A recently opened photographic exhibition at Florence’s Alinari National Museum of Photography celebrates the art of Brian Duffy.
Text by Anna Battista
The Sixties gave rise to the figure of the fashion photographer as celebrity. London, the style capital of the world, was ruled at the time by the “Terrible Three” – David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy – photographers who quickly became known for their lack of reverential respect for the most conservative and conventional aspects of the fashion industry. Often seen hanging around Chelsea with Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon, they represented the epitome of the frenetic Swinging London scene, as they contributed to create fresh and accessible visions of the fashionable self, while their lifestyles turned into sources of inspirations not only for many young people, but also for seminal directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni.
In a 1964 feature on The Sunday Times, the three photographers were credited for having interpreted “the mixture of roughness and chic peculiar to their time”. It is exactly this perfect balance between the raw and the elegant that is celebrated in a recently opened exhibition at Florence’s Alinari National Museum of Photography that pays homage to Brian Duffy.
Designed as a compendium of the life of this artist, “Duffy – The Photographic Genius” includes work from the ‘60s to the ‘70s, divided in different sections from fashion to music, portraits and adverts.
Born in London’s East End to Irish parents, Duffy (1933-2010) first studied painting and then dress design at St Martins’. In the ‘50s he started working for Victor Steibel while freelancing as a fashion illustrator for Harper’s Bazaar. Fascinated by photography, he set out to find a job as a photographer’s assistant, received his first commissions and was eventually hired by British Vogue, while working for other publications such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Esquire, Nova and Queen. He also became a contributor to French Elle, ending up chronicling while he worked for the latter the changes in the world of fashion from haute couture to prêt-à-porter.
During the Swinging London years he redefined fashion photograhy, then shot iconic sleeve art for three David Bowie album covers and award winning campaigns for Benson & Hedges and Smirnoff in the 1970s.
The exhibition at the Alinari Museum opens with his early fashion photography and in particular with some classic shots of models posing in Via degli Strozzi or near Ponte Vecchio in Florence. These first images still seem to have a few connections with more classic fashion photographs like the ones by Pasquale De Antonis.
As the years passed, Duffy started challenging the staid forms of presentation and the pretensions of the fashion industry, injecting a healthy dose of fun and humour in his images for Queen Magazine, and capturing models in unposed action. In one image from 1965 Veruschka is jumping for joy while wearing an Op Art-inspired waterproof jacket, while waifish Jane Birkin in a childish nightgown seems to be weightlessly flying in the air like Peter Pan’s Wendy.
Together with portrait photography – and images featuring William Burroughs, Lartigue, Reggie Kray with his grandfather and Terence Stamp – the other strong component of this exhibition is music with pictures of The Shadows, Nina Simone, John Lennon and Debbie Harry. The best images in this section remain the ones from the “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” shoot featuring David Bowie as an androgynous Harlequin, his angular face a poetic manifesto to an era and a hero, and the covers for “Aladdin Sane” and “Lodger”.
Duffy was commissioned two Pirelli calendars and this exhibition includes shots from the second one created in 1973 with British pop artist Allen Jones, displayed next to the infamous photographs of Amanda Lear stripping, originally devised so that readers could then cut out them and make a DIY flick book.
Quite a few images taken by Duffy became embedded in the collective memory of fashion and music fans, but this exhibition still proves a good opportunity to rediscover some rare ones: in 1979 Duffy gave up photography and burnt most of his negatives, though his son Chris recovered 160 images and selected the 80 photographs exhibited here. The exhibition also includes the documentary “The Man Who Shot the ‘60s” that sheds further light on Duffy’s art.
“Duffy – The Photographic Genius”, Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia, Florence, Italy, until 25th March 2012.
Vogue, Florence, 1962 © Duffy Archive
Jane Birkin, 1965 © Duffy Archive
John Lennon, 1965 © Duffy Archive
Pirelli Calendar, 1973 © Duffy Archive
David Bowie, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980 © Duffy Archive