In 1976 I was working at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. The great Franco-Hungarian photographer Brassaï opened an exhibition there and came from Paris. I hurried to meet him. Brassaï had heard that Ansel Adams was also in town for his own exhibition at Victoria & Albert. At the V&A, I learned that Bill Brandt had also come to see the Ansel show. So I gathered the three of them on a bench in the V&A Garden.
They were all at the end of their careers. I don’t think Ansel did a more substantial job in the remaining years of his life. Brandt at this time considered himself “an artist” and made these very strange assemblages of things he found on the shore. It was bullshit, basically. Someone should have said, “Look, Bill, stop putting trash in glass boxes.”
The three had never been together before. In this photo you have adopted Englishman Bill Brandt. You have the new world, represented by Adams. And you have Brassai in the middle. I only thought after the fact that the shot reminded me of the three wise monkeys.
I didn’t need to make them feel comfortable. They just sat down and started chatting. They were very different characters. Brandt was a man of few words and it was unusual to see him so quick. Brassaï seems to be excluded from the conversation, but it was he who had the glint in his eyes. If you think of his photographs of brothels in Paris in the 1930s, he was a hell of a boy, you know?
It was like the famous dinner between TS Eliot and Groucho Marx in 1964. They are expected to talk about the most extraordinary philosophical things – and what they are actually talking about is that coffee is not. not very good. But as long as those three were talking, I didn’t care if it was football or how many women they had divorced.
They all responded to the fact that I was under a sheet with a Gandolfi camera. It was a very impressive mahogany and brass model, handcrafted in London, which I bought in the early 1970s. You had to go under the fabric because the amount of light falling on the screen was not sufficient so that you can see it properly in daylight.
It also helped me when I photographed comedian Spike Milligan. He was a very picky man if you didn’t know him. Then he saw my camera and he said, “Oh, fantastic, where do you want me? He used to see people with little 35mm cameras, take pictures, and here’s someone with all the gear.
My worry is always that I have a chance and that she better be good. You worry about whether you put the slide the wrong way round or if there is a hair in the lens. After the triple portrait, I took individual photos, and Ansel asked me if I was using his zone system. It is a way of regulating the exposure depending on the conditions and the film you are using. Ansel had written five volumes about it and you had to be an Oxford-trained scientist to really understand it. So, a little embarrassed, I said, “Well, I kind of have my own system. “Oh,” he said. “You’re probably using mine unconsciously anyway. “
I have always focused on artistic fields that I knew something about. These were the people I admired and the people I wanted to photograph: my portrait of Samuel Beckett, posed against the trash cans, or the photo I took of Quentin Tarantino when he had just done Reservoir Dogs and that no one knew him. More difficult subjects? Novelist Jean Rhys was drunk at 11 a.m. I tried to photograph her and her wig fell off. So I had to go back a week later.
It was an extraordinary moment with three giants. But I think this photograph has gained momentum over the years. It was Susan Sontag who said that photography is essentially about death because when you take a photo you are staring at a moment in life knowing that you are heading towards the end.
Paul Joyce CV
Née: Winchester, Hampshire, 1940.
Qualified: Dulwich College, London School of Technical Film, then the world.
Influences : Paul Nash, August Sander, David Hockney, Bob Dylan, Antonín Dvořák, John Clare, Peter Maxwell Davies.
High point: “Directing the Doctor Who episode Warriors’ Gate in 1981.”
Low point: “Doctor Who’s Warriors’ Gate episode. This is the best and the worst thing I have ever done.
The best advice: “Always keep a spare ball in the chamber. “
- Paul Joyce’s exhibition, A Life Behind the Lens, opens August 27 and runs through November 10 at The Gallery, Winchester Discovery Center.