Proud Gallery, Chelsea boasts an array of rare, unseen portraits by the late fashion and music photographer Brian Duffy. But with high fashion, high celebrity status and high prices ever present, what does this exhibition say about the worth of mainstream photography?
By Michael Barrow
As a prospective buyer, collector or general vintage pop culture buff, you would certainly be interested in the collection gracing the ground floor space of ‘Proud’ Chelsea.
A fine location for any creative venue looking to puff out its chest and display what it has to offer, the relatively small space lies but a stone’s throw from that oh-so modest of contemporary art galleries, the Saatchi, and finds itself swallowed up by an area of London playing host to a plethora of boutiques, high-street fashion conglomerates, eateries, bars and other such recreational dwellings, perfect for the midday, mid-week shopper. Make no mistake- a signature on the face of bourgeois London- Chelsea is no place for the tight fisted.
It’s of little surprise then, that a gallery displaying prints from one of the most prominent fashion and music photographers Britain has ever produced-Brian Duffy- should go down swimmingly with the likes of ‘Mrs Yummy Mummy Money-Bags’ looking to spend some cash on a throwback to her youth, as much as it would any keen photography and/or pop culture buff.
Operating on two floors, (the lower of which accommodates a permanent collection) Proud Chelsea gives rise to the visiting photographer. From the Kings Road a recognisable streak of colour bolts through the gallery front. Hard to ignore, the portrait, nay… the beacon, burns and gleams in peripherals. An image loaded with stories of years past, memories lost. A time when music was better, smoking was cool and art more poignant! Welcome to Proud Chelsea.
The frankly gargantuan Bowie, (Aladdin Sane Album Cover, 1973) welcomes your every sheepish step over the gallery threshold and sucks you in with a flamboyant tractor-beam. At a cool four-and-a-bit thousand pounds and touching a meter each way, the almost shimmering portrait is impossible to ignore and once digested, is cemented appropriately at the summit of the Chelsea showcase as we begin to recognise a number of other prints that mirror the content. These iconic faces sit, perhaps more modestly within their ‘white-cube’ environment, relics to the moments that shaped their historic stories.
Any which way you choose to approach the display, one constant rings true; celebrity, in any context or photographic format, sells. It intrigues each and every one of us, the great ‘unwashed’. We form opinions over it in the news, flick through it in magazines and romanticise it in fashion glossies!
In this context an appreciative love of music or fashion-fame can take centre stage over photographic technique and ability, which could potentially be a danger, depending on the nature of the gallery and the intentions of the photographer. For the not-so photographically informed, shots such as the ones to grace the majority of Prouds exhibitions, will inevitably draw attention from a wider span of audiences, who are able and willing to purchase. It’s with this in mind that I can’t help but feel a little uneasy. The want to own a print of such financial and dimensional magnitude, as the Bowie is, is surely spurred on by one thing only; the unequivocal, animal thirst for status by the bucket-load.
Hardly an unimaginable conversation now is it? ‘Darling, let’s have Dylan in the Drawing Room and Bowie in the Bathroom. Lennon can grace the Lounge.’
And with photography as distinguished a contemporary art form as any, owning a signed print of any global megastar, shot by a dead photographer whose entire collection came under self inflicted jeopardy (Duffy ignited his negatives in 1979 in an act of resignation) is sure to have investment advantages, if nothing else! So what does the Chelsea exhibit provide the general public?
In an environment where fame is present, fame will also sell. But whether looked at with a keen aesthetic eye or logically through huge dollar-sign-pupils, one thing is unarguable: These images are rare pieces of photographic memorabilia, tribute’s to (and memory for) a period of time passed, not just giving light to the zeitgeist but acting as a yard-post in the career of a great photographer. And within this less than humble exhibition lie a number of examples which, certainly to my mind, commemorate this unquestionable talent.
Essentially scoffing from the trough of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Duffy along with David Bailey and Terrance Donovan, are referred to as the pioneers of photography for swinging London, taking to the streets and capturing high fashion and celebrity chic with 35mm kit. Hardly a breakthrough in the world of photographic exploration, the candid, street-photography techniques had been shaping the lens based world for over half a century prior. But with the intent of shooting as a means to an end (media publication) a new direction was formed which brought to the general public an accessibility to the beautiful and famous, through a means of recognition which sat almost juxtaposing the simple ‘look at this shot of a celebrity!’ themes.
A studio shot of Jane Birkin (1965) stopped me in my tracks at Chelsea and brought on a real, genuine period of reflection seldom materialised in these circumstances. The actress/singer is positioned gracefully aloft in a moment of elegance and nimble feminine poise. Her arms raised and head positioned as though peering solemnly into the studio’s concrete floor, a magnificent, sweeping arch is created from neck, through the torso and to the tip of the left foot which crosses behind an arrow-straight right. I was intrigued by the shot. Its beauty came as a result of its simplicity, which in itself seemed to come as a result of two things, the first obviously being Birkin’s alluring form.
The second came as a result of the cropping of the image. The edges of the studio backdrop are visible and from each side inanimate objects can be identified. Studio tools, unglamorous and hard, sit imposingly.
The real, now pierces the choreographed. In this moment of beauty, a gap is bridged between fashion and life, photographer and photographed. Not just confronted with a recognisable face/figure, the audience are able to place context and relate to time and space. What might have been, assuming all ‘studio photography rules’ are obeyed, a beautiful floating body now becomes an action, performed in an instance and photographed, by a presence we can almost feel or relate to (as if we ourselves are peering through the view-finder). Flesh and blood. Accessibility at last!
I was starting to see the appeal.
Jean Shrimpton, pressed up against a shop front on Edgware Road (1960) stares provocatively into the lens as reflections mimic the outside world and passing cars give life to a journey travelled and question the one yet to be taken. In the East End a couple of inquisitive madams stand either side a figure adjusting the awning to the fruit and vegetable shop (Models on the Street, 1961), roadwork implements obstructing the foreground, a gritty comment on urban maintenance surrounding high trend.
Duffy’s photographs are ones centred on beauty of all kinds; design, personality, creativity and, most importantly for me, the everyday, the quotidian. Giving birth to a breed of photography that takes fame to the street and includes history and story even within studio shots, it’s this line of work which, as far as I’m concerned, surpasses the simple status of ‘owning a Bowie’. The general public have always been available and willing to gaze through the glass wall from waking life to romanticised glamour. It’s a form of entertainment to view examples of the seemingly unreachable world beyond, where make-up is flawless and context is a dead narrative. This is the intrinsic nature of celebrity status upon the masses and it will never die. There will always be a market it.
But when a connection is made between ‘us and them’, when the glitz and glamour of fashion, music, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is contextualised, surely this is when we really start to look.
‘Duffy: The Lost Portraits’ runs at Proud Chelsea until the 13th May 2012