Peter Ackroyd Autumn 2005 shot in Knightsbrige
Photos by Piers Allardyce 07976 724 390
This wasn’t an easy assignment as Peter was very quiet and stern.
Nonetheless it lends a certain gravitas to the image.
It is probably not overstating matters to say that, during his career, Piers has photographed a huge variety of people in almost every kind of social situation. Naturally, there have been times when his subjects have proved difficult and Piers had to be diplomatic and resourceful to get the job done. He offers a good example of one such situation.
“I think the first major problem I experienced was with a band when I was doing a cover shoot for a festival guide to Britain which was going to be a supplement included with the Melody Maker that summer. It was all very last minute and the problem was that it couldn’t be done in a photographic studio, so I’d gone to enormous trouble to set this whole thing up and get it right. I actually had to build a set at the recording studio!
“Just to paint the picture; I imported strips grass and planted those on the floor. I had to erect a tent and build a mock fire at the entrance of the tent. I then had to create a scene at dusk, so I had to fake a night sky for which I used a dark blue colourama.
“To make the burning embers of the fire I had to acquire and arrange orange yellow and red coloured tissue paper, but the fire needed kindling. I made that by smashing a basket which I’d got from a permanent market place in Chelsea, where they had lots of expensive plants, flowers and vastly overpriced weaving baskets. Time was fast approaching so I was forced to decimate this basket in the back of the taxi! It was a major challenge, an incredibly tight deadline and I sweated buckets for about five hours to set the scene.
“Then these three guys walk into the room, one of them folds his arms, steps over and says, ‘No mate, I’m not doing this!’ I think it was the drummer. I look at him and said, ‘Why not!’ He just said, ‘I’m not doing it. ‘I said ‘well, I’ve gone to a lot of trouble and this is for a cover shoot, it’s important.’ He was so reluctant and obnoxious that, for the first time in my career, I actually considered putting my camera down and walking out of the room. Luckily the two other members of the band managed to bring him round in the end. Then he grabbed hold of two speaker stacks, which was his contribution, and put them either side of the tent, which was actually a good move because it worked quite well. I thought it looked pretty good and that’s what I ended up with, so the shoot went ahead. But I had to placate this guy for quite a long time and that was one of the worst incidents.
“A few months later, the same summer, I saw him standing by a gate at Glastonbury and I glowered at him but he didn’t see me. I just thought, ‘I hate you! You made my day an absolute nightmare.’ But he didn’t see my expression and that was the end of that.”
Throwing Caution to the Wind!
In the course of our interview, I reminded Piers of a story he casually told me many years ago when we met at a function he was photographing and I was attending. It struck me as significant in that it revealed something about his exceptional openness and spirit of adventure. In many ways, it is these qualities which have helped him become a successful photographer. The story also shows how the itinerant work of a photographer can easily lead to a rather unhealthy lifestyle if not kept firmly in check!
“I went to Philadelphia with a fairly well-known journalist who bored me rigid,” Piers laughs, “and it was to photograph Oasis who hadn’t recorded or performed for quite a long time, so Melody Maker wanted to break this story back in England.
“This journalist and I set off on this plane together; he reviewed and I photographed the gig the following day. After the gig we got back to the hotel lobby and I left him because I got drinking with someone at the hotel bar. Then a guy and girl said, ‘Do you want to come to a party?’ so I agreed. I still had all my photographic equipment with me because I’d gone straight from the gig to the bar and I just jumped into this car with these people.
“I felt particularly reckless that night, wanted an adventure and I went looking for one. I was already old enough to know better, possibly in my early 30s. But there was no reticence there at all, I just thought, ‘Right, I am going to take up the gauntlet and run with it,’ and that’s exactly what I did.
“What I didn’t realise was that this party was at least 90 minutes outside Philadelphia and I’d accepted this ride in their car and didn’t know where we were going. But before we actually left town the guy said, ‘Look we are going to go on a little detour because there is something quite interesting happening,’ and I said ‘Oh, OK.’
“We went to meet this guy in a car lot who was filling balloons with helium, and there were queues of people paying a dollar a time to suck balloons! It was really bizarre. I think the idea was you were supposed to get a hit from this, not just talk in a silly squeaky voice. But I don’t think I’d taken enough to make any different to me.
“Then we got back in the car, which was packed with four or five people at this stage, and drove to a place in the middle of nowhere. I still don’t know where it was to this day. And there then followed the most bizarre series of events.
“We arrive at this condominium which was on one floor. I think it belonged to some student and there must have been about 15 or 20 people or so in this one room. I didn’t know anyone at all and it was like something out of a David Lynch film. I would not use that comparison lightly. You don’t find yourself in a David Lynch situation very often, but I was reminded very much of a scene in, I think, Blue Velvet.
“There were only three pieces of furniture in this room: a very large bed with a glass mirrored sealing above it, and for some reason there was also a bath and maybe an armchair, so a lot of people were sitting on the carpet.
“I was sat on this bed chatting very merrily to somebody when this woman came over and said to me, would you like some K? I had no idea what that was at all. I said, ‘Do you mean Special K?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know, but here we call it K.’
“I put my hand out and she said, ‘Turn your hand the other way around,’ so my palm was face down and she said, ‘now clench your fist,’ so I did and she put this powder on the back of my hand. I said ‘Don’t I have to draw it into a line or something?’ She said ‘No, just snort it all in one go, it’s already been chopped,’ so I snuffed it quite quickly. I didn’t think anything more of it and nothing happened. Then she came over again about 20 minutes later and did the same thing. That’s when I started feeling really weird and lost all use of my limbs. I fell back onto the bed and I could see myself receding in the mirror. At some point I was floating as well. People have likened it to LSD, except you don’t have the use of your limbs. So it’s a bit like having an out-of-body experience, when your mind just becomes disengaged from the rest of your body.
“So I was floating on this bed and felt really uncomfortable because I had lots of very expensive equipment in my bag at the foot of the bed and the place was filling up with yet more people. I couldn’t even lift my head off of the bed and it was frightening, but also incredibly stimulating. I couldn’t switch my mind off and couldn’t resolve my predicament at all.
“And the reason it was David Lynch-ian was because there was this very tubby guy, possibly gay, but certainly very camp, doing this bizarre gyratory dance by himself, and I don’t remember any music playing. It seemed to be this mimed dance and the whole thing was like the Candy Coloured Clown scene in Blue Velvet. There’s a scene where these people are doing a strange dance as the room is filling up with strangers and there is a slight air of menace. I wouldn’t claim that there was any menace at this party, but because of my state of mind I did feel very unhinged.
“And then it gradually got lighter and lighter and I suddenly realized, to my horror, as my faculties started coming back to me, that I had to fly back to England that day. But the funny thing was, as it got lighter outside the use of my limbs started returning and I was able to get off the bed. It’s difficult to say, but I reckon I’d been stranded there for about five hours.
“I managed to get a lift some of the way back into Philadelphia, found the journalist in the hotel and we got on the flight. But I remember the flight to England was really uncomfortable; I felt really jaded, tired and nauseous, and I said to myself ‘I will never get into this kind of situation ever again!’”