Brian Duffy




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Anarchist, furniture restorer, trained dress maker, painter, atheist, amateur forger, Marxist, reformed thug, brain, Irish East Ender, father, fashion illustrator, film producer, advertising director, photographer Brian Duffy was a blizzard of talent and contradictions. Fast-talking and controversial, he was also something of an enigma. Those involved in the media during the 1960s and 70s remember him as a cutting-edge fashion photographer, equal in stature to Terence Donovan and David Bailey the three of them sharing Norman Parkinson’s soubriquet, ‘The Black Trinity’. But few know what became of him since he retired, what they do know, however, is that he was thought to have burned all his negatives.

It is ironic to consider that this act, so final in its nature, has kept Duffy’s flame burning throughout the intervening years albeit quietly. In 1979, Duffy was in charge of a successful studio that employed several people. He travelled abroad constantly and business was good. One day Duffy was told by a junior employee that they had run out of lavatory paper, and he finally snapped tired of the profession anyway, he unreasonably reasoned that the most important contribution he could make to proceedings was lavatory paper. Soon after, he built a bonfire in the backyard of his studio, and began to throw his negatives into the flames. David Bailey happened to visit that same afternoon and remonstrated with his friend, but to no avail. It was only after a neighbour complained to the Council, and their inspectors came to investigate the thick clouds of acrid smoke, that Duffy was thwarted in his attempt to wipe out all traces of his career. Those that were not burned were consigned to boxes where they languished until 2007, when his son, Chris, recognised their value. It is a body of work that is unique in its energetic, masculine style, and it shows Duffy to be one of the true innovators of the 1960s pop-culture aesthetic. Whilst we can only wonder at what treasures were burned, it is enough to marvel at those that survived.

Early Life

Brian Duffy was born in 1933 to Irish immigrant parents, in the East end of London. The household was highly politicised, not least because his republican father had done time as an IRA man. Additionally, his mother was from Dublin, which inevitably caused further friction. Both were strict Catholics, and Duffy was brought up in a typical working class family. As a child, he was a self confessed rogue, particularly when his father left to fight in World War II. Free from patriarchal control, Duffy and his friends roamed the streets of London, acting like “little thugs”, and having a “great time”. He remembers glamorous American soldiers everywhere, their peculiar swearing, and the exciting magazines that they read predictably he had little time for education. However, in the first of the many unlikely events that colour Duffy’s life, at the age of twelve he was enrolled at an early version of a progressive school in South Kensington, run by the London County Council. Staffed by injured ex-servicemen it aimed, amongst other things, to introduce “problem children” to the arts. Duffy was taken to art galleries, the opera, the ballet and museums, and was immediately entranced he began to paint. And so, a few years later in 1950, Duffy the scamp went for an interview at Central Saint Martin’s in the Fields to study painting. He got in easily.

The milieu into which he was thrown was instantly appealing his fellow students had long hair, anarchic tendencies, intense politics, and a chronic passion for art. Although he did not know it at the time, it was a significant moment for British Art Duffy mixed with Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Joe Tilson, and Len Deighton (who became a lifelong friend). During his foundation year, he also learned a healthy appreciation for what he called “artspeak” his new friends spoke an articulate language that referenced art history, critical theory, and sought to legitimize what they did in their studios. Whilst much of this was no doubt dubious, it taught Duffy an important truth: sounding like an artist was half the battle in becoming one. This had a healthy impact on Duffy’s intellectual education as he sought to train himself as an intellectual, something that remains an obsessive pursuit even today.

It took a number of years for Duffy to discover that photography was the best outlet for his newly found creative urge, and he spent the majority of his three years at Saint Martin’s studying fashion design which eventually gave him an edge as a fashion photographer. After college, Duffy blew in and out of several jobs in the fashion business, including working for Princess Margaret’s designer Victor Steibel and producing fashion drawings for Harper’s Bazaar, learning the business in the process and meeting the right people. He also began dabbling with photography.

Vogue and Early Photographic Career

Duffy’s son, Chris, was conceived in 1955, and merely by coming into existence began to influence his father’s career Duffy had just started an apprenticeship in Paris with his favourite designer, Balenciaga, but had to leave this on the news. Money was needed for his new family in London, and so he returned to continue drawing for Harper’s Bazaar. It was during this turbulent period that Duffy was inspired to take up photography as a more lucrative career. Duffy underwent early photographic apprenticeships with a variety of commercial operations. He spent a short time with a photography company called Cosmopolitan Artists. Duffy enjoyed more success at Artist Partners, an illustration firm where he worked with Adrian Flowers to photograph products and scenarios for the company’s draughtsmen to then copy and turn into advertisements. Unlike Terence Donovan and David Bailey, Duffy was turned down for a job by the fashion photographer John French, whose studio had become the major training ground for young photographers in London at the time.

It is testimony to Duffy’s skill, ambition and nerve that by 1957 he had secured himself a contract with Vogue, after engaging the interest of the magazine’s art director, John Parsons. Charged at first with photographing everything and anything, Duffy found himself in the intoxicating creative environment of Vogue Studios, where he encountered some of the great photographers of the age. He worked closely with the models Jennifer Hocking, Pauline Stone, Joy Weston and Jean Shrimpton. At this time Duffy also began mixing regularly with David Bailey and Terence Donovan who were following similar career paths. In fact, it was he who introduced Bailey to Shrimpton, and they went on to become one of most famous celebrity couples of the 1960s.

Much has been written on the impact that the three young dynamos had on Vogue, photography and London’s burgeoning creative scene particularly the work and lifestyle of David Bailey. However, being a little older, it was Duffy who in fact led the way. The three re-defined the role of the photographer, and became as well known as the actors, models, musicians and members of royalty that they photographed. They also played a major part in developing the 1960s fashion aesthetic, sexualising the human body and capturing through photography the wider concerns of their generation. Duffy, Donovan and Bailey were thought of as a unit of three renegade, working-class photographers tearing up an effete industry with little regard for the pretensions of the old-guard. Norman Parkinson referred to them as “The Black Trinity”, while Cecil Beaton, in his 1973 book The Magic Image, remembered them as “the terrible three”. Duffy himself said at the time, “Before 1960 a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual.”

Whilst their punchy, dynamic photography suited the mood of the times perfectly, Duffy is certain that they also owed much of their success to the patronage and political sympathies of Audrey Withers. The editor of Vogue from 1940-60, she had been the woman who steered Vogue through World War II and championed the photographs of Lee Miller. Although she was nearing the end of her career there, and realised that her taste belonged to a dying world, she had one final triumph up her sleeve. Despite being in a position of great social power and standing, Withers was well known as a Labour voter, and was largely uninterested in the fripperies that were associated with her job. Duffy was convinced that she was attracted to their working-class roots and unpretentious demeanour, opening doors for them within the snooty, twin-set and pearls atmosphere of Vogue House in Hanover Square, thereby bringing on a revolution in the industry. He also assigned huge importance to the innovations of Clare, Lady Rendlesham, the magazine’s fashion editor. She developed a sub-section in the late 1950s called “Young Idea”, which opened up the magazine to a new generation of readers, and supported young designers such as Mary Quant and Foale & Tuffin. The section expanded rapidly throughout the early 1960s, and Bailey, Donovan and Duffy were its principal image-makers.

By 1963, Duffy was still under contract, but had moved into his own studios in Swiss Cottage where he began to develop a successful business of his own. In addition to Vogue, Duffy began to work for French magazine, Elle, under the control of art director Peter Knapp. This arrangement suited Duffy well, and he preferred the atmosphere of Elle to that of its London rival so much so that he almost completely transferred his allegiance to the magazine after 1965, settling into a lucrative professional relationship that included a good deal of European travel. He had also engaged David Puttnam as his agent, ensuring a steady stream of work.

In the first half of the decade Duffy’s fashion pictures had led the way in mixing his street-based aesthetic with close cropped compositions, exaggerated angles, and somewhat theatrical poses. He also occasionally indulged in the white-background, studio minimalism beloved of Bailey and Avedon. The move to Elle signalled a change of style that by 1970 had moved on, with the fashion industry, to emulate the colour-based, soft focus style that was pioneered by photographers like Barry Lategan although Duffy continued working for Elle until 1979, it was during the early 1960s that his work as a fashion photographer was most influential.

During the Elle years, Duffy developed a significant reputation for commercial advertising photography from his London studios. In both 1965 and 1973 he was commissioned to shoot the famous Pirelli Calendar, and he worked closely with advertising agencies Collett Dickenson Pearce and Young & Rubican to produce award-winning commercials for Smirnoff and Benson & Hedges. Duffy also began to branch out into other industries, which may signal the first signs of his dissatisfaction with photography. In 1967, he set up a production company with his friend Len Deighton called Deighton Duffy. The company ran until 1971 and produced the film, Only When I Larf (1968) with David Hemmings and Richard Attenborough, and the musical, Oh! What A Lovely War (1969). He also continued to photograph for a variety of publications including The Sunday Times Magazine, Telegraph Magazine, Observer, and Harper’s Bazaar.

Later Life

Duffy eventually left photography because the lifestyle was making him unhealthy, but also because he began to dislike the highly commercial, cut-throat advertising world that he inhabited. His commercial work of the 1970s is of a high standard, and is more idiosyncratic than that of Donovan and Bailey, who found themselves following the fashion rather than dictating it. Nevertheless, one can detect that the once exciting world of photography had become routine. Perhaps as a result of this, it is Duffy’s personal work from the period that stands out in particular, and forms one of the most important and interesting bodies of work in his archive. Rooted in the modernist aesthetics of Americans Paul Strand, Robert Frank and Walker Evans, Duffy experimented at length with finding the beautiful in the apparently banal as a personal exercise in the intellectual process of photography. The pictures from this period are an investigation into the mysteries of photography, an attempt to shock the viewer into appreciating something that they would normally find boring. He was also trying to understand the impact of black and white, how taking colour away from an everyday scene can add to it and give it additional resonance and power. Most of all though, they are the polar opposite of the glossy, colour photographs that his clients demanded.

Nevertheless, by 1979, Duffy had had enough of photography altogether and, ever the anarchist, made that fateful trip into his studio back-yard. Brian Duffy died in May 2010, after suffering from the degenerative lung disease pulmonary fibrosis.