Wild Boar Park
It was some job out in Preston. They’d called me that morning with what they were calling ‘severe urgency’, since their other guy had fallen through. On the phone, they said they got my number from a guy I did some product shots for last June. Mickey? Or Nicky? I can’t remember who it was but they said I was good at short notice. The typical freelance dry spell around January time was hitting particularly hard, so I was in no position to turn down paid work, however short its notice may have been. After all, there was only so long I could fend off the calls for in-store portrait photography positions that were cropping up. Just the thought of donning that blue uniform and snapping pictures of families on a white background, or even worse, passport photos. It sent a chill down my spine.
It was a record label, UMI Records. Promotional photos for some new signing that needed a big media push to get the label’s name out there. Their offices made me certain the place needed something more than a few photos to get UMI on the map. It was situated above a betting shop in one of the scariest side streets the city had to offer, lined with wandering homeless and determined ne’er do wells. There was no persona of rock and roll to the small workspace, comprised of two office rooms, a reception and a miserable looking kitchen. Only, it wasn’t rock and roll that people wanted, it was this new sound. Like jazz or swing had been crossed with techno, using electronic tones and synthesised percussion. ‘Jazzonica’. It seemed as though it had come from nowhere and was quickly becoming the centre of a whole counterculture movement. Slowly but surely, audiences at my concert photography jobs were swapping out their loose corduroys and black converse for pinstripes and spats but I couldn’t get behind it, myself. When I was met in the waiting room by the label’s marketing director, I wasn’t surprised to see he was flanked by one of these ‘hip cats’ who I recognised to be Red Phillips.
Phillips was the poster boy of Jazzonica. Boasting a history of drink driving, violence toward his audiences and failing to attend his own shows. He brought a large amount of media attention to the genre and his fans loved him, though it seemed he gave them absolutely no reason to do so. Perhaps I was just a little too old for it all, but I found myself resenting him the second I saw him. The marketing director went on for a while about what he wanted from the shoot. With it being such short notice, we only had 24 hours to get these pictures. They wanted something edgy, artistic and indicative of the ‘revolutionary new genre.’ It seemed best not to mention that I had no interest in the music or the talent, especially after I was told I would have complete creative control.
“We’ve gotta make something that’ll really fly, dig?” Red broke his silence, with that forced jazz cadence. In an effort to hide my disdain, I chose only to nod. I was already scheming. The way I saw it, I could take this guy out to somewhere scenic. A lake, the woods, wherever. I’d take some shots of him while also adding work to my landscapes portfolio. The work I really cared about. As long I came back with plenty of pictures of Red, they couldn’t complain. The label were paying me for the whole day after all.
“Let’s take my ride. Brand new Lexus.” He said, cooly. A nonchalant brag.
“No, no, just grab whatever you need from your car and we’ll go in mine. I know where we’re going.” I’d read about his driving, and besides, I could charge travel expenses in my car. Things really were that rough. I watched from my car while he got his things. A cold snap was just starting to set in and the low winter sun wasn’t reaching high enough to gift us with any heat or light on that dismal city street. He walked back to the car holding a saxophone and now sporting a trilby to match his brown zoot suit and bolo tie.
“Just the essentials? Right?” He laughed, sliding into the passenger seat and tossing the sax into the back.
“You always keep a saxophone in your car?”
“Never know when the groove is gonna hit you, baby.” He tapped the dashboard and pointed onwards, commanding the car to go. It didn’t.
The cold had a tendency to effect the starter, so we endured a minute of groaning engine noises before finally flying down the street, out of the city and into the countryside that surrounded.
“So, what’s the plan, picture man?” Red snapped his fingers with an elaborate rhythm. Everything he said and did consisted of a strange meter and melody. Even the way he walked would wain from slides and bounces like the drum track for a Coltrane song.
“Ever been to Wild Boar Park?”
“Hmm…” He thought for a moment, as if a memory of such a place could be hidden deep within his brain, somewhere beneath the be-bop chord progressions and the lexicon of jazz slang. “No. What’s there?”
“It’s a forest. About twenty miles away. Nice backdrop for some portraits.” It was important that I seemed invested in his work, not just mine.
“Ahhh, givin’ it that earthy look. I dig.” He dug everything, which led me to believe he didn’t, in fact, dig anything at all.
As we travelled further north, the air became more crisp and unforgiving. I could see a regret in Red’s eyes. The suit was clearly not weather appropriate attire. We drove the rest of the way in silence, in mutual understanding that we weren’t going to find common ground. At the top of a hill loomed the forest and monumental trees enveloped the car as we entered through a dirt path. It must have been five minutes that we drove further in, until any signs of the world outside were gone.
There was a gravel parking area that we came to. Empty. No ramblers looking for a country walk on a day that cold. Red stepped out and released an audible shiver as I donned my parka coat. Considering I’d known only four hours prior that we would be shooting, I was vastly more prepared than him.
“Let’s start a little way from the car. Somewhere with an opening in the trees.” I said, plotting out a path like an explorer of old.
“Snow’s comin’, man.” He was dithering already, clutching his suit jacket closed tight.
“I checked the forecast, don’t worry.” I lied.
“Forecast doesn’t know jack.” Plodding into the woods, me with my camera and Red with his alto. Setting my aperture and exposure as we went, I spotted it. The first flake of snow, tumbling down between the pines and onto the lens. I looked back to Red, between us, behind him, and all around there was now an ocean of snowflakes gliding to the floor. He looked to me and saw it too, initiating a long drawn out shake of his head. I gestured for us to continue and with an enormous sigh, he followed. Finally, we found a clearing of around thirty feet. Now bright blue, Red posed for some pictures, holding the sax to his mouth and cocking one leg.
“It’s blurry, you’re shaking too much.”
“I told you it was gonna snow, man! What kinda idea was this?” He quickly lowered the saxophone and dropped his cool demeanour for the first time. “What’s wrong with a studio? One with heating.”
“You said you dug the earthy look.”
“I was thinking Yosemite, not Anchorage.” The conversation ended there with a brief pause, followed by the saxophone’s return to Red’s mouth.
The snow was coming thick and fast, covering our faces quicker than we could wipe it away. Already, the forest floor was coated with a layer of soft white, despite the protection offered by the trees. We tried changing up the shot. Leaning Red against a tree trunk, having him squat down or sit on a nearby stump. All my best efforts couldn’t avoid giving the shots a festive feel, as if Red was about to launch the first Jazzonica Christmas album.
“It’s been an hour. How do none of them swing?” He was dangerously cold.
“Okay, let’s head to the car, warm up and look at what we’ve got.” I had slouched, once again, into the role of expedition leader, charting a course from whence we came. Four inches of snow had covered any tracks that we left on our arrival and the trees blocked any view to the car. My perspective and awareness were gone. I didn’t let Red know, he would only panic, but as we walked aimlessly for a few minutes, he soon became aware that I had no idea where we were.
“Red, could you get the map up on your phone? I don’t have signal.”
“My phone is in the car.”
The sun was setting on that mighty hill, soundtracked by the distant cries of two grown men screaming for help. It was nearly dark and we couldn’t walk any further. There was a half fallen tree that sheltered a small area from the snow where we took refuge. The parka coat was being passed back and forth in shifts but there was little we could do about our numb feet. Desperately, we cleared a patch of snow on the edge of the shelter and Red darted from tree to tree in search of relatively dry twigs. Eventually, he created a pile before painstakingly drawing the smallest amount of heat from a cigarette lighter.
“Bear Grylls. I knew those shows would save my life.” He had dropped the jazz facade for the most part. As if his fight or flight instincts had found the slang to be unnecessary for surviving. “Come on you mother…” We both huddled around the twigs to block the cold air, and as if by a miracle, the smallest flame began to spread up the mostly dry wood. Terrified it would be extinguished, we kept inches away from the fire until it grew into a sustainable burn. Amber light filled a flickering circle around the flaming pile and we rested under the cover, warming our purple, numbed hands.
We stayed like this until the night crept in and it was dark. I found a confession bubbling up in me until it was impossible to avoid spilling over.
“This is my fault.” I broke a silence that at first seemed unending. Red didn’t turn to me, eyes fixated on the fire for a time before answering.
“Nothing you can do. It’s the weather.” Truly the worst time for him to be understanding.
“I mean coming here, to the forest. I only did it so I could take photos landscapes for my portfolio.” It was embarrassing to admit. This is when he turned to me, slowly and with purpose.
“You didn’t care about the portraits?” He asked and I shook my head. “Or the earthy vibes, or whatever?” I shook again and he laughed to himself, looking back to the fire and shaking his head too. “Landscapes. That’s your thing?”
“I just do this stuff to get by.” I remember the word phony was circling around my mind with shame. We almost died for this.
“I’m a composer, you know.” He bowed his head. “All this swing and techno, I hate it.” Another pause, but I don’t think he wanted me to speak. “Classical stuff. I studied it. Cambridge University. Only, nobody wants to hear a Cambridge kid play symphonies. So you compromise.” The snowfall had ceased. It must have been nine or ten o’clock.
“I’m not a rockstar or a jazzman. It’s not me. They just paint me like that to sell records. So I get it, man. Even if I nearly froze to death.”
He stared deeply into the fire, laughed a short laugh to himself and turned to me with a smile. My camera clicked and he laughed again.
“The last photo taken of you before we both get eaten alive by foxes.” I chuckled, standing to grab firewood. Without the falling snow, the air became closer to tolerable and we managed to rest for the night and begin our quest for the car when morning came. As it happened, we weren’t far off. Must have done three loops of the forest without going toward the car at the centre. Regardless, we left the forest in my beat up old ride and headed back to the city.
“What do we do about the pictures?” I asked Red “The falling snow is blurry in all of them and they said there’s no time for reshoots.”
“We tell them their new signing almost died getting those pictures so they better use at least one of ‘em.”
I didn’t see Red again after I dropped him off at UMI. The pay from the job saw me living comfortably until around February, when work started to pick up again. The shoot didn’t come into my mind for a few months, since I never heard from the label, I assumed they asked someone else to redo my work or cancelled the promotion entirely. That is, until I saw an article about Red titled, ‘Jazzonica Star Turned Classical Maestro Announces New Record’. He was leaving the jazz scene behind for good. There was a quote from him that said “I don’t want to build this career doing something I don’t enjoy. It just wasn’t me.” He seemed happy.
When the album was released, the cover featured a photo of Red, lit with an amber glow. Specks of snow on his shoulder and a smile on his face. My picture. Yesterday I got a call. Some art director from a gallery in York. On the phone, they said they saw my work on the cover of some album.
“Red? Or Fred was it? I can’t remember who it was, but he said you were quite proficient in landscape photography. We’re looking for new talent in an exhibition next month. How do you work on short notice?”