British photographer Allan Warren has taken portraits of many popular artists and politicians, ranging from Roger Moore (above) to Sophia Loren and HRH Prince Charles. He has been uploading them on Wikimedia Commons since 2010. Photo by Allan Warren, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Lucky breaks, especially those that launch careers, don’t happen often. But Allan Warren, a Wimbledon, London native, can point to a serendipitous opportunity to snap photos for his friend Mickey Deans’ wedding to Judy Garland, after he bought a Rolleiflex camera to dabble in photography. His impromptu shots of the wedding reception ended up fascinating those around him to the point that they began to demand that Warren start taking more pictures.
Since then, Warren has taken portraits of many popular artists and politicians, ranging from Roger Moore to Sophia Loren and Prince Charles, publishing his work in books like Confessions of a Society Photographer (1976) and Strangers in the Buff (2007). For the past few years, he has uploaded many of his images to Wikimedia Commons. His portraits caught our attention, so we reached out to him for an interview. He spoke from his home in London. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarification.)
Q: If you can give me a little background, what was the story behind photographing Alec Guinness?
A: Ah, Alec Guinness. I originally met him for Nobs & nosh: Eating with the Beautiful People (Warren’s first book, published in 1975), through the marvelous Irish film director called Brian Desmond Hurst, who was probably, the most prolific, Irish film director ever. Brian said to me one day, (and [this] was because I photographed the British actor Paul Scofield).‘You should get Sir Alec to been in your book as well!’ Brian knew Alec Guinness, from directing him in such classic films as The Malta Story. Anyway, Alec agreed to be photographed and said, ‘I’ll come to do the shoot.’ So we agreed the time at like 11 o’clock, on the dot, one morning, he arrived. But, I had forgotten about Paul Scofield, who was coming at that precise time, to check the results of his pictures.
When I opened the door, both of them were on the doorstep. Sir Alec immediately turned to walk away, saying ‘I should probably leave, because of Paul.’ Paul Scofield took his arm, and said, ‘Don’t go, you must come in and see my pictures, they are wonderful.’ What was interesting: Scofield hadn’t seen any of his pictures, he was just making it up. And as for Alec, during the ￼￼￼￼session, he said, ‘I’m sorry I actually hate being photographed unless I have a character to play; if I’m just being myself, I can’t stand to be in front of cameras.’ As it turned out, after the shoot, we all all had breakfast. Scofield made the tea, and then went through his pictures and approved them. In the end, they toddled off together and everybody was happy.
Q: Can you tell me about Peter Sellers?
A: I met him for my first book as well. And I remember ringing and him telling me, ‘Come around, I will do your photographic food book; and give you some recipes for it.’ So he did and he was lovely. He was a gadget freak, so we sat there and discussed cameras and the whole lot. He gave me a recipe for the book which was linguini. The funny thing was: I had a book coming up called Stand By To Repel All Boarders and all these years later, he is in it. The reason is, because he gave me an anecdote about theatrical landladies and staying with them. They’re a special breed and they only cater to the theatricals, namely the actors. Sellers was sharing a double room with another actor, who was a friend, and she said to them as they entered the front door, ‘Don’t you two be behaving like the last two, they blew their noses on the sheets.’ Sellers, was a lovely man.
Q: Can you tell me about Sophia Loren?
A: I had known this American friend of mine for years, his name was Robert Sydney. Bob directed many people, including Bing Crosby. Unfortunately for him, he did look like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff — actually, he looked more like Frankenstein’s creation. A bolt through his neck being all he needed to go with this very deep voice to complete the picture. But he was such a sweetheart of a man. He became a great friend of mine. At one time, I was in L.A. and I had to take pictures of Sophia Loren. Although Bob knew many people, he had never met her. So I agreed to let him drive me, and pretend to be my assistant so that he could … So we get to this studio in Los Angeles, where she is in this huge rehearsal room. Sophia was sitting on a chair at one end of it, holding this little compact with a mirror, doing her makeup. So Bob lumbers in with the equipment, bashing it everywhere, and as he lurches towards her, she looks in her mirror and then snaps shut, the compact, and looks at him and said, ‘Has anybody told you have a beautiful face?’ That night, he could be seen in several local bars in Hollywood saying, ‘Sophia Loren said I have a beautiful face!’ Of course, no one believed him.
Q: Tell me about Prince Charles.
A: Oh, Prince Charles, well that was thanks to Louis Mountbatten: one morning he called and said ‘Are you out of bed yet?’ and added ‘I have someone for you to photograph: get to Buckingham Palace by 10:30 and photograph The Prince of Wales.” So I said, ‘okay.’ I was hardly awake. I remember I had this metallic green Mini car, so I stuffed the equipment in and drove to the palace, even though it was walking distance. I was just going through the gate where all the tourists were taking pictures of the palace and they were looking at me like, ‘Why is he going into the palace?’ So I rolled down my window and said, very loudly, ‘Allan Warren here, to see His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales!’ Then, as I put my foot down on the accelerator, my car shuddered to a halt and wouldn’t move. It was stuck in the gateway. I couldn’t get in or get out — and more importantly, nor could anybody else. It became somewhat embarrassing, especially as the tourists began chuckling at my predicament. The poor guard at the gate had to help me push it through the gates to get in. As we started the shoot, Prince Charles was charming and very self effacing. Claiming his nose and ears were too big, so it would be difficult to get a decent picture of him. As I stepped up onto a small ladder, I replied: ‘Not a problem, from this angle, I’ll have you looking like Michael York in no time.’
Early one morning, a month or so later, the phone rang. I remember thinking, ‘Oh god, it’s only 9:00.am in the morning.’ When I eventually picked up the receiver, the voice at the other end asked ‘Allan, what have you said to the royal family?’ It was Michael York. When I said hadn’t seen any of them for months, or for that matter said anything, he replied: ‘Well, we had the opening of Murder on the Orient Express last night. After the screening, we were all lined up. When the Prince of Wales came down the line, I introduced my wife to him as Patricia, and told him she was a photographer. To which he replied, ‘Oh so you must know Allan Warren … I don’t think he likes Michael, I think it’s the other way around!’￼￼￼
Q: Tell me about Rod Stewart.
A:I sort of knew Rod years ago, he is fun. He used to come to my parties … One time, he came to a party when everybody arrived at the same time. And you’ve got understand, in those days, as a man in his mid-20s, I was giving out invitations sometimes to 500 people and they would all show up … with extra guests! As for Rod, he was with Britt Ekland.
They saw that was a big problem, so he rolled up his sleeves and got behind the bar and she played waitress for a while, to get all the drinks going. But then, he has always been down to earth.
Q: One last name here, Roger Moore (see photo at the top of this post).
A: Yes, Roger Moore. I was in the South of France with two American friends and two children, who had bought a beautiful yacht. They were cruising up from Italy, and I joined them for a few days between Monte Carlo and Cannes. We arrived one lunchtime at the Eden Rock hotel. The yacht had a tender that ferried us, back and forth. As we sat down at our table, on the restaurant terrace, their son Jack, who was only about 9 years of age, suddenly announced, in his little Texan accent: ‘There’s James Bond!’ And his mother, Maggie, added: ‘It’s Roger Moore!’ Then asked if I knew him, and if I could get a photo of him and little Jack. I told her that I had photographed Roger many years before, and that was about it: ’I’d never seen him since.’ She then kept nagging. So we agreed that I was going to ask him, only if he left his table and got up to go to the loo or something, but I was not going to interrupt his lunch. Sure enough, he did get up, and so I got up, and as I did so, I grabbed Jack. This boy was 9 years old, but he only looked about 6. I went up to Roger and said, ‘Mr. Moore, this is your biggest and smallest fan.’ And he replied, ‘Hi Allan, what’s all this Mr.Moore deal?’ And I answered, ‘Look he’d like a picture of you.’ To which he said, ‘Lets go over to your table then. He introduces himself to my friends, and then sits the boy on his lap and I snap a couple of pictures. Because they were so wealthy, the best shot they made into wall paper for his room.
Q: I want to ask a technical question: What kind of camera equipment were you fond of?
A: Well I started Rolleiflex twin reflex camera, which is wonderful by the way. I then progressed: I had a Nikon 35mm and the quality was excellent. I lived by Hyde Park and that’s where I did a lot of shoots, including James Baldwin. It was at the foot of The Albert Memorial: there is a freeze around it of different, famous people throughout British history. One of them is Shakespeare and so I got Baldwin to sit, without realizing he had Shakespeare over his shoulder. He was so full of his own ego, I thought it suited him perfectly. I used to use Hyde Park as my studio for all my exterior shots. You went out and took shots under trees. That was the way you did it, in black and white … that was all in 35 mm. It wasn’t until the 80s that I went with Hasselblad, when the money rolled in. I never liked them, in the sense of a two and a quarter format. It wasn’t until this wonderful RB67 by Mamiya which had a 6 X 7 format that was fabulous — it was like a tank. And then they advanced to the RZ67, which was perfection itself. Absolutely perfection. You could flip the back, for either landscape or portrait; it will do either with one flip of your fingers. I don’t think there is a better camera than this.
While in Los Angeles, this American friend of mine, said to me, ‘Oh you’re crazy, you should get into this digital age.’ I thought, ‘I guess I better,’ and I went into a shop and bought my first digital camera, but never really studied what digital was all about. And it was a couple of years later, that somebody told me. The quality of my photograph was not even as good as 35mm film. Then I realized, I had gotten into a world, where basically, it is convenience and you see what you get and what you pay for. I don’t like it as much. In fact, I’m returning to my quality RZ67, and am okay with the fact that you have to develop and print it yourself. But at least you know you can do anything you want with it, quality-wise.
Q: At what point did you decide to start uploading your photos to Wikimedia Commons? For Wikipedia?
A: It started because of this German friend of mine — you know how exacting the Germans are. He said, ‘Your photographs are all cracking up.’ I haven’t been particularly kind with my photographs. I’ve got a whole storeroom of them in Jersey, an island off the coast of France. What happens with Celluloid is that they start crackling over several years and start falling apart. And then my friend said, ‘You could store them on Wikimedia’. So he put a couple of up. And that’s how it started really, and after that I met that man who set up Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. I thought ‘Well, it’s all for free what he does. Why don’t I give something?’ And that was it really. A lot of people get happy and you get these societies that come and say ‘Look, you sure you won’t charge us?’ and I say ‘Nope’. In the end, what would have happened to them anyway? You know, it might go to some library, but would never get seen, whereas people get to use these.
To see more of Allan Warren’s photos, visit his Wikipedia user upload page.
Interview by Victor Grigas, Storyteller, Wikimedia Foundation
Profile by Yoona Ha, Communications Intern, Wikimedia Foundation