Andrew Gimson

The naked truth

Andrew Gimson talks to a former antiques dealer whose exhibition of nude portraits - 'art as therapy' - opens next week

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Would you like 'a framed 16 x 20 inch nude portrait' of yourself? The picture would be 'in black and white or tinted blue' and would be taken 'in the privacy of your own home (with a chaperone in attendance)' by a photographer who would bring a 'portable studio' with him. One of his nude portraits would make, according to the advertisement he placed in my local north London newspaper, 'a gift that is really special and personal'.

My curiosity was piqued by the man offering this service, who rejoices in the name of Jack Lamport-Mitchell. But my wife said she on no account wanted to receive a gift consisting of a nude portrait of herself. She thought the whole idea sounded unbearably tacky, a mere excuse to get women to take their clothes off, and could not be written about without publicising someone who did not deserve any kind of encouragement. This was even before the trial ended of the abominable man in Essex who murdered his niece, after 20 years of preying on young girls on the pretext of taking photographs of them which would launch them as models.

But I rang Mr Lamport-Mitchell, enjoyed the chirpy way he talked, and arranged to meet him in a cafe just off the North Circular Road. He is 65 and has only taken photographs of six naked women so far, so he is the antithesis of the kind of people who get written about because they are successful. His mother died when he was nine, and his father, whom he describes as 'a ne'er-do-well' and 'a compulsive gambler', soon afterwards deserted him and went off to South Africa with another woman. In tribute to his mother, 'a good person who died young', Jack gave himself a 'name extension' and added her maiden name of Lamport to his surname of Mitchell.

He is Jewish on both sides of his family and went to live with his maternal grandmother, who came from Vitebsk in Belarus and lived in Stamford Hill in north London, where she was a rag merchant. She was unable to control him and he was also evicted from a hostel run by the Jewish Board of Guardians 'after I smashed the place up - it was run like a Nazi prison camp'.

Jack left school at the age of 15 and tried to run away to sea, but they would not have him at London docks because he was so emaciated that he looked only 12. Instead he started work as a trainee dress-cutter in Commercial Street in EC1, but gave it up after six months because on his pay of 35 shillings a week he could not afford to go to Spurs every week. He has had an extraordinary variety of jobs since, including a successful stint as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, but his first wife left him after he was unemployed for a few years.

In 1974 he was watching the World Cup football match between England and Brazil, which was nil-nil at half-time, when his television set broke down. He happened to have bought a copy of the Jewish Chronicle and saw that a talk entitled 'Is the Jewish Social Scene Dead?' was being given that evening to the London Association of Jewish Graduates near Euston Station. Jack was not a graduate, and when he arrived he found 30 men there in suits, and one young woman who had just moved to London after training as a teacher at Cambridge. Afterwards six of the men took the woman for a drink, but it was Jack who offered to take her home to Golders Green as it was on his way. 'But you live in Hackney!' one of the graduates objected. Jack waved aside this pedantry and in due course married the teacher. They have two children, one at university and one just finished.

In middle age he moved into social work and in the evenings also did a master's degree at Birkbeck College, London, in occupational psychology. He now edits a local freesheet he set up, the South Woodford Village Gazette, works with golfers and boxers as a 'sporting mind coach', and also takes photographs of boxers. But on seeing an exhibition of nudes by the famous photographer Annie Leibowitz he decided that that was what he really wanted to do. Throughout his life he has had a - to me - rather admirable willingness to have a go in fields - insurance, vacuum cleaners and social work, but also antique-dealing and antiquarian book-selling - where he had no previous training.

His nude photography began in the same spirit of improvisation. About a year ago, he met a 39-year-old woman in the very cafe off the North Circular Road where we were now sitting, and explained that he was looking for a model, but not a professional one. She said he would 'have to see my bloke', who in turn said, in Jack's words, that the woman had previously suffered for eight years from anorexia and 'he thought it would give her confidence to see a picture of herself on the wall, to see how good she looks, and she'd never change, would she, because the picture would always be there'.

This has become Jack's justification for his nude photography: 'I spoke to a number of women who said that having that sort of picture taken would help them to rebuild a positive image of themselves, particularly those who'd been rejected by their husbands for younger or allegedly more attractive women. Women who've been rejected, for an artist to choose them as a model, they felt they must have something special. So I recognised from doing this initial research that art can be used as therapy.'

He has so far taken pictures of women ranging in age from 20 to 50: 'I nearly got a 60-year-old one, but she chickened out. Her two sons said yes, but her daughter said no. The two sons thought, It's a good idea - our Mum's a young model. The daughter wanted to think she's the young model.' With another of his models, he wanted to disabuse her of her belief that she looked like 'a pygmy elephant'.

I asked Jack if I could see the pictures he has taken. We walked the short distance to his house, a three-bedroom Thirties semi. The first picture he showed me is called 'Yvette in Blue', though the blue tint is very slight. It shows the 39-year-old woman's back, with her hair gathered behind her head and a cloth draped over her buttocks. 'See, tasteful,' he said, and certainly it did not strike me as the least bit pornographic.

Many of Jack's other pictures exist only as contact sheets, from which he is deciding which to blow up for a small exhibition he is putting on, at his own expense, from 28 January to 9 February at Lauderdale House in Highgate. Some of these were much more ambiguous. The photographs of the 20-year-old standing at the end of Jack's garden draped in ivy struck me as a piece of soft pornography. She is an actress and he paid her to pose. The prints would look, he said, like Julia Margaret Cameron's work.

Jack elaborated on his desire to help women to feel good about themselves: 'Many men put down their wives and make negative remarks about them in order to control them. He has got money but this cold, hard, focused businessman has nothing left for his partner. He has no feelings and he undermines her confidence by regular negative remarks about her appearance.'

He instanced Marilyn Monroe as a woman who felt needless doubts about how she looked, to which one could not avoid replying that having many wonderful pictures taken of herself did not seem to have helped her much. And might not a photographer become as controlling of women as the horrible husbands he had mentioned? Was he not just getting women to take their clothes off for him?

'I'm not getting her to take her clothes off,' Jack said. 'She's volunteering to take her clothes off. It's not a strip club or anything. But it's true that a lot of photographers are controlling. They shout and scream.'

Was there not a danger of all this degenerating into something sleazy? 'That could be so if I wasn't with my wife,' Jack said, 'but she edits everything.'

Most of us have enough vanity to be gratified when we see what we consider to be a good photograph of ourselves, and embarrassed when we see a bad one. But the most powerful objection to his idea of beaut iful pictures as therapy, I suggested, was that it strengthened the belief that looks are the most important thing in life. Wasn't the real need to convince people that looks matter far less than we imagine?

'It sounds great,' Jack replied, 'but in effect our society sets great store by what you look like and what you could look like.' He pointed out that this attitude is reinforced by innumerable 'articles, magazines and television programmes saying what you should really look like to be happy with yourself'.

He could also have claimed that he intends, in his photographs, to bring out the beauty of people who do not think of themselves as beautiful. If this is true, it is a worthy aim, for there is beauty in everyone.