By Joe Gioia; scroll to bottom for portfolio.
If the first rule of celebrity photography is to prey heartlessly upon its subjects, and the second is that even the dullest candid photo, all messy hair, sweatpants, sunglasses and boring sidewalk, is enough, then the long-standing photo work of Britain’s Dafydd Jones hardly qualifies as such. Jones’ party and celebrity photos, first appearing thirty-five years ago in the British society magazine Tatler and shortly after in Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Talk, as well as other magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, are characterized by his sly eye for the moment, and a humane view of his subjects–the vanities and follies, as well as the wit and style, of whom he is pleased to show.
After a professional life lived between London and New York City, with frequent trips to Hollywood, Miami, and highlife hotspots worldwide, the 60-year-old Jones has sold his London flat and now resides full-time in rural Sussex with his wife. Besides continuing his active party photography work for magazines and private clients, he has undertaken an old fashioned wet darkroom project: making several long series of large archival prints from 35mm black-and-white negatives to create boxed sets of his classic images for gallery sale.
When we first contacted Jones, he was printing in one of London’s last community darkrooms, having given away his own darkroom equipment soon after switching to digital. Our interview completed, he wrote to say that the darkroom was closing, and that he had managed to retrieve his old fiberglass darkroom sink, a prized purchase from his New York years, and was getting ready to start printing again at home.
JG: You were an early adapter of digital photography, and years ago did some very interesting and groundbreaking work with photo stitching panoramas (which readers can find on your website: dafjones.photoshelter.com); what inspired you to go back to darkroom printing 35mm negs?
DJ: I enjoy digital photography and think a screen is a great way to see a photograph. But also I love the tactile feeling of black-and-white prints. I wanted to go back a do a new edit of pictures that had stayed in my head.
JG: How did you settle on the images, or choose the ones you did?
DJ: When the pictures are seen as a collection they mean more. Also spending hours in the darkroom with no interruptions gave me time to decide whether a picture was good enough to include. I printed quite a few and then changed my mind about including them.
JG: What paper/chemistry are you using?
DJ: Ilford chemicals and Ilford Gallerie fibre paper.
JG: Do you still shoot jobs on black-and-white film?
DJ: No all my pictures are digital although I am experimenting with transferring digital images onto negatives so that I can do traditional prints.
JG: You’ve used a lot of different cameras in your career, which have worked best for you?
DJ: They all have good features. I started off with an Olympus OM1 then moved more to Leica. Now I’m back on Olympus again. So my all round favorite is Olympus.
JG: How do you keep track of and store all your negatives?
DJ: I have a simple numbering system that starts with the year and from the first roll of each year and continues. My contact sheets are stored with the films and catalogued in a card index.
JG: Care to give an estimate as to how many you have?
DJ: Approximately 20,000 rolls of 36 exposures each.
JG: Wow! Where do you keep them all?
DJ: They are all on shelves taking up one wall of my (north facing so not too warm) office.
JG: Briefly, how did you get your start?
DJ: I was a prizewinner in a competition for young photographers sponsored by the Sunday Times magazine. As a result of this I was hired by Tina Brown at the Tatler magazine in 1981 to photograph hunt Balls, debutante dances, and weddings. This is turn led on to work from many other publications.
Your English party pictures feel so distinct from the Hollywood images; the English subjects look like they’re having a lot of (albeit silly) fun, while something else entirely is going on in the American photos. Did you approach both subjects the same way, or did you see something in one, distinct from the other, which you wanted to express?
DJ: I approached my subjects in the same way. I saw different things I became interested in capturing. In England it was the wild drunkenness and eccentricity. In America I became just as interested in the industry surrounding the celebrity guests at a party.
JG: In what ways has your job changed with the advent of smart phones and the notion that everyone is a “photographer”.
DJ: What I do hasn’t changed at all. It is still extremely difficult to do a picture which isn’t banal and uninteresting.
JG: You get really nice shots in what must be very fluid and dynamic situations. Do you have an overall strategy for picture taking in impromptu settings you can share? Is it possible to get interesting pictures at dull events, or do you save your fire for more promising subjects?
DJ: I don’t think there is such a thing as a dull event. I find it important to know about who and what I’m photographing.
JG: There are so many photographic devices, and new ways pictures can be immediately displayed, it’s almost as if people out in public now expect to have their pictures taken. Is it harder to catch unguarded social moments, or are all moments guarded now?
DJ: If anything it is easier, especially if using a smartphone.
JG: Wait, you use a smartphone? Under what circumstances will you use it instead of a digital camera?
DJ: Whenever I want to be quick. Often a big camera is a bit inappropriate and looks intimidating.
JG: What’s been the response to the Box sets? Are many collectors still interested in contemporary, and traditional, black-and-white prints?
DJ: The first Box went to a collector in New York as soon as it was released. There are very few collectors or buyers in England, so I was pleased that Martin Parr bought a Box for his foundation in England. James Hyman considered a box and looked through a lot of my work. He then made a selection of fifty of my original used vintage prints for his collection of British Photography. (I would retrieve my prints from the magazines after publication, so I still have many of my original work prints done on deadline at the time).
The “Exhibition in a Box” at the Bermondsey Project Space this past Spring was the first time I’d selected the pictures, printed them, matted and framed them and then planned the installation. Although small, it worked well. The pictures look best displayed together, and people seem to have appreciated the work more as a collection, so I’ve had a fantastic response. (Ed. see http://project-space.london/event/vintage-dafydd-jones)
JG: Whose work would you encourage young photographers to study?
DJ: Whatever interests them. I’d encourage them to find out more about the photographer if they see work they like.
JG: And if you could change one aspect of contemporary photography what would it be?
DJ: Some of the digital advances I still find very exciting; but also scary with pictures so easily given away. Editors of national publications have recently had budgets cut so much they can’t commission anything. Agencies are trying to take over and undercutting each other. Many magazines and websites are running the same pictures from one or two agencies. The agencies themselves have a limited aesthetic and are more interested in building a database. I would break up the monopolistic photo agencies for the sake of increased competition and better photography.