Cover stories: issue 104

Photographer Sean Hardy in conversation with Rouleur executive editor Ian Cleverly on his sublime cover image for the Tour de France special issue, out now.

What was the starting point for this cover?

It was you guys who got in touch. I think it was [Rouleur designer] Enric who had the original drawings, sketches of how it would roughly look. The ball was already rolling with it and then props started turning up at the house, and the idea was to capture something that looked like a painting.

Did you study many paintings to get a feel for Enric's idea? What period, and whose work?

I started off searching still life paintings, then ended up around the 1600s, and there was one guy, Pieter Claesz, a Dutch still life painter, and I kept coming back to him. It was quite dark and moody. The composition wasn’t that great, to be honest, but there was something about it.

Everyone has in their head the classic Van Gogh, with the sunflowers and the tones, but it was too obvious. I was trying to find something different, and the 1600s and the stuff around that time really caught my eye. And a lot of it was food-based and set on a table.

When we put everything on the table, I deliberately set it at an odd angle and kind of shot down from above.

You had to decide what to put in and what to leave out, trying various options, because we had way more props that you ended up using. But this was the very first arrangement you tried out, wasn’t it?

When we talked about doing this, we thought about maybe shooting it on film. There’s a famous photographer called Tyler Shields, kind of arty-farty, and a lot of it is fashion stuff. I think he blew up a Rolls Royce... He is known for doing one shot, on film, not taking a hundred shots, like we do on digital. One shot, and what you got was it. And that is the magic of it.

So we talked about that, but with time constraints and sending off film and waiting for it come back, we weren’t able to explore that route in the end.

But ironically, the shot we used was the very first shot in the camera, which never happens to me! We set it up, I stood back, I didn’t take any test shots for lighting or anything, just pressed the shutter.

Amazing. Doesn’t it almost make you want to explore those constraints some more? One shot and out, voila. Easier said than done, of course...

All the great photographers talk about it never being about the camera, but about the eye. So this one, I probably spent more time looking at it, without even touching the camera, than ever. That’s the dream, that’s what we all want to do. But it’s remarkable that it was that first shot.

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The addition of the little suitcase record player was genius. You just happened to have that kicking around?

It was a birthday present from [Sean's partner] Victoria. It was when vinyl was coming back and I had got rid of all my records from when I was a teenager and thought I’d build it back up. I’ve got a proper deck now because, to be honest, that one just scratches everything! It sounds awful. It almost looks like a picnic hamper.

Do you want to tell the sunflowers backstory, because I thought it was hilarious that I ordered fake flowers by accident...

You told me they were on their way, and we both have flower allergies. Victoria said: “Why don’t you get fake ones?” I said you can’t use fakes, they have to be real. They turned up and were fake. But they were the best pretend sunflowers ever though, weren’t they?

And how smelly was that cheese?

A wheel of Sainsburys Brie wasn’t going to cut it. So I went to the local cheese shop in Deal, but they only had a British Brie. We were in the studio a few hours, it wasn’t that hot, packed up and thought, we’ve still got some wine left, why not have some cheese with it? I cut into it, put it into my mouth, and it really stank. Horrendous. Reeked of ammonia. We couldn’t eat it.

Well, you’ve got to suffer for your art. Thank you, Sean. We love it

I liked the comment someone put on my Instagram post saying that when they got the Rouleur email through about the new issue, they were going to frame the cover.

We need to do a print of this one, for sure. Watch this space.

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