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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 ...”
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.
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 -
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 ...
“... YEAH I THINK I’LL ALWAYS PHOTOGRAPH THE NUDE AS LONG AS SOMEONE’S WILLING TO TAKE THEIR CLOTHES OFF - NOT MALES THOUGH I USED TO LEAVE THAT TO HERB RITTS ...”