Every photographer knows the milestones. Your first publication. Your first front cover. And maybe, if you're very good and you stay in the game long enough, your first exhibition.
Charlie Gray is very good. The fashion and portrait photographer has spent 15 years shooting the biggest names in showbiz, including a few Square Mile covers. Now his first exhibition has arrived at the Leica Gallery London.
I meet Gray at the gallery the day before the exhibition's launch. His energy I recognise from our previous shoots together – the lethargic portrait photographer doesn't exist – although there’s also a touch of nervous anticipation as he takes me around the 12 portraits chosen to showcase his career to date.
He introduces me to Lou Proud, the director of the Leica Gallery who played an integral role in curating the exhibition. “Each individual picture gives you an idea of who Charlie is as a photographer,” says Proud of the selection process.
Were there any photographs whose inclusion was non-negotiable? “Ronnie Wood had to be there!” says Proud instantly. “It’s so anarchic. When you have a show, it should be slightly uncomfortable in bits. There’s got to be a bit of an edge.”
As well as energy, all photographers have a wealth of great anecdotes. I sat down with Gray to hear some of his. They include paternal birthday messages from Mike Tyson and being soothed by Daniel Radcliffe's mum.
How did you become a photographer?
By accident! I studied graphic design and art history at Anglia Polytechnic University, now called Anglia Ruskin. I did this module called Through The Lens, which was basically a photography module, and I was very lucky to have this guy called Stuart Smith, one of the world's leading photography book designers. He was our outside invigilator to run this course.
There were other great people like John Warwicker from Tomato Group, the people who did the posters and graphics for Trainspotting.
I was encouraged to carry on being a photographer after university. I didn't assist or anything like that. I just did the odd portrait job here and there. There were so many different magazines back then.
What was your first published photograph?
I shot for a local magazine when I was at uni. I once did a fashion shoot with a snake – a guy from the reptile shop up the road had come with a bunch of snakes. I remember sitting in the kitchen with him, the guy’s having a cup of tea, and this black Colombian boa has wrapped itself around my arm. He says, ‘It's doing that because it likes the warmth.’
I’m like, ‘I think it might bite me.’ And he goes, ‘No, no, I've had this snake for 12 years, he's never bitten anyone.’ Five minutes go by and I'm like, ‘I think it might bite me.’ I take my shirt off and it's constricted its own head, there's blood pouring down. The guy rushes me to the sink, turns on the cold tap and the snake is writhing around, my blood, pouring down its scales, and it's got a teacup in its tail, it’s waving a teacup about.
The guy was really concerned about the snake and not me, which is quite funny. I still have a small scar. Scars add character!
When did you feel like you had made it? Or that photography was a viable career path?
I don't think anyone thinks you've made it, unless you're Annie Leibovitz. Everyone's always striving for the next big job, the next big thing.
Competition with other people… everyone always feels that there's a ceiling above and that's just the way creatives think. The minute you think you've made it, you're probably finished.
But in terms of a viable career path, it was probably when I first got asked to shoot the Baftas in 2008. It was interesting and I learned a lot and I started making connections off the back of that.
Then I did a couple more and your network gets wider. From Bafta, I got asked to shoot two days on the set of Harry Brown with Michael Caine.
With the Baftas, I remember being in the auditorium and feeling quite nervous. Daniel Radcliffe was there, he was doing a reading. He was still quite young and really nervous as well! We ended up sitting with his mum who basically calmed us both down. I'll never forget that. So I'm very grateful to Mrs Radcliffe for helping calm my nerves!
Did he remember you when you shot him?
Yeah, he's great. I've shot him a few times. He's just a really, really nice person. Really sweet and whip smart.
Have you ever been starstruck by anyone?
When I met Mike Tyson, it meant a lot. I remember when I was very young and he was fighting Frank Bruno; my dad woke me up at 4am with a cup of tea and the radio. Then I saw him knock out Michael Spinks on Grandstand and thought, ‘This guy’s amazing!’
I shot him in the offices of his cannabis company. I went there the day before to do a recce and he was actually there. We got talking and I said, “It's an absolute honour to me. It really means so much because me and my dad, one of the things that bonded as father and son is a love of boxing."
We did the shoot, we had a really good time. At the end, I said to Mike, “My dad’s 70th birthday is coming up. Would you give him a message?" So Mike took my phone and recorded, "I love you Andy! Happy birthday, champion!" It was brilliant!
The other moment I felt really starstruck: I was doing a job for Disney with Owen Wilson at Silverstone. We were on the grid before the race and Frank Bruno was there. I didn’t shoot him but I went and said, ‘Hello, honoured to meet you.’ He was cool.
If I met Paul Gascoigne, I think I'd feel slightly starstruck as well.
Is there one person you've particularly enjoyed photographing?
Robert De Niro is probably my favourite because he's my acting hero. I just love watching him work – The Dear Hunter and Goodfellas are two of my all-time favourite films. He even bought us beers afterwards.
We were shooting on the roof of his offices and in the hotel. Afterwards we went down to the Greenwich Grill, which he owns, and started downloading cards. The bar staff were like, ‘Oh, Bob sent these over.’
Have you ever had any particularly tricky encounters?
I'm really lucky in that the people I work with are all at the top of their game. I think talented people on the whole do well because they know how to engage with other people. And being an actor you have to work with your director, your co-stars, everything else.
I don't think I've ever had anyone really push back. I'm really lucky in that respect.
Have you ever had a particularly surreal shoot?
Going back to De Niro, he was kind of saying lines to keep himself going, which I didn't realise. 'One two three four, cheese-oh! Yeah!' I asked him, ‘What are you doing? Is this a line from a movie?’ He goes, ‘No, it just keeps me going. It just helps me stay focused if I think I'm kind of role playing.’
We're on the roof in New York and he says something about a guy. And I went, ‘Oh yeah, that guy, we gotta take him down.’ He's like, ‘Oh yeah, we gotta fucking take him!’ I have a camera in one hand, improvising lines with Robert De Niro on a roof in New York. That was a pinch-me moment. My 16-year-old self would be going insane.
When you take someone's picture, what are you trying to say?
When I take someone's photograph, I always look for a sense of narrative in it. A lot of the time when I do shoots, these are individual frames for men's fashion stories in magazines. So every picture has to deliver a sense of narrative but at the same time be interesting and effectively still be a portrait.
With the calibre of these people, it isn't good enough if they're just a prop – if they're just looking ethereal in a corner, that's not usually enough.
You had a great 1960s spy theme for our Sam Heughan shoot…
Sam is so brilliant at taking a subject matter and playing with it. We shot that in Glasgow, the streets are really dramatic and we felt like it would be really fun to give it an espionage look.
We did it black and white. We were chatting about it and we just thought that would be really cool to do. It worked really well. I'd love it if he got the Bond role. He's a really good guy.
Who had the biggest impact on your career?
Getting to photograph Michael Caine was a massive game changer. Bafta was a big game changer, don't get me wrong, but that was very much an uncontrolled environment – you get what you get and you have seconds to do it. Shooting Michael Caine was effectively the same thing.
When you go on a film set to get photographs, you have to really carve out something for yourself. You are not shooting the scenes, you're shooting moments off camera. So to be given that opportunity was really big.
I remember getting the call from Kate Lee at Freuds and thinking that's exactly what I wanted to be doing at that point in time.
Any photographers that you looked up to when you were starting out?
When I was at university, one photographer whose work everyone loved was Don McCullen, the war photographer. I liked Martin Parr's humour in his work, too.
As I get older, Richard Avedon is a real marker for me. I love his level of play and performance, the way he was able to control his subjects and get what he wanted from the situation. Often they were very happy about it and sometimes they weren't. He's an amazing photographer.
Do you worry about AI?
Nah. I've seen friends spend time on it, which just seems aimless. I think being in the physical and actually going out with a camera will always outweigh this AI thing.
It has its place and it's really useful and I think it will get bigger. There'll be a point when it might replace certain levels of photography. But doing what I do, I don't think it will have a place.
What living person would you most like to photograph?
The list is quite big. Joe Pesci is number one.
Can’t you get an intro from De Niro?
It's not as easy as you think. I've tried several times! I was going to go and photograph his charity golf day and then the pandemic struck.
I would love to have photographed Jack Nicholson, although he’s also retired. I'd really like to shoot Brad Pitt, I think he's super cool. That's my top three.
And if you could photograph anyone from history?
There's two but they're the same person: Roger Moore and Sean Connery. I felt really sad when they both died that I hadn't photographed them. I adored both of them throughout my childhood and Bond is very close to my heart.