Brian Duffy was one of the Holy Trinity of 1960s photography – Bailey, Donovan and Duffy. Fellow photographer Don McCullin called them the “enfants terribles”. They were ferocious in their approach to the subject. Working-class kids who took on the establishment. But, they were three very different characters. Donovan was the wit, Bailey was creative and Duffy was the intellectual enigma. Straight-talking, blunt and driven, Duffy gave up photography at the peak of his power in the late 1970s. He claimed to have destroyed his entire archive. It wasn’t true, and in an exclusive interview with Grant Scott shortly before Duffys death in 2010, he spoke about his career, why he decided to burn his past and the true story behind David Bowie’s iconic zigzag-styled face.
It’s not easy to get Duffy to talk about photography; it’s almost impossible to get him to talk about his own photography. Duffy is a deep thinker; an intellectual who seems happier talking about art criticism, word definition and the complexity of life, rather than the hardcore realities of being a commercial photographer. It was a role he excelled at for more than two decades. He claims that the reason why he has now decided to exhibit that work is due to his wife’s desire to declutter and redecorate, and his son Chris’s interest in the clutter. “My wife said: ‘What are you going to do with all this rubbish of yours? You’ve got all these shoe boxes full of negs and dust.’ I thought: ‘God almighty, why do we have to go through all this crap? Don’t go on.’ I got them all down and I wondered what we were going to with all this stuff now.”
Duffy comes from a working-class Irish background in north London and could neither read nor write as a child during WWII. He then received an education at a liberal school in Chelsea, where disturbed children were encouraged to have cultural experiences. This led him to decide to be an artist, and he gained a place at St Martin’s School of Art. Finding himself in the same year as great artists such as Frank Auerbach and Joe Tilson, he quickly moved on to the fashion design course, in which he excelled. But Duffy’s take on his own creative achievements is bluntly practical. “I was in it for the dosh. I did it for money and I got a creative feeling from looking at other people’s work, but not from looking at my own work.” After a series of jobs within various design studios, Duffy managed to get an assistant’s job with the photographer Adrian Flowers in 1955, after failing to get a position with John French, who Bailey later assisted.
The same year, he received his first commission for The Sunday Times and by 1957, he was working for Vogue. In 1961, he was shooting in New York for Glamour and in 1962, The Sunday Times dubbed him, David Bailey and Terence Donovan the Terrible Trio. “I think we all had an inferiority complex and a chip on our shoulders,” says Duffy. “We had a certain abrasiveness. Prior to that, it was all ‘Darling, I love it!’” The Terrible Trio were at their peak, but Duffy was always seen as a very separate proposition by the other two. “I took a route that was about decoding culture. Society has always intrigued me, I have a sort of anarchic streak and corrupted values, which I’ve had since I was a child. “One of the great problems with photography is that any twat you give a camera to can take a photograph – what that does to the photographer is immediately create an inferiority complex within him because anyone can do it, which of course they can.
I worked this out very early on.” But, he explains: “I can show anybody how to take a photograph, but I’m not sure how to show somebody how to take a Duffy photograph.” It was this blunt analysis that made his work so powerful, but also made working with him a challenge. “In all my time at Vogue I only did four trips. Other people did trips all the time – they wouldn’t let me out of the cage, probably rightly so.” Having set up his own studio in London in 1963, he shot his first Pirelli calender in 1965 (he shot his second in 1972) while working in Paris for French Elle. He was busy shooting all of the major celebrities plus shooting fashion for Vogue. But, it wasn’t enough for Duffy and in 1967, he formed a film company with spy-thriller writer Len Deighton, called DeightonDuffy. Just as photographers today are lured to the moving image through the availability of technology, Duffy wanted to extend his work to the big screen. He produced two big films, Only When I Laugh with actor David Hemmings and the iconic Oh, What a Lovely War with Deighton.
His photographic work continued and he found himself in demand by the burgeoning advertising market as much as his traditional editorial clients. Duffy’s agency work for Benson & Hedges and Smirnoff saw him break boundaries in the late 1970s, bringing him countless awards. “I never used a lot of film – it’s like boxing; perfect boxing is 11 seconds: one second to get to the centre of the ring and 10 seconds to keep your hands up, but they were all done in camera – with absolutely no retouching.”
It is perhaps for one image that Duffy is known best. Even if you don’t know that he shot it, you will know the image – it has come to define the 1970s as a decade. His portrait of David Bowie for the cover of Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane, came as a commission from the singer’s manager Tony De Freitas. Duffy explains: “I drew the zigzag onto his face. It was the trademark for National Panasonic – a red and blue zigzag that I took from a rice cooker. It also came from Elvis Presley, who had a ring with a lightning flash on it.” When I ask if he’s told anyone before that he had created such a seminal rock image, he replies: “No, no-one ever asked me.” He is keen to stress, however, the authenticity of the finished image, which he also designed with his assistant. “The photograph was a die transfer, which I oversaw and it was all actual, no retouching.” He went on to shoot two further covers for Bowie – Lodger and Scary Monsters – but it is the Aladdin Sane cover that has gone down as iconic in rock history. So why did he give it all up? “I started to not like myself,” he says. “I was going against the basic precepts of creativity that I believed in, and I recognised a major defect in me that came about through the people I was associating with. No-one needs an opinionated, arrogant bully as a photographer; you don’t need someone who’s tricky. You want someone who will put their tongue up the rectum of the system.”
The final straw, he claims, was the day when he came into his studio and an assistant told him they were out of toilet roll. It dawned on Duffy that despite his staff of four, “not only was I the senior stockholder, managing director, chairman of the board and top dog, I was now expected to get the toilet paper – the whole thing imploded. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He certainly did burn some negatives in 1979 and Bailey watched him to do it. “It was a cathartic thing.” But he didn’t destroy everything, as the exhibition at the Chris Beetles gallery demonstrated.
He’s still interested in photography and recently went to the National Portrait Gallery with his son. “I had a look at Annie Leibovitz’s photographs and was very impressed. They had enormous tension, except the ones of the Queen.” And he’s still mates with Bailey. “I saw Bailey the other day and he was taking all these pictures. I never carried a camera and he said to me: ‘You never took pictures.’” Talking with Duffy is an enriching experience. He makes you think, question and challenge. Despite having not taken any photographs commercially for nearly 20 years, much of his work is as fresh and alive as it was when it was first taken. Duffy is 76 and suffering from a degenerative lung disease, but his work and spirit have as much essence of the Terrible Trio times today as they did in 1962. He just doesn’t use a camera anymore.
© Grant Scott 2016