From 1986 to 1996, photographers Andrew and Stuart Douglas – known as the Douglas Brothers – produced a body of work that looked like nothing else around. If their photography had a resemblance to anything, it was to images that had been made over a century ago – and by someone who favoured experimentation over staid likenesses and processes where details gave way to movement, blur and shadow. In the context of the visual landscape of the early 90s their photographs were stubbornly out of time.
The Brothers’ otherworldly sensibility brought them a range of commissions and their work began to appear on book covers and posters, in magazines and in editorial and ad campaigns. In 1990, when Andrew was 37 and Stuart 28, a piece in CR declared them “two of the most desirable photographers of their generation”.
Four years later a profile in Eye brought across their unique and spontaneous way of working, describing the photographers as instinctive artists who sought to “translate a feeling, a suggestion or an abstract idea”. For the Essex-born photographers there was no separation between commercial work and personal artistry. Many of the images they produced for clients were hung in galleries.
But when the lure of TV commercials pushed them further into working as a directing duo, the pair stopped taking pictures altogether. Unable to work collaboratively in quite the same way again, eventually the pressures of making films took its toll on their relationship.
They stopped talking to each other, moved apart and left the photography behind, effectively burying all their negatives and prints in a lock-up in London’s King’s Cross. Last year, however, after 20 years, the pictures came back to life.
Andrew, who had been in the US for some years, received a call from Tim Fennell, his manager in London, telling him that the Douglas Brothers archive had been found – the warehouse it had been stored in was about to be demolished. If they still wanted the work they had two days in which to save it. Fennell managed to retrieve several crates from the site and reacquainted the brothers with their photographs.
The story of the resurrection of the Douglas Brothers’ photography is also one of reconciliation as their relationship, on the mend for some six or so years now, has been bolstered by the re-interest in their collaborative work.
This month sees the opening of See/Saw, a London exhibition that brings together 30 images from their ten-year partnership; while in August, the National Portrait Gallery will show 14 of their most evocative pictures of actors, writers and singers (plans for the latter exhibition were set in motion as a direct result of the rediscovery of their archive).
In a revealing interview in the new issue of CR, the brothers – now 64 and 55 – open up about their working process and discuss why they left it all behind, while revealing what it’s been like to gain a new perspective on their fascinating archive.
At one point in our conversation Andrew asks his brother whether he could have burnt all the work. Stuart says he could never have destroyed it – and is taken aback by Andrew’s admission that he could. “I didn’t know … that we were making something of value,” Andrew admits. “I thought it was the furniture of our marriage – without the relationship I thought it was just nothing. Now that [Stuart] and I have come together, I feel all this has changed. [The images] are all talismanic now, they’re all kind of magical. When I say it’s like a wonderful body of work, I mean just for us.” What they both seem to agree on is that these images remain the most creative work each of them has been involved in.
See/Saw is at Art Bermondsey Project Space, 183-185 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW until June 25. The Douglas Brothers’ work will also be on show at the National Portrait Gallery in August. A catalogue for the See/Saw exhibition is available, designed by Vince Frost, featuring an essay by Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. For more details, visit project-space.london, thedouglasbrothers.com and npg.org.uk. The new issue of CR is available on newsstands now. Subscribe via magazine.creativereview.co.uk