Episode #8 of the course Most famous photographers of all time
Brian Duffy was a British photographer whose approach to fashion photography in the 1960s changed the industry. He enjoyed success in the 1960s, then quit photography until shortly before his death. Duffy’s portfolio includes some of the most memorable images of 1960s and ‘70s British icons, including Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine, and The Beatles.
Duffy’s interest in photography began at age 12, when he was sent to a progressive school for troublesome youth. He participated in a therapeutic art program where he learned to draw. He then switched to dressmaking studies and apprenticed to famous dressmakers.
While a freelancing fashion artist for Harper’s Bazaar, he became intrigued by fashion photography. He thought it would be easier than drawing, and he was motivated to “make women look good.” He brought a revolutionary new artistic eye to fashion photography, along with a desire to create an image where it looked like the model “owned the dress.”
At his first photoshoot in 1957, Duffy forgot to take the lens cap off the camera. The darkroom assistant said there was a technical error, so Duffy got another chance to shoot his assigned portraits. He became a regular contributor to French Elle and British Vogue, revolutionizing and invigorating fashion with a youthful exuberance.
Duffy found upper-class images and themes boring and dull and instead looked to invigorate advertising with the strong sense of life that he expressed. He was casual and crass, “in your face” and “cheeky,” and so were his images. He was a perfectionist who did not believe in darkroom manipulation. He would spend hours setting up a shot to get the scale, lighting, and other nuanced elements right.
His portfolio contained two Pirelli calendars and commissions for Glamour, Esquire, and The Sunday Times. Some of Duffy’s most famous work includes the three album covers he shot for David Bowie, including Aladdin Sane, which captures the singer’s theatrics, as well as the famous surrealist 1970s advertising campaign for Benson & Hedges cigarettes.
In the 1960s, Duffy co-founded a film production company and produced two movies. He said that he knew photography was “dead” by 1972 but continued to take commercial work through 1979. One day in 1979, he became bored and disillusioned with fashion photography. His temper snapped when he felt trapped by his career and legacy. Duffy set fire to a pile of his proofs, prints, and film in his garden. When a neighbor requested he put the fire out, Duffy boxed up the damaged remains and stored them in his home’s attic.
For 30 years, Duffy did not take photographs. Throughout the 1980s, he practiced film and videography, including producing commercials and music videos in London and New York. He also became a British antiques certified furniture restorer, restoring mid-18th-century furniture and lecturing on antiques restoration.
It wasn’t until 2007, when Duffy’s son suggested the content in the attic be reviewed and restored, that Duffy’s popularity experienced a resurgence. His work was finally exhibited for the first time in 2009, only months before his death.
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