To coincide with his series Black Is The New Black, consisting of 50 portraits of prominent Black Britons, the esteemed film-maker, photographer and member unpacks four key works from his three-decade career
By Diamond Sharp Above image: Naomi Campbell (Simon Frederick) Sunday 23 August, 2020 Short read
Over the course of his near 30-year career, photographer and film-maker Simon Frederick has shot some of the world’s most leading luminaries, including Harry Belafonte, Naomi Campbell, and John Boyega. His portrait series, Black Is The New Black (a partner project to his BBC documentary of the same name) features the portraits of 50 prominent Black Britons. It also represents the largest acquisition of Afro-Caribbean portrait subjects in London’s National Portrait Gallery’s history.
‘We’re a multiplicity of things and that’s what I wanted to show,’ he says. ‘Black Is The New Black seems to be something. Normally, you make something photographically and people talk about it for a week, and then it goes away. People still talk about this like it happened only yesterday.’
Frederick has also had a successful documentary career with the aforementioned Black Is The New Black in 2016 and 2018’s They’ve Gotta Have Us, which covers Black film history. The latter was recently released on Netflix and charted on the site’s top most-watched list the week it was released. ‘It’s really important that we tell our stories and that we are the people who are responsible for the stories of people from our own diaspora,’ he says.
Here, Frederick tells us about four of his favourite portraits that marked different eras of his career. ‘Portraits become a portrait when [the subject] recognises that when they’re looking at that picture, they’re seeing themselves. They see their life where it is at the moment and they see the life that they’ve lived already,’ he explains.
Frederick took many photos of the late singer Amy Winehouse over the course of her career. The one he cherishes the most was taken before the release of her first album and her subsequent catapult to international fame. Frederick was the house photographer for MTV’s Base Lounge from 2002 to 2005 and the photo was shot backstage at a club in London’s West End after her performance on the show. ‘I took that portrait of her when she was well – she was healthy, funny, and supremely talented. She also has a spliff in her hand. What was beautiful about this shoot was how relaxed and normal Amy was at this time, when her only focus was the music,’ he says.
Barrier-breaking supermodel Naomi Campbell sat for Frederick as part of the Black Is The New Black TV series. ‘I had put together a contributors list of 50 Black people, who were notable names in British culture, to take part in the series. And I decided to make portraits of them as a lasting legacy. This was 2006, and at the time I remember Naomi saying that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been photographed by a Black photographer, such was the rarity of the occasion,’ says Frederick. ‘I’d given a brief to her, and that was to photograph Naomi the woman and not Naomi the model. That one was really something.’
The trailblazing actress Diahann Carroll was an active part of Frederick’s They’ve Gotta Have Us. Carroll, who passed away in 2019, was known for starring in Julia, the first show to feature an African-American actress in a non-stereotypical role. ‘It’s personal to me why I like that portrait. I remember making it and turning the camera around to show her the result, and she hugged me. It was like meeting my long-lost auntie. As much as I love the portrait I made, I treasure a candid photo of our embrace taken by one of my team,’ he says. ‘Ms Carroll absolutely loved her portrait, she said that I made her feel beautiful. She was so humble and honoured to have been asked to tell her stories within this film. It remains a singular honour for me that one of her last major interviews and photographs was done with me.’
Frederick photographed actor and director Forest Whitaker during the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. Whitaker was there for his starring role in Zulu, the closing film at the festival. ‘I was out there on assignment for a fashion brand taking backstage portraits when I met Forest. It wasn’t an official shoot and he wasn’t meant to be doing photographs on that day, but it’s Forest Whitaker and it would have been rude to be standing there with a camera and not ask him if I could. I asked and he agreed, much to the annoyance of his agent. I only shot five frames and he liked every one. He is a genuinely nice man and one of my favourite people to have made their portrait,’ he says.