Duffy in sharp focus

“My approach was always the same – obsequious toadyism”. BBC4’s Duffy documentary last night was a funny and honest portrait of London’s ‘other’ great photographer of the 60s

Reggie Kray and grandfather (1964). Photograph: Brian Duffy

“My approach was always the same – obsequious toadyism”. BBC4’s Duffy documentary last night was a funny and honest portrait of London’s ‘other’ great photographer of the 60s

The Man Who Shot The Sixties was a long overdue rehabilitation for Brian Duffy – with Terence Donovan and David Bailey, one of the three photographers who dominated Swinging London. Now 76, the film followed Duffy as, with his son Chris, he prepared for what was, incredibly, his first gallery show (at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London).

But it was no hagiography. Asked to describe his great friend in one word, Bailey called him “awkward … he was always angry at somebody”. Molly Parkin called him “a bit of a bastard”. Others were similalry clear-eyed about his shortcomings as a person, if not as a photographer.

Originally a fashion designer, then an illustrator, Duffy said that what attracted him to photography was its combination of “women, clothes and gadgets”. And it seemed much easier than drawing. First at Vogue, then for David Hillman at Nova and for French Elle (his favourite), Duffy’s images helped define the 60s.

The film was full of great stories, as you might expect. Like when his first assignment for Vogue ended in disaster after he had left the lens cap on, the ‘boys in the lab’ covering for him by telling the editor that the blank negatives were their fault. Or the time, when shooting David Bowie for the Aladdin Sane cover in 1973, he was urged by Bowie’s manager Tony Defries to spend as much money as he could on the shoot (De Vries’s reasoning was that the record label would have to pay more attention to an album that had cost them a fortune to produce). Duffy was happy to oblige, using a dye transfer for the image, sending plates to Switzerland to be processed and employing London’s most expensive typesetters to work on Celia Philo’s cover design (Duffy had set up his own design studio, Duffy Design Concepts, with Philo in order to have more control over his work).

David Bowie as Aladdin Sane (1973). Photograph: Brian Duffy

By the mid-70s he was earning a fortune shooting advertising – including working with Alan Waldie on the landmark surrealism of CDP’s Benson & Hedges campaign. But he wasn’t happy. “99.9% of what I was shooting then was advertising – crap,” he said in the film. “The people who were hiring me, I didn’t like. It was like being on the game and disliking the men who are fucking you … Keeping a civil tongue up the rectum of the society that pays you” was not, he said, something he was good at.

He became steadily more disillusioned (in a Guardian interview this week, Duffy claims that photography had died in 1972, with everything else simply copying what had gone before) until, one day in 1979, he decided to burn all his negatives in the garden of his St John’s Wood studio. Thankfully, they didn’t burn very well and neighbours alerted the council who stopped him before he’d got through the lot.

But he didn’t take another shot for 30 years. Why? “I’d taken all the snaps I needed to take,” he said, simply.

If you are in the UK, you can watch the film on the BBC iPlayer here

Postscript: The Man Who Shot The Sixties was not the only show on the BBC last night of interest to CR viewers. But the less said about the truly execrable adland ‘comedy’ The Persuasionists the better.

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