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Ambassador Interview: Joseph Lynn – Photographer and director with the mantra ‘Do it now and learn from it’

The Dandy Mini Top Hat

I first met Joseph Lynn at a party Vera and Luke threw for their son Bobby’s first birthday at Primrose Hill in London. It was a scorching hot day and London seemed torn between partying in the sun and just surviving the heat. Finding the Vera Black group was easy. I just found the group of people who looked like rock stars! 

I was introduced to a number of fun and very talented creative people. Aside from Olivia who I have interviewed before, I had only met Vera and Luke. But after a quick chat with Joe it already felt like I had met a new friend. We didn’t agree on everything, but there was a creative energy that bounced out of him as he stood in front of me in his fedora hat and a broad smile.

The next time we met was not in the company of birthday boys, rock stars and models, but on a Zoom call. Joe was just as warm and funny as before, but it wasn’t until I transcribed our interview that I discovered just how fast he talks. So if you want the real Joseph Lynn experience try reading this at double speed!

Luke often describes Joe as a brother so I asked Joe when they first met.

“I distinctly remember meeting Luke. It was about nine years ago at the Southbank Christmas markets in London. There were lots of little stores there, but a lot of the stuff was tat really, or just uninteresting. And then I saw Luke’s stall and thought ‘Wow, this is so cool!’ I instantly fell in love with what they make and I couldn’t help but verbalise this to Luke. That I had been looking for stuff like this my whole life. I’ve been re-appropriating items to feel like this, and yet you’re doing exactly this. You’re hitting it right on the head, the right amalgamation of interest and aesthetics into one accessory.

“I still hear people saying this when they discover Vera Black, which is why they are so special. They are filling this gap which so many people want, and no-one else is doing it. I spent what student loan I had on accessories and spent about an hour talking to Luke. As anyone who shows any interest will know, Vera and Luke give you the whole story: how they got there; what they have done; their music career; people they’ve worked with and people they are interested in.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

Luke in the Vera Black stall in Camden.

“But there was absolutely no aspect of him that felt like he was selling. He just seemed to love talking to like-minded people. By the end I was just enamoured with him and the work. I gave him my contact details just in case there was anything we could do together and I kept in touch on social media. I think they were interested in me because I looked like someone who would wear their stuff and I was working with interesting people. At the time I was doing everything I could: self-shooting, videography, editing, anything! 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

Vera and Luke centre, with Olivia on the left and Gene Clark on the right.

“I ended up helping them with a fashion shoot in Portobello Road. But it didn’t feel like a product shoot. More like a lifestyle, all encompassing shoot. Everything fuelled the piece. They turned up in their iconic van and rolled out with this pile of clothes, and they were swapping jackets and trying things on. It was very rough around the edges and I was making it up as I went along, but it was great fun and they really liked it. From there we collaborated every six months or so.”

hombre fedora hat
Musicians Jade like the stone and Lewis Floyd Henry wearing Vera Black

Joseph Lynn’s big advice? Fail on someone else’s time!

Joe moved to London from Manchester so he could meet artists, creatives and people he felt spiritually akin to, and Vera and Luke helped him develop his skills.

“I look back and think ‘Wow, there really were some people who really let me fail on their time!’ I was 19 and I wasn’t super confident or anything, but I said, ‘I’d love to do this’. Sometimes things didn’t go right, but these people liked me and trusted me enough. I wasn’t even that good! 

“Without these experiments I wouldn’t have improved as a visual artist. They let me in and let me work with them and I don’t know if they just thought I’d get better, or if they were just super generous with their time. They were never critical and they didn’t pressure me. It was all about collaboration. It was never like a job, it was more like, let’s hang out and make this.

“I think it’s great that every year or so we’ll get back together and do something in some capacity. The last thing I actually did was the stills for the Sleepy Hollow fashion film that Denson (Baker) shot.

“Luke describes me as a brother, but he and Vera are also my unofficial mentors. We’re always talking about doing stuff, there’s always something spinning around. I hope they will keep making stuff with me for the rest of our lives.”

Festival hat scene from the Vera Black Sleepy Hollow fashion film
Love look from Sleepy Hollow fashion film by Vera Black
The Sleepy Hollow Top Hat by Vera Black
The Nighthawk black Fedora hat
The Vamp Top hat by Vera Black

A selection of Joe’s stills from the Vera Black  Sleepy Hollow fashion film. You can buy the look on our site at verablack.com

group photo for Sleepy hollow fashion film by Vera Blackfilm , Vera Black Custom Designs

How did you end up taking photos of famous people for a living?

A quick look through Joe’s Instagram account shows a selection of portraits of actors pulling unusual poses in urban settings. I wanted to know how he ended up taking photos of famous people for a living.

“This links back to having people who trusted me and let me work on their time. As well as Luke and Vera there was Noel Fielding, the comedian, actor and artist. I met him soon after moving to London. He was just turning 40 and I was just turning 20. I’m quite mature for my age and he is quite immature for his age, so we probably both met at about 30! I did some behind the scenes stuff for his TV show. It was a complete fluke. I bumped into him in a pub and he said “Come and do this!” He was just being polite and he was drunk! When I turned up he looked at me and said, ‘Oh yeah, shit. Okay.’

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

Noel Fielding

“I was really rough around the edges but I think he liked my potential and the energy I put into it. He took me on tour with him and we shared a studio for a bit. I was very insecure about the work I was making then. He helped me. He told me to work on specific points and what I needed to get better on. But he never said ‘Look you’re not really very good’. He just let me make mistakes with him. 

“Noel was the crux of pretty much everything because I met lots of other famous or interesting people when I was working with him. They assumed I knew what I was doing and would ask me to do stuff for them. That was the start of it. Now as an aspiring director, I work with a lot of actors. I have a lot of friends who are actors and they are doing successful things. So I do their press shots for them and they have friends of friends who see that and want to work with me.” 

So how did this lead to Joe making actors do strange things in the streets?

“Ironically I started to do this just as lockdown was happening. I was enjoying portraiture, but it was very controlled, with a backdrop and lots of light. I was trying so hard to learn and create stuff that I wasn’t trying to make a bond with the subject. They were more like a prop. I worked out that I needed to spend an hour with a camera and an actor and come away with four or five really good shots.”

Joe started to do a series of black and white portraits of people outside, using only natural light. Due to covid he had to create a connection with the actor from a distance and make the image interesting through emotion or movement.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

Actor, Adam Gillen

“Working like this with actors can be 50/50. They are usually open, free, physical people with a lot of energy. A lot of them come from a dancing background so they are good at physically presenting themselves. They often don’t need much persuading to do something different. Actors who have a bit of a profile are often bored of headshots that make them look smouldering or handsome. They want something that makes them look a bit more fun. 

“But some actors are very protective of their image. It can be tricky, especially if we only met an hour ago, to make them feel comfortable enough to do something unusual. I try to get around this by doing a lot of talking. I’ll tell them that I want them to do something that might feel a bit weird, but will look great. And we’ll put it in the bin if they don’t like it. It’s important to give them the right to veto. I only want to do this if the subject is going to love it.” 

I ask Joe for the story behind this fantastic photo of the actress Katherine McNamara doing the splits in Soho.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

“Kat is a good friend of mine. I basically said, ‘Wear this. We’ll go to Soho. We’ll work out what to do’. On the shoot I discovered she is a dancer and that she could do the splits. But it’s not just the actors who look silly. I’m right there with them. I was lying down on a dirty road opposite her with my camera, telling her to shout if she sees a car coming!”

I ask Joe if he is ever worried about the light being too poor to get a really stunning shot.

“It’s not so much if the light doesn’t work, it’s more about the location. I tend to ask the actor to choose a spot they have always liked or that they have a connection with. I’ll visit the spot and take a few photos to get a few ideas to get us started. But they’re never the ones we end up using. 

“Sometimes I don’t like the location, but I always have faith that something random will happen. The subject will say something like ‘I can do this jump,’ like Kat told me that she can do the splits, and all of a sudden we have something interesting.”

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

 

Actor Eilidh Loan

Is being friendly a core skill for a portrait photographer?

I point out to Joe that he was very friendly and approachable when I met him at the party. I asked if he is naturally like this, or whether it has developed as one of his core skills as a portrait photographer.

“Maybe! My natural personality has been informed by many years of doing what I do. As a freelancer I am doing something different every week. Sometimes I will get thrown into a room with 30 people I haven’t met before and I’ve got to make a decent impression pretty instantly. These atmospheres are usually quite tense, there are a lot of moving parts. You really can’t get in the way. So I’ve become good at being quiet, but polite and good at talking to people. 

“Weirdly I also think I’ve become quite good at talking to people like plumbers when they come round, and with strangers in a pub. I suppose it all revolves around being genuinely interested in people.” 

When doing portrait photography there is often a conflict between the subject’s desire to look young and attractive and the need for the interest that lines and even wrinkles provide. I asked Joe how he balances this in a world where ‘youth’ is power.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

 

Writer/Actor Sarah Kendall

“This is interesting as the photos we like of ourselves don’t look like us. They tend to be a slightly better version of us, maybe one we see in the mirror when we get ready. However, a really good friend will probably say ‘Oh no, that doesn’t look like you, you don’t look good in that’. Whereas they will love a photo that shows us as we really are – how they see us all the time. 

“99 percent of people hate having their photograph taken and I understand that. I hate it too! I’m often asked to touch up photos that I take before they are published. Especially for on-line images or for magazines and it can be frustrating. Sometimes I really love the original images, especially in black and white, because of the definition that lines or features, such as a mole, bring to the image. I had to edit one client’s face so much it looked like a blank baby’s face and their management team loved it! I actually find blank, pale faces boring. I’m so not interested in shooting young beautiful models. The craggier the face, the better!

“My favourite part is when my subject says, ‘Yeah, you’ve captured me’. Even when it’s not the perfect version of themself they want to see. But you have to be sensitive too, especially when it is a famous person.”

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Joseph Lynn (@joelynntw)

 

Comedian and actor Julian Barratt

Joseph Lynn the director

I asked Joe how he got into directing and how different is it from being a photographer

“I guess I always wanted to make films but I didn’t know you could do it as a job! I’m one of four kids; my family didn’t have a lot of money. We wouldn’t go on holiday, do days out or eat out very much. The one thing we had, being kids of the ‘90’s, was VHS tapes. We were allowed a little telly with a built-in VHS in our bedroom. So I have been inundated with sound and image since a child.

“When I was about 13 it became clear that there was a job called the director and the director makes the film. So I resolved to try and do that. The only thing remotely close to film-making at school was drama and I can’t act for shit, but I did it. Then I did film studies in college and university and I loved learning about film. 

“I moved from Manchester to London because that was where they made TV; it’s where they film Dr Who! My association with places always revolves around films that I love. When I went to Florence I scouted out all the filming locations from Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. I’m going to New York in April so I am literally making plans around film locations!

“As a student I was trying everything. I did a lot of self-shooting documentary stuff and I made silly short films and sketches with my friends. But when I moved to London I was on my own. So I borrowed a camera and thought, ‘I can shoot out, I can’t film in, but I can shoot out’. I was asking musicians and comedians if I could film them and I ended up circling through to Noel that way. 

“I directed my first short film when I was 23 for Channel 4 called Swan Song. It featured Noel Fielding as an angel in a wheelchair at the end of his life. Channel 4 had some funding for young directors via their platform Random Acts. It is a very moody, movement film.

“We shot that at the same time that my Grandma, who I was very close to, was dying. The day after we finished shooting I had to go to Manchester for her funeral. So there was a lot of emotions that were linked to what I was watching through with my Grandma in hospital”

Joe followed Swan Song with a number of other short films: Grin where people who can’t cope with the monotony of life have to wear grins painted on their faces, and Drown about a man who struggles to cope with the death of his partner. I wondered whether this dark element was an ongoing theme to Joe’s work as a director.

“Those first three films happened in a succession of two years and they were me wanting to work with those people – Martin Quinn, Noel and the people in that clown film. It was where my visual style was at the time. I was also working with sound designers and movie directors whose stuff always leans that way, so it felt like an easier aesthetic or mood to achieve than levity. However, I always try to challenge the things I am comfortable with and since then I’ve been trying to write straight forward comedy. My latest film Mint Chocolate Chip is doing the festival circuit and it is extremely colourful.”

What is the ideal next step with your film making?

I plan to make a feature film this year, entirely on my terms, I don’t mean that no one is going to interrupt my vision. I mean it purely as the only way I can afford to do this is to do it super DIY, with my small group of people. Without trying to raise money or apply for funding as that takes so much time.” 

Any advice for people starting out in your line of work?

“Just do stuff and learn from it and move on. By the time I’ve finished my feature film I’m going to know how to make a much better one. Some people are so scared that their filmmaking won’t be good enough that they don’t actually start it. It won’t be good enough yet. But if it’s 10 percent of what you wanted it to be, the next time it will be 15 and the next 20 percent. You have to start somewhere. 

“This is even more true with photography as it is so instant. You’ve got an iphone, just go and do it. The moment I do something, I love throwing it over my shoulder. I don’t tinker. This is why retouching pisses me off. I just want to throw it out there and move on. I’m always eager to finish something, so I can learn from it and be better next time. I don’t dwell, or over think it. I’d rather just shoot it and move on.

“Stop trying to be the best person now. You’re not going to be. You’ve got time!”

Joe’s portraits are currently on show at the Maison Bertaux Gallery on Greek Street in Soho, London in his exhibition called Finding Colour. You can buy signed prints from this exhibition here.

Full contact details for Joe and examples of his work can be found on his web site here.

Joe’s film Mint Chocolate Chip has just won Best Comedy Short at this year’s New Renaissance Film Festival 

 

Our other Vera Black Ambassador interviews include: 

UK King of the slide guitar Troy Redfern.

Smoky blues and Americana artist Elles Bailey

International model and face of Vera Black Olivia Harriet.

Brand new up and coming Americana artist Lloyd McGuigan.

Plus our first book review, for the astonishing Seek the Singing Fish novel by Roma Wells.

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