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June 20 2012

Delve into Yoko Ono's personal photo archive

As part of her digital takeover, Yoko Ono talks us through her own stash of photographs

June 16 2012

When Sam Taylor-Wood met Yoko Ono

Sam Taylor-Wood befriended Yoko Ono during the making of Nowhere Boy, her acclaimed film about John Lennon's early years. But they have much more in common. Here, on the eve of a Yoko retrospective, the two artists talk about creativity, world peace – and what it's like to be the older woman…

Before the opening of Yoko Ono's major solo retrospective at the Serpentine this week, she does something unusual: she summons another artist, who on the face of it has nothing to do with her show, to come and join her. But then nothing about Yoko Ono is usual. And when she explains she would like to have Sam Taylor-Wood by her side, you don't question it. You wait to see what will happen. Yoko likes to do things her way. And, unlike most of us, she knows what her way is. It is an overcast morning as she steps into the Serpentine Gallery looking like – well, looking like herself. The first accommodation on meeting such a colossal celebrity is to remind oneself one has never met her before. In a sense, she could not be less "colossal". This legendary but diminutive woman cuts a dash in her regulation black suit offset by a trilby of dove-grey felt. "Yoko's hair is never a problem," confides the makeup artist she has in tow, "she always wears a hat." And I observe they have brought a reserve selection of trilbies.

Sam Taylor-Wood arrives a minute later, known to Yoko not so much as a Turner prize-nominated artist as because of Nowhere Boy, the film she directed about the adolescent John Lennon. Sam has a last-minute glamour: she wears a blue and white striped top, as if at any moment she might be thinking of setting sail. She has extracted herself from a house with four children – including a baby. "I shouldn't be talking about my children as if I wanted sympathy," she laughs. You can see how at home with herself she is – and warm. It is easy to understand why she has so many famous (and otherwise) friends: Elton John, David Beckham, Kate Moss and, now, Yoko Ono.

Yoko is eager to show us her work but some exhibits have yet to arrive, others are still bubble-wrapped. This does not deter her. And the tour of what is not there makes one aware of how vividly each piece exists in her mind's eye. She speaks in a soft, precise, Japanese little girl's voice. She giggles and sighs. I am struck by her sweetness and animation. John Lennon once called her "the world's most famous unknown artist". I suspect there has always been a need to make her voice heard. Eight months away from her 80th birthday, her unchanging youthfulness is astonishing. And, as a peace activist, she has not changed either. When I ask whether she seriously thinks world peace a realistic goal, she answers with determination: "At this point, it is a luxury for us to have negative thoughts – we can't." Optimism is her vocation, as the exhibition's title, To the Light, makes clear.

We stare through the bubble wrap at a hybrid photograph of three men: her father, John Lennon and her son, Sean. Whose face dominates? "My father's," she says with something between a sigh and a giggle. I can only see John Lennon. She shows us high-heeled shoes in which blood is pooling – part of her sequence Family Album (1993) about what it is to be a woman. She leads us towards an elegant, perplexing Perspex maze. Difficult to plan? "Yes," she says, with satisfaction. She shows us two sets of footprints – hers and John's. Hers are tiny besides his. "Goodness," I exclaim, looking at her neat black feet. "What size shoes do you take?" She brushes the question away like a fly – the answer, in every sense, beneath her. The last room, as though to test what the maze has taught us, asks: "Where do you want to go from here?"

We want to go upstairs. And what I am about to find out is that these women have more affinities than you would have thought possible – in life and art. I am already, in fantasy, curating a double bill of a show in which Sam's Crying Men – of famous actors weeping – is placed next to Yoko's Smiles in which not-so-famous people, from all over the world, smile. And – even more tempting – I would love to see Sam's beautiful film of fruit as it decays alongside Yoko Ono's study of a wizened apple. And had it been possible, one might even have explored a connection– if only because of the intimacy of the ideas – between Sam's film commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery of David Beckham asleep and John and Yoko's famous Bed-In for peace.

I am aware, too, of a deeper overlap in the lives of the two women. They are survivors. Somehow, Yoko has lived through Lennon's assassination (on 8 December 1980). Sam has coped with cancer (colonic and breast). Each woman has experienced painful separation. Forty-five-year-old Sam's father then mother left her when she was a child. Yoko's daughter Kyoko was abducted by her second husband, American art promoter Tony Cox, when she was eight and Yoko did not see her again until Kyoko was 31. Yoko also had to weather the disapproval of conservative, aristocratic parents when she first got together with Lennon. They put out a press release saying: "We are not proud of Yoko Ono." On a more trivial level, there is the older woman tag they have had to live with – Yoko was seven years older than John; Sam Taylor-Wood is more than twice the age of 22-year-old Aaron Johnson, who played John Lennon in her film and is father to two of Sam's four daughters. There is going to be so much to talk about.

But the conversation begins with a present Sam has brought for Yoko, wrapped in bright tissue paper: a Japanese tea cup and "salty caramel" chocolates from Cocomaya in Bayswater. Sam has persuaded the shop to sell her the cup that was not for sale. How did she pull that off? "I can be persuasive," she says, and one sees this is true. "I love chocolate," exults Yoko. The teacup, Sam explains, reminds her of the last time they saw each other at Yoko's home, in New York, overlooking Central Park. Yoko pours tea into her cup ("I like strong green tea") and I ask how they first met and we begin:

STW I met Yoko before she knew who I was – at an exhibition in Islington.

KK But you met properly through the film?

YO Let me tell you how I met Sam, because it is important people understand about how these things happen. She was probably in a difficult situation like I was in when I made the Yes painting in 1966 [you had to walk up a ladder, with a magnifying glass, to find the word "Yes"]. I was in a totally difficult situation in my life and I thought: what I need is a Yes, and so I put the word on the ceiling. I never thought it was about to change my whole life by 180 degrees.

STW Amazing how positive a word can be.

YO It was that Yes painting that brought John into the gallery. He saw it and said great. Because the thing is that, unbeknown to everyone, John was going through some hard times too and feeling alone. I was feeling totally alone too.

KK And are you saying that Sam needed a yes too?

YO Yes. She had so much talent and incredible energy. She wanted me to give her the rights to use John's anthem Mother in her film. I thought, I'd like to see that film and was flabbergasted by it because it was so beautiful. But I must have a very strong prejudice about Englishwomen because I thought, how can a woman make this thing? It was a very bad way of reacting. And then I saw her and she is not a teenager but looked like a teenager and I thought, what is she doing? This is a miracle. I was impressed. Since then, I have got to know her way of life and it is incredible. Did you know there is a very old idea in China that a woman can keep on having a child every four years? And if she keeps on doing it, she can go on for ever – until she is 80 or 90?

KK You'd have a lot of children.

STW I am happy with four.

YO No [laughs], but the idea to remember is that women have the power. I am not trying to have a baby myself but people might say: she is 80, she does not have to do anything any more. And yet we can do anything we want. We have such freedom with our bodies.


KK Yoko's Smiles and Sam's Crying Men share emotional directness. How important is it?

STW Emotional directness is imperative. It is so exciting to see [work from Yoko's retrospective] To the Light, which is so emotionally direct. To see the footprints of John and Yoko walking up the room made me well up. And I think something as simple, beautiful and elegant is what has been lost somewhere. I have not seen anything like it for a while and I need to see it. In the current climate, people want to feel more.

YO I think Sam has been a little bit lonely. You see, when you become very famous, other people talk to you and they are not really friends. What you need to share is not what they want to hear from you… although you try to be truthful.

STW I think so.


KK Sam's film of David Beckham asleep; Yoko's Cut Piece (1964), where she allowed people to snip off her clothes until she was naked involved trusting and being trusted. Another affinity?

YO I trust myself. You need that to survive. And how we are surviving is like almost drowning in a tsunami, a big wave. To come out of that, you have to trust yourself.

STW Although I had met Yoko socially, we did not have a relationship where I could talk to her about Nowhere Boy. So I wrote to tell her about it and asked: Is there anything you want to say to me? Her response was to trust. No interference at all. And she said something so simple to me that it makes me cry. You said [to Yoko]: "John loved Aunt Mimi and Aunt Mimi loved John and that is all that you have to think about when you make this film." That was my guiding light through the film. And there was trust between us.

YO I really think John would have loved the film.

KK The emotional centre of it seems to be a line where John says about his mother: "There is no point hating someone you love."

YO That is beautiful. It is very difficult for us to know we love somebody because it is an insecure position to be in. But in the end, it is important to be honest about your love because life is not that long…


KK John was separated from his mother; Sam's mother left her when she was small. Yoko's daughter was abducted.

YO With my daughter, the thing that was done was done. I can't be too hooked on that. But now I am very happy she is around because we have a good dialogue.

STW Relationships can go wrong very simply, very quickly, and when you have children you become more aware of relationships around you. I had to repair the relationship with my mother. I couldn't afford to be angry or feel anything apart from: I need you back in my life. And it is not easy.

YO No, it is not easy.

STW I remember Yoko saying that if you hold on to anger and hate, it physically affects you. And if you think on a global scale about Yoko's messages of peace and her peace tower in Iceland, it is all about projection of hope and love. You have to do it on a grassroots level to be able to do it on a global level.

KK But, realistically, are you serious – what chance do we hopeless human beings have of achieving peace?

YO The reason we will make it is because we are people who have a tremendous talent to conquer negativity. I really think we will do it. The reason I had to learn about this was when John passed away. I would see the mirror in the morning and I looked terrible. And I would think: oh my God, I can't be looking like this for Sean even. So then I thought, why don't I just smile? And when I smiled at the mirror, it was phoney but I kept doing it and, finally, the smile started to come from my body and was very good. But also the funny thing is that, in the 60s, I had this vision of everyone in the world smiling together. People might have thought it was a kooky idea. But we are doing it now [in Smile film, part of the retrospective]. It is amazing, isn't it? It will be very good for healing.


YO May I say something I really want printed? Countries have lost their culture because what they wanted was money. Money became the running theme in every country and culture was sacrificed. With the Olympics coming to England, we can show people what life is about. It will be so good for this country – which I have always felt was a very spiritual country – because of John mainly, but even before John too. There is too much focus on billionaires when this is a country of poets. Let us go back to that! What we need is spiritual energy.

KK And yet you both have tremendous physical energy and use your bodies in your work. I was interested that Yoko once said this was narcissism. Did you really mean that?

YO What is wrong with narcissism? We need to take care of ourselves.

STW I love the idea that Yoko can be a trailblazer of narcissism. I find that I put my body in my work when I am at a particularly difficult or joyous point because I want to feel that moment.

YO I was evacuated during the war and it was very hard because I did not have much to eat. My mother would visit from Tokyo for a day or two and what she said was: "You are a good writer. Why don't you write about this? It could be like Gone With the Wind, but more interesting." From then on, I was always writing in my mind. It is important never to be totally involved – so a part of me is always in a corner from where I am watching myself.


KK How are you seen as artists?

YO Women artists are still treated differently from men.

STW I had a difficult scenario recently with an American gallerist. He said: "I'd like to show your work, but I don't know, now that you have four children, whether you are as strong an artist any more."

YO Oh my God – I can't believe it.

STW I was so struck by what he said, I found myself being defensive. He then listed all these men artists and said: "How can you compete?" I said: "But they have children too."

YO And what did he say?

STW And he said: "Of course they do, but does it affect their work in the way it will probably affect yours?"

YO No! You are not competing against anybody. When I was 21 and we had a university party, I remember a guy saying: "You are pretty now but in 40 years you are going to look like a fat Spanish woman."

KK How wrong he was! What do you both think of the New York art scene compared with London?

STW I feel the art world in New York has a stronger following than Britain. If you go to a New York art district on a Saturday morning, it will be so busy with families and openings – art is much more ingrained in the culture.

YO I don't know, it goes up and down. I think London, from the US point of view, is really happening now.


KK Both of you have been defined by men – Yoko on a mind-boggling scale. Is it fair to define anyone through their sexual relationships?

STW It is – in a way. I am happily defined by my relationship with Aaron. It is a big part of who I am and I can't allow people to come at me and attack.

YO In my relationship with John, it is complicated. I would like to think of John as independent and not just my partner because he was an incredible guy and with his independence and creativity, he will do a lot of good for the world. And he has. What I am doing is different from John. Together, we created an incredible, powerful image, but it would not have been unless we had been independent of one another. And we were.


KK You have both experienced tremendous loss in your life – how far does adversity feed your art?

STW Art is my way of controlling it, not allowing it to take over my life. Sometimes, I get afraid it has defined me, that sense of grief, loss and illness. But actually, it is about allowing myself to take hold and say: this is part of who I am, but not only who I am.

YO I say in a British way that everything is a "blessing in disguise", though sometimes I wish the disguise was less thick.

KK How often do you think of yourselves in terms of your ages?

YO I don't. Only the outside world makes me think about it.

STW I was about to say exactly the same thing. It is not something I get up and think about.

KK I don't know if Yoko got a hard time for being seven years older than John – but I suppose that was always a mere nothing compared to the 20 years or so between Sam and Aaron?

YO She topped me!

STW I am not ever aware of it in my relationship. I don't think about it. I never think: if only I were 25….

YO We don't want to be 25 again, do we? [laughs].


KK How often do either of you find yourselves wishing you could be anonymous?

YO: Celebrity helps me communicate my work, so I don't think that.

STW Anonymity would be a fantastic umbrella. I don't like intrusion.

KK What matters most to you?

STW The simplest things: love, trust and…

YO The first word that came to me is health; spiritual, mental and physical. But also without love and trust, you will not have health. When people ask me what the most important thing is in life, I answer: just breathe.

STW And that is amazing because that feels like the essence of so much of your work. When you look at something like the films, there is such humour and simplicity. But I want to tell you how I saw Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band perform in LA. It is one of the most extraordinary things I have seen. I wrote her a fan letter afterwards. It was almost shamanistic.

YO [laughs] Maybe!

STW You are very upfront with your emotions. And I was surprised because I had thought: she must be fed up with being defined by John sometimes. But you ran films of him and he is still very much with you and a part of your work.

YO Yes… always together.

STW And I felt proud of you for being there and still integrating John into your life and also having Sean on stage. I watched him looking at you with loving pride. You have helped me to define myself. People want to know: are you a film-maker now or an artist? I just say: "It is me and I am a creative person." Yoko makes music, films, sculptures. Sometimes you can't be defined as one thing.

YO Don't censor yourself!

STW And I feel that having my children is as creative as – and more challenging than – making a film.


KK Did it change your art?

YO No, although I was not prepared to have my daughter and I was amazed: is this what women go through? We were never told. But from her, I learned to be grounded, which is good.

STW I felt giving birth was the most creative act of all my creative acts – literally creation!

YO We are goddesses, creating the human race!

STW We are – and it is as powerful as anything you could ever do. Being a mother is part of my work and world.

KK Tell me this then: why be an artist at all?

YO Because that is who I am. I didn't try to be – but I was always an artist.

STW I tried not to be, but I couldn't be anything else. I tried many other things but I didn't know what being an artist meant other than being myself.

YO Yes. It is exactly the same with me.

As she stands up, Sam says the conversation has been "inspiring". Yoko is still sparking – ready to talk all day now, it seems – but the conversation is almost over. I have one last question as a post-script: would they have got on if they had met as children?

They were, they agree, isolated little girls. Yoko has "no idea" but wonders whether they might have "pushed" each other around. She remembers: "I was always very much myself" and, looking at Sam, asks: "Were you?" Sam replies: "I was fiercely independent but I really wanted friends." And Yoko starts to laugh: "How good it would have been to have an intelligent friend."

Yoko Ono: To the Light is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 from 19 June to 9 September © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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June 08 2012

Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 08 2012

The Beatles on the road, 1964-1966 – in pictures

Photographer Harry Benson was granted access to the Beatles' inner sanctum in the mid-60s. Take a look at his intimate portraits of a band on the cusp of world domination

March 09 2010

Annie Leibovitz keeps photo rights in debt deal

Agreement with private equity owners of Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch will pay off celebrity photographer's previous $15m loan

Top photographer Annie Leibovitz has struck a deal with a private equity firm that will solve the financial crisis that threatened her with bankruptcy last year.

Under the agreement, Los Angeles-based Colony Capital will become Leibovitz's sole creditor. Colony will provide Leibovitz with a loan to pay off her previous borrowings, and work with her on future projects.

Crucially, the deal means that Leibovitz will retain the rights to more than 100,000 photos taken during a career which includes famous images of Demi Moore, Bruce Springsteen, and John Lennon – taken on the day he died.

Leibovitz's finances hit trouble last year, and by February 2009 she had borrowed $15.5m (£10.3m) from Art Capital Group, a company that lends money to art owners. To secure the loans she put up the rights to all her photographs as collateral, along with several houses she owned. But the deal quickly turned sour. In July, lawyers for Art Capital Group claimed that Leibovitz had reneged on a promise to sell her back catalogue to repay her debts, and sued her for $24m.

Media reports claimed Leibovitz was facing bankruptcy, but the two sides eventually reached an agreement to extend the lifetime of the loans. It appears that the deal with Colony will allow the celebrity snapper to pay off Art Capital Group without losing control of her life's work.

"Colony is a dedicated and creative team," said Leibovitz, according to the Financial Times. "We will be working on new projects and I will have the support and freedom necessary for nurturing my work and preserving my archive."

Colony is more usually involved with property deals. In 2008 it bought a loan on Michael Jackson's Neverland ranch, which left it with the rights to the 2,700-acre California estate.

Tom Barrack, who founded Colony, said his company would be "partners in managing her assets and her business so that Annie can spend her time and focus in pursuing her passion as only she can do". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 19 2010

Lloyd Webber may buy Abbey Road

Composer says it is 'vital' to save recording venue made famous by the Beatles amid concern EMI may sell them

Andrew Lloyd Webber says he is "very interested" in buying Abbey Road studios, saying it is "vital for the future of the music industry in the UK" to save the north London venue where he and the Beatles laid down much of their work.

A spokesman for the composer and impressario said he first recorded there in 1967 with Tim Rice. "Abbey Road has such great facilities, with three major recording studios, and Andrew has probably brought more musicians to record there than anyone else, because it has the capacity to record large orchestral productions."

Lloyd Webber threw his hat into the ring to save the studios, which gave their name to a Beatles album, as concern grew over cash-strapped EMI's plan to sell them.

Sir Paul McCartney has raised hopes that someone will buy them (although hasn't promised to try himself) and the National Trust, already the owner of the childhood homes of McCartney and John Lennon, has expressed cautious interest after DJ Chris Evans suggested it should step in.

The government has promised to fast-track a long-standing recommendation from English Heritage that the 19th century building should be officially listed. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 28 2009

Something about Sam

She was abandoned by her parents and has survived cancer twice. She was a star of Britart, but is now making feature films. She was happily married – now she is happily dating a man half her age. Sam Taylor-Wood opens up to Simon Hattenstone

When Sam Taylor-Wood first read the script of Nowhere Boy, it felt as if somebody had got hold of her guts and squeezed them tight. The story of John Lennon's childhood was uncomfortably close to home: Lennon's mother, Julia, had walked out on him when he was five, just as Taylor-Wood's had walked out on her. A strange coincidence, but hardly unique. She read on. And that's when things got weird. Lennon, who barely knew his father, discovered years later that his mother had not moved away as he had thought – she was living down the road. When Taylor-Wood was 15, six months after her mother left, she saw a woman down the street opening her blinds – it was her mother in the house she shared with her boyfriend.

Little did Taylor-Wood realise when she started making the film that things were to get weirder still. Nowhere Boy is about Lennon's relationship with the two older women in his life – his aunt Mimi, the disciplinarian who brought him up, and Julia, the promiscuous mother who let him go. Mimi, wonderfully played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is all tough love and pursed-lipped disapproval, while Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) is a good-time girl desperate to dance the night away with the dangerous young man who just happens to be her son.

It's a wet March day in Pinner, Harrow, which is doubling up as suburban Liverpool, and the sun is refusing to shine. Taylor-Wood is crouched behind the monitor. With her blond hair plaited over her head and yellow-laced trainers, she looks like a little girl. Whenever the rain comes, she runs inside the house, arm in arm with 19-year-old Aaron Johnson, who plays Lennon. They dance and laugh like teenagers in love. I've never been on a film set with such a strange atmosphere. While the rest of the cast and crew are welcoming, Taylor-Wood and Johnson seem oblivious to the world. They are wearing matching padded jackets – hers has the initials STW stitched into the back, his has AJ. I ask Taylor-Wood if everybody has them. She smiles. "No, only me and Aaron. They all know who the top dogs are on this set."

Seven months later, I meet Taylor-Wood again, at her east London studio. So much has happened in the meantime: the movie has been finished, Taylor-Wood and Johnson are an item and the tabloids have had a field day. Some columnists give her the thumbs up, celebrate the older woman and tell us that the 42-year-old will provide a great education for 19-year-old Johnson. Others label her a cradle snatcher, ask what they could possibly have to talk about, and suggest that when they dine out, they do so in dimly-lit restaurants so she can disguise her wrinkles.

The studio is bright, airy and full of favourite photographs, some of them her own. There are pictures of her children looking cool and gorgeous – Angelica, who is 12, and three-year-old Jessie ("She's a cutie little munchkin"); Taylor-Wood with Paul Newman looking cool and gorgeous ("I'd like to say that's my grandad, and doesn't he look like Paul Newman, but it's not"); Lee Marvin, Johnny Cash and the Beatles, all of them looking cool and gorgeous. There is a photograph of a hunched, diffident fox called Freya staring into the camera, which Taylor-Wood likes to think of as a self-portrait. Her friends the Pet Shop Boys rent a studio from her downstairs – she recorded the song I'm In Love With A German Film Star with them, and starred in the accompanying video. There are a series of photographs of the artist in knickers and T-shirt dangling at impossible angles from the back of a chair. She looks spontaneous and childlike, but they're elaborately constructed, requiring her to wear a number of airbrushed harnesses.

She introduces me to Johnson, who is hanging round the studio. He's got a pretty, boyish face, great hair and a bumfluff beard. They have just returned from Los Angeles and are jet lagged. "Try and get some sleep," she tells him gently as we disappear upstairs for the interview.

Once we're alone, she morphs into Freya the fox. She hunches her shoulders, hugs her knees, nibbles at some chocolate and stares at the tape recorder. "That makes me feel even more uncomfortable. I woke up at 2am today and I feel so inarticulate. I'm the perfect fodder for an interview."

At the same time, while she tells me about her experience in LA, I begin to see just how tough she can be. "I did four of my 10 meetings and just thought: I don't want to be here. So I cancelled them." At what point did she walk out? "It was when someone said, 'We're interested in making dramadies.' I said, 'What the fuck's a dramady?' 'It's a drama comedy.' The combination of the two words made me think: I'm in the wrong place. It's all motivated by box-office returns, and I'll never be able to make the kind of film I want to make next."

Taylor-Wood is new to the movies. Nowhere Boy is her first feature. She has made one short film, about two schoolchildren who fall in lust to the Buzzcocks. The aspiring punks in Love You More chat coyly before snogging, gobbing and shagging with furious intensity. It's a surprisingly explicit film – one that verges on the voyeuristic.

As an artist used to calling the shots, Taylor-Wood was amazed by how many people get a say in a feature film. "The minute you go into certain realms and budgets... I don't want to use the word control, but you lose control." She smiles. She may not like to admit it, but she knows just how controlling she is. She is even controlling about the use of the word control. (For the shoot to go with this interview, she decided on the look, called in the clothes and chose the photographer.)

When Taylor-Wood emerged in the 90s as a photographer/video artist, her work was fixated on decay, madness and death. In Method In Madness, a man laughs, sweats and screams. In Hysteria, a young woman mimes hysterical laughter. In Breach, a girl sits on a floor and cries and sniffs in silence. These films don't have a beginning, middle or end, and are all but unwatchable. In Brontosaurus, a naked man dances like crazy to classical music. In Knackered, a naked woman mimes badly to opera. Many of these films rely on visual puns and unlikely juxtapositions, and cry out for meaning where none exists. Some of the work is rather beautiful – in Still Life, a painterly bowl of fruit decays in time lapse; in Ascension, a man balances a dove on his head while tap dancing over a dead body; and in Pieta she cradles a Christ-like Robert Downey Jr on darkened steps.

Films such as Hysteria look as if they have been made by somebody with psychosis, I tell her. She flinches. "I probably did have that at the time. I often joke that I straddle psychosis and neurosis, and that being an artist keeps me in the middle, so I can work between the two."

In The Crying Men, Taylor-Wood took photographs of 28 famous actors weeping. She has often played with the idea of celebrity: she made a short film of David Beckham sleeping that was fascinating, largely because Beckham is Beckham and we get to ogle him while he's asleep; and one of her best videos was for the Elton John song I Want Love – there is something poignant in the image of a solitary Downey Jr (again) walking through the empty rooms of a mansion miming the words to the song. At times, however, Taylor-Wood seems obsessed with celebrity – there are few A-listers who haven't been snapped at one time or another in her company – and she is probably more famous for her friends (her 40th birthday party was shared with Elton John, who was celebrating his 60th), her former husband (last year she divorced art dealer Jay Jopling) and her suffering (she has had cancer twice) than she is for her art.

Taylor-Wood was born in London in 1967. When she was nine, her chartered surveyor father who became the treasurer of Hells Angels, left home. For a few years she lived in a commune with her hippy, yoga-teaching mother until she, too, abandoned her at 15. "She left a message with me to give to my stepdad. It just said, I'm moving out, I'll come back for you lot [her younger sister and brother] when I'm settled. I find it difficult to talk about – not for the fact that it kicks off emotional feelings, but more because I'm trying to repair my relationship with my mum, so I feel the more it keeps coming up, the more it sets us back."

Isn't making a film with a similar story going to set them back? "I hope not. My mum has lived in Australia for 22 years now, and we have a rocky relationship. But at the same time it's one I want to maintain. I need her to be my mum. The relationship took a lot of rebuilding."

Did her mother ever come back for her? "Ummm... no, I didn't live with her again after that." And did she ever have it out with her? "No, we never had the conversation – it's sort of out there in the world and we haven't dealt with it."

As a child, she says, she lacked confidence. Was she smart? "No, I was a total thickie. I just about scraped through with five CSEs first time round and no O-levels. Grade 4 maths, that's thick, that's me. I was really stupid." So how did she get into college? "Gift of the gab. I re-sat some, got three O-levels, scraped through, grade Cs."

She managed to get to poly, and from there went on to Goldsmiths, the south-east London art school that spawned a generation of British artists. She went out with one of them, Jake Chapman, for nine years, and started to believe in herself. One of her talents was for cultivating friendships and loyalties, and recognising the ability of others who could help her. For example, most of her video work has been made with the great cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who also shot Nowhere Boy. Her previous experience of working with actors doubtless helped her with the film, which is a little drab and sentimental but contains some fine performances.

In 1997, she married Jopling, son of former Tory minister Lord Jopling and the Mr Money of the British art scene. The girl who used to queue up for free school dinners now lived in a huge house off Harley Street with a man worth an estimated £100m. "My life radically altered," she says. "It was all really exciting and new, and I felt for the first time I had got stability. In Jay I had found someone who could provide me with total stability, and I'd not really had that."

Did she enjoy the new wealth? "Money scares me, and it always has done. I've got a childish concept of money, and I like to keep it that way in the sense that I don't like to think about it."

But there must have been times when she wondered how she ended up with quite so much? "No," she says, "because I'm a chameleon – I adjust to things quite well. I don't think like that, I live in the moment, wherever I am in the world."

She says she had a simple deal with Jopling – as her agent, he took 50% of what her work sold for but never told her the figures. "I never wanted to know who was buying my work, or for how much, because I felt it would affect the way I thought about things. I've tried to remain as naive as possible to that kind of thing, which was difficult being married to Jay. I had to fight for that naivety." Again, the controlled innocence.

Just weeks after giving birth to Angelica in 1997, Taylor-Wood was diagnosed with colon cancer. She recovered from that, then in 2000 was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Not surprisingly, the cancer has defined so much of her life and work over the past decade. Famous portraits of her wearing a single-breasted suit and dangling a hare, the celebratory gymnastic photographs and those weeping male A-listers are all commentaries on her illness.

Throughout the three years she spent photographing the crying men, she was unsure why she was doing it. Spending an eternity getting the stars to agree to being photographed, then turning up and asking them to cry, upsetting them and herself in the process, what was the point? It was only on her way home from America that it struck her. "I did it as an exorcism of tears, from not having cried through being ill. I almost never cry, and it's something I don't like about myself. I sometimes try and make myself cry. Sometimes, when I'm in pain, I say if I could just cry it would make it so much easier.

"I think that's why I made 28 men cry instead. I always say that my work is ahead of me three steps. With hindsight, I was sitting there with people who'd cry my tears for me. I suppose I didn't cry in all the cancer crap stuff because I felt I couldn't lose the battle, and part of the battle was holding myself together."

The cancer toughened her up. "It's like this core of steel I developed to deal with it, where I just had to feel impenetrable." Could friends cope with the change in her? "I think, over time, people found it more difficult. When you're no longer ill, and everyone's gotten over the fact that you've had cancer, that core of steel doesn't go away, and then I had to find other channels for it."

She came out harder? "I don't necessarily think harder, but I do think you're more free about where you want to be in life. Time is precious."

Last year Taylor-Wood and Jopling announced their separation. The stability she once craved was no longer a priority. This January, Jopling was photographed canoodling with 23-year-old pop star Lily Allen, the daughter of his friend, the actor Keith Allen. Four months later, the gossip columns announced that Taylor-Wood had gone one better than Jopling. Whereas he had dated a girl 22 years his junior, she was with a boy 23 years younger. It seemed as if they were in competition with each other, I say. She looks appalled. "God, no. No. No. As difficult as everything we've been through has been, Jay and I have retained a friendship and respect for each other, so I wouldn't be like that with him."

Is she surprised by how things have worked out with Johnson? "I'm not surprised, I'm happy," she says. "We've been living together for ages... since about March."

Is it weird that Johnson is in effect stepfather to her daughter Angelica, who plays his sister in Nowhere Boy? "I don't know – you'll have to ask him. They get on really well, and the little one loves him. It all felt strangely natural."

Did it make it harder or easier to make the film? "I managed to hold off really until almost the end of the film." I remind her of the day I came to watch them shooting and say I felt like a gooseberry. "Really? That's funny. We weren't even together then. Maybe feelings were there but unacted upon. The thing is, we had quite a psychic link when we were working together. I knew from a flicker of an eyelash what kind of performance I was going to get. I felt that link almost from day one of meeting him." She insists that her friends see nothing unusual in the relationship. Does she seriously think that they are not whispering among themselves? Again, she looks aghast. "My friends? I definitely know they're not thinking like that because they know me too well. They know I've always lived my life by my own rules and fearlessly. Why would I be any different now?"

Has she ever thought she's maybe having a midlife crisis? "No, I don't think like that ever. Ever. As I say, I've always lived my life as fearlessly as possible. And going through all the crap I've been through, I don't really listen to other people's opinions, just follow my heart and my instincts." She's desperate for the interview to end but there's still so much I want to know.

Is she happier than before? "I won't say that because I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but I am very happy, yeah." She makes quote marks with her fingers. "'She said grinning like an idiot.' Oh my God, are we nearly through?"

Jopling still lives in the massive house, and Taylor-Wood now lives nearby in celebrity-strewn Primrose Hill. Will she claim 50% of his money and art? "No, nothing like that. I don't want any battle on that front. We're all done and settled and fine."

Does her relationship with Johnson feel like it's for ever? "Yeah, it does." Does she think they'll have kids? "Oh, don't ask me questions like that. Come on, let's finish. Oh yes, we've finished!" A week later they announce they're getting married.

On the way out, there's one thing she wants to clarify. "I keep seeing in the papers that I am good friends with Samantha Cameron. I've never met her in my life." Perhaps people assume she is because she's friendly with every celeb in the world? "Not everyone," she chides. "I've not met Barack Obama yet. Hehehe. Yeah, that'll be next."

Downstairs, we meet up with Johnson. I tell him that my younger daughter loves a film he starred in last year, but I've forgotten the name. He looks embarrassed, as if Angus, Thongs And Full-Frontal Snogging was a lifetime ago. "Yes, I think I know which one you mean," he says, like a veteran with 100 movies under his belt. He puts his arm round Taylor-Wood, she puts her arm around him and they start to kiss.

"Let's go," she says. And off they skip down the street, two kids, blissfully happy.

Nowhere Boy is released on 26 December. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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