Katherine MacAlister asks acclaimed Cambridge Jones about his photography project with 26 great authors — and their heroes — for The Story Museum, Oxford

Philip Pullman was getting over a terrible cold when he arrived at The Story Museum for a photoshoot with famous portrait photographer Cambridge Jones, so probably not in the best of moods. And yet half an hour later there he was brandishing a sword, jumping around, baring his teeth, parrot on shoulder, having a wonderful time, dressed as his favourite book character Long John Silver.

But that’s the joy of The Story Museum’s latest exhibition: it brings out the inner child in all of us, including the country’s favourite children’s authors. Which is how they persuaded 26 of the biggest names in literature to head down to the Oxford museum to highlight its existence.

This is in the main part due to the enormous charisma of Cambridge Jones, photographer to the stars whose success lies as much in putting his characters at ease, as in the startling portraits he produces.

From Al Pacino to P Diddy, Anthony Hopkins to Sharon Osbourne, five prime ministers and The Queen, he’s been there and shot the T-shirt. But what Cambridge has made a forte of is commissions of entire collections and series of portraits, often a year in the making, The Story Museum being his latest project.

Even so, the museum’s vision of photographing famous authors to highlight the completion of its first phase, lacked a vital element in his estimation, “the third dimension” as he puts it: “Photography needs to make people stop in their tracks because otherwise they just namecheck. So I suggested asking the subjects to dress up as their favourite childhood book characters.”

Aided by the RSC and The National Theatre’s costume and make-up departments, even Cambridge Jones wasn’t prepared for the transformations that took place once said authors got into character. “It’s extraordinary to watch people who aren’t necessarily outgoing, even though they are creative geniuses, inhabit these characters. By going back to their childhoods they just melted. Without exception they were all brilliant. It’s an amazing collection,” he says proudly.

“What was even more heart-warming was they all gave their time so readily, which I found profoundly refreshing, because they were all moved by the idea of this museum that encourages and explains stories and brings them to life,” he says.

Cambridge photographed 26 authors in total, one for each letter of the alphabet, and interviewed each one in turn. These intimate insights will then be used as part of the interactive side of the exhibition, each character inhabiting a dedicated room in the unfinished museum, which, as of April, you will be able to witness. So prepare for Pullman waving his crutch about, Michael Morpurgo chained up in a cellar, Malorie Blackman cackling like a witch and Neil Gaiman complete with Badger’s sideburns.

The interviews will then be conducted again, live, by Cambridge over the next few months, the first being Charlie Higson at the Oxford Playhouse in May. So is Cambridge comfortable in his latest role of conversationalist? “Well, we’ve already broken the ice,” the 46-year-old says cheerfully, “so I just have to make sure I ask the right questions for them to reveal themselves.”

And yet he’s somewhat of a story-teller himself, albeit in a photographic sense. “I suppose what I do is storytelling because if you’re going to take a good portrait it needs to tell you something about the subject. I have to know their story and capture it. So interviewing people has always inadvertently been part of the process to find out what makes them tick, even if we talk about music or the art on the wall.

“I’ve learnt that if you start with ‘Oh I loved your last film’ they immediately go into professional mode and get self conscious and you can’t get near them, so it’s about trying to find that inner person by just chatting away. It’s a huge test but that’s the heart of a good portrait, So if I do my job well they don’t even feel like I’m doing a portrait, its more of an interaction,” he explains.

“I’m not there to get their autograph but to get the best picture I can, so in a way we are on the same level for a while. And that way you get the best of them. But then it’s probably best not to analyse what works too much.”

As is evident, in terms of Cambridge’s extensive and impressive portfolio, the 46 year-old has never been more in demand, and although now based in London, the former Oxfordian works a lot in Nashville and LA. So has he peaked yet?

“Oh absolutely,” he laughs. “I was invited to exhibit in Moscow which was certainly the highlight of my career and I will now forever be on a downward spiral. It was my ‘greatest hits’ so I showed about 40 portraits of prime ministers, models and actors in Red Square, people the Russians would know. It was insane and very James Bond. We were all flown out. But then photography is much more of an art form out there. The House of Photography is like their version of the Guggenheim.”

And yet however self-deprecating he is, one senses that Cambridge Jones’ Greatest Hits is far from over.

26 Characters at The Story Museum, Pembroke St, Oxford, runs from April 5 – November 2 2014.

Box office on www.ticketsoxford.com. Opening times and more info: www.storymuseum.org.uk
For more information on Cambridge Jones go to www.cambridgejones.com for more details