It all started with a knock-off Leica that my mother had been given in Moscow and that she in turn had passed to me. It was a pretty rudimentary camera, similar to the early Leica that I recently saw in a display of antique cameras and without anything helpful like light metering, so not ideal for snaps. However, it was cased in the most beautiful battered brown leather and though I had little idea how to use it I think I rather fancied myself with it slung around my neck and sometimes by accident rarely I even got a picture out of it. When, in another fit of romanticism, I moved to Port Eliot in 1990 it was one of the few possessions I took with me and sadly it never made it out of there when I left.
Wind forward to 2003 and the artist Jonny Yeo arriving to paint a portrait of Joe and Gabriel, camera in hand. His was a brown leather Contax and it brought back a deep yearning for that old camera of my mother's. My friend Jeremy Young, a proper professional photographer, followed up my rhapsodies about the brown leather of Jonny's camera by forwarding an advertisement for an eye-wateringly exclusive Hermés brown leather Leica that had just been issued in a limited edition. It was the closest thing to falling in love (apart from falling in love) that I have ever experienced and my strength of feeling took me by surprise; I have never before lusted after a physical object. I never understood, for example, why anyone would want a so-called "it" handbag, in fact that sort of thing made me shudder.
Once Jeremy saw the madness he had set in motion he took full responsibility and determined to make me worthy of this great (and stupidly costly) camera. He handed me his old Leica M6 and insisted I fire off films without batteries. His theory which worked was that I should shoot rolls, and then many more rolls, of varying sensitivities, to calculate exposures by eye, to learn to take my time. Several hundred contact sheets later, I was deemed proficient and shortly afterwards nepotistically got the job of "official photographer" to the On An Island album and tour. Altogether I took around ten thousand pictures of my beloved, first at the Live 8 rehearsals and later around America and Europe. By the time we reached Gdańsk the Hermés brown leather of my Leica was every bit as battered and scuffed as that of my Russian lost love and an idea for the story that became The Birthday Present in Perfect Lives had entered the frame.
"I started shooting black and whites at 3200 ASA, Colour at 1600. Until then most of my pictures had by necessity of light been out of doors. Being alone was the turning point. With fast film, even in failing light I could still keep my subject sharp. I could open up to a huge aperture and the tumble of books and old newspapers that I no longer quite found the time to clear up would become a background blur, a sort of Monet-esque colour wash. With nothing other than a bowl of apples between us I started to think that every minute away from you was wasted time."
Everywhere I looked there was a picture: the sleeping profiles of the boys against their pillows, the swallows in their nest and the ones I couldn't take too: the dark curl of hair that escaped like a question mark where the ribbing at the neck of Simon's T-shirt had become stretched, the way his face was lit one night by the campfire he'd made for the boys in the meadow. They cooked sausages on sticks and as he leant over the fire with Ivan's sausage the flames lit his face so he looked like James Dean and I longed for my camera to be out of the closet. I found myself working out the exposures even without it in my hands. How could I think about anything else?"
Extract from The Birthday Present