FAULT spoke with photographer Alan Silfen at the launch of his exhibition ‘STILL’ alongside Lionel Richie. Read the interview in full below.
Words by Robert Baggs / FAULT Magazine.
Last night FAULT was at an exclusive viewing of ‘STILL’, an exhibition by Alan Silfen showcasing the life and adventures of none other than Lionel Richie, who was also in attendance. Hosted at The Dorchester hotel, we managed to grab Alan to ask him what it was like shadowing such an icon.
FAULT: So first off, how does it feel to have an exhibition like this in The Dorchester?
Alan: Oh, it’s amazing; it’s ridiculous. I’ve been shooting Lionel Richie for 40 years and you don’t realise until something like this that it has been 40 years. It’s been a trip and it’s so funny remembering time and the fun and the craziness of The Commodores.
FAULT: I bet you couldn’t imagine back when you first shot Lionel that it would ever lead to exhibitions and shots of Royalty.
Alan: No way! I was 17 when I first shot him. 17. That lead to being scared out of my mind in a room with Lionel, Princess Diana and Prince Charles and not knowing how to act; I wasn’t even meant to be in the room. They finally said I could go in but I had all these bodyguards staring at me and burning a hole through me with their eyes. Then, all of a sudden, I hear Princess Diana say “could you take a picture of us?” What would you do? I said yes. It’s about moments like that. That’s how it feels: crazy.
FAULT: One of my favourite images on display has to be the rolls of proofs where Lionel has circled and crossed out images he does and doesn’t like in red pen. What was the thinking behind including it in the exhibition?
Alan: Well, that was one of things about putting this exhibition together. All of the early work is on different types of film. These images are all on Kodak 120 roll film, so it’s all negatives and on a proof sheet which is around A4 size. You would sit down with a magnifying glass and you would circle the ones you like. So when I found this sheet, I thought it would be perfect and so I printed it oversized and then Lionel saw and said “I’m going to go to town!” So I got him some acrylic red paint and he did his usual process of crossing off the ones he didn’t like. What he does and doesn’t like hasn’t changed in 40 years. He doesn’t like the moody images; he prefers to be engaged.
FAULT: Do you ever not agree with his image selections?
Alan: Oh of course! That’s half the fun of it!
FAULT: Who wins usually?
Alan: I’ll leave that to you to figure out… it could be me, it could be him.
FAULT: The Glastonbury image from last year is absolutely incredible. To see Lionel’s fan base having just grown and grown; the crowd is phenomenal.
Alan: This image to me is the ultimate. Just to think that Lionel broke the record for the biggest crowd at Glastonbury and then his album went number 1 after this. The album had been out for 18 years.
FAULT: You must have shot a lot of his live shows.
Alan: Yeah, a lot of his live shows and I’ve gone on tour with him. We also do all of the album packaging and marketing for the tours but my favourite is going in to the studio with him.
FAULT: He has worked with some incredible artists.
Alan: Yeah, like sitting in with him and Lenny [Kravitz]… the two of them together is crazy. They work all through the night until 9 the next morning and you don’t even realise it because it’s amazing to see people like that write music. Just being allowed to be there to photograph it is amazing and they forget I’m even in the room. That’s how I’ve been very lucky because Lionel has always been that way with me.
FAULT: It is shots like that that are iconic and my personal favourite over posed images.
Alan: Yeah and that shot of the two of them always reminds me of how he writes. That frame is from 1996 but it could be from 1980 or it could be from yesterday. What he does is he’ll have the melody done and then they book him for a vocal session and he hasn’t even written the words yet. So, when he had to do the vocals for Easy he hadn’t even written them yet. So he was sitting there like a school boy with a pencil and a lined notebook writing words.
FAULT: I couldn’t agree more. As a photographer I know just how incredible it feels to capture a great moment and just what it means.
Alan: Exactly – you can understand then. I mean, I can’t play [an instrument] but I love music and I can’t play a note. The camera is my way to be around him and so that’s what I did and from that I get to meet all these people you see, including that man over there. His name is Barrie Marshall who owns Marshall Arts Ltd. He promotes all the major tours; Sir Paul McCartney, Elton John and so on. That is how I got to work with Paul McCartney. In fact, Barrie promoted the first Commodore concerts in Europe and to do this day he still promotes Lionel.
FAULT: It seems as if Lionel has surrounded himself with the same people throughout his career.
Alan: Yes and that says a lot about Lionel.
FAULT: He must be great to work with!
Alan: That and he is very loyal.
FAULT: Over these years working together, have you seen your work evolve along with his?
Alan: Oh, definitely. You can walk around and see that. There was a style I always did, but if you look at my new portraits you can see how the style has altered; perhaps it’s a more sophisticated style. You know how it is Rob, the more you shoot the more you realise what you like and what you like to look at.
FAULT: Certainly. Developing your own style is a difficult goal to achieve as a photographer.
Alan: That’s really the hardest thing: figuring out what you like. After that you just have to figure out how to do it. When you figure out what you like it’s just the fun of working out how to make it work.
FAULT: With the candid work you have that control, but what about the live work? That must be much harder to put your stamp on. Do you ever wish you could have done it differently after the fact?
Alan: Always. When I first arrived at this stage at Glastonbury I thought “how am I going to capture this?!” Do I go down and shoot from the crowd – what do I do? I tried to go to the crowd but I couldn’t get in to it as it was so packed. I mean, if you dropped something it wouldn’t hit the ground. Also, it was a tall stage and I didn’t want to shoot up the guy’s nose and that doesn’t tell the story of the madness. But it’s trying to combine that with Lionel being Lionel that was the difficulty.
FAULT: Well again, it’s the photographer in me talking but I don’t think this could have been a better shot to capture the atmosphere and the composition is just perfect. Lionel is caught right in full flow and even the background is perfectly aligned to the rule of thirds!
Alan: It’s good that you noticed that actually. Lionel likes things to be symmetrical – in his life too. He likes order in everything and particularly in his writing. He likes things to be simple and one word titles.
FAULT: Well, I will leave you to entertain now and enjoy your exhibition!
Alan: Thank you – any time.
Alan Silfen's 'STILL' runs until July 29th. Interested in visiting the exhibition? You can find more information via The Dorchester website here.