INTERVIEW: Charles Moriarty on his new book X & Amy Winehouse

Alex Klineberg June 5, 2021

Charles Moriarty grew up in Dublin. He moved to London when he was 18 and he’s been there ever since. Photography began as more of a hobby than a career path. He took pictures of his friends on nights out, exploring London’s nightlife scenes. This led to him photographing Amy Winehouse as she was on the cusp of fame. We caught up with Charles to discuss X, his latest book.

Charles Moriarty

X chronicles a decade’s worth of photographing men. It’s a deeply personal book. The photos are firmly rooted in the gay male gaze. What does the male gaze mean to Charles? “As a gay man there are ideas of desire. With the male gaze there’s an element of trying to understand oneself. It becomes a bit of a mirror. I was photographing my own journey with men. The gaze is happening both ways. I guess I was looking for myself throughout the process.”

Growing up in Ireland, it took him a while to come to terms with his own sexuality. “The first image in the book is the oldest photo – a self portrait. There are people I’ve had intimate relationships with, also friends and lovers. They aren’t all gay. Some are models I worked with on a shoot for an hour – people I only met once.”

Does he consider the images to be erotic? “I don’t think they’re particularly sexual. Some depict moments of sex. There are moments of eroticism. I’d think of them as more intimate. Some people will look and only see it as something that’s sexually charged.”

Charles Moriarty

Photography has a very spontaneous quality. However intricately a shoot is staged, a dialogue opens up between the photographer and the subject. “There’s a happy middle ground where the camera gets lost and it becomes a conversation with your subject. I don’t really want to put people at ease. Some people are easier in front of the camera. Some people don’t like the camera at all. It’s important to work through the initial unease and anxiety – on both sides. I come to every shoot with a level of anxiety. We’re all waiting to find out what’s going to happen.”

“I can only control so much. You ultimately want the planning to disappear – some photos are happy accidents. They happen quickly. Others over the course of an hour long shoot.”

Which photographers have been most influential? “There are giants like Richard Avedon and more contemporary ones like Larry Clark. I love what David LaChapelle does although it’s not what I do. Nan Golden – love her work. Cecil Beaton was incredible, of course. Two other major influences are Philip Lorca diCorcia, I’m still blown away by his book Hustlers. His use of light is so inspiring and the subject matter is riveting. Peter Hujar, was incredible, and I go back to his work often, he captured an age so well. Wolfgang Tillmans is exceptional… I’m afraid I could go on all day!”

Instagram has turned everyone into a photographer. About 95 million images are posted on Instagram every single day. This truly is the age of the image, but are there too many of them? How do photographers operate in the social media landscape? “The world of digital photography has opened it up to everyone. It’s no longer a craft where you have to spend a lot of time in the dark room. It’s why I still prefer shooting with analogue. You have to think about the image a lot more. In some ways it’s great. Everyone should be able to join in. But in some ways the industry has been changed – it’s harder now to earn a living in photography. But that’s the way of the world. You just have to make it work for you.”

Charles Moriarty

Amy Winehouse is Charles’ most iconic subject. His book Before Frank captures her pre-fame and pre-beehive. One of Charles’ images became the front cover of her first album. “I met her the day I did her album cover. She came to my apartment in Spitalfields. She put on makeup and some music. I wasn’t a photographer at the time. I ran around with my camera when my mates went clubbing. A mutual friend had me do a test with her to get the look she wanted for her album. One of those images became the cover for Frank.”

Did Amy know what she wanted musically and visually at that early stage? “I think she was figuring it out. When we were in NYC she was certainly working towards the look she had for her second album. She had the beehive. She had notions of where she wanted to go. I guess when you’re 19 going on 20 you’re trying to figure that stuff out. I guess none of us are fully formed at that age.”

Charles Moriarty

“She’s at a big transition stage physically, mentally, career wise. It’s that last big build up. The album came out shortly after and her life changed quite dramatically. Frank was a highly acclaimed album.”

“The image I took of Amy in New York is part of the National Portrait Gallery permanent collection. It’s amazing to be part of such amazing insulation.”

“The Album cover image isn’t my fave. There’s a couple of faves though. I love the one with the yellow phone in downtown Manhattan. There’s one from the same night where she’s standing – just out of focus – there’s something about it that really connects to me.”

On his favourite images in X: “One of my favourite portraits is of a friend called Duran – there’s something about the look on his face. I don’t know what it is. Works really well. It’s hard to pin them down. They’re all such different experiences. My friend Tony is a drag queen in LA putting his makeup on – there’s something very noir about it.”

Both X and Before Frank are available to buy now.