Brian Duffy’s blazing talent

PUBLISHED: 11:35 09 August 2011

David Bowie, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, 1980 by Brian Duffy. All pictures: © Duffy Archive

David Bowie, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, 1980 by Brian Duffy. All pictures: © Duffy Archive

Brian Duffy

Fashion and portrait photographer Brian Duffy was at the height of his fame when in the mid-1980s he dramatically decided to turn his back on his career. He fired his staff and heaped his precious negatives onto a large bonfire at the back of the studio.

Sessions with John Lennon, David Bowie and various shoots for leading fashion mags were fed into the flames before the fire brigade arrived, extinguished the blaze and issued a warning about the toxic fumes being given off.

Disillusioned about the state of the industry, he left his pictures in a soggy mess and went off to reinvent himself as a furniture restorer; leaving behind a glittering career and a reputation as a photographer’s photographer.

One of his fans was former Guardian picture editor and Suffolk resident Eamonn McCabe who selected Duffy’s shot of The Shadows as one of the defining images in the National Portrait Gallery’s Beatles to Bowie exhibition.

He said: “Duffy came to prominence when photographers were bigger stars than the magazines they worked for. Duffy was awkward but not grumpy as he was often portrayed. He was very much his own man.

“He was part of the movement in the 1960s where photographers were trying to be seen as artists. They were rebels but they were also artists.

“Bailey, Donovan and Duffy only used their second names. There is theory that they were trying to copy Picasso and the great painters. They were the new kids on the block, they were trying to get noticed, they hooked up with the new music and were the rock’n’roll photographers.

“They adopted 35mm and took fashion on location at a time when the old guard were anchored in the studio. Norman Parkinson called Duffy, Bailey and Donovan The Black Trinity because they dressed in black leather jackets, had an attitude and frightened the old guard.

“There was a loosening up of photography. It had gone from the plate camera with a tripod and controlled lighting to ‘let’s go out and see what we get.”

Duffy’s son Chris, who is a photographer himself, has teamed up with specialist antiques and collectors publisher ACC Publishing Group, based at Martlesham, to pull together the best images from his father’s long career to publish a book and stage a major retrospective exhibition.

Duffy staked his claim on the photography world in the late 1950s when he began freelancing for Harper’s Bazaar and British Vogue.

Then in the early 1960s, Duffy went onto supply pictures for magazines as diverse as Glamour, Esquire, Town and Queen Magazine as well as The Observer, The Times and The Daily Telegraph. He also worked on contract for French Elle for much of the 1960s and 70s.

As well as fashion photography, Duffy shot album covers for three David Bowie albums including Aladdin Sane in 1973 and Scary Monsters and Super Creeps in 1980.

But it was in his advertising work that he showed his quirky sense of humour – particularly in his famed Smirnoff vodka series in the 1970s.

Chris said that after his father died last year, he wanted to restore Duffy’s reputation as one of the country’s greatest photographic artists.

“Looking back now at when my father decided to set fire to his work, I think it was clear that he was under a lot of stress. He was running a studio with a large staff and it became to feel like a treadmill.

“The trigger was one of his assistants coming to him and complaining that there was no loo paper in the toilet. He said: ‘Is this what my career has come to? Making sure that there’s loo paper in the bog?’ He then threw everyone out, fired everyone and set about creating a bonfire from his work. There were a number of prints and negatives destroyed, including some sessions with people like David Bowie and John Lennon but we still have a lot – fortunately not everything was destroyed. In fact he was stopped by the London fire brigade who were summoned because neighbours were worried about the black acrid smoke being given off.

“I have to say I do still have sleepless nights about the material that has disappeared. I know that out of half-a-dozen sessions he did with John Lennon we have only one left.

“Talking about it with him in later years, I think he did regret destroying a lot of the stuff but I guess you do what you do at the time. Happily we have been able to track down prints of many of the negatives.”

Having left photography Duffy turned his energies towards being an antique furniture restorer and was accepted into the ranks of BAFRA – the British Antique Furniture Restorers Association – of which there are only 90 approved members.

Chris said: “It’s a very elite body with very high standards. You can imagine that if a museum or the National Trust or The Queen has a piece that they need restoring, they are not going into the Yellow Pages and get someone from round the corner. They need access to real experts and Duffy had to take exams to get into BAFRA and he loved that work. He specialised in finishes. It was a real escape from the pressurised world of photography.”

Ironically in 2004 Duffy was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease which he believed he contracted through his restoration work.

During Duffy’s latter years Chris set about trying to pull together his father’s archive which had been spread to the winds. “We had boxes of stuff in the garage, up in the roof, they were spread around everywhere. We had boxes and boxes of negatives and contact sheets. They were all muddled and messed up and I told him that we had to do something with this stuff and he just shrugged and said: ‘When I fall off the perch it’s all yours.’

I said: ‘That’s all very well but I don’t know the back story to a lot of these pictures, you’re going to have to help me.’

“So he started going through them with me and giving me some insight.”

He said that it was a process which took seven years to bring under control. “There was a negative numbering system when he was running the studio but then we had negatives without contact sheets, contact sheets without negatives, loose negatives just floating around in packets, so I had to start a new numbering system for the odd ones.”

Everything was digitally converted which allowed Chris and his father to go through each negative selecting pictures for the book and accompanying exhibition.

“Each day I would get Duffy into the office and go through the jobs marking up the images, five star, four star, three star. You’d look at a job with Michael Caine and you’d go ‘Yes that’s got to be a five star. That’s got to be in the exhibition.”

He said it was a lengthy process but it was worth it. He felt that because his father had dropped out at the height of his fame, Duffy’s legacy had become forgotten in a way that perhaps David Bailey’s hadn’t.

“He was such a big name in the ‘60s and 70s, along with Bailey and Donovan, so even though he felt that he’d said all he wanted to say by the time he opted out, I wanted to make sure that Duffy’s legacy was in place. Once you are published. Once you have a book, you are taken seriously as an artist.

“He was a great believer in burning your bridges but I didn’t want him to be forgotten.”

Brian Duffy died on May 31 2010 and in the weeks that followed Chris said he was inundated with letters, cards and emails from people informing him of Duffy’s effect on their life. I think it was being in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. The press created this story about The Black Trinity and what Norman Parkinson had said. Their public image was shaped by the press. Obviously they were all immensely talented but the publicity did help.”

He said one of the things that he admires about his father was how he managed to balance the demands of running a business while remaining creatively alive.

“Eventually it did get to him but he balanced those demands for so many years. The issue in a creative business is how to be commercially successful, pay your bills, but still keep the integrity of your art. There is always a fine line between art and commerce.

“What I admire is that Duffy always maintained amazing control and integrity in his work. He was amazingly commercially successful and yet he put a lot of himself in every shoot. That’s what fascinates people about his work.

“He had an amazing intellect. He had a phenomenal knowledge of painters and painting. He got bored very easily, he didn’t suffer fools at all and when a job was done he moved onto the next one. He didn’t hang about. He abhorred mediocrity.

“Some of his shoots look like magic. You look at the picture and you can’t work out how he did it. It’s like the skydiving Smirnoff ad.

“It’s a picture of three skydivers and a girl with a wet suit and goggles falling through the air. When we shot that we went up to an airfield in north Yorkshire. We positioned our self on the edge of a cliff and could see about ten miles into the distance.

“We had a scaffold built and winched up members of the local skydiving club along with the girl who has no parachute. We had a Volkswagen engine at the base of the cliff with a propeller which blew the air up which made the flares look as if they were being blown by the wind. We shot about two rolls of film. The girl was amazingly brave to do that – being winched out on a limb like that.

“We went back to London, the poles of the scaffolding were retouched out and when the pictures were eventually put up on hoardings and placed in magazines, people were in shock. They kept asking: ‘My God how did they do that?’ In those days people still believed that a photograph didn’t lie. If you saw that image today you wouldn’t bat an eye lid because we expect it not to be real. Back then you had to think about how to construct images and make them look real.”

Reality is likely to be the subject another book that Chris has in mind – a volume which will concern itself with Duffy’s private work.

“I can see another book in his personal reportage work. That was what really interested him. He was always wandering around with a camera, just taking stuff that interested him. At the end of every trip, at the end of every assignment, he would give me a dozen rolls of film to process of stuff that he had taken for his own use – nothing to do with the assignment just things he had seen which interested him. That would make a very interesting, very revealing book.”

n The photographic exhibition Duffy runs until August 28 at Idea Generation Gallery, The book Duffy: Photographer is published by ACC Editions. ISBN: 9781851496570, £45. To order a copy call 01394 389977 or go online at

All pictures: © Duffy Archive

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