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Amy Winehouse by Blake Wood
Plantation Beach, Saint Lucia 2009Courtesy of Blake Wood

The stories behind unseen photos of Amy Winehouse by her best friend

Blake Wood’s intimate photos show Winehouse in moments of tranquillity, simply being Amy

In the winter of January 2008, a 24-year-old Amy Winehouse, then living amidst the success of Back to Black (2006), read the fortune of 22-year-old American photographer Blake Wood with a deck of playing cards. They had only met that day in the home of Kelly Osbourne, and early in the tarot, Winehouse drew an ace of hearts. As a card, it represents the birth of new love and the start of an emotionally fulfilling period. As a symbol, it represented the friendship the duo would form for the rest of Winehouse’s life: an enduring, endearingly close platonic companionship that would see Winehouse through some of her hardest times. “That symbol in itself reminds me of her,” Wood recounts. “Obviously she had that as a tattoo as well – I have that tattoo now too. It ties so much into one symbol.” This story aside, there were many intricate coincidences that indicated the duo were destined to be friends: Amy Winehouse had an ace of hearts tattoo on her wedding finger, Wood shared the same name as Winehouse’s then incarcerated husband, Blake Fielder, and much like the whole world, Back to Black had helped Wood through a break-up.

“She was someone who could go personal very quick... Though it never felt inauthentic, it felt right, it felt like she meant it” – Blake Wood

Over the next two years, Wood spent time photographing Winehouse when she was at peace with the world: the real Amy in moments where she was able to simply be away from the frenzy of her fame and fortune. From candid portraits on nights out bowling in Soho, or at the pub in Camden, to intimate portraits of the self-actualised star living in tranquillity on the island escape of Saint Lucia, Wood’s portraits inevitably change the conversation around Winehouse as an icon. Now, 10 years on since the photos were taken, over 100 portraits along with Wood’s intricate detailing of their friendship is soon to be released in a photobook by Wood titled Amy Winehouse. Starting with an ace of hearts, the book is Wood’s poetic ode to the friendship that changed his life forever.

Ahead of the book’s release, Wood recounts the rarity of their kinship, and shines a sensitive light on the real Winehouse.

Blake Wood: Meeting Amy was quite unexpected. We ran in the same circles so it was bound to happen, but I didn’t expect it that night at all. It was a Sunday evening. She was like a rare bird that came down the stairs. She had blonde hair then so while I knew it was her, it also wasn’t the persona I was used to seeing. It was quite a moment. She was someone who could go personal very quick, so she asked me personal questions straight away. Though it never felt inauthentic, it felt right, it felt like she meant it. We went deep quickly, speaking about heartbreak. She was a character, she was so funny. And I can think of many different things that made me laugh, laugh, laugh. I was so shy then, so she would bring me out of my shell and poke fun at my shyness. I feel like we both were kind of this unique type of persona. She was much more extroverted than I am, but we were shy in similar ways. I kind of hid behind my hair and she would bring me out, always telling me how handsome I was.

“Seeing Amy perform in a way was like two different people. There was the person I knew and then there was the performer with this incredible voice and talent to channel emotion and words in a way that very few people can and have done. It was always something that struck me.  It was beautiful to see her in her element. Music was her release. I always envied that ability to express emotion vocally and physically through playing music. That ability to have that release and to channel that emotion in that way is probably unlike anything else that a human can do. So I encouraged her to do that. And she could take any instrument and play around. Even if she wasn’t great at it she would still do it and have fun and still express through her music. In the photo where she plays the drums, she was playing along to The Shirelles and the Shanghri-Las at her house. We listened to the girl groups and she played along, it was fun. 

“Amy really believed in me, in my eye, before I even understood it and before I even rated myself as someone who could take a good photo, or even take any photo” – Blake Wood

“In the black and white portrait of Amy on a horse, we were riding by this really beautiful bay on this dirt road, horse trail in Saint Lucia. There were no houses, no buildings, nothing. We’d reached the end of it and we were turning around to go back to the resort just us on our horses. It was a really beautiful day, so calm. So I turned and took that photo as we were heading back. Living on the island was like another world. It was very isolating at times as the waves of tourists would come and go. Then we’d be just us again. She went there multiple times even before we went. It was full of turquoise water, beautiful weather, and gorgeous beaches. It was a very unique time but very healing, and we got to really, really know each other. There was no distraction around us, it was just us. It was a step back from the media frenzy and the attention and pressure of her career that enabled us to really just kind of ‘be’. That made me happy for her to just sort of see her ‘be’.

“Amy really believed in me, in my eye, before I even understood it and before I even rated myself as someone who could take a good photo, or even take any photo. She instilled that in me and pushed me to make work and pushed me to be creative. That was a big thing that changed me. I think when you are that close with someone, and you lose them in your 20s it teaches you a lot very young. It teaches you about life. I grew up very fast after that. She taught me a lot about love, loss and creativity, and being true and authentic to your craft and your eye and your vision. 

“With these photos, I want to change the conversation around Amy. I think even when I was with her at that time, among all that press, among all the questions and all the judgement, I always tried to instil in people who she was at her core, and not any of these other things that they were trying to create. And also to relay that this is a health crisis. This is someone struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and the fact that we’re exploiting that and not seeing it for what it is and not saying like, ‘hey, this person needs help.’ Instead of 100 of us taking her photo, why don’t we actually ask her if she’s okay, if she needs help? The lack of humanity was really tough for me at the time, and even more now I think it’s important that we’re kinder to each other and that we really focus on people’s strengths and celebrate them, and stop judging each other so harshly. 

“There are so many layers to the impact Amy has left on this world. Her immediate impact was through her music and it still is to this day. If her songs come on it still strikes a chord in anybody because of her ability to connect people to their emotions through her voice and through her lyrics. That’s a gift in itself. And I think her story, in general, is a reminder that people should check in on those around them and see how they’re doing and not judge others. Even her image in the press, as negative as it was and as difficult as it was for me to see, and as much as I wanted to do something to make it stop, I do see now there was an aspect of it that was important because it connected people to a reality of what’s going on in the world. We all know someone that has issues with substances, whether it’s a friend of a friend or a family member. And I think with the press saturation, we couldn’t shy away from it. And as much as I wouldn’t and didn’t want that reality for her, I kind of see the bigger picture of it now. She overcame a lot of that, and I think these images speak of that.”

Amy Winehouse by Blake Wood will be released on July 23. You can buy the book here