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Storyteller | Clive Arrowsmith

‘Photography: my magnificent obsession’

Legendary photographer Clive Arrowsmith has been right at the epicentre of the worlds of fashion and music for decades. His work provides a telling insight into a remarkable period of change.

Clive Arrowsmith is the ultimate witness to the golden age of fashion and music that existed throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – a man who not only documented some of its excesses but who also, along the way, starred in a few of them too. His pictures from that era reveal his closeness to some of the leading characters of the time, lending his work unique insight.

The biggest pop stars and celebrities of the day were not just his subjects but very often also his personal friends, and his favoured Hasselblad faithfully recorded the encounters and gave the rest of us a privileged view into the lives of those who fashioned those extraordinary times.

© Yoko Ono by Clive Arrowsmith

Now Clive has gone back through his archives to rediscover some of his best work, and much of it, along with his fascinating personal notes that tell the story behind each shoot, can be found in his latest book, a mighty and seminal tome entitled Arrowsmith: Fashion, Beauty and Portraits.

“I started out wanting to be an artist,” recalls Clive. “I did a foundation course in painting and design at Queensferry Art School, but at the weekends I would head to Liverpool because that’s where everything was happening. It was in an art school pub called The Crack that I met Stuart Sutcliffe [the original bass player for The Beatles]. He heard that I had nowhere to stay so he offered me a place to sleep at the ‘squat’ opposite Liverpool Cathedral that he was sharing with John, Paul and George. This was at the time when they were calling themselves The Quarrymen, and through that I eventually got to know them all.”

© Paul McCartney by Clive Arrowsmith

On leaving Queensferry Clive was awarded a scholarship by Kingston College of Art to study painting, illustration and graphic design.  But after a brief stint of exclusively painting he found it impossible to make a living so he found a job working as an art director on the iconic Rediffusion Television/LWT music show: Ready, Steady, Go.

It was here that he first acquired an interest in photography, taking pictures behind the scenes as some of the legendary names of sixties pop passed through.

© Mick Jagger by Clive Arrowsmith

“Beatlemania was then at its height,” Clive recalls, “I had often said to my work colleagues that I knew The Beatles really well and no one believed me. Eventually they made their debut on the show and Paul came on to the studio floor, at which point one of the PA girls walked up to him and said, pointing at me: ‘He says he knows you’. Paul looked straight at me and exclaimed: ‘Spike (their nickname for me), what are you doing here? He insisted I go to the dressing room where John, Paul, George and Ringo were hanging out. After the show, we all got together and we then left them back at their hotel and I had all the buttons ripped off my clothes by the massive swarm of fans outside.”

© Sammy Davis, Jr. by Clive Arrowsmith

Choosing a Camera

As his passion for photography developed Clive realised he needed a camera that matched his ambition, and it had to be a Hasselblad. “There was simply no competition,” he notes. “I saw a second-hand one in the window of a camera shop in The Strand in London and walked past it for three months before I managed to raise the deposit. Then I had to struggle to pay for it, but it was my ‘gun’ of choice and I was delighted with it. In fact I loved the camera so much I still own it.

“The quality you could get from the 2 ¼ square negative was extraordinary: even now when I look back at some of my early work, shot on Kodak’s ISO 32 fine grained Panatomic-X film, I can’t believe the detail that’s been captured. There’s a picture of Dame Sybil Thorndike, for example, where every line and every wrinkle in her face is revealed, and I remember spending all night in my darkroom and using up three boxes of paper before I achieved exactly the print I wanted.”

© Bianca Jagger by Clive Arrowsmith

As with all of his other photographic skills, Clive taught himself how to print through trial and error, staying behind late at night for six months after Ready, Steady, Go had finished recording, to use the TV studio’s darkroom – until he finally got the hang of it all.

He broke all the rules with his approach to his craft simply because no one had ever explained what the rules actually were. And achieving the results he wanted in-camera, wherever possible, was one of his specialities long before the arrival of Photoshop allowed such trickery to be carried out in postproduction at the click of a mouse.

© Donna Mitchel Paris Collection by Clive Arrowsmith

“My time as a painter taught me everything I needed to know about photography,” he says. “On one occasion I set up a line of three Hasselblads focused on different elements, each set against a black background. I then produced a triple exposure by shooting each individual object separately and not winding the camera on, instead taking the magazine off and exposing it in the next camera. Repeating this process and constantly checking with Polaroids took a whole day until I’d created the montage I’d conceived. No one else worked in this way at the time, but the approach seemed logical to me.

“I also paired a 150mm lens with my Hasselblad and would get low to the ground and look up at my subject so that it made them look taller and more elegant. This was not the accepted way of doing things at all. The fact that I’d never been an assistant helped because I hadn’t had anyone tell me what I should be doing. Plus, I was too headstrong and self-opinionated to listen to anyone else. I ended up doing things wrong 1,000 times before I got them right.”

An early fashion experience for Clive was a job to photograph the Royal College of Art fashion shows and then he started working for the iconic sixties magazine Nova, where his first job was to travel to the north of England to photograph ‘matchstick men’ painter, L. S. Lowry.

Following this he started to focus more on fashion photography and began working for Harpers & Queen.

© French Vogue by Clive Arrowsmith

His move onto English Vogue in 1970 was typical Clive serendipity, and followed a visit by Barney Wan (then art director of the magazine) and Grace Coddington (the fashion editor) to his house in Kensington to see his pictures and drawings.

The very next day the editor’s secretary was in touch, inviting Clive to come in to discuss his career with the magazine, and although he’d very much been thrown in at the deep end, he survived the experience and thrived, shooting fashion, beauty and portraits for the title for many years.

© Harvey Nichols advert by Clive Arrowsmith

Getting the Look

Working with a medium format camera in an era where a more relaxed style of fashion photography had very much taken over from the staid and traditional approach that had previously been in Vogue might have been considered a challenge by some, but Clive triumphed by simply treating his Hasselblad as though it were a 35mm model. He worked off-tripod and encouraged those in front of the camera, such as his long time muse Ann Schaufuss, to jump, dance and move around as he followed, creating an exciting and fresh new look that was perfectly in tune with the times.

“I could wind my camera on faster than most motor drives could work,” he recalls, “and I would have an assistant loading backs for me so that I could change film really quickly and just keep shooting. Later on I also acquired some 220 backs that would give me 24 exposures on a roll of 220 film, and this meant that I could work even longer before changing backs – but you had to be really careful to load them properly. This did lead to a problem one time when I was photographing Yves Saint Laurent, because his agent had counted how many times I’d pressed the shutter and accused me of not having any film in the camera – because he couldn’t believe I was still firing!”

© Yves Saint Laurent by Clive Arrowsmith

There have been innumerable highlights in what has been an extraordinary career, including shooting the classic cover for the Wings album ‘Band on the Run’ – a shoot that almost went horribly wrong when Clive used the wrong film stock. But he is also the only photographer to have shot the world famous Pirelli Calendar two years in a row. These commissions saw Clive thinking laterally in fine style once again, as he elected to work with an enormous tarpaulin light tent supported by scaffolding that surrounded the set on three sides, leaving the front and back open.

“I didn’t want to get any natural light falling on the models,” he says. “I wanted to use my own flash because that way you could see the landscape lit naturally through the studio structure while I could control the exposure on the model. We used a mobile generator to power the lights so that we could travel to more remote locations, and travelled with a truckload of props that had been manufactured for us by the Royal Opera House.”

© Liv Tyler by Clive Arrowsmith

Being in the middle of such an epoch-making period of change, Clive confesses he was not immune to its excesses.

He’s led a colourful life – married four times and father to seven children. He was also quite the party animal, but his hell-raising days effectively came to an end as he became more serious about Buddhism, and it was George Harrison who first introduced him to the Hindu path of meditation and Indian music.

It’s a regime that Clive has steadfastly maintained to this day and he’s gone on to regularly photograph His Holiness The Dalai Lama and others within the Buddhist movement such as Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, his Buddhist teacher, who he describes as “the most important man in my life.” He’s clearly very sincere in his beliefs and as he came to embrace his faith he gave up drinking and smoking and turned his life around.

© Jeremy Irons by Clive Arrowsmith

Arrowsmith – Fashion, Beauty and Portraits is a sumptuous, eclectic collection of remarkable images celebrating the full gamut of what has been a remarkable journey. It’s been greeted by a host of glowing reviews, including one from the New York Review of Books that compared Clive to the likes of Avedon, Mapplethorpe and Ritts.

Now working on his second book, which is due to be published later this year, Clive sees no prospect of ever retiring from what he calls his “magnificent obsession,’ and he continues to search for that elusive perfect picture that he knows he’ll never take. “There’s always something you know you could have done just that little bit better,” he says, “and no photograph will ever be exactly right. If I ever did take the perfect shot then that would be the end: I’d have to stop because I wouldn’t ever be able to do it again, but that’s never going to happen.”


More information:

Arrowsmith: Fashion, Beauty and Portraits is published by ACC Editions priced at £50.

Clive Arrowsmith is a member of The Royal Photographic Society


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