For a a very few days in Bologne, at Gallery Ono Arte, you can admire the fantastic works by DUFFY. The great English artist, not only a photographer, produced three incredible sleeves for three fundamental Bowie albums: he contributed to create the flash of Aladdin, the particular – and really complicated – cover for Lodger and the shots for Scary Monsters. Here you can read the interview to his son Chris, a photographer himself and especially the curator of his father’s archive. Chris, who had the privilege to meet and work several times with David, has been very generous and he diffusely talked with us not only about his father, but also about photography and Art, of when he witnessed the recordings of Aladdin Sane, of what is his opinion of Blackstar, without forgetting when Mr. Stardust himself came to their house to have dinner… Enjoy the reading!
Mr. Duffy, your father was a very talented artist: not only a photographer, but also a painter, and he had a really sharp and unconventional mind. This was probably a thing that helped him to collaborate with Bowie, obtaining amazing results. Am I right?
CD: Duffy was a pupil at the prestigious St. Martins school of art and had an incredible knowledge on the history of art. He and Bowie shared this love and exchanged ideas for hours in the studio and around our family dinner table. David would present to Duffy a very basic idea and my father would create and develop it to another level. David did this with many artists he collaborated with and was always very gracious in allowing those people to take his embryo of an idea and develop it. I think he got the best out of people working this way and this is why Duffy and Bowie collaborated so well over several years. Duffy was also a brilliant technician which allowed him to be so versatile in his approach, he always tried to push the boundaries and produce something new and fresh. In an era of analog photography this was always a challenge as what you shot on the film was what was printed. In my opinion this is a much more skilled art form, today the digital possabilities often lack the creativity and skill of the photographer. A team can later remaster and add to the photographs and you are unsure of the original image. Duffy worked with David on five photographic sessions: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, Lodger and Scary Monsters. Every session produced a completely different concept.
The flash on the face of Aladdin for the sleeve of the album was incredibly simple but absolutely perfect. There are not many other examples so strong in rock history. Still today, and thanks to V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition, that image still makes us dream. It’s a great heritage for a son, and especially for a son who is himself a photographer too.
CD: I feel very privileged to be the guardian of Duffy’s work and the Aladdin Sane image is undoubtedly the ‘Jewel in The Crown’. I was Duffy’s assistant from 1973 to 1980 and travelled the world with him so I became very familiar with ‘his process’. He was not the easiest man to work for and he made no exception for me as his son, however I learnt everything I needed to know in photography from him. When I left him to work as a freelance assistant I gave up within six months as I realized that there wasn’t another photographer that could teach me anything new and I launched my own career as a photographer. In many ways it has now come full circle as I no longer take photographs commercially (although I take pictures all the time for myself) and I run the archive on a full time basis. It’s wonderful to be able to share and evangelise about Duffy’s work. The V&A ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibit has opened up Duffy’s work to a global audience.
Duffy ‘made’ three covers of David’s album. I can’t think about those records without considering the images associated. That aspect was fundamental for David. What about the music for your father? How much did he appreciate it?
CD: Duffy was very pragmatic but you must realise that for Duffy; although he always wanted to do the very best job he could. These were commercial ventures. David came to him because he knew that Duffy would deliver something unique however he didn’t do it for free and for my father it was just another job. In so much of Duffy’s work you can look back now and say “wow, what a great image”, “what a great work of art”, but Duffy didn’t get up in the morning and think ‘right I need to go out and produce some art today’. No, he was a commercial photographer and made his money by delivering great images to a client. Duffy obviously took on board what David was trying to achieve through his music but for David the look and the sound was a total package and what he presented to the world. Duffy was a visual facilitator and the music was secondary. His primary interest in music was Jazz. However I was introduced to David’s music when one Sunday morning his voice was blasting through the house. It’s not often that your father plays ‘cool’ music, as I sauntered downstairs and enquired about the singer Duffy responded “It’s David Bowie. I’m shooting him this week – do you want to meet him?” I didn’t have to be asked twice!
In the interesting book DUFFY BOWIE: FIVE SESSIONS, you told about your presence at the Trident Studios during the recordings of Aladdin sane. I’m bloody envious. I promise to forgive you… but please tell me something!
CD: As you read in the book Duffy Bowie: Five Sessions I first met David at Trident Studios where he was recording the Aladdin Sane album. I arrived early before Duffy had arrived. The receptionist directed me to the studio door, I knocked and David opened the door, he looked me up and down and said “Who are you?” “I’m Duffy’s son, Chris” I replied, “Come in, come in” David said “your father is a bloodly lunatic”… He then directed me to a big leather sofa next to the recording desk while they continued working. Mick Ronson was in the studio wearing headphonesand they were recording the guitar overdubs for the track Let’s Spend the Night Together. It was an amazing experience, one I will never forget and every time I hear that track it takes me straight back to that moment in time. Strangely when I’d started my own career I became friends with Mick Ronson. Tony Defries, David’s former manager started looking after a singer called Sandy Dillon and he asked Mick Ronson to record with her and asked me to take the photographs and shoot a pop video.
I trust your memories from 1973, but I really have some problems to imagine to have dinner with Ziggy Stardust! What were the conversations about?
CD: From 1973 David was starting to go into ‘Superstar’ mode and by the end of the year he was spending all of his time in the US, however there was a period before he left when he would come round for dinner on a regular basis. His stretch limo with blacked out windows would pull up outside and his driver would just sit and wait in the car till David was done. I guess the neighbors must of wondered what was going on! My mum was (and still is) a great cook so I figure he kept coming back for some excellent food. Duffy and David would discuss and argue about art and life until the early hours of the morning. Duffy would always be outrageous and say something very controversial (even if he didn’t believe it) just to make people react so it was never boring in our house! At the time it just seemed so normal as Duffy was always bringing people he worked with home for dinner – John Lennon and Michael Caine would be included on that list – but now in retrospect it feels so extraordinary.
There is an interesting sequence of photos of David sitting on an armchair with a black terrier. Could you tell me anything about the circumstances of that session, that I suppose was shot by chance?
CD: That was so bizarre, we were a week away from finalizing the Duffy Bowie: Five Sessions book and the publishers asked for a picture of me. We have all of Duffy’s work scanned on computers but we also have in the archive original photo contact sheets. Most of the time it is so much easier to look for material on the computer but for some strange reason that day I couldn’t be bothered. I just picked up one of the contact sheet folders and started flipping through to see if I could quickly find an image of myself. Then as I flicked through, a sheet caught my eye and I pulled it out, put it on the light box and looked closely with a magnifying glass. To my amazement it was a series of ‘snaps’ Duffy had shot while he was with David, I had never seen these images before (even though we had scanned this contact sheet). I guess it was a case of not seeing ‘the wood for the trees’, as they say. Looking at the dates of these negatives I am guessing that they were taken in Soho, London, probably at a set designers office. Duffy was about to work on the Lodger project, so maybe they were having a meeting about building the metal frame that supported David in the photographs. I can’t be 100% sure of this but it would seem to fit into the time frame. Either way it was a great find and a fantastic addition to the book. We also produced a print from this series that has been extremely popular… maybe the Scottie dog upstaged David… who knows!
They say the resulting cover of Scary Monsters made Duffy decide not to collaborate again with David, probably because he didn’t appreciate the collaboration with the painter Edward Bell. But I have the suspect that if your father worked again as a photographer, he would produce something else for Bowie. What do you think about?
CD: Duffy had more or less stopped taking photographs by 1980. David asked my father to shoot one more session and he agreed. In many ways I made that happen as Duffy no longer had a studio or assistant, so I assisted Duffy and we used my studio which is now the home to the Cartoon Museum in London. Duffy always knew what was emerging in the art scene and he suggested to David to look at Edward Bell’s work, which was pretty unknown at that time. Ultimately Duffy felt betrayed by Edward as he disregarded Duffy’s vision, created his own agenda and taking credit for the sleeve. It ended with a lot of hard feelings. Duffy then went onto a successful career in furniture restoration (he was self taught) and was a speaker for the highly prestigious assosciation of British Antique Furniture Restorers.
Are there any David’s unpublished photos in the Archive?
CD: The majority of the material has been used either in exhbitions or the book however there is still an amount of unseen work which will be used in an exciting upcoming Bowie project scheduled for 2018. Please have David’s fans check out our website www.duffyphotographer.com and follow us on instagram (duffy_archive) where we announce news.
The Italian edition of the book BOWIE BY DUFFY has omitted the photographic session of Angela Barnett. Why?
CD: That’s a good questio and one that you should ask the Italian publishers? Maybe the images were too explicit for the way the edition was distributed, but the images are on our website.
Considering the obvious differences between the two artists, their ending career had some similarities: a long period of inactivity followed by a great reinassance and then they passed away for a terrible desease. A strange coincidence. Your thoughts about Blackstar?
CD: Yes, that’s so interesting isnt it? In the bigger picture there were many similarities between these two dynamic men. Life and art collide in many strange ways but we are so lucky that their paths crossed and produced such iconic imagery that lives on for us all to appreciate.
I think for all of us the Blackstar has been an extraordinary experience. Initially I felt that this was one of Bowie’s albums where he was trying to push the avante garde boundaries in a music world full of plagerism and banality however as we all discovered, it was so much more than that. A piece of work that revealed itself as his death requiem, quite extraordinary and only something that David could have achieved. Sadly for me there will never be the zeitgeist of another David Bowie. The organic world that allowed David to develop over many years does not exsist anymore. For most aspiring musicians or artists the reality is that the digital and media revolution has given us so much but also destroyed the fundemental environment needed for great artists to mature and slowly come to fruition and produce something revolutionary. Today, in my opinion, it’s technology that changes the world, not art. David Bowie will forever be a true artist.
You can investigate deeper the relations between Duffy and Bowie on the book DUFFY BOWIE – FIVE SESSIONS, published by ACC Editions. Here our review: https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/wonderful-monsters-and-super-sessions-bowie-by-duffy/
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli
[Thanks to Maurizio and all the staff of Ono Arte]