Normski shot the stars
Everybody knows Normski. If you live in London, you may even be friends with him. If you’ve ever stepped foot in a club you’ve either heard him DJ or chatted with him at the bar. Effervescent, gregarious and definitely boombastic, a lot of people seem to have forgotten how he first made his name: as a brilliant photographer. But with the publication of his first book of photographs, the fantastic Normski: The Man With The Golden Shutter, a collection that is full of larger-than-life street photography and the cream of 1980s and ’90s hip hop grandees. We chatted with him about growing up around Camden Town, drumming, hip hop’s early years in London, his stint presenting Dance Energy and his still passionate thirst for great photography
What was your first encounter with a camera?
That’s a great question. The first encounter with a camera for me, actually physically holding one, was when my mum took me to an auction when I was about 11, because I wasn’t too well. Thinking back, it’s very possible that I’d been hammering her about getting a bicycle, because that was all the rage about 1976. We went to this auction somewhere near Westminster, the Horticultural Halls. But was not very much left by the time we got there and there were no bikes. There was an offer of a Kodak 126 Instamatic, which was the box set, so you could get a camera, a little flash gun, and one roll of film. I said, ‘No, I don’t want a camera. I want a bike.’
‘Well, there’s no bike, son. I think you maybe get the camera.’
‘Oh, go on, then’, really reluctant.
When I got on the bus going home and I opened it and I picked it up and I looked through that viewfinder out of the bus window, and that was the moment when I just had my little secret world again. So that was me outside in the world with this viewfinder, looking through a letterbox at the world. And I found that really interesting.
What were the first kind of photographs that you were taking?
I didn’t take very many pictures because I was really scared to put the film into the camera, because I thought, ‘It’s only got 24 shots’. What comes with that is if you want another one of those films, you’re going to have to buy it yourself. That was a really good lesson, because I became a bob-a-job kind of kid in the summer holidays, washing cars, clearing people’s gardens for 50p.
What I did do was point the camera at the local and the most local person was my brother, because I found that roll of film at my mother and father’s house in one of those old photo albums. Awful, really out of focus, shaky. But it was my little brother, the flats that we lived in. Those are the first things I photographed.
Once I’d gotten past that camera, which was really not good enough, I worked really hard at bob-a-job and I begged and screamed for money, and I probably collected a fiver from an uncle at Christmas and I went to Fox Talbot on Tottenham Court Road. It was a very traditional, old-fashioned camera suppliers. I used to look in the window quite a lot and dream of, ‘I’m going to get one of those one day’. So I bought one for £14. Think it was Polish. It used to rip my film to pieces because it was mechanically a bit faulty. The first things I really took photographs of were inanimate objects like the street. I lived in Primrose Hill at the time, so I’d take pictures in the park. I used to be obsessed with things like puddles and quite minimal shapes and textures.
I tell people I was a shy kid, but no one believes me. So I wasn’t ready to take photographs of people just yet. By the time I was about 12, I had a dark room in the cupboard that my stepdad helped me build. Then I then started to take pictures of family members and friends. We were all into music. My mates were making music. We were in bands. So there was a very creative, artistic sort of environment that I was coming out of in Camden; a ridiculously creative hub of people. The general vibration around me was very visual. Do you remember the Dulux adverts, the first time you saw the sheepdog running along the streets, this lovely sort of terrace of these pastoral painted houses. That was round the corner from where I lived. So I used to see a lot of film crews and big cameras and people standing around and then every now and again, you’d see someone who’d been on telly. There were two things I really honed in on, photography and drumming, which was even harder because I didn’t have a full drum kit.
Drumming is really like a DJ apprenticeship, isn’t it? The reason I became a DJ was because I couldn’t drum, coordinating your hands and your feet is so difficult.
I was challenging myself of being able to coordinate. I know now I was a naturally gifted drummer. I used to love it. But funny you should say that, because as of now, I DJ. That’s how I get my drumming frustration out of me. But now I don’t have to worry about the guitarist, the bass player, even though I miss that magical thing that you have when you’re in a band where you’re playing off of each other, which is kind of like a DJ playing off of the audience. I’m mixing like I’m playing beats. When I think about what I’m going to bring in, I do it like I’m in the group. I think about the horns, I think about guitar, bass, rhythm guitar. There’s a rhythm to everything I do. There’s the different sounds from each drum, so there’s different people I look at and photograph or the different environments I might be in.
Does that feed into photography?
Absolutely. The way that rhythm and that coordination works with photography is the understanding of light, the understanding of speed, i.e. as in to capture movement, and to allow the movement and the balancing of light and movement to get the exposure, to get the image onto the film plane. These are all things that have to be coordinated, otherwise it’s just too bright, it’s under exposed, it’s too dark, or it’s all blurred. I think the same with doing paradiddles and drum rolls. There’s a similar kind of science behind it. You see that? [he’s unconsciously clapping hands] That’s me clapping my hands to a rhythm. So if you converted that sound into movement, that’s me speeding up and slowing down the exposure.
When you left school, did you ever have a regular job or did you do more photography training?
I went to college for a year. Did sixth form at college on a course which I was very fortunate to get on, which was a certificate of photographic laboratory skills. It was a brilliant course because it was a way into the photography industry. So I learned how to get a proper job, if you like, and I could have worked at Snappy Snap type places as a processor, because I learned how to use those big machines, but I couldn’t find anything more boring. What I fell in love with when I went to college was the actual photography, the black and white theory of photography, colour processing, art and design, film study, numeracy, which was to get the academic things up that you hadn’t completed in sixth form, related science. Now, the numeracy, the way I was taught mathematics, was through photographic mathematics; fractions, balance, degrees. I had a few part-time jobs, one on Dingwalls market selling, then working in a music outlet which was called the London Rock Shop, on Chalk Farm Road. I was the tea boy to start off. All I really did was sweep up, clean up, make tea, and go and get the goods when someone made a sale from downstairs. Eventually, I started to demo stuff. I did Saturday and Sundays at Rock Shop when I was full-time at college, then when I finished, they gave me some full-time work. It was quite apparent, according to the boss then, that my head was somewhere else. I was always going on about taking pictures and I often had my camera with me. So they would allow me to take photographs of some of the rack-mounted equipment that they would put in the classified ads.I got a couple of work experience modes where I went out and I freelanced at Holborn Studios as a studio assistant, which is wholly photographic. Do you know Anton Corbijn?
I didn’t get to work with him. We got the lights from stock, set them up, and then got told it was all wrong because he’s really finicky and really expert. But there were other big name photographers. Then I moved on to work at Camden Studios for a little while as a studio assistant. But one day, I decided to be a photographer and there was a grant you could apply for.
The Enterprise Allowance Scheme?
Enterprise allowance. Boom. There you go. So I did enterprise allowance and tried to become a professional photographer off my own back. What I did was I followed my interest in music and passion and started to go to gigs as a hobbyist. Not for the sake of making money, but more for taking photographs. The very first times I went to gigs, I’d just go and have my camera with me and hope that I could take pictures from the back with a 50mm. lens. That was when I found out that you needed a really big lens or you need to be much closer. So the photographs I took at the Roundhouse of Freddie Hubbard Band, all I can see is heads and the spotlight. I can’t see anything on the stage. And there were a lot of things I did where I still was learning how to work in the dark without flash, working with natural lighting, be it concert lighting that keeps going on and off, spotlights, chasing spotlights around. There’s a lot of technique I learned through going to gigs.
A few of those gigs, I’d meet people and they said, ‘You know you could do well with that, don’t you?’ Me, a young black guy with a camera. Very unusual to see that. So I had a lot of people, like the DJ Fat Freddie M, I remember him introducing me to a guy called Ray Edwards who was part of the Marshall Arts promotions team. So I’m now going to gigs that are major R&B acts like Atlantic Starr or Motown acts.
When you went to those, were all the other photographers white?
As far as I remember I was the only black photographer. There were photographers like David Corio. I’d never look at David Corio and think of him as any colour. I just thought of him as a guy that shot predominantly black music. Like, he shot every reggae artist.
Yeah, he was working for the NME maybe even before Anton Corbijn, actually, wasn’t he?
I used to aspire to these people’s work, not know who they were, but I would look at these magazines and the papers, Melody Maker, NME, and Record Mirror as well before I started working for them. And I’d look at that and I would wish.
Were there any of these guys or women that particularly inspired you as a photographer?
There probably were, but I was already inspired by the likes of Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Man Ray. I was already inspired before I started looking at music photo. One of the reasons why I think I really aspired to emulate people like David Corio was because he shot people that I got: reggae artists and early hip hop stuff.
They almost always worked in black and white as well.
It was a very expensive thing to be doing colour. Also the art of it stemmed from black and white photography, something I absolutely love to this day. It’s timeless. I always feel has got a period to it when you look at colour photos. Whereas you look at black and white and you think, ‘Oh my God, that’s the most incredible image.’ And then the second thing you think about it is, ‘When was that taken?’ You look at some of my photographs, they look like they were taken last week.
I forgot to mention my friend Zak Ové, he started at my school in the 4th year. And when I’d go to Zak’s house, there were black and white and colour photographs everywhere, because his dad, Horace Ové, was a major photographer and filmmaker and activist of late ’50s, early ’60s, and there were some very powerful, iconic images that he’d photographed that I would see. So that was highly inspiring.
So what was your first music commission that you actually got paid for?
Wow. That’s a really hard question to answer. Closing my eyes now, I’m not sure. Because I went out and took photographs at events in the mid-80s, via things like the Hip Hop Alliance in Brixton which was a kind of youth club run by Ricky Reynolds,. It was just at the time when hip hop and street culture was going to become something; so obviously when it became a thing in with breakdancing, DJing etc I was just drawn towards that. I would make the pictures and then I might sell one to The Voice. II shot Schoolly D and Cookie Crew was one of the early groups. I used to do stuff for The Voice and I did stuff for Black Echoes a couple of times, and that was all between ’85 and ’86.
When did Hip Hop Connection start? Because you did stuff for that, didn’t you?
Hip Hop Connection started early ’87. I was at Hip Hop Connection when it was [edited by] Chris Hunt and it was based in Ely in Cambridge. And I used to take a train down from London to Ely because I was already taking photographs for Music of Life Records, who had signed MC Duke, Derek B, Demon Boyz, Thrashpack etc. I used to call up music papers and music magazines because of my training. But I took that style and I penetrated the music industry with that same tenacity and I would hang out at backstage doors. I pushed myself there and people saw me. In 1987, I started working with Stuart Bailie. He was a top writer for all the music press from Belfast, but he lived in London. He was doing all sort of punk, indie stuff, rock, all kinds of stuff.
I know Stuart. He moved back to Belfast, right?
Yeah, that’s right. He had recognised this young kid, Norman Anderson at that time still, hadn’t quite got the hip hop nickname down yet. Stewart introduced me to Debbie Kirby, who at the time was the editor at Record Mirror and I would say Record Mirror was probably the first proper magazine that paid for my music pictures. When Stuart Bailie said, ‘You’ve got to meet Debbie because I’m moving back to Belfast. You should be working more and working for this magazine. Your work’s brilliant.’ So one day we met up and that was the first time I went through the front door on Hampstead Road in that great building down there where it was based, and we went into the open plan. It was a massive open plan. I was mesmerised by the amount of people in there, just typing away. And that was the first time I walked into a magazine environment. We walked over, ‘Oh, hi, Stuart. Hello, who’s this?’
He goes, ‘Oh, this is the photographer I wanted to introduce you to. This is Norman, Normski.’
And she goes, ‘Oh!’ She literally was shocked when she looked up because she’d seen my work, because it’d been in the mag, but she’d never met me.
She had no idea.
That I was black. No idea. She looked at the photographs I’d taken, of which there were a lot of black people, because up until then it was lots of community shots and a couple of hip hop things. She looked at it and she was very impressed at my A4 portfolio: ‘Wow, your work is really, really good.’ She looked at me and asked me straight up, ‘Would you be interested in photographing non-black subjects?’
I said, ‘Absolutely’, because all I wanted to do was take photographs. I didn’t even realise that I was taking photographs of mostly black subjects. I just thought I was taking photographs of what I could get access to, what I liked. She was highly impressed because it was unusual to have someone like me at that time that good in entering into the industry. She knew she had a little bit of a coup having someone like me, because what was happening was also a lot of black artists were coming up. When it came to certain gigs or acts, she could point me in that direction and know that I’d cover it well. But then also when I shot with Stuart Bailie, I shot bands like Lightning Strike, which was like a kind of rockabilly, punk, post-Clash just crazy brilliant band that was Soho-based. Boy London, motorcycle gear, leather, bullet belts, real attitude. The photographs were quite dynamic. That was me mimicking what I’d seen in the Melody Maker. Also, the stuff that I’d seen on all the covers that I was excited by, like things like The Stranglers and a lot of other albums at that time. Because in those days, in the ’80s, to sell your record you had to have a wicked, incredibly powerful single cover shot. I always knew that, probably because I couldn’t afford it, but I wasn’t really keen on that colour backdrop. The colour backdrop, the studio shot, which was very Number One, Smash Hits and Record Mirror. I was always going to be a location photographer.
That’s one thing that kind of marks out a lot of the stuff that you were doing, and especially with hip hop. It’s really made for being outside on location, because it’s such street music. Did you find it was helpful being a black kid the same age as a lot of those acts when you were doing photo shoots with them?
Totally. I mean, you kind of answered it with the question there, because that was purely my power at the time with regards to being accepted by a culture and people that were not being accepted by society. It took a long time for people of colour to get individual recognition in the press pages. There were acts that had a black person in them, you know? But to be an individual, you had to start making some noise. What I had was I was a photographer, but I was also a homeboy. I was the one who had the camera that looked like a lot of these guys so they didn’t feel like I was an outsider. That was a massive bonus to me. Also I would ask the artists what they wanted to do. I didn’t put my premeditated ideas into everyone; a lot of photographers wanted to control the subject. You don’t really want to try and do that with hip hop artists, you know? And actually, you really don’t because they’re so creative. Got so many ideas. Like Hijack, they were on Music of Life Records.
Were they the ones from Broadwater Farm?
No, that was the Demon Boyz, that’s an interesting one as well. I went Hijack, but I could’ve gone Demon Boyz because they’re both on the same label. So I have to thank Music of Life as well for introducing me to a lot of these acts that were able to get their music out, because not a lot of record companies were going for it, were biting the British UK underground music at the time. Simon Harris was A&R-ing in for them. And also, to be honest, Derek B, another initiator in the British hip hop scene, he probably brought in quite a lot of those acts, like MC Duke.
And Demon Boyz, the second shoot was Broadwater Farm. The first shoot they had no idea what they really wanted. They liked the look of me because I looked like someone they might know. I’m a black guy, they’re black guys, I’m from north-west London, they’re from north London. Everything about us was very similar. I loved their music, I understood it and I had some fly gear on because I was a couple of years older than everyone, so I had my Triple F.A.T. Goose from New York. When it came to the first shoot with Demon Boyz, I suggested to them, ‘Let’s meet up. I’ve got a really good location.’ So I took them out of their comfort zone and they came to Camden, and I had a brilliant location which was just up near to Chalk Farm. It was an old disused railway track. I shot them down there, and I don’t think they’d quite seen anything quite like that. Just used tracks, iron, all kinds of stuff. Old Victorian brick archways. Perfect location, locked it. So that was the first shoot.
Then when it came to the Broadwater Farm shoot, that was for their album cover, Recognition. So that was when we switched it around and I said, ‘Okay, it’s your album cover. Where do you want to do the shoot? How do you want to represent yourselves?’ And they was like, ‘Well, we’ve got a really good location in Tottenham.’ I don’t know whether the record company gave them money and they went out and bought the clothes they were wearing or whether they already had them, but they wanted a Ford Cosworth. That was the car of the day. The Cossie!
That was a souped-up cop car, wasn’t it? The cops used those.
Yeah. So I imagine that you’re like, ‘We’ve got to be able to outrun the cops,’ or something. I don’t know.
Who was the group that had the really serious balaclava type thing?
That’s Hijack. So my first shoot of Hijack, similar thing. I went to their environment. I went up to Stockwell and Brixton, basically. They took me to where they wanted to have their photographs done. We were going to do a shot in that back alleyway of the Brixton Academy where the stage door is. Then they took me to some other places, maybe Windrush as well, where there was graffiti on the wall. And I got all creative with them on the skateboard ramp; got them standing on it. They look like they’re standing on the top of a mountain; managed to block out everything, twist the camera a little bit and made them lean. So it looks like they’re really kind of on this really steep thing. Photographic skills and perspective.
And then when it came to them doing their album, which didn’t go out in the end on Music of Life. In the end, that all fell apart, that deal, and they were heading somewhere else anyway. We then did another shoot where they’d upped their game from being first generation hardcore, looking like the kind of homeboys they did. And they just had an image that they wanted to portray, which was scary as F, basically. All in black. Ulysses was always there. The yin and yang Master, sort of samurai and the full kung-fu, which he actually did. He was actually into martial arts and stuff and swordsmanship.
And they just came up with this … When I turned up, even I was like, ‘Whoa.’ But on that shoot, we didn’t do anything without that outfit on. Everything had to be balaclavas. The white guy who used to be not in the band, but was one of their crew, he had a stocking on. Like, proper foot stocking, like a bank job. His nose was squashed. It’s really quite something. In those days, the holster belts, which you basically put your mobile phone in, but they kind of looked like they got guns and stuff, all dressed in black. And of course, that shoot was kind of banned at the time, which it became a… It was definitely a press shot used for a single that they were doing. It might have been ‘Badman Is Robbin’. I’m not sure which one it was. But the shot was taken down by the record company because they’d been hit by the law; it was deemed in bad taste, because it did alert people to the balaclava looking thing. And at that time, unfortunately, IRA had had a bit of activity around in the London area, so that wasn’t a good look.
How quick did those shoots happen? Because they always look very guerrilla to me.
My style is completely guerilla. I really don’t like to have to ask people permission who do not understand what we’re trying to do because they immediately go, ‘No. No, no.’ There is urgency in a lot of the images, and also the fun can run out quite quickly, so I would always try and do things swiftly. We didn’t get permission to be where we were taking pictures. That shot of Hijack, when the police just came up over the wall to look at, ‘What’s going on in there?’ I don’t know what that could have looked like to them. Honestly, what the hell is this? I mean, there’s one guy, me, cameras, tripod and then you’ve got the group who all looked like terrorists. They’re the Hijack terrorist group. I turned around and fobbed it off with, ‘We’re just doing a college project’.
And they went, ‘Yeah? Well, you’re not meant to be here. Whatever you’re doing, but if you’re not gone in five minutes, this is going to be a bad thing.’
Silver Bullet Posse, Lloyd’s building, again, about 12 to 14 youth, all piled up in front of this wonderful, polished aluminium Lloyds building. Really modern, futuristic. We’ve done loads of shots, and then along comes mister security guard: ‘Oh, you know you’re not supposed to be shooting here. Get off, get off.’
But I know the law now, which is that if there is a sign saying no photographs, then they’ve got every right to talk to you. If you don’t have a tripod, which can be deemed as a public obstruction, they can’t talk to you. So I tried to do all my photo shoots without having loads of cumbersome equipment, so I looked like a tourist. Obviously if you climb over people’s walls and fences, you’re breaking the law, so you could expect to be told off. But the levels of excitement of when you have to jump over a wall to go and do something. And I’m like, ‘Stop looking about. Let’s do this, man, because this looks wicked.’ Click, click, click, click, click. Right, that’s it, job done, bam. Out.
Top of the Empire State Building with Queen Latifah. And the hardest thing about doing that photo shoot was number one, the wind blowing her hair all over the place. I didn’t even think of that. And number two was the hundreds of tourists in the background, all trying to get a view of New York City. So trying to capture a shot and block people out … As you might see in a lot of my photographs, especially in the book, I don’t like having distractions. If I’m shooting people, I don’t want to see anyone who’s not part of the group or the artist. I don’t want to see any more human beings in the shot at all. So sometimes there’s a lot of waiting or there’s a lot of rushing. ‘Quick, now, now, now! Get in the middle of the road now!’ Click, click! Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get killed.’ Sometimes I’m lying in the road and cars are coming down and the person I’m taking pictures of is panicking and I’m going, ‘Don’t worry, they’re not going to run me over. Just stay still.’
Can we talk about Dance Energy and your part in it?
Well, I went to meet this production company, but I went as a photographer, and they were expecting a photographer. So they was trying to find a way of how they could access the information of what was happening on the streets, actually getting the people who are the scene to tell you about what they’re up to. And I went along there with my portfolios and sat down in a room two two ladies, and they were from Activate Productions. Activate made the show that was commissioned by the BBC. We sat there around the table at their offices and I was talking my way through all these photographs, and they were probably sitting back and asking me questions. Don’t remember exactly how it all went. So I was telling them stories about this person and about this and that. They sat there quietly for a bit, I remember. I looked up and go, ‘What? Are you okay?’
They’re like, ‘Oh yeah. Your stuff is amazing. You’re amazing.’
I was like, ‘Whoa, okay’.
They were looking at each other and obviously thinking about something. And I think Mary [Calderwood] said, ‘Have you ever actually thought of being on the other side of the camera?’
‘Well, no. Why? What do you mean?’ It really took me aback.
She goes, ‘Well, you’re incredible. You seem to know everything and you speak really well, and you look great. So you should maybe contemplate that.’
I was like, ‘I’m quite happy taking pictures.’ But I was also game for trying anything. So all the time I was saying, ‘Okay, that sounds alright, but I really want to try and get my camera involved.’
‘Maybe we can incorporate your photography into our show idea.’
They’d given me a date. ‘We’re having these auditions. We’d love you to come along.’
But they were really honest. ‘We’re trying to find people that aren’t just obviously television type people. We want to get real people, and you strike us as one of these.
So I went there as we all are in the kind of hip hop world, multi-talented dudes and girls, and they gave me that opportunity to come along and maybe see if I did enjoy being on the front end of the camera. By that point, I would’ve been really good in front of the camera because I’d had so many people in front of my camera and I was able to direct them. I don’t know, NBP, isn’t it? Natural Born Player. The day when I went into that audition, they had dozens of people auditioning, like even a couple of Top Of The Pops presenters that eventually got the Top of the Pops jobs were actually trying to get on that Dance Energy show. They had a mock-up of all the things they were going to talk about, a little bit like QVC or something. Totally lame to me, bro. Sorry, I’m like raw, make it up, spontaneous, BAM!
When they first had the idea for that programme, there was going to be two presenters in the studio. There was going to be a guy and a girl. And the girl at the time, I think, was a singer that was working with Prince, but her agent was one that was looking for like thousands and thousands of pounds, which a very low budget TV show couldn’t do. So they pulled her at the last minute and then they just decided, ‘Well, maybe we’ll just have one presenter.’
When it came to doing the audition, I was already an artist but didn’t even realise it. And don’t forget, I’m photographing all these artists, so I just emulated them. We all emulate other people. We can’t help it. I was able to just kind of, I don’t know, chameleon my way through life sometimes and try and reflect what I liked and what I wanted to be like. And those guys also mentor me in a way, and a lot of other young rappers and artists that they helped produce. So when it came to the audition, I basically got there and there was this massive line and I had to wait and wait and wait.
Eventually the director was like, ‘Do you want to go outside and do this? Because it’s just too hectic in there.’ Walks out the building and there’s a road and a van was coming and the cameraman went across the street on this little VHS camera. So he’s seeing what I look like on camera and the way you move. Well, I’m standing there talking to this director and he’s saying, ‘What we’re going to do is a couple of links, so just pretend to introduce the show, however you feel.’ I’d kind of premeditated a couple of things. We went to step out and this van came from nowhere, drove up and he winds the window down and says, ‘Oi, mate, you look well cool! You must be famous!’ as he went past. The director looked at me and I was like, ‘Alright,’ like it was nothing. Gave him a thumbs-up. Looked at myself again and I thought, well, I’ve got the red suede Fila high-tops. I’ve got the red T-shirt and the hoodie in red, and I’ve got the cream tracksuit, baggy tracksuit bums on. So yeah, thanks for that, mate. Yeah, you know, hip hop: you know how we be.
That was the moment when I think they thought we’ve got a star here already and he hasn’t done anything yet. Went into the park and I was like, ‘Bonjour. Konnichiwa,’ I was trying to be kind of foreign. I went, ‘Hello. What’s up? My name’s Normski. We’ve got a brand new show. Tonight, we’ve got De La Soul,’ and I came up with three hip hop acts that I knew in the studio. I made up some silly link. But I was physical, animated, speaking, moving. Hands down, I beat everyone up. Got the job straight away. Said, ‘This guy’s the most original TV presenter we could possibly have.’
Did the success of that slightly derail your photography career?
Not derail it. When we weren’t shooting any of the TV shows, which was quite often. It didn’t really derail my photography, but it definitely affected the amount of work I wasn’t going to be able to do, because that whole television timetable is all-encompassing. It takes over your whole life. But what happened really was once the show took off, everyone was like, ‘You don’t need to work. You’ve made it.’
And I’m like, ‘Actually, no.’ So I didn’t stop doing photography and maybe at some point, I got more work because I was even more music industry now. Also it was visual, so it was kind of similar. It wasn’t like I just suddenly turned into a rapper and was on tour all day long. It was much more like, ‘Oh, he’s still in this audio visual world,’ which is a follow-on from being a photographer.
So I wouldn’t say it was fair to say it derailed it. I think I just evolved what I was doing. And when we weren’t shooting studio and when the series wasn’t on, because it wasn’t on every day all year long, I was still shooting and I did a few album covers and bits and pieces whilst I did TV. What that was is that I think it just added more kudos to my name, and people thought it was very cool to have a guy that was a great photographer who was also really well-known for presenting the music that he was photographing. Full package.
But you know, I think that what I would’ve said was that I maybe had messed up my photography career because I thought I could have followed through and gone on in television, but it didn’t seem to want to happen for some reason. Don’t ask me why. British television’s a very difficult place and it isn’t as long-lasting unless you are from a set that all go grey and have white hair and have never not been on television. I’m not going to start naming them all, but they’re the presenters that present everything, and they’re never at anything. They’re not really into anything, but they’re very good at telling you about what’s happening, because that’s their job to do it.
When you get the real people that have real interests, they become a specialist thing only and they’re on after midnight and all this sort of madness. So I quite liked getting into the real world and presenting live events and presenting and DJing and being back in the industry, just because that’s really where I started and that’s what I really loved. And it was really true and honest rather than pretending and then doing it in the cut and fixing it in the mix. It didn’t go with the way I was, which is spontaneous, mixing it as you go along, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of post-production, but you’ve got to leave some flexibility to let things not feel like they’re stifled.
I guess spontaneity, isn’t it, which is crucial in DJing … It’s crucial in any…
… creative activity, isn’t it?
You sound like someone that’s still super passionate about photography now.
Are you still working a lot and taking a lot of pictures? We’re living in an age of Instagram and everyone’s a bloody photographer.
Yeah. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’d continued to capture photography throughout the last 30 odd years. Ever since this advent of being able to take pictures with your phones and have all of these electronic portfolios, social networks that you could paste your stuff all over, it is much cheaper and much easier to get your work seen. But having come from a traditional background and being a professional photographer, there really isn’t really anything special about having your image on the internet. What’s special is when you’re having your image in a magazine that’s a printed magazine. What’s even more special is when you have your image on a wall or on a poster for an act that’s on tour or something. The book is ridiculous, because before I did my own book, the most I’d done was a zine with Museum of Youth Culture, which is 40 pages of some of the photographs, which is that early one of my brother and his friend Vernon jumping in the flats when he’s seven years old. I’m seven years older than my brother, so that means I was 14 when I took that picture. That’s in a zine that’s then in the middle of it, there’s Barry White and Goldie. So that’s a really nice little journey of my photographic life. That’s special.
Obviously not everyone can get to see it in real person, and so the internet is really good to sit on your ass all day and night and think you have access to everything in the world, but it’s not until you’re actually in the concert and you can feel the ambiance of the guitar humming before Prince or whoever’s going to kick into a solo or whatever artist you love to go and see live. I find it reasonably obnoxious that I can’t see the stage because of the amount of phones that are being held up to film. What do people do with all that film? Oh, of course, because they’ve now made stories and reels. So now you’re able to be like a TV producer and cameraman all in one.
I went to the Jazz Cafe a couple of weeks ago to see Roc Marciano playing, and I actually found the crowd more fascinating because of the amount of people filming. So I spent most of the night just taking photographs of people filming it because it looked more interesting to me than what he was doing on stage.
Well, that’s like the antichrist or something where the energy in the room is taken away from the very act that everyone’s seeing, and it’s been soaked up by the dementors of electromagnetism, the great lithium magnet of life and soul that sucks your attention to the point of where you’re looking to see, ‘What kind of phone is that? Why is that such a great shot? How come the detail is so good? And look at this power zoom!’ As he switches with his quick swipe to being long, wide, super wide shot to in the nostrils. Whoa! And then you look round and you forget, oh yeah, there’s an act who’s wondering whether anyone can see him because he can’t see anyone’s faces, because we’re all watching everyone’s flipping screen. It’s a mad world we live in. This is what it is like in this day and age. I don’t mind. I get it, but it’s not as much fun as going to the gig, jumping around like a lunatic with your mates, making new friends.
I’ve been there. I went to a Glastonbury-hosted Silver Hayes Stage on one night, DJed at Block9 at silly o’clock in the morning, ran around all the place having fun. But when the Rolling Stones was playing there, first ever gig at Glastonbury … Now, I’m not a Rolling Stones fan. I know of them, I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never been to a Rolling Stones gig. I’ve never even wanted to go and see Rolling Stones. But my jaw was stuck open. Every time I heard a tune, it was like a period of my life. I had no idea some of the tunes that they had done were their tunes until they did that gig. And I’m looking at just under 400 years of age on the stage and there’s more energy on that stage than I’ve ever seen at any Glastonbury, really, for a band on the stage. These are experienced rockers, you know? And I’m looking at people and we were all looking at each other going, like, ‘Oh my God!’ I don’t even remember taking any pictures. I had a camera on me and a phone. We were gobsmacked. We were just in awe of this powerful, superstar show. You got to admire that. And it’s wonderful when you see it, when you see artists go out regardless of the conditions and draw the magnetism and gravitational pull of the whole festival. Very special.
And that’s what I’m about; the real respect and acknowledgement of what it is you’re at and what you’ve gone to do and what you’ve gone to see. When I do photo shoots, I’m like, ‘Just put your phones away. No phones. Okay, let’s go. I’m doing real photographs here.’ And they go, ‘I’ll take a couple with my phone.’
I go, ‘Nah, because we’re going to get a great shot of you and I’m going to wish I had it on film. So I’m going to get the shot first.’ Then give me a phone, click, alright, there you go. But don’t expect me to carry a phone around and just double all the shots up with the phone. ‘What’s the point in that, bro? That’s not professional for me. You wait till I do my shots. You’ll get your prints.’
They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re right, you’re right.’
I’ve got a friend, Dan Formers, who had a great quote. His friend said, ‘I bet he’s got the best kit.’
And Dan said, ‘Listen, you give Normski a cigarette packet, he’ll make a good shot from it. You’d be surprised. He can use anything and take a good photograph, whether it’s a phone or a snap camera.’ Like the Goldie shot in Metalheadz. He’s compared that photograph to many sessions he’s had with big names like Rankin and Bailey. He says, ‘I’ve done all that, all those big shoots and stuff. But this shot captures my soul. It’s like a rolling shot.’ What he means is I was at his nightclub, Metalheadz. I was in the crowd and he was at the height of going somewhere and he just turned around. I went, ‘Gold!’ And I touched him and snapped him at the same time. You can just see at the bottom of the picture is my hand. I gave him like a fisticuff and I went, BAM!
The other night, I was at V&A for his big talk and I gave him a book. At the end of it, I came downstairs and it was a full auditorium in the lecture rooms. Incredible night. Gave him the book and he just freaked out. He loves the picture and he turned around to a lot of people. ‘This is the best picture I’ve ever seen.’ I’m like, ‘Bro, you don’t have to say that.’ But he keeps saying it and it’s because I was at Metalheadz. I was in the club. It means a lot to people. Taking them out of their comfort zone and putting them into your little studio where they’re just posing for you, but what people really want is to reflect everything they’re about. And that’s what I try to do with my photography; try and reflect what the people are.
Nab Normski’s book here –>
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton