Robbie Williams photographed on the London Underground, March 1997
Harry recalls the shoot: “In early 1997, Robbie Williams was at a difficult stage in his career, and it wasn’t easy to predict what would happen next. Aged 23, he had left Take That the previous year but had yet to release his first solo album. When I was commissioned by music magazine Select to photograph him in March 1997, he seemed a little lost.
The magazine had booked a studio in Clerkenwell, central London, and wanted me to shoot portraits to go with an interview by journalist Caitlin Moran. But Robbie wasn’t in the best frame of mind for the shoot. I remember clearly that I had little or no conversation with him. He wore an amazing striped suit, and I photographed him manically jumping around. It wasn’t an intimate type of shoot at all; it was just a bit crazy. His PR people were looking on and wringing their hands with anxiety. However, even in this unpredictable and dishevelled state, he was very charismatic and handsome. He had amazing eyes and was great to photograph.
Aside from the studio portraits, I had other plans for the shoot. I’m a big fan of Dennis Stock’s famous photographs of actor James Dean in Times Square, and I wanted to try something similar. I liked the idea of photographing someone charismatic in an anonymous setting, so I suggested that we go outside. The people from Robbie’s management company were very concerned about him being mobbed, but I tried to persuade them that it was a good idea. I said we would just walk through Clerkenwell to Farringdon tube station, where I’d get some shots of him on the concourse, perhaps reading a newspaper. They reluctantly agreed, though I didn’t tell them my real plan – to photograph him on a London Underground train. As Robbie and I walked through the station with an entourage behind us, I told him what I was planning to do, and he agreed. So when a train pulled into the platform, he and I jumped on just as the doors were about to close. Everyone else, including his PR people and my assistant, was left on the platform.
Robbie and I went one stop on the train to King’s Cross station. I had my Fujifilm GW670 (a 6×7 rangefinder camera with a 90mm lens), some Kodak Tri-X film and a tripod. I shot about 10 frames. Nobody on the train said anything to us or barely even looked up. We got out at King’s Cross and caught the train back to Farringdon. If I wanted to shoot something like that today, I’d probably have to get official permission or set it up with lots of extras. But we got away with it then because we did it so quickly. If you’re fleet-footed and completely brazen, quite often people don’t bat an eyelid. If you ask: ‘Is it okay to take the picture?’ you’re just giving people the opportunity to object. Here, we winged it and I think that energy and spontaneity is woven into the fabric of the picture. The best picture I’ve taken of him is the shot on the tube. It was selected for the 1997 John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award exhibition. It was exactly the picture I’d wanted. Even today, I can look at it and feel pleased that I managed to pull off my idea.”
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