By Joe Fassler – Artwork courtesy of Brian Duffy
There was a time when Duffy was everywhere. His photographs were a key part of the visual culture of the 1960s and 1970s. He was the go-to photographer in London, Paris, and New York, and he worked with everyone who was anyone. Then, Duffy disappeared. Shut down his studio. Quit the industry cold. There were rumors, even, that he had destroyed his work—burned it all. No one knew for sure.
When Duffy agreed to give Resource an interview, we finally got a chance to go behind the lens and contemplate the legacy of this brilliant, enigmatic pioneer. So, who is Duffy? The answer, it turns out, is as illuminating and paradoxical as photography itself.
Ask Brian Duffy what he was thinking when he took one of his photographs. An early one maybe, when he was still a young man from tough East London, filling in for Irving Penn at Vogue with a borrowed camera. Or one of the many sixties images that took female sexuality out of the apron. You could even pick a portrait —there’s a long and incandescent list of icons to choose from—or ask about a fashion spread or glossy ad from the later period, when he was a go-to photographer in London, New York and Paris. Ask and he might lay the whole thing out for you. He might.
More likely, he’ll tell you what he told me: a baseball outfielder comes from nowhere to field a skew line drive, dives for a spectacular, game-saving catch, and then heaves the ball back to second for a double play. Afterward, everyone will shove microphones at him, asking, “How did you do it? How? “ He will then go into a diatribe of explanation, Duffy says, “Which is actually rubbish. But he has to post-rationalize it because you sound like a mug saying, I don’t know!” And Duffy would know. “Art?” he scoffs, “None of that ever entered my head! Though when questioned, I had hundreds of answers.” There is wisdom in this oblique, analogical answer: Duffy refuses to narrate his process in hindsight because it is impossible to do so truthfully. He was on autopilot, guided by an artist’s instinct and chance. So how does a great photograph come into being? “Just do it,” he tells me. “Trust your luck.”
Not that Duffy can’t speak eloquently about his work. He can go on all day about technique but despite his mastery, at bottom, he’s unimpressed and shrinks all the technical stuff down to size with one deflating hypothetical. “If you were to give me a trumpet,” he says, “maybe I could blow a note. Maybe I couldn’t. But give one of my grandchildren a camera and there is a possibility that they could take a seminal photograph.” The implication is that no one will ever play a Wynton Marsalis’ solo on the first blow. This is why a wizard like Duffy, someone who has devoted decades of thought and effort to his work, can say that deep- down photography is “not understandable.” The art of capturing moments is not something that can be explained or reproduced. Pictures are understood emotionally, but their construction remains fundamentally mysterious.
“One of the great problems with photography,” he adds, “is that, because you’re always trying to pretend you know what it is about, you, the photographer, rationalizes it with words and think you can do it again and again.” He laughs. “But every time I’ve taken a photograph I’ve not known what the hell I was doing!” The artist can set precise conditions or leave it all to chance, but he can never truly know in advance what the camera will see. And so a photographer straddles the horizons of a moment. A photo cannot be foreseen, and once it’s taken, a photographer cannot look back and tell again this truth. Can the process ever be free from this ghostly evanescence? “No way,” Duffy insists. “It has this metaphysical strangeness.”
Duffy didn’t begin as a photographer. He went to art school in London and started working as a clothes designer and fashion illustrator. Later on, he felt this background gave him a huge advantage. “I knew how clothes were meant to look,” he explains. While working as a fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar, an art director showed him a contact sheet. He remembers thinking that the images were all the same until the art director pointed out the minute differences between them. There’s still a mischievousness in Duffy’s voice as he tells the story. “I said, ‘Oh yes, the model moved a little in each frame.’ And I thought to myself, ‘My God! This is much easier than being a fashion illustrator!’”
Getting started was not easy. Duffy had no technical experience and no equipment of his own. “What I did,” he remembers, “was set myself up as a gopher. I went to different studios, and eventually someone gave me a job.” That person was the English film director Ken Russell, who let Duffy sweep the studio floor. Duffy would work at a new studio every three or four weeks, trying to absorb all he could. “Because I realized I was on limited time, I was ferocious in my interest. I spent twenty-five hours a day trying to learn about photography.” After a year and a half, Duffy felt he had learned a good deal and decided to try to take the next step. “I went to the Sunday Times in London,” he recalls, “and a wonderful fashion editor there gave me my very first job.” Duffy had only borrowed equipment, and the light blew up within the first twenty seconds of the shoot. The editor found the pictures dreadful and refused to print any of them. Somehow Duffy survived to shoot another day.
Duffy’s early career had some minor triumphs—he was able to put enough of a portfolio together to snag a job at Vogue—but most of it is full of horror stories. “I was a total outsider,” he says. “I can remember being put down for the way I spoke. This was a time when the receptionist at Vogue could almost have been a debutante. And oinks like me seemed awfully, you know, common.” It didn’t help that Duffy was still relatively inexperienced and that things were always going wrong. He was once asked to fill in for Irving Penn and take a portrait of Otto Van Klemperer, one of the great conductors of the 20th-century. Van Klemperer insisted that a Leica be used, so Duffy had to borrow one, although he was inexperienced with rangefinder cameras. Duffy recalls, “At the end of the session, I said ‘Thank you maestro.’ He got up and walked to the door, turned round and said, ‘Mr. Photographer, is it normal that when you take zee photograph, you leave zee lens cap on?’” Duffy knew he’d blown it utterly. If the studio hadn’t blamed the lab he might have lost his job at Vogue. Many of Duffy’s early stories have this feel—all con-artistry, cliff-hangers and hair-breadth escapes.
“The sixties started in the late fifties,” Duffy tells me, “and it was an incredible time, and I was there.” I was there—again, the humility, the relinquishment of self, as if all he did was stand there with a camera while great things went on around him. I ask Duffy what was responsible for the excitement and upheaval of this period, and he has an immediate, emphatic answer: “The pill! That was a total revolution. It changed everything, subconsciously, between men and women.” He adds, “Also, one-piece pantyhose allowed dresses to be shorter, skirts to go all the way up. That produced a look that hadn’t been possible before. It changed the dynamics of the female figure. And that, of course, changed sexuality.”
Duffy came of age as an artist at a time when there were many revolutions going on, and he was on the forefront in combining two of them: the visual and the sexual. He can’t remember the exact moment he met Terrence Donovan or David Bailey who, with Duffy, became known as the “Terrible Three”: the holy trinity of London sixties-era sexed-up photography. All three of them shared a similar background and a love for photography and jazz. Chris Duffy, his son and assistant, tells me, “David Bailey and Terry Donovan were his best mates and were always around. I remember them talking and discussing photography passionately.” Chris feels he’s never again seen anything like the passion displayed by those three during that time.
The Terrible Three are often credited with infusing fashion photography with a new level of sexuality. Similar to how the New Journalists were injecting themselves into their work, Duffy and his contemporaries were bringing themselves into their photographs. This was often done in the form of sexual interplay between the male photographer and female model. A model is not a clotheshorse they felt—a model is a woman. And they photographed them that way. It’s hard to underestimate the impact Bailey, Donovan, and Duffy had on the fashion world. They were total outsiders—they grew up in East London, a world full of dockers and boxers, far away from Vogue. When they brought their East End attitudes into the studio, it shook things up forever. Duffy perfectly expresses the culture shock they wreaked in the business with this often-quoted description: “Before 1960, fashion photographers were tall, thin, and camp, but we three were different: short, fat, and heterosexual!”
The work speaks for itself. Look at the photographs he took for the 1965 edition of the Pirelli calendar. The images are saturated, up-close, and tactile; a love song to both the female form and photography. There is the sense that the camera has brought us spontaneity on a platter and captured the essence of a moment. And yet you wonder if this glorious “realness” is staged.
For Duffy, photography is “a great treacherous liar. You fundamentally think it’s telling the truth, and yet it also contains lies. Every photograph is packed with lies. It’s devoid of so many things—taste, smell, noise—and yet we tend to believe it! But the other thing about photographs is that they tell the truth. Even a fake photograph tells a truth.” The line between truth and fiction is much more blurred today, in the age of digital manipulation, than it ever was in the era of what Duffy calls “steam-driven photography.” Movies like Ben-Hur and Gladiator exemplify this phenomenon. In the older movie, the chariot accidents are “real,” even if they’re staged. When you watch a crash, it is a crash that physically occurred at a real point in time. In the more recent movie, everything is slippery. “The crowds don’t exist,” says Duffy, “and none of the accidents are real! It’s a non-real reality. And that touches photography. You believe less in images today than you ever did.” Of course, the world of fashion photography has never used images straightforwardly, and it was no different in Duffy’s day. He says, “I can remember models looking at covers and saying ‘Gosh, I never realized I looked that good!’ And they didn’t! They’d been touched, re-touched, rebuilt.” Still, everything was much more raw. “Even in New York, there was no such thing as make-up artists, and hairdressers didn’t turn up on shoots. The model did it. She did her make-up. She did her hair. Nowadays they just sit in their chair and read Vogue.”
Yet, the most important difference, according to Duffy, happened to the photographer’s role. The photographer has become deprived of his own ability to choose his fate, even his right to put himself at risk. Things that were once his responsibility have been delegated to others. Even though he’s at the wheel, his role is now greatly minimized, almost a token. “Someone takes a photograph,” Duffy says, “and everyone, including the hairdresser, the model, the editor, everyone, puts their mouth into gear. In the process, they rationalize what’s happening and make it common. So you get very, very high quality mediocrity.” Blandness through democracy and shared responsibility. I can tell Duffy misses the days when he could be at the helm, making hard choices under pressure— and taking responsibility for them. “I love the idea,” he tells me fiercely,” that when I got to the end of the session, I’d turn to my assistant and say, ‘I wonder if things will come out?’”
Chris Duffy assisted his father during his last years in the business from 1974 to 1979 or 1980, before Duffy left photography for good. He began the way his father began—sweeping floors—but he gradually honed his skills and moved up to being an assistant. “In that period,” Chris Duffy tells me, “photographers like Duffy were what I would call GPs—general practitioners. We did everything, every genre of photography, in every format. You couldn’t ask for a better apprenticeship.” Duffy himself puts a different spin on it. “I worked in commercial photography,” he says, “and like a whore, I would work for anybody who’d pay for a photograph. From the very beginning I’d adopted that attitude. I didn’t give a sot whether it was for a magazine, or an advertisement, or a passport. If you want it, you’ve got it, you pay for it, good night. I just wanted to get paid. It was never about principles or art.”
And yet, listening to Duffy, I don’t think he solely sees his work as sheer commerce or that he’s unbothered by the often-crass consumerism of the magazine industry. At times, he suggests his line of work helps create a cultural lust for the impossible that spawns materialism. “Capitalism is driven by creating inadequacies in culture,” he tells me. “You don’t need Ray-Ban sunglasses but you’re made to feel inadequate if you don’t have them. Technology drives capitalism to create inadequacies. And photography is the tool.” If so, Duffy’s fostered a good deal of feelings of inadequacy. He’s created photographs of the world’s most beautiful people and shot ads for the most expensive products. Yet it’s clear that the commoditization of photography played a role in driving Duffy from the business. He’s dismayed with the way art directors and photographers can be at cross-purposes. “Of all of the art directors I’ve worked with over the years,” he laments, “I think I only met two who could read a photograph.” According to Duffy, art directors only “want to talk a photograph. Design, plan, and work it out.” He sees this as pointless. “A photograph only exists in time future, prior to taking it. How can you really know what a photograph will be before it is?” The very essence of this art is its spontaneity.
When an image is stripped of its mystery, what does it become? Commerce? Propaganda? It’s unclear, but Duffy seems to know what the photographer can become when viewed as incidental. “Art directors really wonder, ‘Why am I paying this man so much money? If I could afford that camera and his assistants, I could do that. All he does is press the tit on the end of a shuttle!’”
Duffy did burn his work, about fifty percent of his archives, he thinks. His frustration with the industry, with the process, had grown to be insurmountable and he decided he didn’t want to go on.
When prodded to explain more, he says, “It’s quite a crazy story.” And then, slyly adds, “I’m not sure how true it is though.” This innocuous insertion screams out like a gunshot, as if he’s saying, Everything I’m about to tell you may or may not be true. I’m giving you a snapshot in time, and it will contain truth, and it will contain lies. The original moment, whatever it was, is lost now, and what remains is something evocative, vivid, based on reality, but fundamentally a myth, much like a photograph. “I came to work one morning and one of my assistants told me, ‘We haven’t got any toilet paper.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘We don’t have any toilet paper.’ Now as I said the second what, I was about to smack him. Trying to control my temper, I asked him, ‘What did you say to me?’ and he repeated, ‘We don’t have any toilet paper.’ And I thought, ‘My God Almighty, we’ve ended up where I’m in charge of toilet paper!’ It was enough to blow me out of the water. At that moment I thought ‘I’m not going to go on.’ It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” He pauses, and there is perfect silence for a moment, before he laughs, and says, “Surreal, no?” Yes, it is surreal, and whether this is a faithful retelling of one of the worst days in modern photography, or a myth that tells an anecdotal truth about Duffy’s frustration with the minutiae and pettiness that came to encroach upon his work, it is certainly a powerful story. No matter what happened, a lot of work did leave the earth in flames.
“I had a bonfire. A massive bonfire,” he tells me. “The work that’s left,” I ask him, “Is it just luck?” “Total luck,” he says.
“It just wasn’t around that day?”
Duffy, it seems, has never looked back. His past life as one of the Terrible Three had all but absconded. It may have stayed that way if it hadn’t been for his son. Chris tells me, “Duffy didn’t think about photography, or look at any of it, for many, many years. Bailey and Donovan were in the limelight, while Duffy really dropped out. But he’d been a legend. He was the man in London. I kept telling to him he needed to do a book. A couple of years ago, I went down to his cottage in the country and I started looking through old contact sheets. I said, “Dad, you’ve really got to show this.’” David Bailey pulled six boxes of Duffy’s negatives from the Vogue archives, and he and Chris started going through them. Duffy had forgotten about them completely. “It’s just amazing stuff,” says Chris says, “and he finally came around to the idea that we should do something with it.” A retrospective of his work will begin at the London Chris Beetles Art Gallery in mid-September 2009.
The exhibition should be fantastic. There’s a wide range of material, and all of it is enticing. The images in the show have not been seen since they came out in print. Some alternate versions of famous Duffy’s works will probably be featured, however, Chris estimates that fifty percent of the images have never been published in any form. Much of the material was never intended to be published, as the exhibition will contain photographs taken by Duffy on his own time, not on an assignment, and not for money. Images that were never talked through, and never intended to be read. The inclusion of this material is what seems to interest Duffy most about the exhibition. He says animatedly, “I’ve never done anything with these images. Moreover, I’ve never been published outside the ads or editorials I shot so in that sense, I’m a virgin!”
After London, the exhibition will go on the road. Negotiations are in the works with galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. What will the show be like? Will these never seen before images add up to a man, to an artist, or to an era? Together, will they construct a story?
I ask Duffy to describe his photographs, the ones he took for himself. What are they like? He says, “You’re a writer. You must have notebooks that you’ve just written down two lines in and then put away. Years later you look at them and think, ‘Good lord! How interesting!’ And you somehow have a revelation about you.” Going through these photographs has been quite an experience for Duffy. “Now that I see them again, I wonder why I took a particular photograph. Something was triggered in me to take it, but I don’t understand what.” Duffy continually emphasizes the unknown, and the workings of effaced selfhood, of a vanished time, with which he can no longer relate. Things that were lost, if you will, in the fire. Yet Chris tells a completely different story. “As we go through photographs, there are hours-long conversations about the people, the situation. He’s so good at putting things into context—politically, socially. It’s a fascinating process, and it’s very, very, exciting.” Which of these stories captures Duffy best? Both, of course, and at the same time, neither. The exhibition, I’m sure, will deliver both the man we all know, as well as a stranger.
Photographs, as Duffy has said, are always forward-looking—they take place in future time. And so a retrospective of photographic work is in a sense, a bizarre thing. It’s a current collection of past images of what had once been future instants. The moments are lost; the reasoning behind them has been erased by time. We can no longer determine what truth they held, and what lies. And yet, if we can read them, they will tell us so much. I think this may be why Duffy speaks so often in analogies. He is keenly aware of the slippery nature of experience: the way that past experiences, even entire past selves, can half-vanish and become something we do not remember or no longer recognize. He never wants to say what “is”—he only wants to suggest what may be. There is truth in that. That’s what a photograph is.
This article previously appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Resource, which is available here.