John Hegley is a poet, musician and comedian. Known for his dry, laconic style he’s also quite big on audience participation, getting the crowd to bob and weave in unison, or click their fingers to create a rhythm which he then reads or sings over.
John was on my hit list of people I wanted to be involved in my authors-as-characters project with Wigtown Book Festival this year. He’d not responded in advance to the blurb that had gone out from the Festival organisers to all the guest speakers, but I was planning on going and seeing his performance anyway and hoped to catch up with him after that. However, as luck would have it, while I was setting up the lights for a different photo shoot that morning, he wandered into the room and we got chatting.
Although there wasn’t enough time to source a costume and do a shoot with him during his short time in Wigtown, he expressed interest in the project and was keen to be dressed as the 19th Century poet, John Keats, as he’d just done a stint as residence poet in Keats’ house in Hampstead. He gave me his email address and told me to keep in touch.
I thoroughly enjoyed his event and when I got home checked his website to see when he might next be anywhere close. It turned out he was appearing in Peebles – a town in the Scottish Borders, less than 2 hours away – a couple of weeks later.
I trawled the Internet for images of Keats and there were surprisingly few. Or perhaps not so surprising given he died of tuberculosis aged only 25. The ones I did find mostly seemed to be a variation on a theme of him looking wistfully off into the middle distance, while sitting at a table with a book
So, where to find a suitable costume? It proved to be far trickier than expected, but eventually we used a jacket from my wife, one of my linen shirts, a strip of muslin for the scarf, again supplied by Maggie, and the waistcoat came from my friend, storyteller Tony Bonning.
John was running a workshop in the afternoon and doing a performance in the evening at The Eastgate Theatre, and they allowed us to use their stage area to do the shoot in between.
We set about replicating the angle and the lighting for the image, but John had brought something extra for the photo – a stick of celery. It turned out there’s a comment in one of Keats’ letters to his brother where he writes, "This is Monday morning—nothing particular happened yesterday evening, except that when the tray came up Mrs. Dilke and I had a battle with celery stalks—she sends her love to you."
One of the things I love about portrait photography is it is always a collaborative affair. It is not product photography – what the sitter contributes to the photo is just as important as the photographer, and this series of photos of authors as characters has really captured that.
It had been suggested if the photo worked out, it might be used for promotional material, so we took a few variations, including one of John pointing off to one side where potential events could be written next to him.
Sure enough, a short while later he was in touch to ask for a photo to use for an event he was to be involved in helping raise money for Amnesty International.
If you’re down London way and it’s not sold out, an evening of poetry and music with John Hegley and friends takes place this Thursday. And for a mere £12 a ticket, I can’t think of many better ways to spend an evening. If I lived closer, I’d certainly be going. Details can be found here - http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=20442
To round off, I trawled YouTube to find a snippet to give you a taste of John Hegley on stage...