Photographer Charles Moriarty’s last book, Before Frank—later reissued as Back to Amy—revealed many of his unpublished images of Amy Winehouse and provided a rare and intimate glimpse into her life before the release of her debut album. Using just one roll of film, the Dublin-born photographer’s shoot with the singer in London, when he was 21 and still relatively inexperienced, resulted in that now iconic record cover for Amy’s Frank, while a subsequent New York shoot together led to his work with Winehouse becoming part of the permanent collection of the UK’s National Portrait Gallery.
With his latest book, X, the photographer turns that intimate lens on both himself and the men in his life, including, lovers, friends, and family, collecting together images he’s taken over the last decade. Some photographs are playful and erotic, while others are more contemplative and even troubling. All of the images are rich and captivating, and as one moves through the volume a narrative of self-discovery and self-acceptance unfolds as Moriarity explores his relationship with his sexuality and the men he’s encountered, as well as ideas of masculinity in its many forms.
In his Afterword for X, Moriarty writes, “as a gay man, more than ever, to be seen still feels like an act of rebellion, and to produce a body of work that amplifies my own journey means a lot to me.”
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Charles Moriarty about what initially drew him to photography, what he wanted to examine through X, his influences and inspirations, and the time he spent with Amy Winehouse.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: can you give me an insight into your experience of growing up gay in Dublin in the 1980s?
Charles Moriarty: “I knew very early on that I was gay, not that anyone else seemed to notice, or at least nobody else wanted to notice. It was a pretty troubling time and being gay was illegal in Ireland until 1994, so it wasn’t the easiest thing for me. Without knowing what sex was I knew that I had an attraction to male figures more so than females from the age of about 10 or 11. I was in boarding school for seven years, so I knew that I had to keep things under wraps. It wasn’t something that was acceptable back then, so I kept it hidden for a long time. I became so good at acting and pretending to be something else that when I eventually started to come out when I was 21 it was very difficult. Knowing exactly who I was and how I interacted with men was challenging. It took a long time for me to figure all that out. Gay men of my generation missed out on that teenage period where if you’re straight you have all those weird flirtatious moments with girls. Like a lot of gay men of my age, I didn’t get that until my 20s.”
When you moved to London at 18 for university did you feel a of sense of liberation?
“Slight liberation, yes, but I was also highly trepidatious and very cautious. It took a few years for me to get to a place where I could actually utter the words that I was gay. Even with friends and classmates at university who were out, I couldn’t say it to them, although I’m sure they knew before I told them. I was unable to vocalize who I was and it did get to a point where I had a full-blown eating disorder and was generally not in a great place mentally to push me over that last hurdle of coming to terms with being gay and more so dealing with everyone else coming to terms with it. I think certain people start to think that they don’t know you the way that they thought they did after you come out. In some ways, yes, they didn’t, but in most ways you are the same as you were, but you just like boys instead of girls.”
How did your passion for photography manifest itself and what is the draw for you of photography as a creative outlet?
“I’ve always been a huge fan of visual art, it has been really important to me, and I was a massive cinephile from a young age, partly because I was using it as escapism. I didn’t have the greatest relationship with my parents and I slipped into things like MTV and movies on a regular basis in order to avoid my own reality growing up in Ireland. I ended up working in the film industry up until my early 20s, and I still dip back and forth into it now, but that was really where I started to get very caught up in ideas of photography. I didn’t pick up a camera until my late teens. I took one of my dad’s cameras and started shooting, but I didn’t know what I was doing. At school, I could either do music or art, which would have involved photography, but at the time I was a musician so I went with music.”
“I didn’t have anyone showing me what to do with a camera, so I bowled through with no finesse or teaching until my mid-20s. I had always intended to work my way up through the film industry, but I happened to shoot Amy Winehouse’s album cover when I was 21, the month that I finished university. That led me on to thinking that photography was something I could do and maybe I should throw myself into it for a bit and see what happens. That was what really pushed me down that avenue of becoming a photographer.”
“I worked in medical photography and was a specialist in photographing eyes from about the age of 23 through to 30. I was doing that whilst I was trying to figure out who I was artistically and shooting portraits when I had time and taking jobs when they came along. Photography is one of those things that you have to stick with and run into the right people and get lucky with. It takes time. When I got to 30 I decided that I had to make a decision and I quit my medical work and went full-time into trying to be a photographer, and here I am.”
How did the cover for Amy Winehouse’s Frank come about?
“Like I said, sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time and it’s a bit of luck. I was friends with one of Amy’s best friends, he was someone who I would regularly go out with. At the time all I did was take photos of my friends more than anything else. I had a camera and I’d run around parties with it, not for any other reason than probably my own insecurities and wanting to be part of the crowd without being part of the crowd at the same time. My friend said, ‘Would you take some photos of my friend, Amy? She hates everything else that’s been done for her’, and I was like, ‘Well, sure, it can’t hurt. Why not?!’ It was only ever supposed to be a test, and so we only shot one roll of film. I met her for the first time the day we took the photos and we got on really well and connected quite nicely. We didn’t have the pressure of experience. In some ways, when you’re that naive and that young you can just jump into something and go for it and not worry too much about the outcome.”
You mean both of you?
“Yeah, totally, because she hadn’t released anything yet and I didn’t know what I was doing. I think that led to us to being able to have fun and to be experimental and trust in each other’s own naïveté, to just roll with it and see what came out of it.”
The photographs that make up your last book, Before Frank which was later reissued as Back to Amy, were mostly taken in New York weren’t they?
“Yeah, I shot that one roll of film with Amy in London and then we ended up having about 24 hours together in New York, not that we shot for all of that time, because like I said, I didn’t really know what I was up to back then. In New York, we were essentially shooting images for the inlay of the album sleeve, and due to the look changing quite dramatically from what we shot in London, they decided that they didn’t want to use any of the photos. In my case that ended up being quite a lucky thing because I had all these pictures sat in a drawer for decades that I could eventually pull out. I wasn’t really happy with them at the time, but as Wolfgang Tillmans says, sometimes it takes a decade to actually see an image, and I think he’s right. Sometimes it’s hard without time having passed to really see a photograph.”
You’ve referred to your latest book X as a “well-edited diary”, what did you mean by that and how did the book come together?
“When I say ‘well-edited diary’, I guess I mean that I’m in control and choosing what to put in and acknowledging that I have the ability to take out the mistakes, the messy bits, or the images that didn’t quite come together. It’s very much an edited part of my life rather than everything that’s in it, because if you saw everything it would be a giant fucking mess!”
“In terms of how the book came about, it was one of the lucky things that came out of lockdown. I was on my own for five months in the first lockdown in London and you can only get drunk for so long before you have to figure out a project or two. I had a couple of book ideas that I’d been working on and I wanted to put together a body of work that encapsulated the last decade or so. I was trying to figure out thematically how best it would work. Whilst I’ve taken lots of photographs of men, there is also a whole load of other stuff which isn’t necessarily in the public view and I was trying to figure out whether to publish a book that includes a little bit of everything, or if I should narrow it down. In the end it became focused the men and once I understood what the narrative was going to be—essentially my own relationship to men—the process became easier.”
“At the very beginning of X is the picture of a man’s hand. To me, that it is saying ‘take my hand and come on this journey with me’. X is about my relationship with many of the men who’ve been in my life, whether they are straight friends, lovers, or people who I’ve just met at a party once who I took a photograph of, or models who I’ve worked with. Some of the relationships are very momentary, while others have lasted 20 years. It’s a mishmash of all of my work with men turned into one narrative.”
In your Afterword in X you talk about learning to be “your true self as a gay man” being “a lifelong project” and that you’re “constantly peeling back ideas” about yourself, “unsure whether they’re truth or construct”. I wondered to what extent you were exploring that activity through the photography that we see in the book, even in the images that aren’t self-portraits?
“Yeah, certainly I’m confronting my own desires throughout the book. There’s a huge issue with a lot of gay people around ideas of shame and that’s something that I constantly deal with. Even in putting the book out there, the idea of my immediate family seeing it was a little nerve-wracking. Although they know that I’m gay and have done for a long time, actually introducing them to my world and the people who exist in it is difficult. At points, that shame bubbles up and over, and I guess that was something I was really confronting with myself through the creation of the work. Even now I get slightly red in the face and slightly embarrassed about it. It’s one of those weird things, because why should I be? It’s a natural thing. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever bought a guy home to meet my parents. I keep it all quite private. Certainly, it’s available to see on Instagram, but with this book maybe people will realize that it’s a lot more than just a photoshoot and that it’s actually my life that’s unfolding before them.”
X features several self-portraits and I know initially you were taking those in order to explore portraiture more generally weren’t you?
“Yes, I took my first self-portrait the month after my second degree. Having studied English and History of Art for my first degree, I went on to do a photography course a couple of years later and I hated it. It was a waste of my time in the sense that I almost stopped taking photographs while I was on it. It just wasn’t the right place for me, but I’m sure for some people it would be great. I think I was too insecure and a bit precious and was not great at dealing with criticism or taking advantage of what was put in front of me. Instead of doing that, I just did the minimum and wasn’t able to really get into it like I should have. So when I finished that degree I was very unsure of what the fuck I was doing with my work. What was this practice that I was supposed to be doing? I had no clue.”
“At the time I was quite insecure about myself and my looks, so I decided one way to get back into producing work was to use myself as a subject. The first few months I was doing that Tumblr was really exploding, so I started to use it as a means of spreading my work. Getting reposted by lots of other people gave me the confidence and momentum to keep doing it and to keep looking at myself and trying to figure out who I was and what that practice was. My self-portraits have become less and less frequent over the years. I take maybe one or two a year now. Normally I can see quite clearly what I want to do beforehand and I just go and do it, but I try not to think too much about it. Some of them come out better than others.”
I imagine it varies, but is that something that you do a lot with your work, in that you have it almost storyboarded, you’ve already got a strong idea of what you want, so the actual process of taking the photograph doesn’t necessarily take that long?
“Totally, often taking the picture only takes about five to 10 minutes, but I normally set it up in my head quite heavily beforehand. From there it’s a quick shoot a lot of the time, but on the other hand if I’m shooting someone else I often try not to plan very much at all, other than the location and making sure that I have the light that I want. I try not to think too much, unless someone has come to me with a project or something that needs to be done in a certain way. If it’s a portrait of someone else, I like to let that happen on its own, with as little interference as possible and for it to be about the relationship that happens in that specific moment.”
Going back to your self-portraits, I wanted to talk to you about a dramatic image in X, it’s quite cinematic too; the image of you sitting at the table with the egg timer and the crystals. It’s maybe the middle of the night because the blinds are shut and your body looks poised to get up and your facial expression is perhaps a bit traumatized or troubled. What were you looking to capture with that particular self-portrait?
“The original Oliver Twist film has a really horrific scene in it where Bill Sikes kills Nancy, but you only see the reaction of the dog to it, you don’t actually see him killing her. I wanted to create an image where you were seeing a reaction to something that wasn’t there in the frame. I think people will put their own perspective on it and that’s what I want people to do. What is there? What is it that’s on the outside of your space that worries you or that you are dealing with? In my head, the person outside of the frame is myself. To me, it’s an image about confronting oneself and dealing with oneself, and about what we keep to ourselves and what’s not seen by the outside world.”
Who are some of the photographers you’ve been particularly struck by, whose work has resonated with you and inspired you over the years?
“As a young gay man I found Robert Mapplethorpe in the back of a record store and was really captivated by both his erotic stuff and his portraiture. I found it really beautiful and I liked how he constructed all of his images and the way they teased the viewer. They were both sexy and introspective. From there, I got caught up with David LaChapelle; the bright colors stuck out to me. There was a year when I was in the States, I must have been about 20, and I picked up both a LaChapelle book and a Nan Goldin book, and realised that in many ways I’m more of a Nan Goldin than I am LaChapelle, though I think there are elements in both of them that started to shape how I was looking and trying to create things. I really like the way that Nan Goldin’s narratives work and how she shows a less than ideal existence that’s more real and documentary-like, but within a fine art aspect. I found that really inspiring. I also love Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s work and his book Hustlers was hugely influential on me. I loved how he photographed men and how his work was very cinematic. I liked his use of light that was there already, single source, so it wasn’t necessarily set up or over-lit, which is at the other end of what LaChapelle does. I love George Dureau too, and Peter Hujar is one of my favourites. I really respect and admire his work. There’s a lot of sensitivity to his images. I’m such an eclectic though and while I love queer photography, I also love Douglas Kirkland who is famous for his photographs of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood stars. Arākī is amazing too. In fact, there are far too many to name, it’s a long list!”
Amongst the portraits of men in X, you include cityscapes and landscapes and the image of the fairground ride and the trees, why did you want to bring those in?
“Partly to provide a pause between the figures, but they’re also to do with emotional states. The fairground for me captures both this feeling of elation and fear that comes with being within that fast-paced machine, that sate I’m in when I take photographs, so that’s why that’s in there. One of them is inside a wave, which is quite a grainy black and white image and conveys the idea of when you’re caught in a wave the best way to deal with it is to let go. That’s a very personal reading of it though and everyone will come to their own conclusions and understand things through their own personal journey when they look at the images, but to me they’re emotive pieces.”
“Whenever I get to the one with the trees it feels like a deep breath of life. It’s a very relaxing image. All those images are supposed to be about movement and changing scenery and going places.”
Finally, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ plus piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and why?
“I had a big thing for Gerorge Michael and I was so upset when he died, but if I think of art that really shifts me I look at Francis Bacon. That strikes me immensely. His work can come across as dark, but I see it more as transformative. As a queer man his story resonates with me at points, although he was very brutal towards himself and the way he loved was quite brutal. His work makes you want to cry sometimes, but it’s absolutely beautiful. Within the media sphere, Queer As Folk was huge for me when it first came out. I was 16 or 17 when it was on and it was transformative. I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what rimming is!’ Episode one, there we go! It was such an experience to see a life that was to be my own reflected back at me through a box that I watched on a very regular basis. It gave me hope that outside of this boarding school and outside of my familial relationships, there would be people who I would connect with, emotionally and culturally, and that I wouldn’t feel so alone. It was life-changing.”
By James Kleinmann
X, the new limited edition photography book by Charles Moriarty capturing the last decade of his work photographing men is available here, along with signed copies and prints. Before Frank is available to purchase here.