May 30, 2020
“I tell you, the thing I’ve always been amazed at is looking into a camera lens at someone, and they just change. All of a sudden you see something, and you’re not sure if you discuss it because you’re not sure if you’re drunk or….”
Innovative and unapologetic, Brian Duffy was one of the three photographers who defined the look of London’s ‘Swinging Sixties.’ Together with David Bailey and Terence Donovan, they were affectionately named by Norman Parkinson as the ‘Black Trinity’ and were elevated to celebrity status and known only by their surnames. Duffy’s work contributed to the advancement of fashion photography by breaking from the protocol of the well-established, stuffy 1950s fashion aesthetic. Willing to take chances, Brian Duffy helped usher in a dynamic and creative energy that documented the vibrancy of the “Swinging Sixties” London scene, ultimately becoming one of the world’s most respected photographers.
Duffy – The Man Who Shot the Sixties, the BBC documentary made available by the Duffy Archive on Vimeo, highlights the career of the iconic photographer Brian Duffy, considered one of the most influential photographers of the “School of English photographers” from London’s “Swinging Sixties.” We begin this documentary by seeing the legendary Duffy prepare for his return to the studio after leaving photography 30 years prior. With a portfolio that includes the likes of David Bowie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brigitte Bardot, Sidney Poitier, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Sammy Davis Jr., and three Pirelli calendars, Duffy did the unthinkable and quit the profession at the height of his success. In the video, a now older Duffy recalls his experience establishing himself as a cutting-edge fashion photographer of the 60s and 70s in London. With narration by Duffy’s contemporaries, he reunites with a prominent model of the time and shares anecdotes while acknowledging and revealing thoughts on his later unimaginable decision to quit photography.
Brian Duffy was born in 1933 to Irish immigrant parents in East London. Growing up in a politicized household, Duffy’s parents were strict Catholics, who would raise the young Duffy in a working-class family environment. At the age of twelve, he was enrolled at a progressive school in South Kensington, run by the London County Council. Staffed by injured ex-servicemen, it aimed to introduce “problem children” to the arts. At the behest of school, Duffy went to art galleries, the opera, the ballet, and museums, and soon began to experiment with painting. In 1950 Duffy won a place at Central Saint Martin’s to study painting, but realizing his contemporaries were more talented, he switched courses to dress design. His understanding of fashion would reward him throughout his photographic career as he would have a more fundamental understanding of the principles of fashion, like the drape and fall of fabric and playing with proportions.
In 1957 Duffy started his photographic career at Vogue, a relationship that continued into the 1970s; however, he always claimed that he did his best fashion work with French Elle, where his creative and artistic freedom was allowed to flourish. When the Sunday Magazines were established and popularized, Duffy was a frequent contributor and continued his work with all of the major British and US glossy magazines. The surrealistic Benson & Hedges advertisements of the late ’70s and the groundbreaking Smirnoff campaign won Duffy acclaim and awards.
Duffy is perhaps best remembered for his collaboration with David Bowie in addition to his fashion and portraiture work. He shot five sessions with Bowie; the most recognized is the Aladdin Sane album cover nicknamed the ‘Mona Lisa of Pop.’ In 2013, an image from the contact sheet was chosen as the iconic image for the worldwide touring Victoria & Albert museum’s exhibition ‘David Bowie Is’.
Duffy was an eclectic and innovative photographer and one of the few photographers to have shot three Pirelli calendars (the first in 1965 and two more in 1973 for different divisions.) Since the inception of the archive in 2008, Duffy’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide and is highly collectible. Recently he was voted one of the top 100 most influential photographers of all time and well thought of as a ‘photographer’s photographer.’ By watching the Duffy – The Man Who Shot the Sixties documentary, we get a closer look at and understand the highly innovative and bold photographer who was such an independent creative powerhouse, he literally and figuratively set ablaze his own permanent contribution to the world of fashion imaging.