Brigitte Bardot pouts and unsuccessfully tries to look demure wearing a pink dress and flowery hat. Christine Keeler romps naked. Opposite them, John Lennon flashes a schoolboy grin, David Bowie closes his eyes and Michael Caine looks intrigued by his cigarette.
These photographs of what sounds like a fun party crowd feature in a new book and the first full retrospective showcasing the work of Brian Duffy, who died last year.
Some of these images are ingrained in pop culture: the LP sleeves for Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” (David with lightning-flash makeup), “Lodger” (as a kooky accident victim) and “Scary Monsters” (in an even odder clown’s outfit).
There’s a Duffy quote under the pictures describing Bowie as “just a guy who liked dressing up.” The 1965 Lennon portrait is annotated that the Beatle “was like any nice, normal, intelligent person.”
Duffy -- he was always known by the single name, long before the unrelated singer -- chose to be a dress designer at London’s St. Martin’s School of Art because that was the subject favored by the most attractive girls. His first photographic assignments fell flat: The lights failed and he left the lens cap on the camera.
Undaunted, he took the first shots of Jean Shrimpton -- one of the faces of London’s Swinging 1960s -- looking into an Edgware Road shop front. Duffy matured into a fashion photographer who worshiped his models and wanted them to look like they owned the clothes. He was soon in demand by Elle, Vogue, Town, Queen and other magazines.
As his range widened to portraits, he was often compared with his fellow East End pals Terence Donovan and David Bailey. They were called “the Black Trinity” by the older Norman Parkinson. Duffy might have eclipsed them all had he not quit the business in 1979.
Some of these photos are remarkable because they are so strong and yet unknown -- not surprising as many went up in smoke in Duffy’s very own “bonfire of the transparencies.” He was at height of his career and at the end of his tether.
“He had come into the studio one morning,” Duffy’s son Chris, himself a photographer, recalls in an interview. “An assistant told him, ‘We’ve run out of toilet paper.’ That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He just snapped at that point and fired everyone and grabbed packets of negs and prints and set a bonfire in the garden.”
Bailey happened to call in, Chris says. “Bailey said, ‘I’ll look after them for you if you want,’ and Duffy said, ‘Don’t bother,’ and continued to burn them.” (Bailey has famously noted that Duffy and aggravation went together like gin and tonic.) The fire was stopped as neighbors complained about the black acrid smoke.
Duffy became a furniture restorer and died of pulmonary fibrosis aged 76. His son has spent years in a search for lost material. He had a messy pile of negatives, contacts and prints and says that items are still coming to light.
Some of the best images are the surreal advertisements for Benson & Hedges (a cigarette packet turns into a caged bird) and Smirnoff vodka (a U-boat emerges in a swimming pool above the slogan “well, they said anything could happen”).
One of Duffy’s favorite shots, done for French Elle in 1977, is wonderfully subversive. Duffy takes three top models, sporting expensive hairdos and makeup, and chooses to largely hide their heads behind branches of a tree.
There are unlikely portraits: William Burroughs stares into the camera. Gangster Reggie Kray playfully spars with his grandfather. Duffy even manages to make the U.K. Prime Minister Harold Wilson look cool. In these digital times you need Photoshop. In quotes in the book, Duffy says that photos are both real and unreal, they tell the truth and they lie.
“A photograph has to capture a moment,” he says, “incite a curiosity in what was happening the moment it was taken.”
“Duffy” is at Idea Generation Gallery, 11 Chance St., London E2 7JB, through Aug. 28. Open weekdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; weekends 12 p.m.-5 a.m. Limited-edition prints are for sale. Information: +44-20-7749-6850, http://www.ideageneration.co.uk or http://www.duffyphotographer.com.
“Duffy… In His Own Words” (208 pages) is published by the ACC Publishing Group in the U.K. priced 45 pounds and will be come out in the U.S. in September at about $85. Information: http://www.accpublishinggroup.com/
Duffy’s work is also on show at Gallery Vassie, Langestraat 47, 1015 AK, Amsterdam, until Aug. 20. See http://www.galleryvassie.com/current_exhibitions-1
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)