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I Saw Nick Drake - exhibition and book launch

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION to launch the book, I Saw Nick Drake: photographs by Keith Morris, is being held at pop culture gallery Snap from September 15 to October 13, 2012.

Drake was a brilliant musician who died young, but who made three perfect albums during his lifetime: the lush orchestral debut Five Leaves Left, the jazz tinged follow up, Bryter Layter and the stripped-back acoustic Pink Moon.

His music was for the most part ignored during his lifetime but his body of work is now, quite rightly, acclaimed and revered. Acclaim came late, many years after his death, but he is regularly name-checked by a renowned group of musicians.

Nick Drake’s story is a fascinating one, and it’s a story that appears completely incongruous by today’s standards. There is no known filmed footage of him as an adult at all – and so nothing of him performing has ever seen the light of day.

This means that we don’t know how he moved, we can’t see his complicated finger picking guitar technique, how he held himself, his facial expressions – all the things that we take for granted with performers now. He only ever did one interview. He did not tour to support his albums. He was uncomfortable performing live, and his complex tunings made it impossible for him to move effortlessly from song to song.

Most people who first stumble across his music find themselves sucked in quickly. Drake left a small, concise and perfectly formed body of recorded work that repays repeated listening. It is ‘grown up’ music. It takes a level of maturity for a 20 year old, still at University, to decide that he wants to include complicated string arrangements on many of the tracks on his first album.

Drake was a technically accomplished guitar player. He practiced all the time. The guitar was the backbone to his sound – clean, spare and regular. A six foot three inch product of the English public school system and Cambridge University, Nick Drake spoke with a cut glass accent and his innate Englishness pervades his music.

Drake’s is not the England of bacon and eggs or fish and chips: his is the England of strawberries and cream, of tea at The Ritz. He has no discernible influences, and no one else really sounds like him.

Until now, there had never been a comprehensive photographic study of Nick Drake. The late Keith Morris’ archive was by far the single most important source of photographs of Nick Drake. Keith Morris photographed him for all three of his albums over a two and a half year period from April 1969 to November 1971. Tragically, Morris died in a scuba diving accident in 2005 but his legacy lives on through his incredible archive of photographs.

All Keith Morris’s photographs of Nick Drake were taken in London.

Morris photographed Nick Drake in a variety of settings in April 1969 for his debut LP Five Leaves Left, first Wimbledon, then Battersea, and finally Chelsea. This was Keith Morris’ first album cover shoot (an important rite of passage for any young photographer) and his preparations, planning and scouting showed that it was clearly important to him.

Morris produced a combination of location and studio portraits of Drake, including an accomplished set of studio shots around what would later become Morris’ kitchen table, dramatic in their use of light and shade. Also of note from the Five Leaves Left session are the portraits taken against the wall by the Morgan Crucible Factory in Battersea.

The ‘running man’ image from this series appeared on the back cover of Fives Leaves Left, but thirty three other frames, presented in their entirety in the exhibition, capture a fascinating cast of characters sharing the scene with Drake.

The second shoot, for Bryter Layter, took place in June 1970, and again Morris photographed Drake in a number of locations around London, starting at Drake’s flat on Haverstock Hill, then Regents Park, and then south of the river Thames to New Cross.

Nick Drake

The optimism of the first shoot for Five Leaves Left in 1969 is a polar opposite to the withdrawn Drake photographed on Hampstead Heath for Pink Moon in 1971. The transformation in Nick’s Drake’s appearance and demeanor over this period is telling and dramatic. This was their final shoot and took place three years before Nick Drake’s death in November 1974.

The publishers have been working closely with the estate of Keith Morris to create the definitive book of photographs from his outstanding Nick Drake archives.

I saw Nick Drake is a 96 page hardcover book, limited to just 500 individually numbered copies worldwide. Dimensions are 24 inches (height) x 18 inches (width) when closed ( 60cm x 45cm), and 24 × 36 inches when open (60cm x 90cm).

Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake’s first two albums – and is the author of the acclaimed book, White Bicycles, a memoir of the music business in the late 60s and early 70s – has written the foreword to the book.

I saw Nick Drake contains approximately 200 photographs from Keith Morris’ archives, both colour and black and white. While a small number of these images have been published in a piecemeal fashion in CD booklets, Nick Drake biographies and magazines, they have never been presented in this physical scale before, and many are previously unpublished.

The chapters for each session include a comprehensive introduction explaining the background to and content of each shoot.

Morris’ family have paid tribute to Keith with a very personal biography of the photographer that appears towards the end of the book.

The book showcases the very best images from Keith Morris’ three sessions to present in this dramatic 24 × 36 inch spread size. That spread size is no accident – it has been deliberately chosen in the same aspect ratio as 35mm film, namely 1 to 1.5 height to width.

This is important as it allows some of the photographs to be presented, where appropriate, across an entire double page spread, with no detail cropped out. One such image is actually one of the most famous, the ‘running man’ photograph that appears on the back cover of Five Leaves Left, and this occupies the entire front and back cover, enlarged to 24 × 36 inches.

The running man theme extends to the special slipcase that houses the book, as this shows the entire enlarged contact sheet from the ‘running man’ sequence – thirty five individual frames taken in Battersea on Wednesday, April 16, 1969 outside the Morgan Crucible factory showing Nick Drake with an incredible cast of characters, presented here in their original running order.

Details are important. For example, three bookmark ribbons are sewn into the casing of the book, each one chosen to represent the single colour most associated with each one of Nick Drake’s three albums: green for Five Leaves Left, lilac for Bryter Layter, and, the obvious for Pink Moon.

Admission to the exhibition: Free.

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 11am – 5pm.

Snap Galleries,12 Piccadilly Arcade, London, SW1Y 6NH

Tel: 020 7493 1152