Profile: Nick Haddow
Fashion Photographer Nick Haddow went from working as a menswear buyer to shooting Hollywood royalty. And even though his commercial acumen is what shot him into the big league, Alannah Sparks finds he has other tricks up his sleeve to keep him at the top of his game. “I’m not intimidated by beauty. I grew up with a beautiful mother and, believe me, I’ve seen how it can faze people. I can handle it.”
This is just as well for Nick Haddow, because browsing through his website one is inclined to feel distinctly fazed by beauty – unabashed, lyrical celebrations of it. Click the celebrity portrait section and it’s a roll call of almost every famous, beautiful face on our screens today. There’s Keira Knightley, both smouldering and glacial as she curls up in front of a fire; Demi Moore, swaddled in a dressing gown and glaring broodingly into the distance; a sylph-like Thandie Newton, angelic while she sleeps; and Kate Winslet, bathed in golden light as she dips a lightly bronzed leg into a shimmering lake.
These are the images for SAFE, Nick Haddow’s charity project in collaboration with actress Emma Thompson. After four years’ work dedicated to raising awareness of the women trafficked for prostitution the world over, it debuted in London last November and is bound for NewYork, Cannes and beyond later this year. “Unfortunately, everyone these days is obsessed with celebrities. But when they use that power as a medium for an important message, how can you not respect that?” He and Thompson approached each star individually – a huge task considering the legions of publicists, PRs and minders that surround today’s stars and starlets – and convinced them all to pose for a picture in a place where they felt safe. Ranging from Meryl Streep at her home in Connecticut to Rachel Weisz in the branches of an apple tree and Natasha Richardson (who, tragically, was to die later after a skiing accident) in the arms of her husband Liam Neeson, each actress gave up her safe place to help women who according to Nick “have no safety, in body or in mind.”
Nick Haddow’s career in photography began through an unlikely sequence of events. In a warm and undulating Scots tone he tells how a college degree in business and marketing, followed by a brief stint as a menswear buyer for House of Fraser, prompted his mother to tell him aged 22, “that I needed to get the fuck out of Glasgow. It was killing me.” He packed in the buying, packed a bag and packed off for a year around the world. One Sunday morning he was – unusually – awake at dawn when a hairdresser friend phoned in a panic because a photographer’s assistant had pulled out of a shoot. “I turned up groggy-eyed at the studio to help out and from that day I knew what I wanted to do.” He became Steve Faulkner’s full-time assistant, and has never looked at menswear trend forecasts again.
The fact that Nick has done his time in business has served him well throughout his career as a commercial photographer. He runs his own show – production, management, agent work. Go to a meeting with Nick Haddow and you’ll get facts and figures. “Big clients now don’t want a diva pussyfooting around. They want to know that out of X amount of money, they’ll get X results.”
This explains why heavy hitters from Topshop to Victoria’s Secret and Alice by Temperley to Avon are queuing for a piece of that no-nonsense lens style. “Sometimes it’s difficult,” he admits, “you’re dealing with someone young, someone that you’ve forgotten more than they know,” he says in his idiomatic way. “Listening to someone who knows less than you – it’s tricky – doesn’t matter how good you are, how quick you are, how kind you are, how expensive you are – it’s all based on the person holding the wallet.” This, he claims, is what makes photographers vulnerable in their profession, because as with any trade, you’re only as good as your last job.
But Haddow has three major advantages when it comes to keeping the clients returning. The first one is speed. “I never work past 5.30,” he says proudly, “no point in going over a shot 15 or 20 times when you know you’ve got it right the first time. Nobody wants to be there for 10 hours.” He shot the picture of Kate Winslet at the lake in 15 minutes, and not one of his SAFE photos took longer than 30 minutes to get right. “For me the good photography happens in a tiny instant when the light falls in the right way, the hair falls, the woman’s eye flickers, the mood is right – something happens magically, which makes it reminiscent and holding on to a time.
When you look back at it, there’s something almost melancholic about it.” This melancholia, the striving for film-still poignancy, is why Haddow fights shy of working with the moving image. He is shortly to begin work on an advertisement for a big European brand and confides that it’s been keeping him up at night. “With the moving image I can’t control it in the same way – the time isn’t mine to capture. Working with a great team is what will make the difference and I’m lucky to be surrounded by great people.”
No wonder Haddow has a loyal entourage. The second of his useful traits – one which becomes abundantly clear to me during the length of our conversation – is his sense of humour. His self-deprecating Glasgow lilt and devious take on the world has me in stitches throughout as he talks about working with ‘Slashies’ (“you know, those girls who call themselves an actress/model/presenter/columnist? Can’t you just choose one and leave us in peace?”) and wonders how I’ve never noticed how much of a ‘fox’ architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was. But underneath this provocative humour is a niceness and empathy towards other people. When Thandie Newton spoke to The Times about Haddow, she said: “He creates an equilibrium that actually makes me feel like I am giving him the picture, as much as he’s taking it.” With Haddow everyone gets the same treatment, whether it’s Hollywood royalty or his new assistant. He speaks angrily about the way that assistants are treated in the photographic profession and even though his career as one was short-lived (he worked for six months for Steve Faulkner unpaid and then went to work briefly with Palma Kolansky) it’s easy to see that it carved his set of values in stone.
“In every walk of life it’s the same – and I’m no Bible basher by any means – but treat everyone the way you want to be treated. As we say in Scotland, the fuck you give the fuck you get – it’s just karma.” The hierarchical system in the world of photography is abused too often and he says the horror stories are commonplace. “It’s so wrong,” he says, “we’re doing a gorgeous, pleasurable job. We’re not saving lives here.”
The third and possibly most startling thing about Nick’s work is that he rarely uses lighting in his shoots. This, he tells me, is key to understanding his work. “It comes from confidence,” he says, choosing his words carefully so as not to sound as if he is preaching. “The really good hairdressers will come in to a shoot and if the model or celebrity’s hair is gorgeous already – even if they are getting paid a fortune – they won’t touch it. It’s the same with photography. The best light in the world is the light that God gives.” It’s extraordinary to flick through his images, characterised by evocative soft shadows and flattering golden light, and realise that no artificial light was used. For the commercial shots Haddow will call in artificial light if he’s keeping to a brief, but otherwise he prefers to work with what God gave him.
At the beginning of our interview Nick tells me a joke: “You know the one – what’s the difference between a photographer and God? God doesn’t think that he’s a photographer.” But, as I reckon Nick has discovered for himself, it certainly pays to have him on-side.
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