David Clerihew Features

David Clerihew

A London photographer captures the playing field’s thrills, skirmishes and its human drama.

Diane Smyth

David Clerihew fizzes with excitement about his new studio. Situated on a quiet residential street five miles from central London, it needs some repair, but that’s not the point—Richard Avedon used to shoot there. “I’ve been thinking about getting my own place for years—and the thought that Avedon shot there!” he says. “David Bailey, Albert Watson and Richard Avedon were my big influences coming up—An Autobiography [Avedon, 1993] and Cyclops [Watson, 1994] were my two bibles.”

© Liesel Bockl

It’s not the first time Clerihew has crossed paths with his heroes. Born in Biggar, a Scottish town with a population of just 2,000, he fell into photo-graphy after he was denied admission to an illustration program. A fine art major at the University of Dundee, he soon discovered Watson had studied there in the 1960s. “I looked at Albert’s work and thought, ‘My God, the guy that’s done everything, one of the most successful photographers in the world, studied here,’” he says. “The fact that this Scottish laddie had gone off and done it made me feel that I could, too.” 

Twenty years later, he’s shot for some of the biggest brands in the world, initially specializing in sports, but now branching out into wider celebrity portraiture. He’s photographed Olympic runner Usain Bolt, soccer sensation David Beckham, actor Stanley Tucci and musician David Grohl, and he’s worked for Nike, adidas, Speedo, Guinness, Samsung and Hugo Boss. In 2009, he signed with Visual Artists, the same agency that represents photographer David Bailey. “It doesn’t do any harm at all to be represented alongside Bailey,” Clerihew says.

“It’s the intensity of David’s portraits that struck me from the beginning,” says Matt Nicholson, managing director at the London-based agency. “His images also have an integrity and a beauty in the classical sense that I’ve always respected. There’s no doubt he’s a master of the human anatomy, but his approach is pure artistry. Technically sophisticated and genuinely passionate about his subject, he manages to capture a unique energy in his portraiture. It’s not always pretty, but always honest and powerful.”

It hasn’t always been this easy, and Clerihew still doesn’t take anything for granted. “No matter how successful you are, there are still black holes in the diary where the work just stops,” he says. “I’m getting less and less of that. In the last few years, it’s been pretty constant, but I’ve never wanted to say, ‘Yeah, I shot the World Cup campaign a few years ago, and that was my last big job,’ because of that fear. One photographer I assisted in the 1980s, who was doing so well at the time, was living in a bedsit the last time I met him. It makes me so aware if I’ve got a big job on—it’s a big job now, but what’s coming next?”

If anything can explain Clerihew’s meteoric rise, it’s this forward thinking, this need to keep working, keep moving, keep learning—even on individual shoots. “David’s always got ideas he’s trying out, he’s always changing and always evolving,” says Adam Howes, the retoucher Clerihew has worked with for the last six years. “Even working towards the final image [on a single commission], it’s always a journey. The work might take a different direction.” 

Clerihew has pushed for progress throughout his career, playing to his strengths without getting stuck and maxi-mizing opportunities even when he seemed to have missed them. Take his early decision to focus on sports brands and athletes, for example. He’d been working in London for a while and had decided to abandon assisting for freelancing (“because I hated assisting, standing there thinking, ‘OK, I’m getting paid £25 a day and you’re getting £3,000’”), but struggling to find work. Sitting in a supermarket parking lot off Old Kent Road—to this day, a dodgy part of town—he got a call about a job for Nike. 

“I hadn’t done any work for three months; I had a young family. It was a really dire time,” he says. “Then Ajaz Ahmed from AKQA rang, saying, ‘Dave, we might have a really interesting job for Nike, shooting all their athletes.’ I didn’t get it, but it was an epiphany anyway. I played a lot of sports at school until quite a high level, up to age 18. I realized, ‘This is what I should be doing! I know sports. When I meet a sportsman, I understand him. I know about throwing up on the side of the track!’ So I just put my head down for a year and worked, lifestyle work but enough work, and eventually I landed a job for adidas.”

It’s not just about the photography—it’s the people management, the time pressure, the number of shots you need to get.”

His revelation was good timing, too, coming just as sports manufacturers were transforming into multimillion-dollar fashion brands, and athletes and players were transforming into stars. Other jobs followed, including shoots for the UK charity Sports Relief and the magazine Men’s Health. Then in 2008, Clerihew won his first really big commission, shooting three soccer teams—Futbol Club Barcelona, Inter Milan and Juventus Football Club—for Nike. “Of course I was ecstatic, but I was also thinking ‘Oh, my God!’” Clerihew says. “We got through a few shoots OK, then suddenly I was standing in the middle of the Barcelona stadium [Camp Nou], and Ronaldinho was coming out.

“I don’t get starstruck, I’m not even massively into football, but he was the best player on the planet, and he was standing right in front of me. I remember looking through the camera thinking, ‘What is he waiting for?’ then realizing, ‘Oh, my God, he’s waiting for me to say something!’ It’s an untold amount of pressure.”

And that pressure is something he has had to get used to because shooting big celebrities is not for the fainthearted. It’s not unusual for Clerihew to have just minutes with the talent in a studio with up to 70 people on set, some of whom are clustered around Clerihew’s laptop, as he’s charged with getting enough images at a high enough quality for a global billboard campaign. “You get half an hour with someone who’s talking on the phone, with their entourage whispering in their ear, and you have to get a reaction out of them,” says Howes, who often accompanies Clerihew on set. “It’s not easy, but David’s very friendly towards everyone; we’re all part of a team working together. You have to get the job done quickly, there’s no spare time at all, but it isn’t a stressful environment. I’ve worked with David for a long time. Although he’s a client, I also like to think of him as a friend—and he’s like that with everyone, from retouchers to assistants.”

“When I was an assistant, some of the people I was working with would scream and shout and make an absolute fanfare,” Clerihew says. “I keep it very calm, but I will pull someone aside for a word if I need to. One time I had a personal assistant come up to me and say, ‘Can you hurry up? We’ve got a private jet waiting [for the talent].’ I was like, ‘I’m not even listening to that, it sounds so pretentious!’ You have to be a good photographer, but it’s not just about the photography—it’s the people management, the time pressure, the number of shots you need to get. You can be really good as a photographer, but once you’re thrown into that, the pressure’s on.”

No matter how successful you are, there are still black holes in the diary where the work just stops.”

But, as his agent says, Clerihew is not afraid of the challenges that come with big-budget campaigns and will take risks in pursuit of an interesting shot. When he shot for Speedo, he submerged himself and his rig underwater, for example, “scrambling up for air with the thirteen best swimmers in the world looking at me.” When he shot a World Cup campaign for adidas, he used an extreme wide-angle lens “literally two inches away from them as they were striking the ball.” He has also worked in a wide variety of styles, from tightly controlled studio images—often painstakingly stitched together with Howes from a number of elements—to monochrome reportage-style, outdoor and, increasingly, moving images. “I’ve done a couple of big jobs with moving images now [for BT Sport and Guinness], and I’m keen to do more,” he says. “It’s going to get more and more prevalent as digital billboards are rolled out and as brands spend more on their online campaigns. You can get more content on a ten-second loop, and for me, it’s easier to shoot action from a moving-image perspective.”

But while he loves to push the envelope, he also knows when to pipe down and just do the job. His amount of creative control varies widely—he’ll occasionally put together the pre-production treatment, but either way, the client always has the final say. “Sometimes it’s very direct and you don’t get to do anything very personal, but that’s what you’re being paid for,” he says. “You can’t get too precious about it.”

And that’s why he pursues personal work, such as a project he’s shooting with Sébastien Foucan, the man who invented the urban street sport Parkour; his emotional study of Auschwitz and its survivors; and his ongoing American Portraits series. Inspired by Avedon’s In the American West, Clerihew’s latter project is a visual survey of people in the United States, captured on the streets with a simple gray background. It’s already won him awards, including the Creative Review’s Best in Book in 2011, but he’s eager to work on it more, to lay out the prints and figure out the best arrangement for an exhibition or book. In fact, that’s another reason he’s excited about having his own studio for the first time. 

“I need a proper place where I can lay out portraits, and I’m investing in new photography gear as well,” he says. “I’m stepping it up.” ca

Diane Smyth (diane.smyth@apptitudemedia.co.uk) is the executive editor of the British Journal of Photography and has also written for Creative Review, Aperture, Foam and Photomonitor, among others. She has curated exhibitions for the Photographers’ Gallery, the Lianzhou International Photo Festival and the Flash Forward Festival. 

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