Today I posted the last picture of my big project, 999 faces (mostly human). I started it, on a whim, on a cold Winter morning two years ago. I woke up with the idea in my head, ate breakfast, set up the Tumblr. Easy as that. I couldn’t imagine where I’d find so many subjects. I calculated that, at two or three a week, it would take the best part of eight years to complete. I gulped and began.
The first pictures were easy: my friend’s new baby and my seventy-eight year old mother. Then the Tintin-ish head from something in the Elephant and Castle and the pattern – male, female, thing – was set. I think I had a grand, unformed idea that All Ages Of Man would reside here or some such fol-de-rol. In the end I guess most of the subjects are aged from twenty to, say, sixty. Most are from London, but many are from the places I’ve visited in the last two years – France, Spain, Sweden and Israel. Some of the older subjects are my favourites. There’s a beautiful woman in, I guess, her eighties, (number 962) who I stopped in the street. She was tiny, perfectly groomed and dressed. She looked like she’d been a dancer. She agreed to let me take her photo but refused, couldn’t, look at the camera.
One of the greatest things I’ve gained from this project is that I’ve learned how to approach strangers. This takes some courage. You must be straightforward, try to charm, smiling is optional. I hand them a card with a photo of a subject on one side and details of the blog site on the other. I explain what I want to do with the picture. It’s an important part of 999 faces that everyone knew I was taking their picture and they were complicit in it. There is one photo I took with a long lens, he didn’t know, and I still feel bad about it. But I like the picture and I’m a weak man so I’ve used it. I’m not going to tell you which one it is.
Most people I’ve asked to be part of the project have been intrigued by the idea and agreed straight away. Almost every Brit has been fun and helpful and willing. When the French said no it was done with arrogance, when a Swede said no it was with modesty. One man working in a shop declined saying he didn’t want anyone making money from his face. I’d love to know how I can make money from this and he was a wanker.
I don’t think the project is about ‘beauty’ although I think everyone I’ve posted a picture of has something beautiful about them. Almost all of the most conventionally beautiful spluttered, said, ‘What, me?’ complained their nose was horrible and they weren’t wearing makeup. They would then begin to strike poses like Madonna. Sometimes you can only see the quality that makes someone beautiful when you look at their picture. And some beautiful people don’t photograph well. Maybe it was the photographer.
I’ve mostly eschewed ‘celebrities’. I have a weakness for creatives – the illustrator Mr Bingo, 780, Oscar-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming, 036, fashion designer Matthew Williamson looking rakish and handsome, 654, brilliant fashion and street photographer Scott Schulman aka The Sartorialist, 939. There are others. Matt Smith – number 378 was an exception. I’d been to see American Psycho the Musical on New Year’s Eve. Mr Smith had just left Doctor Who – he’s my favourite Doctor by a mile – and was starring in this odd production at the tiny Almeida Theatre in Islington. It was a terrific show and Mr Smith was terrific in it. Ultimately it was about an empty man in an empty world. At the end a tear rolled down my cheek. Afterwards much of the audience went to the theatre bar to see midnight in. Matt Smith came out and was surrounded by people wanting to say hello, have their picture taken with him. I waited twenty minutes until the hubbub had died down. I told him how much I’d enjoyed the show, how it had moved me. ‘Aww,’ he said, sympathetically, and squeezed my arm. He easily agreed to letting me take his picture. He started with a cheesy, grinning, thumbs up pose. ‘That’s brilliant, Mr Smith,’ I said, ‘but can you look at the camera like you want to murder it?’ ‘No no no,’ he protested. He turned his head sideways, then back at me and you can judge if he wanted to murder my camera. I think he did. I squeezed his beefy bicep – he’d bulked up for the part – thanked him and left. I think Matt Smith is brilliant.
I’ve met and spoken to so many lovely, charming people from this. I love the two(!) men with black eyes, 174 and 022. Neither would tell me how they got theirs but both were still smiling. I really like elderly people who dress smartly, 807, 905, 848. I like dogs. I don’t think there are any cats. I like people more after doing this. And I loved the Parisian tattooist, 591, from whom I learned two very useful new French words; un cool guy, and un hipster, both of which he was. And the heartbreaking young man at Nice airport with a love bite the size of the runway, 582.
I went through a long phase of not letting people smile and I regret that. It was always better when I could choose between them doing both, although I maintain that most people look better in pictures if they don’t smile. Unless it’s natural, then it’s acceptable. I wish I’d used more variety than having most people stand, square to the camera. I wanted to take up as little of people’s time as I could, although many have lingered and wanted to talk about the project, which I loved to do.
There are any number of chefs and waiters, which I think tells you something about a) how I most like to spend my time and b) how patient and personable people who work in the food industry are. Swedish palace guards are charming, beautiful and cooperative, 333 and 332. I don’t know how they stand in the cold like that. Same goes for my postman, 345. In many ways it’s been an autobiography told through other people’s faces. I took the picture of every electrician and plumber who came to my flat. Almost all of my neighbours are here. Sue and Graham were especially fun about it all, 650, 651. All my family are here except for my nephew’s girlfriend who was so sniffy about having her picture taken I gave up asking.
I tried to take the picture of everyone I went on a date with. One screamed, ‘No! I’m discrete! I’m discrete!’ I guessed he didn’t want me to take his photo. I also guessed he wasn’t the man for me. There are four people who no longer talk to me. I’m not telling you who they are, either. Sadly, five of my subjects have died since I took their pictures.
Two galleries have shown an interest in holding an exhibition but have subsequently lost interest. I would love to see the best ones hung together. I’ve entered competitions with some of these pictures, but not yet had any luck. I think I’m going to try to be a professional photographer. I hadn’t thought that two years ago. All I need is a window with a dull day outside and a minute of your time.
The last picture, 000, is, of course, of me. In an act of supremely pointless vanity I took over two hundred selfies before I settled on that one. I took them wearing different clothes, I took some with no clothes. I stood in eight different positions in my flat, wherever I could prop up the mirror. Sometimes I had sunbursts obscuring my face, sometimes I was in deep shadow. In the end I couldn’t allow myself to be a hypocrite. I looked the camera straight in the eye, I didn’t smile, and I clicked the clicker. Picture taken. And that’s why I love 999 faces.
I can’t choose one favourite but I’d love to know which are yours. Here’s a link to the Tumblr: 999faces