Candid Camera: It took Jennifer Robertson and Lynne Fletcher three years to put together a unique collection of photographs of Yorkshire luminaries. They tell Sheena Hastings how asking nicely and dogged persistence paid off.
IN a sense, despite the technology that has revolutionised photography in recent decades, theirs is a very old-fashioned business.
Jennifer Robertson and Lynne Fletcher make beautiful photographs at their stylish studio in Skircoat Green, Halifax at locations across the country. Some clients travel a considerable distance, but mostly they document the life of local families, who come to Kyte Photography to mark special – and sometimes very poignant – occasions in their lives.
Both are chatty, down-to-earth and straight-talking. But Lynne’s got more of the joker about her, and Jennifer talks more about the ethos of their work, the artistic side of things. Both are clearly focused and serious about the job.
“Lynne is just fantastic with clients,” says Jennifer. “I think Jennifer is the greatest photographer in the world,” says Lynne.
They love being enmeshed in the community, seeing a pregnant woman walk past the studio and a few months later taking the first studio portraits of the new family – or walking down the street and being told about upcoming family events that local people want the duo to commemorate.
“We only do one shoot a day,” says Lynne. “It’s all about slowing things down and listening, and showing that everyone has an inner beauty.”
The lasting beauty of a relationship between an adult daughter and her dying mother was one commission not long ago.
Their approach is very much ‘less is more’ – using natural light whenever possible and low-key equipment. There’s no faffing with make-up, hair and clothing, soft focus or air-brushing, but rather the creation of a set of images based around the understanding of the personality of the sitter, how they move, speak and laugh.
The duo, who’ve been in business together since 1999, are about to publish a book of images of famous Yorkshire people from across many fields of endeavour – politics, academe, literature, the stage, music, the media and sport. An exhibition of many of the photographs will also run for two months at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
“We still do our work with lovely, ordinary people around us and the important points in their lives,” says Lynne. “They don’t care that we’ve done Judi Dench.”
Alongside the ‘day job’ they’ve spent every spare moment over three years tracking down many of Yorkshire’s biggest names, whose talent has earned them national and international recognition. The resulting collection of images is fresh, natural and often insightful.
Dame Judi is there, curled up on a sofa in her jeans, and also lounging in a hammock in the garden, looking totally relaxed yet also slightly minxish. David Hockney is spied through a wavy cloud of cigarette smoke, after lunch in his Bridlington kitchen.
Geoff Boycott didn’t need much persuasion to take the roller and give his beloved Headingley wicket a good going over. John Godber poses beneath the Humber Bridge, while local girl Maureen Lipman returned to her roots to be photographed at Hull’s Victorian Pier. Patrick Stewart chose to stand in a field on Emley Moor.
Sheffield’s Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, is included, as are Michael Parkinson, Dickie Bird, Olympians Nicola Adams and Hannah Cockroft, and 83-year-old Brian Robinson, the first Briton to win a stage of the Tour de France, in 1958.
Betty Boothroyd, William Hague and David Blunkett rub shoulders with Emmerdale’s Duncan Preston and novelist Joanne Harris.
All of the politicians are characterful portraits: Betty enjoying the sunshine on the terrace of the Palace of Westminster; Hague looking the relaxed statesman in shirtsleeves in his House of Commons office, with a bust of Pitt the Younger in the background, and Blunkett captured in an extreme, exploratory close-up.
“He didn’t want a ‘blind’ photo, one including his dog – as that’s what’s usually done. Neither did we,” says Jennifer, who explains how the Yorkshire Made Me project came about.
“I’m from Sheffield and started out as an apprentice photographer on the Barnsley Chronicle, working my way up to run the picture desk of a big agency in Manchester.” She’s also a former national newspaper photographer with many front page world exclusives to her name.
She and Lynne met in Manchester, where Fletcher was a creative art director with the international PR firm Shandwick. The two women created a marketing campaign for Manchester United together, became friends and set up their own successful media agency in 1999.
Two years later they opened the studio in Halifax, Lynne, who is also a qualified photographer, specialises in lighting and also finds locations for national magazine photo shoots.
“We were driving to a shoot about three years ago, listening to a radio interview with the boxer Nicola Adams,” says Lynne. “We started discussing how many really famous people are from Yorkshire. Over the following week or two we put together a long list of people, and decided we’d write to a few of them about taking their photograph for a possible exhibition.”
It must have been quite some letter. “Well, we put it to them that the project was about Yorkshire people who’d done great things…and said that because we’re from Yorkshire, we must also be great,” says Lynne.
Of the 40-odd Yorkshire celebrities they approached, very few declined, says Jennifer. They included Alan Bennett. “But he wrote to us, on a lovely handmade card, saying ‘I’m too shy and don’t like having my photo taken. But thanks for asking.’”
Momentum grew as word seemed to get around about who was already on board. Still with no firm book deal or exhibition organised, Dame Judi Dench, Jim Carter (the character actor from Harrogate best known as Downton’s butler Carson) and Doncaster-born soprano Lesley Garrett were up for a shoot. ‘Parky’ opened a few doors to celebrity friends.
Lynne and Jennifer told each subject that they could choose the location, and that it should preferably be somewhere of personal significance or where they felt comfortable. Most chose their own home.
No money changed hands, all were keen on the idea of minimal fuss, and the actors in particular welcomed direction.
In the case of Carter, the location was his garden shed in Hampstead, where he explores his insect collection and can view the action on the cricket field next door. Kiki Dee was photographed at Bradford’s Alhambra theatre, where she started out aged 16.
Despite the fact that Judi Dench had just flown in the night before from the premiere of Skyfall in New York, she was fresh as a daisy and “totally welcoming”, when they rolled up to her Surrey home, says Lynne. “She came to the door with no make-up on, made us tea, gave us cake, and showed us around the house, asking where we fancied working.
“In the library were her 11 Baftas, two Golden Globes and an Oscar. I told her ‘If I had those I’d be wearing them’. She laughed very easily and kept taking off our accents.
“In the end we did some pictures indoors then she showed us her garden, and caught us eyeing up the hammock. ‘Do you want me in that?’ she said, and jumped straight in.” The Great Dame in a hammock is one of the two most striking images in a fascinating series of pictures.
The other is the sight of our most famous and prolific artist David Hockney, smiling blissfully as he sits at the kitchen table.
He was a tougher nut to crack than most of the others put together, says Jennifer. “We must have written him 15 letters over three years, to addresses here and in the US. Each one was a little different, and we tried to be funny but not seem desperate. Each time we updated it with who else we’d done by then, but got no reply.
“One day the phone rang and a voice said ‘Come to my studio on Monday at 2pm. David Hockney here.’”
Lynne and Jennifer ended up spending the whole day with the artist, at the studio and at home, including a session in his home cinema, watching video footage of his blockbuster Royal Academy show.
“Once he decided to do it he really did it. Some people seemed to be very relaxed and open because they were outside of their professional environment. The shoot with Hockney, telling jokes and surrounded by domesticity, with the leftovers of a good lunch in front of him, was even more than we’d dared to hope for.”
So, with Yorkshire Made Me about to be published and many of the pictures going on public view at the end of March, what next for the photographers who now have feet in two different camps?
“We’d like to explore more artistically, although we still love what we do in our own studio,” says Jennifer. “Getting known beyond Yorkshire is difficult unless you have a London agent, so that is our ambition.
“We’re also putting together another series of images, of British actresses – some of which have come about through Yorkshire Made Me. Again, people we approach are saying yes without knowing how and where we’ll use the pictures yet. We did actress Maxine Peake inside a cage – she was fantastic, and so up for doing something different.”
The book Yorkshire Made Me is published on March 1, hardback £19.99 and softback £9.99 from www.carnegiepublishing. co.uk/01524 840111
The exhibition Yorkshire Made Me opens at the Garden Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton near Wakefield WF4 4LG on March 29 and runs until June 1. Info: 01924 832631