt’s, Ciarán Hinds’ and Mark Strong’s, it’s not hard work,” admits English. “I just put someone in front of a camera and I know if it’s going to work, or I think I know.”

“The distributor wanted to go a very different way with Tinker, Tailor, with people shot against white backgrounds, but I didn’t want to do any of that,” says English. “I was even told by a publicist on the film not to shoot any black-and-white because they couldn’t use it. Then there were five pages of my Tinker, Tailor stills in the last issue of Empire film magazine – all black-and-white.”

English first came across Fujifilm Acros in Los Angeles, and has just done a black-and-white shoot with Oldman for Italian Vogue’s September issue, as well as with singer Will Young for the October magazine using the same stock. That said, a photographer is only as good as his printer, and although English uses London lab Bayeux for colour printing, he relies on one printer in particular for black-and-white.

“I go to a very, very good black-and-white printer who specialises in black-and-white called Klaus Kade, one of the few black-and-white printers left in London,” praises English. “You build up a strong relationship with a printer over a period of time, particularly with black-and-white film. They get to know what you like, and how you want the print.”

English has a lot of prior talent and experience to aspire to, citing Oldman as the “best director he’s ever worked with” as “Gary has a very good eye. He shoots on film and he’s great at getting the very best performances out of his actors.”

Jack English courtesy Ross Stirling

Jack English courtesy Ross Stirling

In the meantime, Jack English can be found sweltering in the New Orleans heat, doing the film stills photography for crime thriller Parker (out 2012), director Taylor Hackford’s adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s novels, starring Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte.

“I just shot a picture with Jason using a Leica M2 and Fujifilm Neopan 400 black & white. Jason was as good as gold – as was the film stock.”

For more information and to view Jack English’s work for Nil By Mouth and Downtown LA, please visit: www.jackenglish.co.uk/ contact: Mark Andrews mark@m-a-d-e.net

Lisa Giles-Keddie
M: +44 7770 775117 W: www.filmgaze.com

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