Photo insight with Harry Borden: Margaret Thatcher
March 29, 2016
Like her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher was a major figure in British life in the 1980s. She changed the country’s cultural and political landscape. I was 14 when she became prime minister in 1979, and she loomed large over my life during my teens and 20s.
My career as a photographer didn’t really take off until the early 1990s, by which time her political career was over. I never got the opportunity to photograph her in her pomp and glory, and thought I had missed my chance.
Then, in October 2006, I got a call from Time magazine. The editor was planning a special edition – 60 Years of Heroes – and my commission was to photograph Baroness Thatcher. Although by then I’d photographed many famous people, getting this job was a brilliant moment in my career.
The location chosen for the shoot was a rented studio in Battersea, south London. I’d never used it before and it was chosen because of its close proximity to Margaret Thatcher’s house. Before the shoot, officers from Special Branch had to visit the studio and check it was OK.
On the day of the shoot, I went to the studio and waited with trepidation for her arrival, together with my assistant, my agent Seamus and the Time picture editor.
When the Special Branch people appeared, we realised Margaret Thatcher was about to arrive. When she came in, we had to help her up the stairs because she was quite elderly. I was immediately struck by how polite and sweet she was; it felt odd to see the Iron Lady as an old person who kept forgetting things. However, she was very sharp when she talked about politics. My own political views were forged by a dislike of everything Margaret Thatcher stood for, so it felt strange relating to her on a human level.
I said how pleased I was to have the opportunity to photograph her. Margaret Thatcher had unusually good skin for an 80-year-old woman and I remember saying, ‘You’ve got beautiful skin.’ She took the compliment gracefully.
She had brought her own hair and make-up people with her, and they started to get her ready. To relieve my own tension while this was happening, I put a small Sunpak ring flash on my camera and started shooting.
I knew I wouldn’t get very long, so once the shoot began I shot quickly from a variety of angles, against different backgrounds using available light, daylight, tungsten and ring flash. These situations are rare in a photographer’s career, so you have to make the best of them and strike up as much of a rapport with the subject as you can. Quite often there’s a key that will unlock someone. With Margaret Thatcher I sensed the way to approach her was to not be intimidated.
The ‘eyes-closed’ portrait was one of the last frames in the shoot and was taken using natural daylight. I hadn’t planned it. She just blinked and the idea for the picture came into my head. I asked her just to close her eyes. Even when I was taking the shot, I knew it was going to be an iconic picture.
I used my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with a 50mm lens. The exposure was 1/25sec at f/5.6, ISO 320, with the camera on a tripod. The shoot lasted about 12 minutes.
I would never normally do this, but afterwards I asked Margaret Thatcher if I could have my picture taken with her. When I put my arm around her, my agent later said he’d seen the Special Branch people flinch!
Time didn’t publish the ‘eyes-closed’ image. Instead, they chose a conventional three-quarter length portrait, lit with a flash and a brolly, against a black background. However, the ‘eyes-closed’ portrait won a prize at The Picture Editors’ Guild awards as well as a bronze medal at the RPS’s 150th International Print Exhibition.
The shot has also been used in newspapers and magazines, as well as the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website. What makes this portrait special? I think when you get someone to close their eyes, they’re in a position where you can observe them. They seem vulnerable. Margaret Thatcher had so much dynamism and power, so when you see a photo of her in old age, and with her eyes closed, there’s something absorbing about looking at her and reflecting on how she affected our lives.
Harry’s favourite lens: the 50mm
When shooting portraits, photographers are often advised to use an 85mm or a longer focal length lens, to give a more flattering appearance. However, for me, portraits taken on longer lenses can look clichéd. I like to use a 50mm because it’s closest to the way we see things with our own eyes. Portraits taken with long lenses or wideangles are a step away from reality, and I want my pictures to be an accurate reflection of how we view things.
Harry Borden is one of the UK’s finest portrait photographers and his work has been widely published. He has won prizes at the World Press Photo awards (1997 and 1999), and last year was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the RPS. The National Portrait Gallery collection holds more than 100 of his images. Visit www.harryborden.co.uk
Behind the scenes of the shoot