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Brian Duffy: The Man Who Shot The ’60s

March 19, 2010

Blow up: Duffy and assistant at work as a model strikes a pose

Hands up who’s heard of the photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan. No problem there, right? Now, hands up who’s heard of the photographer Brian Duffy. Yup, as a great fan of the culture of the ’60s, rather shamefully, neither had I. For, while Bailey and Donovan became household names, fellow working-class-snapper-done-good Duffy more quietly went about playing a big role in launching the career of Joanna Lumley, producing an iconic album cover for David Bowie and creating some of the most startlingly original ad design work that’s ever been seen.

He may’ve done this relatively quietly, but, according to a BBC4 documentary I saw the other night (why are so many of the really good ones nowadays limited to this channel?), he was anything but quiet in the flesh. Indeed, Duffy was, as the cliche goes, ‘difficult’ – obstinate, blunt, occasionally cruel and pretty sweary. But, hey, he was a top photographer back in the day when it was the snappers, not the models, who were the stars. And he was dry, funny and damn good, so he could certainly get away it.

He started out in fashion and only drifted into photography when he realised he needed a steady job to support his young family and photographing models for a living meant he could combine his love of art, fashion and gadgets. Indeed, his first assignment for British Vogue magazine saw him snap a high-profile conductor; only at the end of the shoot did the snooty subject inform the Cockney Duffy he’d forgotten to take the lens cap off. In spite of such inauspicious beginnings, he rose to become a star snapper in the early ’60s, just when fashion photography was becoming liberated thanks to the style of women’s clothing itself transforming into something more exciting, sexier and, in some cases, shorter than it had ever been before.

Mother and son: Duffy’s portrait of Joanna Lumley and her child, taken in her modelling heyday

Duffy became a contemporary of and good friends with Bailey and Donovan (indeed, Bailey featured and was interviewed in the programme; Donovan didn’t because he sadly passed away in 1996) and, when he eventually went freelance, his studio in the basement of his Swiss Cottage house became a haven of the movers and shakers in the ’60s music, film and art scenes – Duffy’s agent (and later famous film producer) David Puttnam recalled Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Michael Caine were visitors; it was the likes of these that Duffy frequently rubbed shoulders with. Along with Bailey and Donovan, there’s no question Duffy was an inspiration for the David Hemmings character in Michael Antonioni’s classic 1966 film Blow Up.

An idiosyncratic worker, he liked to play old war songs while shooting models and encouraged them to sing along, as Joanna Lumely (in archive footage from the period) recalled. One day he insisted he wanted to shoot her with her toddler son, so the next day she brought him along to the studio and he did just that. As part of the programme, a somewhat cheesy ‘recreation’ of this session was filmed back in the modern day (although it did effectively display the undeniable affection that still exists between the former shooter and the former model). In fact, this wasn’t set up for the documentary itself, but for a long overdue exhibition of Duffy’s work over the years, which was held in January this year at a London gallery.

Towards the end of his first decade in the business he set up a company, through which he successfully moved away from fashion photography and into more experimental work. When, at the height of the ’70s Glam Rock era, he was approached to produce the artwork for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album, he was advised to spend as much money as humanly possible on the project, in order to force the record company to take notice how much their outlay for the album was so they’d take it more seriously. He had no qualms and the leading image he came up with for the project surely has to be one of the most instantly recognisable album covers of all time – not least a pretty influential one.

Glam-tastic: Cover art for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album

There was a disappointing involvement in the filming of the musical Oh! What A Lovely War, for which he only ended up a producer (along with The Iprcess File writer Len Deighton) after instigating the project when he and Bailey watched the original stage version one day and he was blown away by the experience. Unfortunately for him, he was artistically ‘crowded out’ by luvvies; given his Cockney routes, this was the sort of arty crowd he didn’t feel at home with. Richard Attenborough would go on to take plaudits for his work on the film as a debut director. And there was also an unsatisfactory experience in shooting an arty Pirelli calendar in the mid-’70s.

However, Duffy returned to form in a big way, creatively and financially, later in the ’70s with his work on ad campaigns. The biggest success of which was his visually striking, surrealist creations for Benson And Hedges tobacco. So successful was his work, the campaign’s style was effectively borrowed piecemeal for campaigns to come for decades and decades, with its playful mis-sizing of common objects and substitution of specific objects in familiar scenarios with cigarette packets. And, naturally, Duffy produced all his creations without the aid of anything like today’s Photoshop – as was made clear in the programme, he was an artist who liked to solve technical challenges.

But he also feels the idea of photography-as-art is nonsense. Indeed, towards the end of the documentary, he sat looking at a double plug at the bottom of a wall as his exhibition was taking shape around him (he couldn’t attend the opening night owing to health problems) and wryly commented on its artistic merits. To him, it seems, anything can be art if so-called experts declare it to be so – it’s only the art itself, or in his case the images he’s created, that’s the real art; all the chatter around it is crap. He may have a point.

Caged beast: Image from the 1978 ad campaign for Benson And Hedges cigarettes

The programme left you with the feeling that it’s a bit of a pity this great artist (there, I said it) wanted to give the impression he didn’t really think that much of the work he’d created over the course of his career; after all, he seemed rather ambivalent about his exhibition and, when he quit photography altogether at the end of ’70s, he burnt a lot of his negatives in his back garden, at least before (in a very British manner) some dogsbodies from the council turned up and told him to put the fire out. And yet, in spite of this, when talking of his work on the Aladdin Sane album he showed off the original image of the cover with undeniable pride. Unquestionably, then, there’s hypocrisy to the man – just like the decades in which he was active, I guess. In the end, he’s probably most happy talking crap with his old pal David Bailey, like they did back in their heyday – as Bailey said, he usually just sat there while Duffy did all the whining.

In which case, it may be fitting to leave the final words to Duffy himself:

Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three [Bailey, Donovan and Duffy] are different: short, fat and heterosexual

That may say it all…

For more on Brian Duffy, visit:


5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2010 11:47 am

    Great article once again, Georgey. Most informative.

    I’d also recommend checking out Philip Townsend, a great photographer from the 60s.

    Also I rather like Norman Parkinson. His work from the mid 40s to the 60s for Vogue was fantastic, and then on to his freelance work, photographing The Beatles, Stones and more is stuff of legend.


  2. jheed permalink
    June 22, 2011 3:19 pm

    you can watch it here (bbc does not work anymore):


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