When Harry met...
Harry Borden recalls how a photo shoot with the legendary drinker culminated in a pub crawlÉ
Who could refuse a pub crawl with richard Harris? Harry Borden fondly remembers his portrait session with the actor
My portrait session with actor Richard Harris nearly ended before it had begun. It was March 2000 and I had been commissioned to photograph him by film magazine Empire. At that time, he was living in the Savoy Hotel in central London and I went along with the journalist who going to interview him. We had only been given a halfhour lunchtime slot. However, when we arrived at the hotel suite Harris was initially very difficult, and while he was willing to be interviewed, he refused to be photographed.
Harris, then approaching his 70th birthday, was a stage and screen legend who had twice been nominated for an Oscar. He was equally famous for his riotous, hell-raising lifestyle. He was tall, had a shock of white hair and piercing blue eyes. Even as an old man, he had an incredible presence; he genuinely looked like a leader of men. He was clearly the alpha male in the room. The journalist and I were buzzing around him like mosquitoes and he was just batting us away. There seemed little chance of him changing his mind and I began to feel a sense of panic.
However, as I sat quietly in the room while the interview progressed, Harris began to relax. He told us disparaging stories about current A-list actors with refreshing honesty, and he became entertaining and genuinely funny. He was warming to us and eventually agreed to be photographed, but not in any formal way and only during the interview.
He was lit by window light and I set up my Hasselblad CM on a tripod with a 120mm lens and shot some informal portraits on a roll of ISO 400 colour film.
The main shot on these pages is the one I liked the most and I still have it in my online portfolio. The depth of field is very shallow, but his face is sharp. It’s an upbeat picture, but there are others taken at the same time in which he looks sadder and the lighting is more moody. After the interview he allowed me to shoot some more formal portraits against a portable backdrop I’d brought with me.
Even though he was nearly 70, he had great bone structure and was really handsome and charismatic. It was easy to see how he carried on getting roles, although I’d imagine he could be quite difficult to work with.
By the time the portrait session was over, we were all getting on famously and he suggested we all go for a drink in one of the Savoy’s bars. After a pint or two there, the afternoon turned into a bit of a pub crawl. We went to another bar in the Savoy, then he took us to one of his favourite pubs on The Strand.
I’m not much of a drinker and I was aware I had another shoot, for BBC Music, later that afternoon, but the opportunity to spend time with Richard Harris was too good to miss.
At that time, I had joined the Independent Photographers’ Group and had been influenced by documentary photographers who were part of that group. I’d bought a Leica M6 and was beginning to realise that although it was nice to do formal portraits, often the most interesting pictures were taken before and after a shoot.
I had my Leica with me, and so while we went from bar to bar, I was taking informal, documentary-style shots of him. The afternoon flew by. Considering we were only promised half an hour, we got a good crack of the whip.
By the time I was due to go to the BBC shoot, I’d had several drinks and no lunch, so my assistant had to drive me. I don’t remember anything at all about that second shoot, but I
‘I don’t remember anything about the second shoot, but I must have arrived smelling of alcohol’
must have arrived smelling of alcohol and cigarettes as Harris had been smoking. It was the last job I did for BBC Music – they probably thought I was a good photographer, but seemed to have a drink problem.
In the two years that followed, Harris went on to become famous to a new generation of cinema fans for his role as Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films. He died in 2002. Although my shoot with him had started badly, it ended up as a great and memorable occasion. He was a wonderful subject and didn’t disappoint in any way.
A pub crawl with Richard Harris turned into a fruitful photo session
At first, Harris was unwilling to be photographed, but he softened his stance after a while