Last Thursday, the first stateside retrospective of legendary fashion/commercial photographer Brian Duffy launched at Clic Gallery in Soho.
Dubbed ‘The Man Who Shot the ’60s’, Duffy along with peers David Bailey and Terry Donovan formed the ‘The Black Trinity’ who shaped the Swinging 60s.
In 1979, he dramatically quit the profession – burning many of his negatives.
His son Chris, however, managed to uncover some archive footage and convinced him to return to his craft shortly before his death in 2010. Chris, also an acclaimed photographer, discusses his beloved late father’s work…
Can you tell us a little about growing up with your father and what you recall about his work as a child?
Duffy started working for British Vogue in the late fifties and at that time there was a handful of young people who were ultimately going to make a huge change in British society. Britain had come out of the Second World War and there was an austerity in 50′s that a new generation were about to rebel against and Duffy was at the front of this wave of change. There was a small clique of like-minded people that hung out together, people like Mary Quant, David Hockney, Len Deighton, Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, Vidal Sassoon, David Bailey, and Molly Parkin. Even Ron and Reggie Kray, London gangsters, became part of the new London scene often hanging out with photographers and actors in trendy London restaurants. As a kid growing up in 60′s London there was always a flow of people dropping into see Duffy and it all seemed very normal. I remember meeting the Beatles in Duffy’s studio when I was 11.
You became an apprentice for your father at a young age, didn’t you?
I approached him and asked him for a job, initially he turned me down but I kept pestering him and although he already had 2 assistants he agreed that I could come and sweep the floors and make coffee. I did that for a year until finally the 2nd assistant left or got fired and I moved up the ladder. I ended up working for Duffy for 7 years and became his 1st assistant and traveled the world with him, in that time I learned everything there was to know about cameras, lighting and the darkroom. Duffy was the ultimate technician and had an encyclopedic knowledge of cameras and lenses.
Did your father enjoy taking celebrity portraits?
In Duffy’s era celebrity photography didn’t exist as we know it today. Duffy saw himself as a tradesman and approached every commission in the same way whether that be a portrait, a beauty shot, a still life, a landscape, a record cover or a fashion spread. Duffy’s photographs reflected his controversial and abrasive attitude to life.
Can you share the story behind David Bowie’s iconic album cover Aladdin Sane?
Duffy had known Tony Defries, David Bowie’s then manager since the late 60s, when Tony got David signed to RCA records in 1972 he asked Duffy to shoot Bowie’s next album cover. Duffy met with Bowie to discuss ideas for the shoot and asked what the album was to be called. Bowie said “A Lad Insane” but Duffy misinterpreted this and heard it as “Aladdin Sane”. Defries had wanted the shoot to be as expensive as possible based on the theory that the more the record company paid for the shoot the more likely they would get behind promoting the album. In 1972 Duffy had shot his second Pirelli calendar with artist Allen Jones and he decided to implement some of the techniques utilized in producing this series of groundbreaking images on the now renamed Aladdin Sane album. The 1972 Pirelli calendar utilized the talents of an airbrush artist called Philip Castle and created a hybrid of hyperreal and surreal images that were far ahead of their time. Each image was individually airbrushed on a dye transfer colour print which was extremely time-consuming and expensive process, today this would be a piece of cake in Adobe Photoshop. Bowie had been fascinated with Elvis’ motto “Taking Care of Business in a Flash,” represented in his personal logo by the letters TCB and a lightning bolt and on the day of the shoot Duffy produced a National Panasonic rice cooker (given to him by his Mother) from the studio kitchen who’s logo at the time was a red and blue flash and presented this to Bowie suggesting painting it across his face. Bowie loved the idea and Duffy took the lead and taking a red lipstick from make up artist Pierre Laroche’s kit and started to draw the outline of the flash on Bowie’s face. Interestingly enough, as far as I am aware, this is the only time that David ever sported this make up look, for live gigs it was always the circular “third eye” make up so I guess the Aladdin Sane look was just too complicated to reproduce for every live show. Duffy then went on to enhance the image with Phillip Castle’s airbrushing wizardry and also designed the typeface for the album and finally putting an Aladdin’s lamp symbol over the “i” in Aladdin Sane. There was only ever one original print of this image made from which every other image produced has come from and it is currently on display in London at the Victoria & Albert Museum in their summer show “British Design 1948 -2012”. I read somewhere that it has been dubbed “The Mona Lisa of Rock”.
Duffy studied fashion design. Did this background help when it came to fashion photography?
Duffy originally wanted to be a painter and went to St Martin’s Art Collage in London but after a short time realized that the talent in his year was exceptional and moved over to dress design. He quickly learnt the techniques of how a garment was made and with an innate ability to draw and design excelled in this medium which in later years, when he became a photographer, gave him a distinct advantage in his fashion pictures. Duffy always said that a fashion photograph had a responsibility to show how a garment worked but his real trick was making the model look like she owned the clothes too rather than just being a mannequin. This was a winning combination and with an acute command over his photographic technique defined the Duffy “look”. When Duffy started working for French Elle in 1962 it was art director Peter Knapp’s vision to break away from the aloof and posed fashion photographs that were currently seen in the pages of Vogue and create a much more fluid style that would resonate with a wider female audience.
After your father finished with photography, he turned to furniture restoration. Was this something he had previously done?
Duffy always had a deep interest in furniture and was also a very accomplished craftsman with a passion for wood. He had a workshop at the back of his studip complex and even during his photographic career spent a great amount of time in the workshop designing and making things. On studio shoot days he would come in and direct what lighting and camera set up he wanted and then disappear into the workshop only to re appear when everything was ready to shoot. After Duffy’s photographic career he went on to become a member of an elitist restoration association called BAFRA (British Antique Furniture Restoration Association) and ultimately went on to lecture.
Can you tell us about the documentary The Man Who The 60s. Was it hard to convince your father to return to photography?
In 2005 Duffy was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis. On reflection Duffy said that he thought that he had got this through smelting gold and mercury while working in his restoration business. The prognosis is varied for this disease and a patient can survive a year or maybe ten. Over the years I had said to Duffy that he should do something with his remaining archive - I felt it was important to him to give me the information if I was to do anything with it. In 2008 we were approached by Chris Beetles Gallery in London to put together Duffy’s 1st ever exhibition. I had also approached several television companies about producing a film of Duffy’s life and work. The BBC were very interested in this project and so we started filming in the spring of 2009, but at this time Duffy’s health had started to decline. Duffy had not taken a photograph for nearly 30 years but he got right back in the saddle and was totally comfortable picking the camera again.
As this is your father’s first US retrospective, do you know if he spent much time in New York?
Duffy actually lived in New York in the mid 80’s but had been a frequent visitor from the late fifties and in fact he shot for Glamour Magazine here in the early sixties. Duffy had a handful of close friends in New York but always kept in touch with his great mate photographer Jerry Schatzberg who introduced him to Bob Dylan in a coffee bar in Manhattan; “Hey Duff, meet Bobby, Mrs Zimmerman’s little boy”.
Brian Duffy Photographs at Clic Gallery run through till June 3, 2012