Andrew Catlin – Sinéad

three rolls of film.


The immigration official stared at me with a cold, dumb, baleful expression. He had decided he wasn’t going to let me enter the US, but couldn’t quite articulate why. It wasn’t clear whether it was because he had decided I was a film crew and needed a permit, or because I’d travelled 50,000 miles in the last month and looked like death, or because he just didn’t like the cut of my jib. Whatever; I was stuck at an immigration desk at Vancouver airport, trying to get on a flight to LA where my ticket back to the UK was waiting, having already left Canada. I was due in California the next day to photograph Sinéad O’Connor.

Calls to consulates, lawyers, editors, friends and anyone else I could think of got nowhere. In the end it was at the final whim of the man on the desk with the monosyllabic vocabulary, and he really didn’t give a shit who called. It was my right to appeal if I so wished – and was willing to wait for 8 months. After a few hours in no mans land getting nowhere, I had to buy a $3000 one-way flight back to London and get some sleep.

Quite a lot of sleep, actually.

A couple of weeks later the phone rang, and a woman from the press office at Sinéad’s record company wanted to know if I could photograph Sinéad in London next Thursday as she would be back in England. I said I’d be happy to.

Then thing’s got a little surreal…

“Sinéad wants to know if you would mind doing the pictures at her flat?”

“Yes”, I said, “that would be fine.”

“Great. Can you be there at 2 o’clock?”

“OK, what’s the address?”

“….I can’t give out an artist’s address!”

“Um…. OK what do you suggest?”

There was a long pause, followed by “I’m going to have to call you back…” A couple of hours later she called back.

“OK, we’re going to send a car to collect you and take you there.”


“What’s your address for me to send the car to.”

“4 Northwick House….. Maida Vale….. London NW8 8RD.”




…It’s my address!”

“No, the address you just gave me. Sinéad’s address!”

“That’s my address.”

“No, it’s Sinéad’s. WHO THE FUCK GAVE IT TO YOU???”

The conversation continued more or less through the same cycle for two or three more repeats, before it gradually became clear that Sinéad had just moved into one of the upstairs flats in the same building. This threw the press woman into a state of complete does-not-compute confusion and panic. She couldn’t work out how this could have happened or how to deal with it. Eventually I said “Why don’t you just ask Sinéad if she’d like to come down for a cup of tea on Thursday, and I can photograph her here and make it easy for her?”. Which was what happened.

I hadn’t met Sinéad before. Her face was lively and expressive, completely captivating, with an indefinable air that encompassed innocence, experience, intensity and something feral. We drank a cup of tea and talked for a while in the kitchen, and then moved to the bedroom where there was a huge bay window with perfect daylight. I had set up a backdrop and we sat either side of the table – a two inch thick slab of bullet-proof glass on trestles. I gradually shot four rolls of 120 film – 48 frames – with my Rolleiflex while we continued our conversation. It’s a gentle camera that is almost silent. It has an easy presence and doesn’t intimidate the sitter in the way many cameras do. It was perfect for the light, the moment, and the mood.

When I processed the film, I was struck by the energy and atmosphere in every picture. Each was dramatically different, and showed the openness that is the ideal for a portrait. I have returned to the contact sheets many times over many years, and continue to be fascinated by every frame. The National Portrait Gallery bought two of the pictures for their collection shortly after the shoot; highly unusual for such a young subject – Sinéad was around 22 at the time and they usually won’t acquire a picture unless it is of someone who has had a long and significant career.

My printer, Danny Pope, has spent a great deal of time over several years working with this set of pictures, and he too continues to be fascinated by them. After working on some very large prints, he suggested that the full set of pictures in sequence would make a great book – both as an insight into Sinéad at the start of her journey, and as an insight into photography; a way of seeing. A narrative of how a simple portrait can unfold and fold in on itself as you work through a progression of unique moments.

After some protracted discussions, arguments and relocations, the negatives were once again brought out and Danny prepared a careful set of high resolution scans for print. Reviewing the proofs has been both surprising and illuminating. Putting them into this format for the first time has given a whole new perspective on the pictures.


Cartier-Bresson wrote:

“What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face? The first impression given by a particular face is often the right one; but the photographer should try always to substantiate the first impression by “living” with the person concerned. The decisive moment and psychology, no less than the camera position, are the principle factors in the making of a good portrait.”

Thomas Carlyle noted that he

”…found a portrait superior in real instruction to half a dozen written biographies…

” I have found that the portrait was a small lighted candle, by which the biographies could for the first time be read.”  Thomas Carlyle.

” I have found that the portrait was a small lighted candle, by which the biographies could for the first time be read.”  Thomas Carlyle.

My words are long, and they always will be… perhaps appearing to be talking to just one ear… and even these few paragraphs give birth to many more stories I have, if only this was truly conversational…and I am placing here alongside mine even longer words, by another story teller and mentor to my eye for colour. And here to be read and heard – important words – Within the womb of it all is the message, and what cradles that womb is always ‘a story’.

After twenty years or so after seeing the print of Sinead hanging in his home, I printed the image I had always wanted to print, and if it had not been for his revolutionary adaptation of a tumble dryer or a washing machine… I remember not which.. to dry his film perfectly  – without any drying stain or dried in dust –  adorned within solemn yet perfectly beautiful concrete frames.. the stories over tea and toast, the unique and serene energy of Northwick house, polaroids and eclectic furniture adapted to house film and prints and cameras..his long friendship..and obstinate desire for the protection of his film and the image that is within it… the files in this form would never have been created, and in my view the perfect edition that digital enables.. but that is another volatile and important story.

For in his words, which I reread recently…within the story, words and reflections and use of quotes embodied everything that I was in my mind and service, leaving me understanding with a tranquil affirmation all the words images and reflections.. even my stubborn resolve to protect the grain of film within scanning which in turn resolutely protected the choice of light before that grain grew. Simply put, living and breathing that lovely analogue world of being a printer in the photographic business.

And of course, owing it all to ‘that print’ and most pertinently to the author of that print, and illustrating that complexity of that never ending story I have engaged within.. he always signed the image and never the unexposed or un-inked paper of the print.


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