In 2003 Irish photographer Charles Moriarty was given an opportunity to photograph an aspiring singer by the name of Amy Winehouse. On the seventh anniversary of her death, he recalls his encounters with a woman on the cusp of fame and tragedy — and reveals why he finally decided to exhibit their photos, writes Carolyn Moore.
The year 2007 was a heady time for celebrity gossip. Fueled by the explosion of gossip bloggers like Perez Hilton and self-styled ‘news agencies’ like TMZ, mainstream publications like The Daily Mail had started to up the ante when it came to real-time, online celebrity gossip coverage.
The “gossip column” became a thing of the past, the “side-bar of shame” entered everyone’s vernacular, and with 24-hour news cycles to fill, the paparazzi became ever more ruthless in their quest for photos that would sell. Sex sold, and increasingly, so did shame, and to put it bluntly, the mid-nougties became the era of the female fuck up.
Tapping into all our reserves of internalised misogyny, online publications made a brisk trade in sexualising and slutifying the subjects of their stories, shaming them for their perceived bad behaviour with a sort of pearl-clutching faux concern. Watching women get built up to be torn down had become the ultimate spectator sport.
All female celebrities were fair game, but in 2007 there was a triumvirate of women who embodied the media’s obsession with this narrative — Lindsay Lohan, who never got her career back on track, Britney Spears, who remains under the conservatorship of her father to this day, and Amy Winehouse, who, seven years ago this month on July 23, died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27.
Lohan began 2007 in rehab, and by then, rehab was already such a tragi-comic tabloid trope that Winehouse herself had riffed on it in her 2006 hit song.
In February, the very public breakdown of Britney Spears (herself just out of rehab) reached a crescendo, when the shaven-headed one-time pop princess was filmed beating back paparazzi with a golf umbrella.
That summer, what remain the most infamous photos of Amy Winehouse were splashed across tabloids and gossip blogs alike.
Staggering through the streets of London in blood-soaked ballet pumps with her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, Winehouse was immortalised that night as the poster girl for a cautionary tale of fame gone wrong.
Her iconic beehive a disheveled mess, her trademark winged eyeliner smeared down her face, she was the fallen star personified, and in 2007 there was nothing more entertaining to the world at large than a woman who’d fallen from the pedestal of fame.
Winehouse’s troubles may have run deeper than the press intrusion and public ridicule that defined her last few years, but it certainly didn’t help. In Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary, Amy, a poignant clip shows a young Winehouse contemplating fame.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but there’s a strong argument to suggest that if she’d remained simply “a girl that sings”, she’d still be singing today. Sadly, that wasn’t her destiny.
Sadder still, for many of us it’s that image of a painfully thin, dishevelled Winehouse that continues to resonate. But one Irish photographer, who knew her before fame swallowed her whole, hopes his photos of Winehouse can help reset the public’s perception of the Grammy-winning singer.
In June 2003, when he was 21 and she was 19, Charles Moriarty (above) shot the cover of Winehouse’s debut album, Frank, developing a friendship with the singer over a number of shoots in London and New York.
It was Amy director Asif Kapadia who suggested these images should be seen by the public, and in May, Moriarty exhibited them in Dublin in conjunction with Paperblanks.
The show — which heads to Cork next (details are still to be confirmed), before traveling to the UK ahead of the release of Moriarty’s book, Back to Amy, in October — attracted a high profile fan in Andrea Corr, who’s song ‘White Light’ was inspired by Amy’s induction into the infamous ‘27 Club’.
“She came to the show and we talked about Amy, the music industry, and Andrea’s own experiences,” Charles says. “She knows how easy it is for things to go wrong. It’s an industry where, sadly, you’re surrounded by people who can easily take advantage of you.
“The Amy I knew was intelligent, talented, vivacious, outgoing and funny — but insecure, like any artist, She was only 19, but she had a great sense of herself and her music.
"She wasn’t interested in fame, and she smoked a bit of weed but she wasn’t into drugs. The vision people have of her is just so different from the girl I knew.”
His shoot with Amy was Charles’ first paid gig, and though he had no way of knowing it at the time, one of the photos would end up in the National Portrait Gallery — not a bad outcome for a rookie photographer.
“I’d moved from Dublin to London at 18, and at 21 I was just running around with a camera, photographing my friends,” he laughs.
When mutual friends arranged for him to meet the then unknown Winehouse, the pair sat in his kitchen and devised the cover concept for Frank.
“We met for the first time in June 2003, the day we shot the cover,” he says.
“She’d been working with other photographers, but she wasn’t happy. We were doing a test shoot to show the record company what kind of style she wanted, which was just something more real, more honest,” he explains.
“Essentially, a bit more Amy and a bit less generic.
“We were both really nervous. I had no experience, and she was quite uncomfortable in front of the camera, so we were sort of winging it. It was slightly ad hoc, just trying things out to see what worked,” he recalls.
Shot on film, the images have a raw, candid feel, but each one was, he says, planned and posed.
Nonetheless, the cover shot was serendipitous. “We needed something to throw into the mix, and someone happened to be walking their dogs,” he says.
“The dogs were a perfect distraction for Amy, and I captured this beautiful shot that just worked really well.” Island Records agreed, choosing it as the album cover.
“Her management loved the photos, as did Amy,” Charles says, “so we did another shoot in New York, which is where bulk of the previously unseen images in the book were shot.”
Intended as inlay images for the album, they were ultimately never used.
“That’s why they’ve really only been seen by the world very recently,” he says.
One image that will be familiar to fans, though, is the photo that was added to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
“I love that shot,” Charles says.
“It was taken in my cousin’s bathroom. Amy was there with her beehive up for the first time, and the style is more representative of how she dressed later in her career, which is part of the reason they weren’t used.
"At the time I was very disappointed in those photos,” he adds. “It was hard for me to see then what I see in them now, but I think that’s the problem with inexperience.
“When I met Asif Kapadia, he said they were some of the best photos he’d seen of her. She looks amazing, they’re honest, there’s no mask, she’s entirely herself. As you go further along with Amy, her look becomes more of a mask — the hair, the makeup, the tattoos — and I think I captured her at a point where she hadn’t yet been swallowed up by fame. That world changes you,” he says.
“It screws with your head.”
Watching Winehouse succumb to the pressures of fame was “really hard”, Charles says.
“I avoided a lot of the press coverage during those years, because she was always presented in a very one-sided way,” he says.
Now, with Back to Amy — which includes insights from her inner circle, people like her mother, Janice — he hopes his photos of a young woman on the cusp of fame will help reshape the narrative around the tragic star.
If there’s one thing the media loves more than a downfall, it’s a good comeback. Winehouse never got the chance to rehabilitate her image, so as future generations discover her music, Charles hopes her talent and charm will outshine her less salubrious tabloid legacy.
“I wish I could go back and hear that voice for the first time,” he says. “She was truly the voice of a generation, and I think she’ll be remembered forever.”