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Tim Roth, Park City, Utah - Nat Bocking, Jan 1999

12 January 2006

Celebrity photographers can have an uneasy relationship with their subjects that swings between love and hate and vice-versa. Those with a story to sell need photographers but it’s never that simple.

When I drove up to the Sundance Film Festival I was still working in my day job at the movie studios in Los Angeles. Encouraged by the guerrilla spirit of the festival, I cajoled a press pass on the strength that there were few media from the UK attending the US premiere of ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ which was expected to make a big impact there. In the end it was overshadowed by another phenomenon. Walking around the snowy streets of Park City I photographed every celebrity I could recognise and hundreds of unknowns. It was all very friendly and decorous as everyone was there with the ambition of getting or staying famous. People just came up and talked to you, thrusting flyers about their films into your hands, eager for any publicity they could get.

One problem with photographing people at Sundance is everyone is wrapped up coats, and hats. You have to get people indoors, buy them coffee, get them warm and then dash outside for more interesting photos. Contact with the really big names is micro-managed by their PR agents but the hot story that year was the ‘Blair Witch Project” and its two unknown filmmakers who overnight found fame and fortune. Twenty four hours earlier I had snapped them lugging the film cans out of their hotel to the screening.

I in turn gave my business card to everyone I could including someone from the US/UK agency Retna. Somebody else must have let them down at the last moment as a couple of days later I got a call on my exorbitantly expensive mobile phone asking if I could meet Amy Taubin, the heavyweight film critic for the Village Voice, at a nearby bar in five minutes to get a photo of Tim Roth. The cult film “Reservoir Dogs” had made him a huge star in the US. His dangerous characters in several films made him a modern James Cagney but, like Cagney, he is an actor of greater range and he was then promoting his directorial debut “The War Zone”.

When I got to the bar, Tim said straight away – no photos, before or during the interview. I bided my time and sat on a stool nearby drinking a beer. With the lack of available light, I ditched the idea of shooting with the tranny film I had been using and used the XP4 I carried in reserve and took a few photos of him on the quiet, framing Amy out of the shots. Amy, bless her, kept her notebook off the table. With Amy finished, Tim stood up and glowered into the camera which was something he always does. He then walked out. I had got about ten frames of this ten second encounter. A disdain for the trappings of fame and a lack of vanity was refreshingly honest but it wasn’t what I had wanted.

I ran to the 1-hour mini-lab and joined the queue of all the other press waiting for their film. I had a couple of prints made of what I thought were the best without any time for corrections as I had to drive over a snowy mountain pass to catch the last FedEx from Salt Lake City to New York. It may seem adventurous now but it was torture then. Today I can wire out the pictures before I can finish my beer. It was here I began to understand the complex infrastructure that freelance news photography requires and how, like the film industry, all the talent in the world is useless without the means of production and distribution.

I don’t think there are many photojournalists covering the entertainment industry with the objectivity I had set out with to record Sundance that year. Like the road between Park City and Los Angeles, there is a vast dry desert between PR photography and the paparazzi. Photojournalism in the entertainment industry is more in the service of selling entertainment than reporting news. We merely play our part in fulfilling the public’s demand for escapism in magazines, books, records, movies and television.

With this picture my Sundance expenses were covered. Another image from the set was used later by Cosmopolitan when Tim was voted one of the 100 sexiest men in Britain. I was pleased with that. These snatched photos had breached his barriers and captured a rarely seen side of his public persona. It took me about a year to get paid for this job. Although I invoiced them directly, the Village Voice paid Retna instead who didn’t pay me. It was nothing sinister, just a mix-up, but the aggravation and my naiveté at what to do in these circumstances was one of the reasons I joined EPUK.

Nat Bocking is a writer, photographer and filmmaker now based in Suffolk, England. His career in photography began as a model at the age of five and he was an assistant at the age of 16. Nat recently published a guide to East Anglia’s water towers. He has been a professional photographer since 1999 and a member of EPUK since 2000.

See more work by Nat Bocking

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