Eric Swayne Remembered

Above: David Bailey and Catherine Deneuve by Eric Swayne
Above: David Bailey and Catherine Deneuve by Eric Swayne

Photographer Norman Parkinson famously described Bailey, Donovan and Duffy as The Black Trinity. Here Tom Swayne, the son of fellow photographer Eric Swayne, explains that for a period of time his father was as intrinsic to the London photographic scene of the Sixties and Seventies as the revered Black Trinity.

My father was born in London’s East End in 1937. He was working class but he was so bright as a child and won a scholarship to a public school, though he didn’t have a very good time there and would tell my brother and I stories of rebellious school days picking on the posh kids! When he left school he followed his father into the police force, but was soon kicked out for retailoring his uniform and wearing non-regulation Argyle socks.

He then went off to Paris where he sang in nightclubs and married his first wife, but also gained a useful training as a barista whilst managing a Paris coffee house. This meant that when he returned to London around 1960, he landed a job managing one of London’s trendy new Soho coffee shops. It was here that he met Bailey and they quickly became friends. Charismatic, good looking and great fun, my dad quickly became a central part of London’s counter-culture; just at the time when social divides were blurring and Bailey, Donovan and Duffy were redefining the conventions and aesthetics of photography.

I recently spoke with Vogue photographer Peter Rand about this time and he told me that my dad was not doing that well financially so he gave him a nudge and suggested that he should pick up a camera and start taking pictures himself. So, aged 29 and with no professional training, he watched his friends Bailey and Duffy on shoots and taught himself, hanging out with them at the Vogue studios on the top floor of Vogue House in Hanover Square; watching and learning.

He learnt how to develop and print his own work and began to take touching and beautiful experimental pictures of his friends, but especially of his girlfriend Pattie Boyd, who he went out with for two years (having separated from his first wife) before she was booked for one day’s filming on the Beatles film A Hard Days Night in 1964.

On set, a young George Harrison made a beeline for her, but she refused his advances because she was with my dad, but when she was then booked for another day’s filming Harrison persisted and she subsequently left my dad for George. She broke his heart and the break-up was a big catastrophe for him. He had hoped that they would marry, but at least the end of this relationship opened the door for him to meet my mother, Shirley Ann, herself a Vogue model who Dad met on a go-see a few years later and who he would eventually marry.

Watching Bailey and Duffy not only gave him a photographic education, but he could also see that they were earning good money and having a very good time! They were all from the same background and being in the right place at the right time, Eric went with it. A big part of the London scene, he knew everyone, and started to photograph them; becoming an unofficial chronicler of his amazing circle. He was good friends with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and would often tell me of the times when they would all sit in the back of limousines eating space cakes, going on crazy shopping sprees. He wasn’t yet working on a commissioned basis, and his job books show that it wasn’t until the mid-Sixties that he started to be paid for his photography, working for the The Daily Sketch newspaper.

Around this time he met an influential advertising art director who loved his work and started to give him lots of money jobs and he began to live a life which he could never have dreamt of before. His was a classic Sixties tale. My mother said that he would always spend two pounds for every one he earned! By 1964 he was shooting for Max Factor, Vidal Sasson, Italian Vogue, Harpers magazine, Vanity Fair and by 1965 he was shooting for London Records, Queen magazine and Grazia.

His job books show that his social world was rapidly merging with the commercial world and that he’d established himself as a successful photographer in a very short period of time. His friendships with Bailey and Donovan continued into the Seventies but as the social scene of the Sixties dissipated my father’s work became more and more advertising-based and he began to work for all the major agencies of the period. Unfortunately, although he earned a lot of money he spent it all too; and by the late Eighties he was bankrupt. He’d always loved women and would be much happier photographing beautiful women than flying first class to Tokyo to shoot a major ad campaign.

The initial attraction of photography to him was the opportunity to live his dream and he never lost sight of that attraction. Over the years he had lost girlfriends to a Beatle and a Rolling Stone, which must have been tough but he had a pretty good time along the way. Things started to tail off when I was 10 to 15 years old, but as a child I wasn’t really aware of it. He certainly wasn’t businesslike and wouldn’t have understood how to re-imagine his work and steer his career into a new commercial world. He had an amazing studio and darkroom in a warehouse above the music venue Dingwalls in Camden (he would often shoot the musicians who performed there at the end of the shooting day, I’ve got great pictures of Etta James, Stevie Ray Vaughan etc) using one studio himself and renting the other out. In fact, his studio was so well equipped and laid out that Bailey tried to buy it from him, but dad said no.

When he went bankrupt he lost the studio, which was a massive loss for him both practically and emotionally. His confidence was crushed and although he continued to take pictures his career as a professional photographer gradually declined. He would do the occasional advertising job but increasingly his days were filled with shooting model cards or portraits of friends. Low-paid work with little creative or commercial recognition. Throughout his career he had had a number of loyal art directors within advertising agencies who had kept him busy but as they retired and moved on the commissions dried up and unfortunately he didn’t know how to replace them or the work. Things just tailed off.

At the time I didn’t realise that this career arc was typical of so many great photographers, who had their moment, before the world moved on without them. As a young man I remember my dad telling me that he didn’t pick up a camera until his late twenties, but that still, even in his later years, his hands still shook with excitement when he was behind the lens. It’s a great feeling to know that, through good times and bad, he always enjoyed his passion. I think of this often, it’s how he lived his life, and I’m proud of him for that. My father became ill and died very suddenly, within just a few weeks, and during this period he had a massive clear-out and started going through every single negative and contact sheet from his whole career with my brother Matthew. He threw out everything except one box of negs, and that box was his chosen legacy to us.

He knew exactly what he was leaving behind, saying to my brother “there’s gold in that box”. There’s a process of mourning you go through, and I didn’t look in the box for two years. Then, one day, I opened it up expecting to find one or two images beyond the few prints of Mick and Keith that I’d always known about. Instead, what I discovered was an intimate archive of behind-the-scenes Sixties London that I’m re-introducing to the world now. It’s been an emotional journey and the response has been amazing. Philippe Garner, Christie’s Head of Photography, loves the work and a book by him is in the pipeline.

Beyond the joy of getting his work out there again and earning such recognition, this has been a heart-warming and emotional look into my father’s life in the years before I was born.

© Grant Scott 2012

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