I was privileged to be part of the private tour of the Road to 2012 photographic exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery yesterday.
It is a long time since I have taken an evening train to London to visit a Gallery, or anything else for that matter, on my own. As usual I hadn’t ‘researched’ the journey as many of my much better organised friends (and family) had recommended. ‘There are always trains to London’ is my belief. I chose the station with the most convenient parking , turned up half an hour later than I planned and, having negotiated the automatic ticket machine ( my problem with these machines is always which slot takes in money and which slots fires out tickets), stepped within minutes onto a Waterloo-bound train.
I reached Waterloo 20 minutes before I was due at the gallery to meet Stacey Bowles, the BT Storyteller rep, but nothing could burst my bubble of confidence. There was no queue for a taxi and I confided in the driver that I had to arrive by 6pm. Now, you wouldn’t think that the roads would be clear at 5.30pm, and they weren’t, but my trusty driver deposited me at the doors to the Gallery with minutes to spare. This was surely going to be a charmed evening.
My first surprise was no fee to enter, my second the buzz of activity in the Late Shift Bar. Jazz playing in the background, people doing what people do all around, no queue to deposit my coat and bag (I hate handbags). It was a treat just to be here. I could have sat in this space all evening and just soaked up the vibrance, and watched – for that is what writers do of course, they watch.
Before too long I noticed the clip board bearing Stacey and introduced myself. I took quiet stock of my fellow storytellers and was pleased to note that they seemed much like me…for some reason I had expected to feel staid by comparison.
My approach to the exhibition, the one thing I had planned in advance, was to research nothing about it beforehand. I wanted to see it for the first time that evening and just note the words that tumbled into my head at each exhibit. For that I apologise to my fellow storytellers, and indeed to our guide and curator of the exhibition, Ann Braybon, for I was the one scribbling madly into a notebook, leaving little time for networking, or even eye contact.
Believe me, I was listening to the brilliant insights Ann gave to the approach that she had found in her years of planning – it began as long ago as 2006 and needed to conform to the National Portrait Gallery’s remit of portraying people who have made a significant contribution to British life. Ann explained the birth of the idea of a timeline from beginning to end of the Olympic journey – and the way that translated into the exhibition; to the methods and ways of working of the two different photographers; to the difficulties of access to the sitters; the ways in which elements of the sport could be captured when working with athletes and coaches; the need to capture environment and character, background, hopes and aspirations.
Emma Hardy is the chosen photographer to portray the movers and shakers behind the scenes – facilitators, organisers, planners, experts. Her method is to meet the sitters beforehand, know them, build their trust, and then to capture part of their essence on film – yes, film. As these people are planners, thinkers, ideas people, often office based, the decision to capture them away from their working environment worked especially well. Emma, using ambient light only, working alone, brilliantly shows a reflective, more intimate side to subjects such as Stella McCartney (Adidas Creative Director, among her more well known personae), Michael Morpurgo (prestigious poet, working on scripts for branding material), Chris Allison, 27 years a uniformed policeman, now Assistant Commissioner in charge for Olympic Security, Seb Coe, pictured in a tracksuit at the top of a rise that you just know he has taken at a run, looking barely out of breath, fit, controlled and, well, natural – just some of the amazing studies on show.
Finlay Mackay is the photographer chosen to depict the athletes – not in their competition arenas, but more naturally, just ‘doing their thing’. Finlay works in an entirely different way. He uses additional lighting, assistants and utilises digital skills, such as photo-montage to show his subjects and their worlds. Miraculously he has captured worlds as well as people. The Birmingham gym where boxer Khalid Yafai has trained since boyhood under coach Frank O Sullivan. There are other young boxers in the background, maybe some lucky enough to be mentored by Khalid. There are pencil sketches displayed high on a wall of boxers from the gym, drawn by one of the female coaches. Mackay portrays the importance of family in exhibits such as those of Taikwondo champion Aaron Cooke, photographed outside his home with parents and siblings, where his father had built a training area for his son; in the calm face of Mandip Sehmi’s mother, her tranquil, clasped hands as she watches her son, determination transfiguring his face, as he protects the ball from opponent Andy Barrow in a Wheelchair Rugby (previously known as Murder Ball – not a misnomer!) tackle.
Magically, these photographers offer insights into worlds we can barely imagine – the determination of athletes, the concerns of organisers, the impact of environment, the challenges, inner thoughts of those who will make London 2012 an integrated, moving, spectacular tribute to the Olympic ideal that pervades all of life, not just sporting endeavour.
Moved, full of impressions, words, phrases and emotion, I made my way home in a bubble of inspiration. A free taxi was just waiting at a red light for me to step into, the train was at rest at the platform with only minutes to wait before I was on my way home.
It had truly been a charmed and magical evening. I now have poems in the making which will be posted here and at http://www.btlondon2012.co.uk/storytellers/WhatsNew-Pages/WhatsNew.php.
If anyone reading this has a chance – take yourself to The National Portrait Gallery, it is well worth the trip.