‘Mad Men’, and most recently ‘The Hour’, has ignited an huge interest in the 1950s and 1960s. Whilst the TV series portray the period almost as a glorification of machismo, sexism, excessive smoking and drinking, it also depicts the first signs of radical changes occurring in society. 
The retrospective of Brian Duffy, the London-born photographer who died last year, presented by Idea Generation Gallery (‘Duffy – A Visual Record of the Photographic Genius’) also places this period in the spotlights. It visually captures the Swinging London scene of the 1960s with portraits of pivotal figures in their prime, such as Jane Birkin, Michael Caine and the model Jean Shrimpton.
According to Duffy, as ‘told’, on one of the title cards to a picture he shot for Harper’s & Queen, the “1960s was an immense watershed of change in everything but its emergence was in 1956/57”. Not only was it the period of the first signs of the recovery of the British economy, the start of sexual liberation, children starting to rebel against their parents, and women starting a career, it was also the period where fashion, music and film stylishly blended together. Epitomes of this became The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, psychedelic rock, the mini skirt, the Mods, ‘Blow-up’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Italian Job’ with another British icon, the Mini-Cooper, in the leading part. Duffy’s son commented: “Duffy is essential in the development and understanding of the dynamic visual language that took hold at a time when London was the epicentre of cool.”
Together with the photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan, Duffy revolutionised British photography in the 1960s and his work visually captured the mood and mentality of a period full of bravado, swagger, drive for adventure, sexiness and an irreverence towards authority. This is further conveyed by the amusing title cards of this retrospective filled with quotes and anecdotes of the photographer that provide an insight into the flamboyant character that he was. He could be gossipy (“She [Jean Shrimpton] was beautiful after midday, because she had these terrible bags under the eyes in the morning”), matter of fact (“People always expect when talking about Bowie, some saint-like thing, but he was just a guy who liked dressing up, that’s all”) and self mocking when responding to the question about where he would sit in the annals of photography, Duffy stated: “He wasn’t as steady as a tripod”.
It has not been an easy task to organise this colourful retrospective. Duffy’s son has been searching through archives and publications around the world as his father, at the height of his career, quit photography and took the majority of his photographic work into the back garden and set it on fire.
Duffy is one of an infamous company of artists who have destroyed their work. Francis Bacon disdainful of his work completed before 1944 destroyed it; Claude Monet, suffering from financial hardship, destroyed his art in order that it could not be seized by creditors; Jean Antoine Watteau was persuaded by an abbot to destroy his more erotic paintings. No one better than Duffy himself can explain, with humour, what made him to decide to set his archive ablaze:
“If you burn your bridges you’re fucked aren’t you? It’s very exciting, you can’t escape if you’ve burnt your bridges, you are forced into another set of dynamics. If I start thinking about the fucking fire in my garden I’ll go berserk and have a nervous breakdown. Now this story might be an absolute crock of shit and lies, but it’s the way I’ve been able to put it together in my cranium. I came in to start work, and an assistant said to me “We haven’t got any lavatory paper, bog paper, you know toilet paper,” and I said “Oh Yeah,” and he said, “We haven’t got any”… and I thought “I am either going to kill this bloke, or I am going to kill somebody.”
I realised in a flash that I’d ended up where I am, commander-in-chief, managing director, senior partner in charge of the toilet bloody paper.
And that’s when I decided to knock it on the head, and that I would never take another picture. During the course of the morning I decided to burn all my negatives. I was doing it in the garden, and I thought they’d burn like wood shavings, but it’s very difficult to get paper and plastic to burn.
All this bloody smoke going up, and a neighbour phoned the fire brigade and the Council, who came and stopped me. Bailey happened to come round, and he could see what I was doing, and I think he stood there like a spare dick at an Italian wedding, and said “I could look after those for you,” but I said “Don’t bother”, and he went. I felt everything I had to do and say in photography had been done. I suppose later on I wished I’d kept some negs [negatives]. Looking back on odd things we’ve found, I’d love to have known the sequence of prints, only from an historical point of view. You make decisions in one period that you wouldn’t necessarily make in another. But it’s very stimulating to try something new, it’s interesting to be crazy. The one thing I’ve never done is to make a wrong decision as a single entity.”*
Amongst the 160 rediscovered images there are large black and white prints of 1960s icons such as Brigitte Bardot, John Lennon, William Burroughs and the infamous Christine Keeler (the ‘Profumo’ scandal in 1963). It also features one of Duffy’s most renowned work, David Bowie’s album cover ‘Aladdin Sane’, on which he commented: “I do remember seeing the first contact sheets of the head and shoulders and realising we had a knock out image on our hands I have lost count of how many times it has been reproduced!” It was memorably re-created by Vogue UK starring Kate Moss, just like Bowie, with a lightning strike on her face.
The exhibition also shows that the sexism and machismo of the 1950s / 60s was also present in the photography studio. In the fashion section of the exhibition Duffy is quoted as saying to a model: “All right love, hold your Bristols up more, that looks good”. The former model Joanna Lumley, who posed for Duffy at the time, commented “Duffy, was very frightening but he was the business. The photographers were the stars in those days not the models”.
Times have changed since the 1950s and 1960s with the era of the Supermodel and today where models have become celebrities, for example Kate Moss, and their every move is followed closely by the paparazzi and tabloids.
Written by Thierry Somers
*Passage from the book ‘Duffy’ published by the ACC Publishing Group
Duffy ISBN: 97818514960570, £45. To order a copy call 01394 389977 or go online at http://accpublishinggroup.com
Pictures (from top to bottom): David Bowie, Aladdin Sane (1973); Jean Shrimpton (1963); John Lennon (1965); Michael Caine (1964); Jane Birkin (1965); Christine Keeler
‘Duffy – A Visual Record of the Photographic Genius’, Idea Generation until 28 of August 2011.
200% Magazine issue 2 and 4 feature extensive interviews with the photographers Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Jeff Wall and Hannah Starkey: http://200-percent.com


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