Tony Briggs is a long-time friend of Merc whose career as a photographer has seen him move from a schoolboy capturing his friends and the Mod scene of his native North East as he grew up, to working with, and capturing some of the biggest names in music and entertainment.
His work throughout the 1990s encapsulated a glorious time in British Music , and saw Tony work alongside The Gallaghers, Paul Weller and his iconic shots of Ocean Colour Scene for the Moseley Shoals and Marching Already album covers, images that not only define a period in time, but have also more than stood the test of time.
Tony has shot many of Merc's photographic campaigns, and to this day can be shooting portraits of Ricky Gervais (quoted as saying "that is the best photo I've ever seen") Kate Moss ("there is no way I'm giving you a testimonial") or Sacha Baron Cohen one day, and then a Merc Harrington the next.
Talented and with a great sense of humour (his Instagram page is well worth a follow), Tony's story has been interlinked with Merc's History and the British subcultures we both have in common. We were delighted to sit down to have a catch up with the man himself, and to showcase some of his incredible work.
Tell us about Tony Briggs?
I'm a photographer and director and I've been making a living out of 'taking pictures' since 1988. I'm Sunderland born and bred but moved to London for fame and fortune in 1986. I still have a love/hate relationship with the North East; school was just noise although I did win a few photography competitions as a kid, notably (and anonymously) I won first, second and third in the 1984 Northern Rock Building Society competition but still, after being kicked out of two colleges, in Sunderland and Newcastle, I headed to London, which was always the plan. And after a few labouring jobs I started work as a printer, then into the BBC's darkrooms which eventually led me to getting behind the camera in the studios. I don't often look back.
When did you first develop (see what I did there?) an interest in Photography?
The first camera I picked up (from my Dad from a junk shop when I was about 10 ) was a Beirette, a very basic but beautifully made East German 35mm fixed lens camera (I remember it's perfect black shiny leather case). Messing on with this and being heavily influenced by all things 60s since been very young led me to photography. That and the fact that I could hardly read or write, I was an idiot at a crap school, I missed dyslexia by about 10 years. So 'pictures' were the only way forward.
Were you immediately showing signs of promise behind the lens?
I was always pretty good with a camera right from the off, i just got it and I take pictures the same way now as I did then. The trick being to see the picture in my head before I take it. Then light, compose, expose, focus and take it. Easy. Well it's very easy now, digitally, not so much with film when the shots weren't processed until days after the talent and crew had gone home. The responsibility lay firmly with the photographer so you learned your craft well or you were soon found out.
What led you to capturing images from the youth subcultures?
I started photographing my mod mates at school, us messing about on scooters, getting into trouble, all heavily influenced by 60s record covers and films; The Who, The Small Faces, The Italian Job, Blow Up, Kes, etc and my influences haven't really changed since. A lot of my early work was for record labels and magazines working with bands and musicians and breaking actors and comedians. I've always approached subjects by how I'd like to be photographed myself; painless, short and sweet. Photography, even then, was a piece of cake really, it's a confidence trick that just has to be backed up with good results.
Through the London-based magazines like ID, The Face and LOADED, I was first in with lots of bands and performers: Mother Earth, Portishead, Brand New Heavies and particularly Ocean Colour Scene which went on to be a five year love affair with what I consider to be the best modernist band the UK has ever produced. My work from Moseley Shoals and Marchin Already albums being some of my proudest work. I'm in my fifties now and I would still consider myself a Mod with the same influences and the same attention to detail although I am distinctly left-wing, always have been, I'm not comfortable with the flag waving element of older Mods, especially in recent years, I am in fact ashamed to be English, but that's a rant for another day.
How did your working relationship with Merc first come about?
Looking back to the nineties and all the Britpop stuff with OCS, the Gallaghers and Paul Weller, it was bliss and right in amongst it all, I randomly approached Merc when you were still off Carnaby Street and offered to shoot and produce a catalogue for Javid. This was in 1996 and he agreed to just let me get on with it. So in just a few weeks shooting around our studio in Shoreditch with my wife Alice and a few mates we put together the first Merc catalogue which is some circles has become a design classic. Merc was an institution when I was growing up, I made the trip from Fulwell to Soho a few times to stock up on clobber you couldn't get in Sunderland. And later in the nineties I shopped at Merc regularly with Steve and Damon stocking up for OCS photo-shoots, those were good days man. I still shoot for Merc when I can, Sas and Soraya are old friends have co-sponsored a few personal projects over the years.
Is there a Tong Briggs formula for taking photographs?
Back in the days of film & processing I really loved the technical side of photography, especially in the darkroom. Film had many unique and random looks but digital has levelled the playing field too much I think and everyone seems to make the same Adobe dirge now. So I try to keep things as simple and as 'in camera' as possible with little or no retouching. It's the blurs and the grain and the imperfections that make great pictures I think.
Do you have a personal favourite photograph or collection of images from your back catalogue?
My favourite pictures I think would have to include my '96 merc shoot, my Kes fashion shoot for Loaded, my OCS, Paul Weller and the Gallaghers for Fire & Skill shoot and my portrait work with Kate Moss, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Micky Flanagan, Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais. But the work I've enjoyed most in recent years is with The Spitfires. I've worked with Billy Sullivan since 2015 on their first album 'Response' and we've done some great work together since, particularlywith their latest album 'A Life Worth Living' but I still think the best is yet to come.
How was your 2020 lockdown experience?
I live outside London now in the countryside of North Essex with my wife and daughters and we live a bit of 'the good life', which set us up well for lock-down actually. I try not to over-think things andjust see what comes along.
You're very much a man in demand, and not just by Merc, what's next for Tony Briggs?
It's nice to be able to choose who I work for, usually people I've become good friends with over the years in photography, advertising and telly but after our truly terrible handling of Covid I suspect things will get worse in the creative arts. But what can we do? My mantra has always been the same; work hard, be nice to people and most importantly, be lucky.
Words by Richie Kyle
Pictures © Tony Briggs