“Niall, fancy coming to photograph my podcast with Paul Smith next week?”
“Err, I’ve only had a camera for a week, David...”
“That’s okay, I’m sure Paul can teach you how to use it.”
Holy smokes... so, my first photography ‘assignment’ was to be of a British icon. Good. Naively, I set about on some research to try and settle my nerves.
Google suggests that Sir Paul Smith’s been taking pictures since he was eleven years old, taught by his father who ran his local camera club. As demonstrated in his brilliant #TakenByPaul series on Instagram, he takes a camera with him whenever he travels, documenting his trips as seen through his brilliantly creative eye. Christ, the guy’s even shot many of his fashion brand’s own product campaigns. Safe to say then, I was well out of my depth.
After a bit of ‘practice’, shooting David in the early morning streets of Covent Garden, I soon found myself in ‘that’ office. Now, I’m sure that if you’re reading this, we aren’t breaking new ground by showing you the inside of Sir Paul’s office – it’s eclectic brilliance is the backdrop to hundreds of interviews with him. Nonetheless, it is an absolute treasure-trove to anyone with either an interest in cycling or in taking pictures – so that was me sorted then.
As David and Sir Paul sat down to record the pilot episode of the (bloody brilliant) Off-Bike podcast, a light coating of sweat began to cover my face as I fumbled with my camera trying - unsuccessfully - to reduce the noise of the shutter, keen not to intrude this hard to come by moment.
The conversation unravelled; David’s well-researched line of questions being answered in mesmerising colour by Sir Paul - my presumption that the biggest hurdle I'd face today would be my technical inexperience was soon superseded. It was my inability not to lose myself, totally immersed in their conversation forgetting my role that was the trickiest thing to master.
Taking great care to move in silence around on the old, hardwood floor of Sir Paul’s office as the chat continued, I soon got into a rhythm – capturing my two subjects from every angle I could possibly conceive, stopping short of finding a ladder. Gradually I became more comfortable with the role and turned my attention to the vast amount of items that decorate this office – mementoes of Paul’s travels, compiled over decades of building one of the most well-respected fashion brands in the world. And then there’s jerseys... my god, the jerseys!
Once the interview finished up, Sir Paul willingly took me on a tour around the room, inviting me to rifle through this giant pile of vintage cycling jerseys, to pick things up off shelves and pull out bikes. This is how, he explains, the room never looks the same on any given day, its contents constantly being uprooted and shifted around. It brings new meaning to the term ‘living room’.
Terrified as I was to be charged with documenting this day, I needn’t have been. In fact, looking back on it now with a bit more experience under my belt, I would actually say that this was the easiest and best way to learn. Sir Paul is everything you imagine him to be; humble, warm, intelligent and charismatic – he instantly made me feel at ease and, though I can't pin down exactly how, hugely inspired. Couple that with an office that’s so beautifully littered with interesting artefacts, pictures and bikes and you really can't go wrong.
So, if one day I ever become good enough at this that photography stuff that a misinformed, new-camera-wielder should ask me for my one piece of photography advice, my answer would be simple: “make sure they’ve got a knighthood and a dead cool office”.
You can should take a listen to the podcast the David and Sir Paul did here.