Amy Winehouse's Photographer Reflects on Portraits for Book of Unreleased Pics

© Blake Wood/Courtesy of Taschen
Amy Winehouse

“There was familiarity between us -- right off the bat,” says photographer Blake Wood, recalling when he met Amy Winehouse at mutual friend Kelly Osbourne’s house in 2007. For the next few years, the 33-year-old stuck by Winehouse’s side at the height of her fame, capturing a rarely seen angle of the singer beyond the paparazzi’s eyes. His candid shots of Winehouse make up the 150-page book Amy Winehouse (out Aug. 8 on Taschen America), which he hopes will change the perception that her life was only troubled. “She had so many strengths,” says Wood. “I want people to see that light that she was and just let go of the rest.”

What do you recall about meeting Amy Winehouse for the first time?
It was the curiosity we both had for each other. For me, it was obviously about hearing a lot about her and then actually meeting her, but then also her curiosity about me being another Blake, and this American friend that she had known through Kelly, so there's was such a curiosity aspect to that initial meeting where we were feeling each other out. But there was an immediate connection there, which felt magnetic.

You were very careful which pictures you took of her, and how you shot her. How did you discern when to take a photograph?
That first year was quite difficult. It was really focusing on being there as a friend and her health and all that stuff, and creating some normalcy amidst the chaos of the press and everything else that was going on around outside of else. We would just hang out and spend time and just enjoy each other’s company and friends when they would come over. And, I think with photography and her, I was very careful that first year. Also because regardless of her fame and her celebrity and all of that, there's two aspects of it: one would be, I was very shy then. So I was not always one to be gregarious enough to take a photo of somebody I didn't know very well. But also, she was probably the most photographed person that year. And I think I was mindful of that and only really took the camera or only had my camera on me, when it was light and fun and she would ask me to. She was just so supportive of me creating and knew that was my tool.

Was she the type of person that would pore over the photographs that you took and inspect them?
I kept a lot of my work to myself those years. But I ended up printing some of the images and showed her after St. Lucia. One of the images that she posed for, which is this beautiful black and white image of just her on the rock kind of posing like a pin-up girl, that was how she wanted to look, how she sat herself. And so I printed that for her and gave that to her, and she loved that image.

It’s very well-documented that she had issues with substance abuse. You were careful not to portray that side of her.
Because for me, that's not who she was at her core, and I think the way that we treat and discuss substance abuse and addiction, and also mental health, is usually -- especially when its in the press or in tabloids -- there's a lack of empathy. And it's kind of like a joke or portrayed as like a train wreck, versus, “Oh wait, this person's actually going through something difficult, how can we be of help?" I feel like there was that lack of empathy. So, yeah, it wasn't of interest to me to document someone who I loved and had a great friendship with in a negative way or when they were having a health crisis. There was no point in doing that because that's mean and I think if you are someone's friend, you would never do that. You would want to be there for them, and not exploit their troubles.

Did you find the paparazzi photos of her exploitative?
Completely. I mean if you look through any images of us during the time that were press photos, I'm never never smiling. Because I took those cameras and that kind of bombardment so offensively. Like, that was my best friend and you guys are not seeing that she's going some difficult times right now, and you're basically exploiting someone who's going through something so hard as it is, and you're photographing it and selling it for money. It was very difficult at that time to not fight back or do something to stop it. I did everything I could from my perspective and anything in my ability to stop it. They were camped outside the house, it was insane. The laws were different then too. But, it was almost like they were seeing how far they could take it. It was really dark.

Is this collection of photos an attempt to rewrite that portrayal?
Completely. This is about changing the narrative of who she was, versus the narrative that they created in the press. There were incredible triumphs, personal triumphs that she made through her health and wellbeing and professionally, and I think that people tend to think with celebrities and especially women, they focus on the negative instead of celebrating the strengths. And she had so many strengths. She was such a gift to the world.

There's one photograph where she’s on horseback in St. Lucia in 2009. What do you remember about that day?
We were actually on our way to this off-the-beaten-path horse trail. And we were waiting for others to come with us. So I was on horseback and I took that photo. And she was feeling good and really free. I think the horses were healing in themselves, but they symbolized a sense of freedom, you know on this tiny island, and then also just in general. When you're on horseback and you're riding, it's very natural, very healing, it's this other thing. And you're in the woods, so, we went down in this private path that led to this cove that there was nothing but these tiny, tiny houses far out in the horizon. But there's nobody there and it was a favorite place that we loved to go to for sure.

It's been quite some time since Amy's passing. Why does now feel like the right time for you to put something out there?
It’s been a decade since I took the images. And, I sat on them for a long time, I didn't even think I would ever necessarily put them out. But, I think there's just a shift the world right now, where we are treating people differently, and I hope this kind of creates a deeper sense of empathy for not just her, but for other people who are going through things, and to celebrate each other's strengths. There's definitely an aspect of it that was cathartic for me. I'm in a point with her and how I feel towards her loss and the grief and everything where I felt, you know, I can do this and this will be really healing for me. But I think this could maybe touch on some other things for other people -- maybe they'll connect to the world.

This article originally appeared in the Aug 4 issue of Billboard.


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