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Charles Moriarty’s Before Frank
From Before FrankPhotography Charles Moriarty

Candid photos of a 19-year-old Amy Winehouse in London & NYC

Charles Moriarty shares the stories behind his rarely-seen photographs, taken before Winehouse released her debut album

Back in 2003, when Charles Moriarty was asked by a mutual friend to photograph a local singer by the name of Amy Winehouse, he had no idea of the heights that the honest, self-assured 19-year-old he was introduced to would eventually reach.

The Irish photographer ended up shooting the cover for Amy’s debut album, Frank, with the two striking up a friendship that remained tight for two years until Moriarty moved back to his home country. By the time he was back in London again, the girl from the photos – his friend – was now Amy Winehouse The Star; Moriarty could only watch from a distance as her story unfolded in the public eye.

Last year, almost five years after Amy’s death in 2011, Moriarty shared Before Frank, a book featuring a selection of the photos taken during his time with her. Now, he’s back with a new edition, featuring an introduction from Dazed’s arts and culture editor Ashleigh Kane, a foreword from Amy director Asif Kapadia and an interview with author Martin Belk, as well as more than 50 images from his shoots with the now-iconic artist.

Ahead of an exhibition celebrating the book’s release this Friday at Protein Studios in Shoreditch, we spoke with Moriarty about his time and friendship with Amy – and why he’ll always remember her wicked laugh.  

“It wasn’t to be a projection of a girl in the music industry or a girl releasing her first album, it was just supposed to be Amy” – Charles Moriarty

How did you come to meet and photograph Amy?

Charles Moriarty: A friend of hers – Tyler James – had introduced us. He said:, ‘Can you take some photos of my friend? She’s not managed to get what she wants from other shoots.’ I was like ‘fine, whatever’. My experience then was really just photographing my friends out partying. I would never at that point have considered myself a ‘photographer’.

So, we sat in my kitchen and Amy brought over some of her music for me to listen to – I wanted to get an idea of who I was trying to photograph. She pulled out her make-up box and did up her face. There was a bunch of us there. We headed out – I remember grabbing a bottle of wine from the off-licence – and went down to Princess Street. I think within about 20 minutes we’d done the cover for Frank. Then we wandered up along Brick Lane, up Grimsby Street – which is the shot on the cover of the book – and then up to Old Street. That was the day I met her.

Do you think the fact you were this local, fledgling photographer appealed to her penchant for community and London’s creative circles?

Charles Moriarty: She didn’t deal in bullshit, that’s for sure. I think that was actually part of the problem with other photographers – they wanted to impose certain things and she didn’t like that. She was very much part of her ground, you know? Those that walked around her, the people around her, the community, Camden – she knew everyone on her doorstep and she had a real link to it. I do believe that in many ways she’d have been happy playing in the back of a pub in Camden for the rest of her life, just singing and having a place to throw that talent of hers out to the world.

People who worked with Amy often talk of her charisma and how easily she could make you fall in love with her. Did you find that?

Charles Moriarty: Yeah. She was very open and welcoming. I think at the same time, we were both kind of nervous. There was a little bit of holding back. But she was so kind, you know? She was a kind individual. She gave to you. I think that’s what’s great about the photos. You really see her in them.

The photos could be of anybody. There’s no ulterior narrative – it’s only the guitar that alludes to her being a musician. Was it important for you to hone in on Amy as a human being and nothing else?

Charles Moriarty: I remember asking Amy, ‘What do you want from this?’ and I do remember she wanted it to be as real as could be. She wanted it to be her in those photos. It wasn’t to be a projection of a girl in the music industry or a girl releasing her first album, it was just supposed to be Amy. I suppose it’s only in hindsight that the images stand out as much as they do – especially now that we have so many later versions of her that most people rely on. With these, you see something that’s very real. A mixture of youth, naivety. A lost youth, almost – but with a steely determination as well. The pictures represent all the emotional states at points. Pensive, laughing – and then moments where she’s really being Amy Winehouse the star.

Do you have a favourite picture?

Charles Moriarty: It’s changed over the years. There’s the one on the cover which has always been a favourite. There’s a look in her eyes – a glance. It’s hard to put a word on it, but it makes the hairs stand up on my arms. The one in the phone booth is an amazing photo of her, too – she looks amazing in it. I also love the ones where she’s laughing. For me, it’s a memory, you know? Those little moments. Most people will only understand the photo as it is, but I have what’s happening on the other side. I have that memory.

“She didn’t deal in bullshit” – Charles Moriarty

What do you think made her such a target in the later years?

Charles Moriarty: I think she was vulnerable. I think people saw that and they went for it. I remember hearing from a paparazzi photographer once that they told them to stay outside her house, because they knew if they waited long enough – and they coaxed her long enough – she’d do something. I just think that’s so sad, that you would infringe on someone’s life so heavily like that. Obviously, Amy had things in her life that weren’t all correct and there were issues there, but to then use that as a weapon against her was just upsetting to see. Sadly, I don’t think the media will ever learn from that.

Do you think it’s important to provide an alternative narrative of Amy to the one so often portrayed in the media?

Charles Moriarty: When I saw Amy the movie, I went home, sat down and said ‘I’m gonna make this book’. I really wanted to open up people’s eyes a little more to the Amy I knew. The Amy that had been so heavily represented in the press was a version of her that I’d never really met, so I kind of felt I needed to redress the balance. That’s what the impetus for creating this book was – I’d really not known to do with the photos before, they’d pretty much sat in the drawer for over a decade. It was only when I met with Asif Kapadia and he said ‘these are the best photos I’ve seen of her’ that I wake up to what was there.

Is there a moment from your time with Amy that best sums her up as a person for you?

Charles Moriarty: It’s not one specific moment, but she had this wicked laugh. I can almost hear it in my head when I look at some of the photos. It’s not a moment, but a feeling. A feeling of laughter and wild ambition and youth. 

The new edition of Before Frank is available to pre-order now. In collaboration with Dazed, Protein Studios in Shoreditch will host an exhibition featuring a selection of the photographs on Friday, May 12 from 10am–7pm. Charles will be answering questions at 2.30pm. More information can be found here