duffy the photographer

Photographer-Brian-Duffy-- fashion vogueSo. This is a nod to a great professional who passed away recently, an opportunity to make a point on being an amateur versus being a professional and an excuse to show some neat images.

Duffy. Here is a name most people won’t recognize.

Throughout my career I have been fortunate to see some examples of photography brilliance and the work that goes into getting “that picture” as well as the innate ability to capture “something” that just cannot be explained until it has actually been done.

Photography is one of those things because we all do and we all have that one spectacular picture, that one that captures “something,” in our photo album. This is the photo where someone inevitably says “is that a professional picture?” and doing what these professional people do becomes tantalizingly attainable. We think “well, it cannot be that hard.”

Well. It can be. And the best are the best for a reason. I would imagine ‘best’ is often in the nuance. Sure. I am not talking about the guy who does all the wedding photography who knows how to frame something and gets the right angles (although that is something that begins the difference between pro and amateur) but I am talking about the professional who has the ability to capture the spectacular – in a regular basis.

So who is Brian Duffy?  His photographs helped define the mood of the Swinging Sixties.

Together with David Bailey and Terence Donovan they formed what was called “The Black Trinity”, a trio of photographers who helped shape the image of London in the 1960s with their striking portraits of actors, models and musicians. Duffy created some of the most iconic images of all time including the cover for David Bowie’s 1973 album “Aladdin Sane”.Photographer-Brian-Duffy bowie

Probably the main reason I decided to write about Duffy was he also had some character.

“Cantankerous was a word made for Duffy, it was just his character. You always knew it was never going to be dull with him, because he was always going to pick an argument somewhere down the line. He had that Irish madness about him, he was very quick-witted, and the banter held us three together. Even though he could be grumpy, I remember laughing all the time with him.”

Cantankerous … or maybe an eclectic approach to life seems to go with the great. Possibly a little eccentric (I do have a post on eccentricity coming up).

Oh. And. Controversial.

A Brian Duffy quote: ‘Photography was dead by 1972’

And in 1979 he burned nearly all of his negatives in a fit of anger after an argument with his staff. Although he apparently had a bad temper for everything in this case it was advertising clients who brought out the ‘bad’ when they started insisting he do what they wanted him to do.


Any creative person reading this will be reading and going “boy, I have been there and I wish I had done the same.”

So. Duffy came to photography through art school and was pretty amazing at the theoretical (seeing what could be) and a provocateur (taking chances and trying different things).

But I guess mostly he was an experimenter trying out techniques, poses, situations, everything. In what he called the “insecure-making” world of photography, he says, you have to prove yourself anew with every picture, because anybody can use a ­camera.

So Duffy experimented, until he felt the scope for experimentation had ran out. By the 1970s, he was doing most of his work in advertising – with people he didn’t like, on briefs that bored him. “The more I got into it, the more I ­realized I was hanging out with things I was diametrically opposed to. And they wanted me to keep a civil tongue up their rectum.”

(note: this is when burned everything).

Photographer-Brian-Duffy-- lennonPhotographer-Brain-Duffy-- sammy davis and may britt

How good was he?

He was one of just a handful of photographers to shoot two Pirelli calendars, and was credited for his inventive approach to fashion photography. His work also spanned reportage and advertising, including two award-winning campaigns for Benson & Hedges and Smirnoff in the 1970s. He shot three David Bowie album covers, including Aladdin Sane. The story of his career was the subject of the BBC documentary The Man Who Shot the 60s.

But more than anything he is an example of professional photography and photographers. I would also suggest here that he is an example for pretty much ANY profession.

As he pointed out he took nothing for granted – he understood he would be measured by each photo he took and just because he HAD done something didn’t mean he was owed something. He also shows us that everyone can take one great picture and put it in their photo album to show but taking the ordinary day in and day out and making it something more than ordinary is the sign of a professional.

His photography had a style. And often it was in the nuance that made the ordinary extraordinary.

If you can do it become a professional photographer. But most of us should be content with the one or two we take in our lifetime and understand we cannot do what people like Duffy could do.

Photographer-Brian-Duffy cainePhotographer-Brain-Duffy-- william burroughsPhotographer-Brain-Duffy-- wilson PM 1966

Written by Bruce