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Matinee: 'Brian Duffy: The Man Who Shot the Sixties' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

18 January 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the sixteenth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Brian Duffy: The Man Who Shot the Sixties.

Just short of an hour, this production was released in the same year Duffy died. In a few clips, as he discusses his career, you can detect a shortness of breath from the degenerative lung disease that claimed his life.

But the fire is still there.

The story he tells of shooting a portrait of Otto Kemperer for Vogue is not the recommended way of breaking into the business. The noted conductor insisted on being shot with a Leica, which Duffy had to borrow. But unfamiliar with the equipment, he forgot to take off the lens cap as he struggled to capture a subject who suffered facial paralysis.

Kemperer noticed the lens cap but didn't say anything until he was on his way out the door. And when Vogue editor Audrey Withers called Duffy into her office, he feared he'd lost his job after just three weeks.

That's not how the story goes, though. The boys in the darkroom pulled a fast one and even the Leica comes through in the end.

The Leica isn't the only camera in the film. Bonus points for identifying them, including the digital gear that inevitably makes an appearance.

Duffy profited from his background in art school studying painting and fashion design when he took up portrait photography. He knew, he says, how a dress would fall.

He may have shot the sixties, as the production's title has it, but he didn't do it alone. David Bailey and Terence Donovan were the other two in the trinity that was as famous as the stars they photographed and the publications they worked for.

Bailey, who appears throughout the film, describes him in a single world: "difficult." That's what made him the most interesting of the three, former fashion editor Molly Parkin insists.

Bailey and Duffy even get together for a little chat midway through the film to reminisce. And they're both difficult.

But the stories are not to be missed.

Duffy's tale about shooting the David Bowie portrait for the A Lad Insane album had us smiling as if we were on the way to the bank. And his insistence one young model sing for him during the shoot is a technique we haven't seen mentioned elsewhere.

His career spanned twenty years, he calculates, shooting mostly advertising. "Crap," he sums it up. He came to dislike his clients. He became bored.

So one day he took all his boxes of negatives, piled them in the back yard and burned them. A critical moment in his career? "Not really," he says, being not so much difficult as reflective.

After 1978 he didn't take another photograph until the end of his life. That's also when he has his first show, thanks in part to his son Chris, who started the Duffy Archive to salvage his legacy, collecting negatives and contact sheets from the publications Duffy worked for.

It's a touching moment when he sits in the gallery, short of breath, as his work is being hung. Don't believe anything an artist tells you, he warns, after an hour of listening to him in the film. "The work is the statement," says the man who burned boxes of his.

But the epitaph he gives himself at the very end is, perhaps, the last word.

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