Dave Thirston and Warren Pyle, of the Pyle organized-crime family, at an unlicensed boxing match in Surrey County, England. From The Family.
© Jocelyn Bain Hogg/VII
No matter how much you acclimate to being put into odd situations, the see-saws can still disconcert you. I found that out in 2011, thanks to the coincidence of two very different projects. All year long I felt as though my brain might split in two. Come to think of it, that might have made things easier.
In March of last year I started a major project for Thomas Pink, Britain’s leading shirt maker. It ultimately grew into the book A British Entertainment. The idea was to do something big to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. They asked if I would be interested in doing a sponsored project on the Season, England’s string of annual high-society bacchanals that kicks off in March with the Cheltenham Gold Cup horse race and continues through hunts like the Vale of the White Horse, which go on all winter. Ever since being educated in the upper reaches of British society, I’ve been fascinated by Britain’s class system, so the chance to get paid to shoot the posh at play was too good to pass up.
The Season began as a series of balls and hunts in spring and summer where society boy met society girl. It was very useful for members of the aristocracy who wanted to marry off a useless third son to a rich mill owner’s daughter. It was a market of sorts, where money could marry title and vice versa. It survives today as a series of upscale events that run all year long, almost every weekend, and include the Royal Ascot races, the Henley Royal Regatta, the Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon.
Shooting the Season might sound cushy, but photographing leisure is nothing like indulging in leisure. When you add in lots of driving and multiple events on the same day, it’s the most grueling type of luxury I’ve ever experienced. To make things just that much crazier, I was finishing up a personal project at the same time—a series I’d been working on for almost three years, The Family, documenting the Pyle clan, one of London’s more notorious crime dynasties.
"As different as these two groups were, what I ultimately found fascinating about this experience was their similarities."
The Family’s origins go back to 1997, when I first was introduced to London’s old-school underworld while on assignment for Elle magazine. The job was to shoot a journalist chatting with two actual villains. They were personable fellows. Introduced themselves as Freddie and Dave. We got talking after the shoot and I ended up staying late. Freddie’s son is an actor and my father was an actor, so we chatted about fathers and sons and acting and life. He asked to see my pictures and said I should come along and take some more shots of them and their friends. I didn’t know much about this world at that point, so I had no idea I was talking to Freddie Foreman, one of the most notorious figures in the British underworld. The other was Dave Courtney, whose books, films and arrests have made him quite a high-profile figure since then.
The meeting ended up being fortunate, because around that time, some of the older generation were realizing they could make more money as authors than they ever could as bank robbers. A lot of them started writing true-crime books and trying to build a public profile. That meant they didn’t mind being photographed. After the Elle assignment went off well, I suggested a story to a journalist friend of mine from Japanese GQ. He came over and we spent three weeks working on a 17-page feature. By then, “The Chaps” (as they referred to themselves) had become quite comfortable with me, and I kept shooting them. I felt as if I could see the beginnings of something very interesting, and having this kind of access seemed like a gift. All of that work culminated in the publication of my book The Firm in 2001, which brought me my first real acclaim outside magazines and newspapers.
After The Firm, I moved on to other, very different projects. Then in 2007 I read about the death of Big Joey Pyle, the patriarch of the Pyle crime family. I was intrigued as to what had happened to the Pyles in the intervening years and thought it might be time to check back in.
I got in touch with some of my old contacts and was immediately invited along to a boxing match. It was like walking into a world I already knew. The younger guys were now in their forties. They all knew who I was. And just like before, one thing led to another. One person says, “Oh, come over to this,” another one says, “Come on to my house,” and before you know it you’ve got a project. This time around I wanted to show these men’s personal lives. I really wanted to convey that there’s normality behind the mythology.
Of course, the mythology is very real as well. This was very much the next generation of the Pyle family, who have been criminals for over a century. In my research, the earliest record of a Pyle I could find was of a William Pyle who was sent to Australia in 1826 for stealing a handkerchief. He was followed a few years later by John Pyle, who’d been convicted of stealing beef, bacon, butter, suet and lard from a pantry in Lambeth. There’s a wonderful double edge that this truly is a crime family, one that manifests the same kind of intimate moments that exist in anyone’s domestic life.
When I got the Thomas Pink job, I’d already been shooting The Family for almost three years and had another year or so left on it. So for eight or nine months I shot both projects simultaneously. This isn’t the kind of thing you’d ever plan to do, more something you try to survive. There’s just something bone-rattlingly bizarre about making photos of a society wedding in Dorset with people cavorting around a country-house garden playing panpipes and wearing fairy wings, then driving back to London that night to a porn-star party in East London. Or shooting the Royal Caledonian Ball (a 165-year-old celebration of Scots in London) and then driving down to Dodgy Dave Courtney’s house in East London to photograph a mad party. Suddenly it’s six in the morning and you’ve lost track of how much rampant excess you’ve seen that day—and whether it was perpetrated by landed gentry or mob enforcers.
There were a few times when the worlds collided. Once I was shooting a Rolls-Royce in the car park at Ascot and I hear “Oi! Joss!” Out of the car comes one of the villains, working as a driver for the day. Another time I’m shooting the after-party for the Cartier International Day at the Guards Polo Club, and sure enough, there’s Big Barry and three of his friends, soaking up the champagne. It’s not all that surprising. Villains are aspirational; they’re after money, so they go where the money is.
Aesthetics were immensely helpful in keeping everything straight. I shot A British Entertainment with Kodak Ultra Color 400UC film using a pair of Olympus OM-4s. I shot The Family on the last of my stockpile of TMZ along with Kodak Professional Tri-X loaded into Leicas. For a while I swapped back and forth out of a single set-up, but it got too schizophrenic. I finally just sorted out two complete, separate camera bags: a black Billingham camera bag with my Leicas and Tri-X for The Family, and a khaki Billingham with my OM-4s and Kodak UC for ABE. Then I could just put two bags in the back of the car and pull whichever one the situation called for. Don’t cross the streams, as a great man once said.
The gear was also important for the effect it had on my subjects. For ABE, shooting on Olympi was the best thing I could’ve done, because it made people think I was a bumbling idiot. “Two Olympuses? What’s this guy doing?” They’re not threatened by you. But those OMs are wonderful, and very light. A bag packed full with everything I needed was still quite small. The kit started out of expediency, but it engendered a condescending reaction that proved quite useful.
The guys in The Family had the opposite perception. Because of The Firm, they all thought I was the most famous photographer in the world. After all, I made the only photo book they’d ever cared about. That lasted until one of them came up to my flat and saw what a working photographer can afford. “Bleedin’ hell, I thought you were David Bailey! You live like this?” More proof that perception is everything.
It was interesting to see how differently the two groups responded to my cameras. I felt more warmth and familial feeling around the characters in The Family than the ones in A British Entertainment. Which makes sense, as The Family is an intimate story of a single family. I got to know people very well. A British Entertainment was much more diffuse—different situations almost every weekend, new people all the time. The posh let you take their photo, but mainly because they’re too polite to say “Oh, go away!” when they’ve got a camera pointing in their face. Some of the younger ones seek attention, but generally speaking, they don’t much care if you take their photo or not. I hardly spoke to people in those situations. That makes it much harder to achieve a sense of intimacy and belonging. And that’s what we documentary photographers look for, to try to tell a non-obvious story. You want to get under the skin.
As different as these two groups were, what I ultimately found fascinating about this experience was their similarities. In the original introduction to The Firm, Bruce Reynolds, the great train robber, writes about the robber barons, which is where the current aristocracy came from. The aristocrats’ ancestors were just better bastards than the others. They hacked off heads quicker than the other team and got control of some land. Sound familiar?
Both sides are wealthy. But the criminal classes focus more on wealth as a goal; villains do what they do for the sole purpose of making money. With the upper classes, it’s often old money or inherited money. It’s taken for granted. Both sides exist in rarefied worlds and are treated with deference. Both sides like to dress up. The upper classes’ preening has a peacockish quality. For the chaps, a larger-than-life image is part of the persona—it’s hard to tell which came first, the suit or the villain. But you can’t mistake them—they walk into a room and there’s this atavistic physicality about them.
And both sides put a lot of effort into their recreational activities, as you can see in these projects. And I’ve always found that looking at how people have fun is one of the best ways to find out how people live. AP