Brian Hiatt, A PORTRAIT OF BOWIE, Octopus, 2016
Hardcover, 290x248x mm, 1524 gr, 224 pagg, £ 25,00
Bowie treated every photo, every TV performance, as a creation in itself – not as a mere promotional adjunct to the music.
This volume was published in October 2016, one of the many books regarding David Bowie that were issued during the same year. The publishing industry obviously exploited the situation, and some publications did not certainly stand out for their originality or accuracy.
Still, we have to acknowledge that a complex, interesting and multifaceted personality like Bowie undoubtedly deserves special attention and study, and a few books certainly cannot be sufficient in accomplishing that goal. Doesn’t any photographer who captured this great artist on camera deserve a publication? I am probably exaggerating, but some famous photographers – Steve Schapiro, Terry O’Neill, Andrew Kent and Gijsbert Hanekroot – have recently benefited from this (not forgetting the umpteenth – but always essential – release by Mick Rock), and they won’t certainly be the last to do so (it wouldn’t be bad to see a collection of the remarkable photos of Lord Snowdon, who passed away some days ago).
I have to confess that, while my collection of books about the White Duke literally doubled in a few months, this title wasn’t at the top of my list. Nevertheless, once A PORTRAIT OF BOWIE was in my hands, I was very positively surprised. I have a soft spot for big, heavy books, those with a beautiful hardcover like this one.
Brian Hiatt, journalist for Rolling Stone USA, presents here a collection of very interesting interviews and contributions on David by musicians and other artists who collaborated with him in different ways; through their words, not only we can discover details about his artistic career, but also unknown facts about David Robert Jones, the man. From his lifelong friend George Underwood to the producer Nile Rodgers, from the trustworthy Gail Ann Dorsey to the pianist Mike Garson, but also the drummer Zachary Alford, the coreographer Toni Basil, Carlos Alomar, Dana Gillespie, Earl Slick… They are all people who intertwined their artistic activities with that of the Thin White Duke, often in different – but likewise significant – moments of his career.
Every contribution is not a short, didactic story, but a full-lenght chapter; Underwood’s words, for example, exceed ten pages, and in them his former schoolmate recounts his version (never before heard) of young David’s story: the first steps in the music scene with the Kon-rads, but also their walks along Bromley High Street as teenagers, pretending they were the Everly Brothers’ backing singers just arrived from the States, to attract girls and show off their American “accent”.
Not surprisingly, in this section we find the story of his left eye accident, but it is embellished with many other details, together with other significant events, like the bizarre encounter of the two friends with Vince Taylor, a key element in David’s mind for the creation of Ziggy Stardust. Every chapter is accompanied by many big photos, often rare ones; moreover, each photo has a detailed caption contextualizing the time of the story told and often includes interesting information about the photo itself. We can read contributions not only by collaborators, but also by colleagues like Debbie Harry (with Chris Stein), Cindy Lauper and Robin Hitchcock – musicians who crossed Bowie’s path (like Blondie did in a 1977 tour) and who couldn’t but admire his greatness, paying homage to him in their latest live shows.
The merit of this book is the fact that it highlights Bowie’s importance not only from a “photographic” perspective (contributions by Masayoshi Sukita, Brian Ward, David Wedgbury, Denis O’Regan, Greg Gorman, Justin De Villeneuve, Kevin Cummings, Anton Corbijn, Fergus Greer, Michael Putland, Marcus Klinko, …), but also from a “pictorial” one. In fact, there is also the portrait of Bowie by Human League’s founder Martyn Ware (we discover here he curated the sound part of the David Bowie Is exhibition) and the one by Derek Boshier (who had worked for the cover of the album Lodger). Both their contributions are also in words. Furthermore, there are paintings by Underwood, Mark Wardel, Edward Bell, Peter Howson and also a graphic project by Rex Ray. The most bizarre portrait is maybe the one by US artist Chuck Connelly, begun when Bowie went in his studio in New York in 1983 and finished only now, after his death, 33 years later. It is a triptych where David is portrayed as a smiling boy, a sad White Duke and, finally, in an empty “Blackstar silhouette”, as to emphasize his absence. For Hiatt, anyway, the painting which gets closer in capturing Bowie’s essence is the abstract work by Stephen Finer (from the National Portrait Gallery, London): an overlapping of heavy brush strokes where it is impossible to recognize the subject’s face, since the painter’s effort was aimed at capturing the experience of his encounter with David and representing the stages of his kaleidoscopic career.
At the end of these 200 pages, two things maybe stick in one’s mind more easily; first of all, Gail Ann Dorsey’s affectionate words for her mentor and friend, and in the end, the sweet smile David gave to the photographer Carolyn Djanogly in 1999. It is pointless for you to go and search for this particular photo on the Internet, since you won’t find it: at least for this time, you will have to open a book and browse through its beautiful pages.
When David Bowie died on 10th January 2016, our loss was nearly immeasurable. This book stands as one of the first attempts to take that measure; to turn and face the strangest chance of all: the idea of a world without any more version of David Bowie.
(translation by Rachele Mura)