A masterful picture of the young Simon Rattle has been unveiled by the National Portrait Gallery as the conductor turns 60. Photographer and Oxford alumnus Rory Coonan tellshow it came about.

How I shot Simon Rattle

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired an unpublished photograph of the British conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Photographer Rory Coonan (Wadham, 1973) told Oxford Today how it came about.

‘I simply asked Rattle if I could do it. He was practising at the piano and made time. The print took weeks to make, and then I forgot about it. I follow Susan Sontag’s dictum that “time turns all photographs into art”, so I put it aside while my children were small, in the hope that it would have become a work of art by the time they had grown up. It seems to have worked.’

The portrait, shot in 1982 using a 150-year-old plate camera, is released for the first time today to mark Sir Simon’s sixtieth birthday, and ahead of concerts in London by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Rattle is principal conductor. It was taken when Rattle was 27 years old, two years after he was appointed principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The setting is the Craxton Studios in London, a recording space which was originally a painter’s studio in the Arts and Crafts style.

Rory said: ‘I was introduced to the now-forgotten craft of large-format film photography while studying postgraduate Art History at the Royal College of Art from 1978 to 1980. It was at a time when making photographs involved physics and chemistry, and when the phrase “point and shoot” meant bad manners or a crime.

‘Through Joanna Drew, director of art at the Arts Council, who was my boss, I got to know Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the greatest photographer of the 20th century — we did a major retrospective show of his work at the Hayward gallery on the South Bank in London. I quickly discovered he was interested principally in painting.’

 ‘All my photographs have been done for my own pleasure and only rarely as commissions. They attempt to be more than a bald record of the sitter. The setting is a major part of the project because of the sheer expansiveness of view that very old plate cameras give you. Their lenses are not “fast” — not very responsive to light — so the exposures can be long, too. It takes great concentration to sit under these conditions and I recall Rattle was exceptionally composed. This is a rare ability.’

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired a number of Rory’s portrait photographs, including of the typographer David Kindersley and St Benet’s Hall graduate Cardinal Basil Hume.

Other unpublished Coonan photographs include philosopher Sir Stuart Hampshire (Balliol, 1933), then Warden of Wadham; Harold Wilson (Jesus, 1934) shortly after his shock resignation as PM; master of Balliol Sir Anthony Kenny; and president of Trinity Lord Quinton.

Despite coups such as today’s, Rory has only ever been a spare-time photographer.

‘It was always too marginal as a viable economic activity, and in any case my interests and career have always been in public policy, the arts and in health. But I notice that old-style photography as “art and craft” has recently become an object of fascination for a generation brought up in the digital world. I think it’s due for a revival.’

Rory now heads the Design for Care initiative, focusing British design talent on solving problems of health and social care integration. As a director at healthcare operator Circle (2005–11) he employed Lord Rogers’ and Lord Foster’s architectural firms to design a new generation of compact hospitals, including the £50million Circle Bath hospital, UK Building of the Year 2010.

He was previously the Arts Council’s first director of architecture; established the National Lottery’s capital programme; and originated the innovation body Nesta, set up by Act of Parliament in 1997.

A former member of the Franco-British Council, he is the author of the ‘Culture’ chapter in the history of the coalition government, The Coalition Effect, edited by Sir Anthony Seldon (Worcester College, 1973), which will be published in March. He also serves on Wadham’s Development Committee.

Image: © 1982 Rory Coonan; Collection National Portrait Gallery, London.