The youthquake of the 1960s brought us the working-class male fashion photographer. Often the most famous person on set, he could be demanding and rude while wielding his camera like a phallus extension in the face of the rising feminist movement.
Interview MAXINE LEONARD
Photography CLIVE ARROWSMITH
Perhaps by the end of the decade the well-brought-up ladies at Vogue were feeling jaded with this outré laddishness. Then along came Welsh lensman Clive Arrowsmith who, although a self-confessed ‘scallywag’ prone to running amok, quickly proved he had a unique sensitivity that enabled him to light, shade, drape and compose his sittings with the enigmatic poetry of a Renaissance painter. Here, this legendary vagabond locks astrological horns with Maxine Leonard about the beauty and glamour of everything from Bowie to Buddhism.
Maxine Leonard: How did you begin to take pictures?
Clive Arrowsmith: I got a scholarship to Kingston [School of Art]. I have happy memories from those early days. Every year, three art schools got together on open-top buses and went to London on Derby day, then used the buses as stands for the Derby. We would all go and get drunk and this is where I met the Beatles. I started going to Liverpool at the weekends, we would go to a pub called The Crack. I would save my money to go on the bus to Liverpool and we would hang out in their flat. They would sit in the fireplace practising.
ML: Did you have any formal training?
CA: Photography wasn’t something I studied at college. There was a photography department at Kingston but I thought it was a lower [art] form. I was a painter. Somebody in television saw my paintings. I used to work getting coal dust in my lungs from 6am until 2pm, then painting in the afternoon.
ML: Why were you doing that?
CA: Because I had three kids by the time I was 21. I painted until I fell over and then would get up and do it all over again. I would paint huge canvases and, through painting, I understood photography because it’s about shade and tone. I was very influenced by the Renaissance, I was born on the same day as Leonardo da Vinci. When I was little I was given a book of his and would copy all the drawings. I started at a young age. Then one day I was called at home – which I was suspicious of, thinking it was the tax man. It was Derek Cousins at Rediffusion Television and he offered me a job. I worked on Ready Steady Go!, which was a music programme similar to Soul Train. The first pictures I took were of Mick Jagger and Brian Jones as I used to organise the graphics.
ML: So how did you afford the camera and film at that time?
CA: They had a photographic room. We were based in Kingsway and I got some guy to come and take pictures as I needed to do a montage. In the end I couldn’t find the right person, so I thought, I can get my head around this, and started taking pictures. I would borrow the cameras. I didn’t know about lighting. I learnt by doing light readings and making recordings of the light and I would take the idea of light and shade from Italian paintings. I did it all myself, I never assisted. I then started doing illustrations and paintings for Town magazine. I wasn’t aware at the time of Irving Penn or Richard Avedon, who would become my mentors when Grace Coddington introduced me to them.
ML: So how did you meet Grace?
CA: Grace and Vogue’s art editor Barney Wan saw a portrait I had taken for Harper’s Bazaar. David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy were the photographers working at that time. Sometimes people presume I’m the same age as them but I’m from a different generation. I was invited by Vogue to go in and discuss my career with them.
ML: Now with Vogue being ‘establishment’ would you say that at that point you were the anti-establishment?
CA: No, I wasn’t then. It was the ’70s and I wasn’t really like that. There was possibly resentment at the stiffness. I grew up in Wales and it was stiff there too – I couldn’t wait to get out. My first commission for Vogue was to shoot a white collection. I was asked how I wanted to do it and I asked for some white doves. Grace was the editor and we shot in the studios in Vogue House where they had dark rooms.
"The creative process is my therapy after years of hedonism. It’s inexplicable. Art, painting, we feel we’re involved in this pool of creativity and it feeds your true nature."
ML: Did you have budgets to shoot then?
CA: It was all in-house. When we went on location I never knew the budgets but would be told what the restrictions would be. Grace and I went to America: [Norman] Parkinson shot on the west coast and I shot on the east coast. They said, “You have to be photographed going up the stairs on the aeroplane as part of a sponsorship.” So I put the model Annie on the wing of the Boeing. Can you imagine? Health and safety would never allow you to do that today.
ML: That’s the thing, all the rules, it changes the visual language.
CA: Back in the day I would experiment with triple exposures. I would spend all day doing those beauty pictures. Beatrix [Miller] from Vogue would come upstairs to the studio and ask, “What are you doing today darling?” I would show her all the Polaroids and get excited. She would be wearing a black dress and pearls, smoking a Benson & Hedges cigarette, and she would say, “Yes, it’s good but if it doesn’t work you’ll have to do it all again.” I asked an assistant to get me a white sheet, which I draped over myself and used artificial make-up all over me. I made a crown of thorns, got two pieces of wood and made a crucifix. I went downstairs to her office with a bucket of pink Ski yoghurt attached to my feet. I knew they had a new carpet, I pushed open the door, which had a sign that said ‘yes or no’ made out of cardboard, and asked her, ‘Why must thou persecute me?’ The yoghurt went all over the floor.
ML: Were you high when you did that?
CA: Well, I maybe had a few drinks before.
ML: Did you shoot for them again after that?
CA: Not for about a year, but my pictures were becoming successful so they had me back!
ML: How much freedom was there when shooting editorially?
CA: Luckily, I knew art directors like Barney Wan. What I would do was a fait accompli. I would go to the dark room and print three images to show them. Mostly it was OK, but sometimes publications would choose the wrong imagery and I would go spare with them! Maurice Tate, a guitarist in my band at that time, would retouch my pictures and take out imperfections which didn’t take out the structure, but glorified.
ML: Did you have any restrictions when you shot for Nova?
CA: No, Nova was Harri Peccinotti and he would just say, ‘go and do it’. That’s why it looked like that because they were radical and free. If somebody gives you a job as an artist you should be able to go and do it. If you tie a horse up, as soon as you cut the rope, they bolt. You would not say to a great artist, ‘paint a portrait like this’. But because of the medium of photography the dialogue shifts and it’s stifling.
"I notice certain imagery and observe the body of work, but I look at it with a different set of eyes. I’m always running, concentrating on the pictures. I’m being in the moment and thinking about the new."
ML: When working as a team, how do you feel about the idea that all the people involved have the right to an opinion?
CA: That works because with hair and make-up you consult together. Everybody has to feel part of the shoot.
ML: Does your approach to work differ now, given that your hedonistic days are behind you?
CA: No. The creative process is my therapy after years of hedonism. It’s inexplicable. Art, painting, we feel we’re involved in this pool of creativity and it feeds your true nature. I get frustrated if I’m not working with creatives who understand the job. My reputation precedes me from the days of drinking, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Michael Roberts called me a scallywag in the front of my book. He’s divine, I adore him.
ML: Your body of work includes many legends from the music industry and recently you exhibited a series of portraits of Peter Gabriel from 1977. Can you tell me more about these unseen images and the collaboration?
CA: I photographed Peter for Vogue. He liked my pictures and asked me if I would come to Bath to do a shoot. I took one light and a camera. I went down there and he wanted to do something different. I had just seen The Third Man with Orson Welles. Peter dressed in that suit, he looked German, like a boy on the verge of greatness.
ML: When you were shooting these images with Peter did you get a sense of how magical and important that imagery would be?
CA: No, we were just ‘in it’. When I’m shooting, I’m ‘in it’, I’m excited. The responsibility of coming back with the film to the dark room, that’s when you are concerned. The imagery was never published. Then off he went on his rock ’n’ roll days…
ML: So how did you rediscover the imagery?
CA: Eugenie, my daughter, was going through my archive recently. I notice certain imagery and observe the body of work, but I look at it with a different set of eyes. I’m always running, concentrating on the pictures. I’m being in the moment and thinking about the new. When I used to shoot, I would have this film clapperboard on set with me that I originally bought as a joke, and I would mark the frame and clap the board. It wasn’t the days of digital. We’d write the frame on a bit of gaffer tape, finding the image. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting to find the image, it’s a slice of time. I have to hold myself back.
ML: So are you not attached to your archive?
CA: I understand the value of the archive and I’m scanning all my archive now and rediscovering imagery I shot for Ritz and many more magazines. It’s exciting.
ML: You have worked with legends, including David Bowie, His Holiness the Dali Lama and the Beatles. Is there anyone you wish you’d had a chance to work with, or any single sitting that particularly stands out?
CA: I wish I’d had more opportunities to work with David Bowie. I photographed him several times but he was swept away. I saw him at my birthday at San Lorenzo. We went on to a club in Piccadilly. We had a bit of a wild night. I first photographed David when he was in Feathers. He invited me to go to Scotland to the first Buddhist temple – he told me it would cost £2.50 to go. It was during a point in my life when I was partying and I politely declined. Years later, we bumped into each other. I had started to practise Buddhism and he was in the restaurant wearing jewels and sequins with a huge entourage. I asked him about Buddhism but he had converted to Christianity – he thought it was too eastern for him! Nothing is permanent, you have to let go.
"I don’t want to get into looking at all the magazines, I’m my own musician, I run my own race, I do my own thing. Our views of glamour will always differ because you are the eyes of your own world."
ML: You have photographed the Pirelli calendar twice. How much creative input do you get with projects like this?
CA: Martyn Walsh was the creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi. He’s a bright, intelligent man. We went to a costume designer. The budgets for Pirelli were big rubber budgets, rubber money to play with. Budget is helpful. Once, and I digress, I went to shoot for Esquire and they sent me to photograph Sissy Spacek. It was a bloody disaster! They sent me to North Carolina and when we got down there they asked me how I saw it. I said, ‘What I’ve always loved is her red hair, and I see her with a black stallion, with her head against its shoulder and her arm around the stallion’s neck, against the dark stormy sky.’ She was making a film. We waited for three days. She’d been filming a deathbed scene. She eventually turned up, her hair was all shaved off, it was the middle of the night, the stallion was black, the light had gone and all you could see was Sissy pulling a funny face and the horse’s eye in the sky, like a planet. I shot two rolls. She said, ‘I’ve had enough,’ and fucked off back to her limo. I had to write a letter to the editor as we had been there two weeks and run up a huge bill! Every day we went to set and waited. That was a luxury that wouldn’t happen now. Pirelli was shot over the course of two weeks as well.
ML: Did you have a say on casting for Pirelli?
CA: Yes. We had huge castings, we’d go to Paris and eat l’escargot with Roquefort, which is addictive, and we would have the girls walking up and down in lingerie – these were the days of old, remember! We would cast multi-ethnic women. We hired a car and we would drive, looking for locations to build our big sets in. We would erect scaffolding poles with black tarpaulin and the model would be in total silhouette. We would have an enormous generator and a light on a boom. They were like film sets. We would edit the imagery together and I would choreograph the imagery.
ML: There’s a big movement in fashion – long overdue – for recognising the importance of inclusion. Given the era when you photographed for Pirelli, and your body of work in general, what stands out is how diverse the casting was, especially for that time.
CA: Absolutely. I loved photographing Chandrika, who was the first Indian model, and we collaborated for Vogue with Pat Cleveland. I have always been influenced by Asian and dark-skinned models and it’s very present in my work. It was never a conversation. Grace was progressive and she discovered fantastic models who inspired.
ML: Having worked on stills you ventured into directing commercials for brands like Revlon and music videos, including Def Leppard. What was this transition like for you?
CA: I had been in television so I was familiar with a movie camera. I would direct commercials in the early days and won a Silver Lion at Cannes. Making movies are testament and that’s great, but commercials aren’t as rewarding for me. I used to have my own film company in Soho, but my partner ran off with the money the day I was awarded the Silver Lion, which was uncanny. Commercials are peripheral, they are like leaves in the breeze. Great photographs have a memory and longevity. Photographs resonate in a different way. They have depth.
"If somebody gives you a job as an artist you should be able to go and do it. If you tie a horse up, as soon as you cut the rope, they bolt. You would not say to a great artist, 'paint a portrait like this'."
ML: Glamour today has been redefined. What does glamour mean to you? Do you feel it’s relevant today?
CA: Now and again I see something so eloquent and absolutely beautiful and I appreciate the work. I don’t look at the editorials today and see much I relate to. I don’t want to get into looking at all the magazines, I’m my own musician, I run my own race, I do my own thing. Our views of glamour will always differ because you are the eyes of your own world. It’s all relative. I was listening to an interview with Elton John the other day and he’s an avid collector of photography. He said he doesn’t see anything in the present-day magazines that he would collect in terms of buying new imagery.
ML: Elton John needs a copy of Beauty Papers – I don’t think he’s done his homework! Who are your heroes?
CA: My Buddhist teacher and Nicky Vreeland – these people have control in their practice of Buddhism. They have control of themselves and their environment. To be selfless is the most difficult thing to be and do. I admire that. We don’t have control. You don’t, I don’t… well, I don’t know about you.
ML: I definitely don’t! How would you sign off this interview?
CA: I’m genuinely touched by the fact Beauty Papers is doing this. It’s very nice… oh, I sound very Welsh!
ML: I think ‘nice’ is an undervalued word.
CA: Yes. It’s important. Doing this is an evaluation of what I have done. You question the work, but when people celebrate the imagery it’s satisfying. I’m excited to work with you and tell you how to do the make-up on set [laughs].
ML: Remember the two horns, you’re Aries and I’m Capricorn.
CA: The ram and the goat!