Adrian Flowers was a huge name in London’s photography scene back in the 1950s through the early 90’s. His studio in Chelsea’s Tite Street was THE place to be photographed for advertising and editorials for actors, celebrities and artists. Probably best known for his innovative advertising work, Flowers once created a mock set of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus for a Benson Hedges campaign, brilliantly published the same week the exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun” opened at The British Museum.
In the summer of 2012, I was fortunate to visit the beautiful Aquitaine region of France between Bordeaux and Toulouse, where Adrian Flowers and his wife Françoise moved from London in 1996. Set in the rolling countryside, surrounded by fields of sunflowers, I spent a week pouring through his enormous film archive, housed on three floors inside a large 17th century barn built before the French Revolution, looking for seeds of future books to create from this treasure trove of work. Aided by Flowers archivist, Brian Durling, and beautifully hosted by Françoise Flowers, who took time out of her own professional translation work to provide the most amazing French dining experiences; and my son William, on break from his own work in China, recorded our interviews during this extraordinary venture. In 2015, Matthew Flowers, Managing Director of Flowers Gallery, London and New York, and son of the artist, will be publishing the first of several retrospective monographs of Adrian Flowers work.
When we first arrived, Adrian took us on a tour of their family photographs, many taken by his Grandfather, William West, who was a well known photographer during his time, and the son of his maternal Great-Grandfather, who started the photography firm, G. West & Sons.
Here is an excerpt from our many conversations.
EA: How did you originally get interested in Advertising?
Adrian Flowers: In England, I went to a private prep school. You go there at the age of eight, come out at the age of twelve, and then go to Public School, which is what I did. The parents on average were slightly rich. There were about thirty-five young boys at my boarding school in the country and we got to know each other on different levels. A boy said to me, “My Dad has given me a Life Magazine. I was about to throw it away, but I remembered you said, ‘Let me see it next time,’ so here it is.” I looked through it very carefully. I was interested in both the news and the photographs, and the illustrations. That was my initial introduction early on. It soon got out that if their parents sent them any Life Magazines, give them to Adrian. I was dotty about the magazine and engrossed in the advertising pages in particular. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it altered my life.
I was aware from the age of ten that people enjoyed being changed by the advertisements, and in particular the American ads. My parents were older and I used to think, ‘How could I persuade them to do this or that’ when they were nearly always negative. They always said, “Oh no, you don’t want to do that son.” But I found myself able to control events at home very differently by using the same techniques the magazine ads were using on me, the consumer. I have been fascinated by and locked into the concept of advertising ever since.
EA: You shot for Girl Magazine early in your career, including some well-known actors such as Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson and Dirk Bogarde. Was that the start of your photography career?
AF: Fairly. It wasn’t long from the start of my career. I was more interested in advertising, but in order to keep an all-round image, I shot spreads for Girl Magazine. And because of that, I got more offers to do all sorts of things. It gave me not only more work than I ever expected, but I also had more pleasure then I ever expected, traveling and other things. At the beginning there was so much personal snobbism, “You’re not working for Girl Magazine, are you?” Well, I had been working for Girl magazine for months. First of all they paid a lot, which was very nice.
A number of film stars had a lot of time between shots and all agreed they wouldn’t mind being interviewed. Actors get bored out of their minds because they have a lot of time with nothing to do, so they were delighted to have some young girl asking them questions on set. Every week this vivacious young presenter would interview and be photographed with a well-known film star or actor on different subjects. The girls were so proud to be sitting with ‘so and so’ and they could boast to their schoolmates. The first one was with Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson. And so Girl Magazine became very popular.
EA: You mentioned someone in your family was a photographer.
AF: My grandfather, it turned out, was one of the great photographers back at the turn of the century. He was an excellent photographer – a very tall man, powerful. He had a very lively business and he was the most expensive photographer at the time. My mother was his eldest and he used her a lot in his photographs from a young age. She became well known as a sweet face and people thought if they went to him with their family, he would get them looking nicer then they really were. I think he did most of the time.
EA: What were your early years as a photographer in London like?
AF: I started in a studio handed to me rent free by Artists Partners, an organization representing about fifty famous artists and photographers, people that were known and getting a lot of work. We had a lot of interchange in those early years. It was quite exciting and as a result of the fact that I was always helpful rather than having a ‘buzz off’ temperament, the first few years I was in the middle of central London with people coming and going all the time. However, the studio was a ninety-step walk up and too difficult for certain people – so that’s when I had to move to a better place.
I phoned someone very good at properties and he said ‘Do you know Tite Street?’ I said, ‘Well it’s famous – the very last house on Tite Street going towards the River Thames was where Oscar Wilde was arrested and went to prison back in the Victorian times.’ He was a fabulous writer. It’s amazing to think of the cruelty – being in prison because he was gay.
It was a lovely period of time on Tite Street. There was always a space to park near the Studio and then you could walk back to the Kings Road in Chelsea where there were fabulous restaurants I could take important clients round. To my shame, I think they were only using me because they thought I’d take them to Kings Road. And, of course they enjoyed the food, enjoyed the fact that other interesting people went there and you would be waving to people who recognized you.
EA: A lot of famous people came through your Studio on Tite Street. Did your clients like it?
AF: Oh, they loved it. Most people that came to the Studio to be photographed were nervous.
EA: Even if they were a star?
AF: Yes. It is useful to have enough self-confidence in the way you talk to the subject so that they can look up to you and don’t think of you as a super idiot – which some people do, they’re quite happy to kick anyone in the balls sort of thing – but a lot of those people I found were generous as if their whole career was at stake.
I would say, “I’ve seen you once or twice and I really looked forward to meeting you one day and now here you are!” and the bloke replies, “Jolly nice to put it that way, I think it’s nice to be here”. It’s a mutual respect. So that’s how I waded my way through a simple situation.
EA: Twiggy was extremely famous at the time you shot her; her career was peaking. Was it nice to work with her?
AF: Oh, easily yes, very pleasant, very straightforward. I tried to make her feel very secure. I would say, “Put on this dress and let’s see what happens if you hold your hands behind your back. You’ll find it’s a different arrangement. If you can put up with that, it’ll actually be more memorable than any of the other possibilities.” She overlapped her legs, which people don’t quite like doing because they’re likely to fall and lose balance, but she was going for it.
That’s how I rambled on, you know. And they take in enough to think, “Hey, he makes me feel it’s the right thing to do after all”. How good I was, I don’t know, because I didn’t linger on those things very long. I was always moving on to different subject matter.
EA: Do you remember what you photographed Alec Guinness and Eileen Atkins for?
AF: Yes, I remember Alec Guinness being photographed for a typical Sunday magazine type of insert. He was a very intelligent person to talk with.
EA: And Sir John Gielgud, with Ian McKellen and Shakespeare standing behind him. And there was someone else, I can show you a photograph if you like?
AF: Yes of course, this was well known. He’s sitting comfortably on a chair with a slight tilt of the head, the other two are slightly unable to move. They’re present. “Perhaps you could just…put one elbow out, it would be more interesting.” He’s a top notch professional and perfectly able to take on the part. The person in question on the right is Clive James, an author and broadcaster who was a prominent critic at the time.
EA: You photographed Michael Caine many times throughout his career.
AF: Nice bloke, really. He was just making a name for himself the first time I photographed him. They had already emphasized the thick glasses, and he was trying to fulfil a new character that he’s had to take on. He’s a modern actor and at the same time respects the past. He played in several Len Deighton films.
EA: Do you remember shooting Peter Sellers for Olympus camera?
AF: Yes, the session was easy to do. That’s a natural smile on him and the agency really liked it. He was quite a superstar at the time. The trouble with a lot of these pictures is they fit the bill at the time, but they don’t have permanence to a certain existent.
EA: Of all the portraits you took of Vanessa Redgrave, were you looking to capture the person who was familiar to their public or were you looking for something extraordinary that you could find in them?
AF: What I was looking for is something you’d never dreamt of.
EA: You photographed the people in the play, ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’ at His Majesty Theatre with Eli Wallach. I don’t think you often photographed the Theatre, did you?
AF: I liked the idea, but it required too much of my time in the evenings. I wasn’t really a big theatregoer, so it was a bit like changing my job.
EA: You were so well known for your advertising campaigns. Will you give a little background on creating the “story” going on in this Martell cognac ad (shown in the portfolio above)?
AF: That is one that I love thinking about, because it’s so amusing. The story is of an art collector and a famous artist who is having a close relationship with the model he’s painting. When the collector, his wife and daughter come by to see the progress of the painting, the artist tells the girl to keep hidden behind the screen, but the model won’t do what she is told. The collector’s daughter was interested in the artist, but if they knew the model he was making love to all day was behind the screen, they would have the shits. I thoroughly enjoy the subtlety, the complexity, and dry humor; it’s not somebody roaring with laughter.
EA: How did you make the giant chocolate in the KitKat ad campaign?
AF: That whole thing is a set made out of fiberglass and painted to look like chocolate. It’s so basic, but if you get the details right, it produces a wry smile and the next time he or she goes to the train, they’ll think about a KitKat, and that’s what sells.
EA: The negatives in your archives are very organized and the studio area looks ready to shoot with these Hasselblad’s.
AF: So far, Brian’s entered over 3000 jobs into envelopes with negatives. Most of my years I always had up to 6 assistants. I used the Sinar all the time. The lenses are so delicate and beautiful – just feel the weight.
Officially, the most stupid thing I’ve ever done was to come all the way from England to here and not to have any clients. I’ve never tried to get any clients you understand, but then nobody’s ever come by (knocks twice) and said, “Could you help me?” I came hoping to do some interesting work based on my own development, not to do with advertising. But the film wasn’t available, or has since stopped being made, or you’ve got to drive 300 km’s and pay 10 times as much as you used to pay for it. And by law, you must not have one trickle of chemistry touching these fields. I love it here you understand, it’s like Heaven in certain aspects.
EA: In what direction do you see photography headed now?
AF: We have been through a massive change without realizing it. Starting before the First World War everybody has had a camera and now they’ve got so many cameras they don’t know how to take them to the picnic without getting smeared with butter. There is a point where we have to admit there is a lot about what we thought would be an endless future of cameras that isn’t going to be. You’re going to be called a wanker if you’ve got one swinging around your neck.