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“ In those days, if you wanted to be a pop star it was MICK JAGGER, if you wanted to be an actor it was MICHAEL CAINE, if you wanted to be a hairdresser it was VIDAL SASSOON and if you wanted to be a photographer it was DAVID BAILEY ...”

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Interview by LOU PROUD
Graphic Design & Layout by LAURENCE STEVENS

All images coutesy of John Swannell C 2015

You had to work with the best to be the best. I wrote a million letters to Bailey’s studio with absolutely no response, eventually I saw an ad in the paper for an assistant at Vogue Studios - everyone used to work there at that time, NORMAN PARKINSON used to work there, even CECIL BEATON ... a bit long in the tooth by then, NEWTON used to come over sometimes.

john & bailey - copyright David Bailey


At the time as I was only 19 and there was a policy at Vogue that they didn’t employ anyone under 21 so I had to wait, and then when I was 21, I got a job there. My goal was to work with Bailey. Bailey had his own number one assistant so you were always the second assistant, anyway I kept on trying and trying.


The manager of the studios was a guy called Derek, I was constantly

saying “come on can you give me a break I want to work with Bailey” and he would say, “everyone wants to work with Bailey you’ll have to wait, you’re a new kid you have to wait”. I’ve had so much luck in my life, and again here a bit of luck came in to play -


debbie moore & lindy christensen 1977

Bailey, he was a big fan of IRVING PENN and because he was probably his hero, he became my hero too. I also loved people like BARRY LATEGAN, I loved, all the washed out faces which was very much a style of the time. I started photographing a bit like him, photographing models using the silver board underneath and bleaching out their faces. Actually, Bailey commented at a dinner party once during that time,



“John Swannell spends four fucking years with me and then he goes off and copies Barry Lategan.”


He was really pissed off, I didn’t actually, I copied Bailey more than anything but after a certain time you have to move on. I liked HORST, again a bit old fashioned and all black and white, but it was all about black and white in those days. When I first started it was 80% black and white, that was what I was weaned on, printing my own stuff. I feel it’s sad now, everything is computerized and mechanical.

You shoot everything in colour and flick a switch and voila, the shots are all converted. In the old days you would print ten or twelve prints just to get that one magical image, you’d hang them all out and go down in the morning and see what you had and of course everything looked different in the daylight from the Tungsten. Now with digital however it does save time, it’s either perfect or it’s not, you can get straight to the point. Back in the day though there was a definite excitement ...






It was a natural process really; what happens is when you are working with these beautiful girls – maybe you are doing swimsuits or tight figure hugging dresses you really think – ‘God she looks good in that.’ They are wandering in and out of the changing rooms, having their make up done – sitting there with hardly anything on and would I see these wonderful bodies and I would say to them ‘I’ve got these ideas’ and show them a drawing and discuss it with them, then suggest working on it after the actual shoot – I was lucky because I was working with these incredible faces as well as these bodies.

naked vine 1985

You see MAN RAYs or STEICHEN or whoever and of course that influences you, but I didn’t copy them I had my own thing, although when I did my book FINE LINES, I was always ambitious and I put FINE LINES out pretty quickly. In a way it was almost too early; half the pictures are fantastic and half are okay, but if I’d waited they would have all been fantastic.

But ... the book was the second highest selling photographic book that the publisher put out that year, Helmut Newton’s WHITE WOMEN was the first.

We had a tremendous row with the publisher as they were against the title FINE LINES – they didn’t understand it, it almost got to the stage where it wasn’t going to happen but it had to be FINE LINES as that’s how I saw these ‘fine lines’ of these beautiful women.


If you look at the book now, I printed everything a stop too light – it glows, that was the fashion at the time – now I print those images a stop darker which is a bit more gutsy and earthy and richer etc ... I think for me it was a bit wishy washy and that’s why I wish I’d waited a bit. This is always the one that the old guys come up with under their arm when I do lectures or talks – they say this is the book that inspired them to work in the business.


There are masters out there and we are so lucky, it’s such a new medium not like painting. All the books and the references are there, you can look up all these people on the internet not that we did when I was taking pictures but I got all the books – we have all those guys BRANDT, STEICHEN, BLUMENFELD, we definitely took something from them, we all do. Just like PICASSO took something from BRAQUE and all his mates. We look at MAN RAY and he would look at people like JEAN COCTEAU.

Of course MAN RAY really wanted to be a painter, didn’t he?


So many photographers want to be painters! We are a weird bunch – Bailey paints, Lartigue loved painters, Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, they have this desire to do this but compared with their photographs their paintings aren’t so good.



Swannell, Lou Proud, AD Laurence Stevens, LSD, BAILEY, NYC


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