‘She looked infinitely better than us in the video’ … Paula Yates on the private plane. Photograph: Midge Ure
‘She was coming with us to write about the making of the video for Vienna. She was a natural poser. All I had to do was point the camera and press the button’
The Guardian-Interview by Dave Simpson
When I joined Ultravox I had a little happy-snap camera, the kind that everybody owned in those days. But I was fascinated by 35mm models, how you looked through the lens and the world was slightly different. So in 1980, I bought myself a Canon A-1.
Back then, Ultravox had a thing about not having photographers around, so there were very few casual backstage shots. When I toured with Thin Lizzy in the late 70s and early 80s, they had photographer Chalkie Davies with them, documenting everything. Ultravox found all that a bit intrusive, so we started taking photographs of the backstage stuff ourselves.
Because of our music and the graphics and imagery, the band were considered po-faced scientists. Nobody ever saw how geeky or stupid we got, or how bored we were between the shows. There’s that famous Charlie Watts quote about how his first 25 years in the Rolling Stones was “five years playing, 20 years hanging around”. I photographed our hanging around. I was – and am – simply a happy amateur, but you get better the more you do it and realise what works.
Paula had developed this coquettish manner but was incredibly intelligent – she’s probably reading Kafka
I took this shot of Paula Yates on the plane to Austria to shoot the video for the song Vienna. The budget was £17,000, which was reasonably expensive back then, but nothing like the sort of silliness that came later with the advent of MTV. Because of our love of film noir, we insisted on shooting the Vienna promo on 16mm film. Digital video was just coming in, but it looked cheap and electronic, whereas with film we could replicate the grainy effect of old films and photos. We cropped the screen at the top and bottom to make it look cinematic. None of this had been done on pop videos before.
It was a one-day shoot and we flew over in the morning. It was cheaper to rent a private plane than to fly the band, plus Paula, plus Anton Corbijn – it was one of the few times we had a photographer with us – and the film crew. All the bands knew Paula through Bob Geldof and her writing for Record Mirror. We all loved her dearly so had asked her along to write about the video shoot. But the thing with having someone like Paula travelling with you is that she was such a natural-born poser. She wouldn’t sit normally. She’d always sit with a hand draped over one shoulder or be doing something fabulous. All I really had to do was point the camera and press the button.
The tricky part of getting this shot with the plane window behind her was getting her lit, because all the light was coming from one side. She should have been in shadow, a silhouette. I needed to expose the near side of her face with just enough light coming through the windows on the other side of what was a very small plane. All the photographers I admired used natural light, so I captured her just as the light didn’t quite burn her out. In those days, you couldn’t look at a digital screen on the back of your camera to see the results like you can today. You’d take a few shots, make adjustments, but there was a bit of guesswork.
The fact that she’s in profile, with the light behind, makes her look a bit heavenly
I’m not sure what book she’s reading. She had developed this coquettish manner, but she was incredibly intelligent. So she’s probably reading Kafka or something. She wrote for Record Mirror in a PG Wodehouse style: very observational with a brilliant, comedic turn of phrase. Warren Cann, our Canadian drummer, could fall asleep anywhere, and she wrote: “He’d obviously been bitten by a tsetse fly, because he was constantly curled up in a corner.”
I think she was completely oblivious to the fact that I was taking the photo. This is just how she was. I took some more shots of her in a graveyard where we were shooting the video. She was wrapped up in this furry muff and looked like a Russian princess. She looked infinitely better than any of us who were actually in the video.
This shot has a haunting side, but maybe that’s just because she’s no longer with us. Also, the fact she’s in profile with the light behind her makes her look a bit heavenly. To me it looks like something you’d see in Vogue, but it was just a shot taken in a moment. I’m not even sure she ever saw it.
Midge Ure’s CV
Born Glasgow, 1953.
Trained Happy amateur.
Influences Oscar Marzaroli, David Bailey, George Hurrell.
High point “A session with Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, where I was the subject.”
Low point “Just about every session with tabloid photographers wanting you to do something cheesy.”
Top tip “Always have your camera or phone charged – to grab the fleeting moment.”