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Photos of Bowie saved from the flames

Intense black smoke alerted neighbors that something was burning in Brian Duffy’s home. Burning celluloid is not easy. The chemical reaction that occurs when the acids that coat the film burn generates a pungent odor and a dark cloud. His son Chris Duffy says that a great deal of thanks must be given to the neighbors who prevented the disruption his father was causing, for saving a piece of popular culture history.

The labels that don’t eat and don’t let you eat: how a classic record is lost in time

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Negatives of his photographic work from the 1960s and 1970s burned that day: the wild and pop Swinging London nights he shot for himself and Vogue magazine, the portraits of actors and singers that passed through his home, and sessions with David Bowie. . at the exhibition Bowie taken by Duffy there’s a lot of material saved from that burn thanks to Chris coming to the rescue from that destructive explosion.

Brian Duffy maintained an artistic relationship with David Bowie that went far beyond what a photographer usually has with the subject portrayed, explain those who knew them and also experts from that era of music. “David Bowie relates very well, knows how to collaborate, knows how to listen. It is not a relationship between a model and a photographer, but between two artists exchanging energies and ideas”, says music journalist Rafa Cervera in the press presentation of the exhibition, which can be seen from March 15 to June 25 at the headquarters of the Official College of Architects of Madrid.

Brian Duffy took what is considered the most iconic photograph of David Bowie, the one that appeared on the cover of his album Aladdin Sane. At the presentation, his son Chris recalled the most singular anecdote of that session, the one that explains where the album’s title comes from. In 1972, Bowie had just published The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, their fifth album. At the time, he was an important figure, but not a star. As part of the strategy to turn it into one, his manager Tony Defries looked for a photographer who would take him further. He submitted three and Bowie chose the one he felt the most affinity with. He took some early photos for that leg of Spiders From Mars, but they weren’t used. The important order would come for the next album.

And this is where the anecdote comes in. Bowie told Duffy that his new record would be titled For the insane lady (crazy) but the photographer made a mistake, or as the son said in the presentation, he paraphrased, turning into Aladdin Sane, two words that together didn’t make sense, but Bowie would immediately give it to him, thanks in large part to the picture of him on the cover of Duffy. The makeup artist, Richard Pierre Laroche, drew a small lightning bolt on the artist’s face. But Brian Duffy once again got into someone else’s work, erasing the line and drawing a giant in lipstick. This is the success we know. A brilliant album that Franco’s censorship tried to mutilate by eliminating two songs and a photo of the interior, which is why it was not published in Spain until the arrival of democracy.


Duffy knew what she wanted and only had to throw away two loaves, her son explained. The shoot was very quick, with no props or costumes, just makeup and Bowie’s red hair dye. “A mystical photo, in a way,” says Chris Duffy. “A photograph that raises more questions than the answers it gives, which makes the photo an icon”, he points out.

“There is no artist like David Bowie because he understood the importance of the image and explored it very well,” said Rafa Cervera, also a writer, whose novel away from everything rightly has Bowie as the protagonist. “Bowie builds characters and fantasies that are projected onto the audience and that’s what makes him a unique guy, because no one has done that before, although later heirs have come along, like Madonna, who will.”

The period of Duffy-Bowie collaboration extends between 1972 and 1980, in that year, in a way, both phases come to an end. It begins, as already mentioned, with a first approximation when it was still alive Ziggy Stardust. Then comes what Chris Duffy calls “the Mona Lisa of pop” and Rafa Cervera a symbol “that belongs in the popular imagination like Andy Warhol’s banana or the Ramones logo”, which is the flash that breaks David’s face. Aladdin Sane (1973). They return to work together in the singer’s next phase, when he stars in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth and the alien he plays, Newton, allows him to leapfrog to the next incarnation of his career, the Thin White Duke, whose occult influences, which came from the hands of Aleister Crowley, are captured in the exhibit. The display cases also allow you to admire the costume that May Routh made for Newton.


Those interested in photographic techniques will enjoy admiring prints of Brian Duffy’s photographs along with the camera he used for each one. The following collaboration leads, in the exhibition, to appreciating original polaroids taken for the album session tenant (1979), including one that Bowie himself chose to use on the cover and the designer incorporated into the album in postcard form. The odd image for the album cover that Duffy made shows Bowie “in full force landing”, as the texts by former New Musical Express music critic Paul Morley, which accompany the exhibition tour, indicate.

Bowie’s face appears broken, distorted, an effect produced by the fishing line that crushes his nose, and takes advantage of the bandage on the hand that the singer already brought from home, due to a recent burn. In the exhibition, you can learn what techniques Duffy used – none digital – to create that strange falling effect. “Duffy continues to photograph a David Bowie who was not yet himself. Even though he was performing some kind of comeback of whoever he was and wherever he was,” writes Morley.

In a way continuing his father’s work, Chris Duffy witnessed with his own camera the next British post-punk scene that Bowie so admired, the New Romantics, when his father had already retired. With Steve Strange (Visage) at the helm, leading a growing group of young people fascinated by the dramatic attitude and bizarre clothing, they opened a series of clubs, the best remembered being the Blitz, and to which an exhibition space is also dedicated. The room with the photos that Chris Duffy took of Steve Strange follows the story of the night when Bowie visited the nightclub and there did a casting of selected figures for his video Ashes to Ashes, among which Strange himself appears. A story largely told in documentary blitzed! (2020).


The final chapter of the collaboration comes with the scary monsters in 1980, which Duffy did when she was already giving up photography, to use her son’s studio; a circumstance which helped to preserve the negatives. scary monsters it’s the end of the 70s”, explains Cervera. “A decade in which Bowie changes the vocabulary of pop music like the Beatles did in the 1960s,” she adds. The photos of Scary Monsters anticipate the next era of the 80s, in which “the eccentric characters are over, they will be more earthy from that moment”, says the journalist, who points out how a gender fluid Bowie also appears there, a reference Current LGTBI, “a source of inspiration and freedom that has been gaining importance over the years”.

From 1980, Brian Duffy no longer wanted to take pictures. Not Bowie or anyone else. Until his death in 2010, he devoted himself to painting, restoring furniture and teaching antique restoration. 160 minus. He explains his father’s strange reaction because “at that time photography was not considered an art as it is now, he saw it as a job”. “The loss has, of course, an impact on our archives and we are still looking for what was lost among hundreds of magazines of the time”, he explains, and points out that, among what will never be recovered, because it was not published, there are five of the six sessions photographs he took with his friend John Lennon. “There are some nights that I don’t sleep thinking about what was lost”, admits Chris Duffy when questioned by the press, about such a loss of popular culture heritage, in the presentation.

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