One evening in Nepal, in 1970, David Bailey’s assistant answered a knock at his hotel room door to find, Lucia, the young fashion assistant from 'Italian Vogue'. She was in tears – this was her first shoot, Bailey had been piling on the pressure, and her resolve had cracked. Inviting her in for a drink, he explained that she was not the first, and certainly would not be the last person to find Bailey difficult to work with. Furthermore, he himself had learned that – in order to get the best out of the great man – one simply had to get on with the job, and give as good as one got. Convincing her took a while, but eventually she left feeling positive and able to steel herself for the rest of the shoot.
Five years later, that young assistant, John Swannell, was newly freelance and in Milan touting his own somewhat slim portfolio around the fashion magazines. Magazine after magazine threw him out without so much as a ‘grazie’, but luck was on his side.
An encounter at the offices of 'Italian Vogue' revealed to him the importance of contacts. It started badly; his portfolio was flicked through by a woman who continued a gossipy phone conversation with a friend throughout, and she dismissed him with the flick of a hand. But, as he walked out of the building, John turned a corner and literally bumped straight into Lucia, the pretty young woman that he had met in Nepal. On enquiry it turned out that her career had blossomed at an astonishing rate, and she was now the fashion director for the magazine. John explained his run of bad luck, and on the spot she offered him an eight-page fashion shoot for the next week. John was astonished, firstly because she had not seen his work, and secondly because it was unheard of that such a young photographer be given such an opportunity. She explained that no one would question her authority, but more importantly that she owed him.
This incident can be seen as a paradigm for John Swannell’s career. Determined and charming, he has risen through the world of photography with the winning combination of talent and good luck. Now, after thirty-five years of hard work, he is considered one of the great British photographers, and is ranked on a par with the other giants of the business.
John Swannell has given his entire professional life to photography. Born in 1946, he left school at sixteen, and spent a few tough years working in a Fleet Street darkroom, churning out thousands of prints that were then dispatched to photo agencies for syndication. He remembers processing the film for the wedding of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, all the time hoping that one day he would find himself behind the lens.
During the 1960s there existed a Mecca for all would-be fashion photographers. Just as Magnum Photos nurtured and promoted photojournalism, so the fifth floor in Vogue House, Hanover Square, did the same for fashion photography. Known as Vogue Studios, it was a hot-bed of talent that on any one day might see Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, David Bailey or Norman Parkinson vying for space in its labyrinthine studios. After months of rejection, John Swannell finally won a position as one of the few assistants employed to work with the photographers commissioned by Vogue magazine. For a budding young photographer the role was a dream come true. His tasks were menial: setting up backdrops, arranging the lights, taking exposure readings, loading and changing the cameras; but the experience provided John with an unrivalled foundation in the day-to-day realities of fashion photography. Moreover, it finally enabled him to achieve the goal towards which he had worked since leaving school – to work with David Bailey.
John remembers the first day that he worked with his idol. Undone by nerves, he attempted to reload the camera but – to his horror – sent it spinning across the room, smashing it to pieces. Certain that his career was ruined, and worried sick about how he would replace the equipment, he was amazed on the next occasion to see his name written on the board as assistant to Bailey. It seemed that John’s overflowing enthusiasm had made more of an impression than his clumsiness, and he found himself Bailey’s favourite. In 1969, the dream became reality and he was asked by David Bailey to leave Vogue Studios to become his full-time assistant.
The two years that John Swannell spent at VogueStudios left a lasting impression, and has informed his photography ever since. In particular, he cites his encounters with Richard Avedon at work as a great influence on his own developing style. Avedon had a singular ability to animate the two-dimensional, coaxing an extra layer of personality out of any sitter or model that came before his lens and John has striven to do the same ever since.
When John joined David Bailey’s entourage at the age of twenty-one, he found himself swept up in an impossibly glamorous world of beautiful women, parties, global travel, and international celebrities. After the infamous 'Box of Pin-Ups', Michelangelo Antonioni’s 'Blow Up', and the Jean Shrimpton years, Bailey was at the peak of his career. John recalls his friends’ disbelief at his encounters: being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce to Stonehenge with the Rolling Stones to shoot an album cover; sharing his first taste of marijuana with John Lennon; luxuriating on board a yacht off the Cap D’Antibes with Helmut Newton and Lartigue. At the same time, of course, John was establishing the significant contacts that would enable him to break out on his own.
It is interesting to note that despite his obvious admiration for David Bailey, very little of the gritty, uncompromising style that is associated with his mentor informs John’s work. Whereas Bailey is known for stark white backgrounds and high-contrast simplicity, John’s style has always involved carefully considered elegance and technical virtuosity. This was not an attempt to distance himself from his former employer, but simply because John’s aesthetic had moved on, and better suited the romantic mindset of the 1970s.
John will never forget Bailey’s kindness in advancing him a year’s salary on his departure. He also allowed him to use his studio free of charge. Nevertheless, he had a tough act to follow, and it was the contacts that he made during the Bailey years, more than the photographs, that in fact made his early career. He was in the enviable position of being a trusted face at Vogue House and, as a result, was given regular monthly commissions to photograph the consumer goods that illustrated the ‘shophound’ pages. Ignoring the mundane premise, John saw these jobs as an opportunity to show off to the various editors involved – because photographing hats, handbags, hair and make-up gave him the chance to work with models. Eventually John’s persistence and talent began to pay dividends, and he came to the attention of a fashion editor who started to use him more and more for hair and beauty shots. These early assignments may sound unexciting, but to have regular pictures appearing in Vogue at that age was unheard of at the time. Then came the crucial encounter at Italian Vogue in Milan, and his star began to rise rapidly in the competitive world of international fashion photography.
Ten years later, when John was fielding more commissions than he could commit to, he received a phone call from Valentino’s personal assistant. The fashion designer had asked specifically for John Swannell to be the photographer for his new collection, and requested that he be flown out to Milan the following weekend for a shoot. Newly divorced, John had already arranged to look after his young children on that particular weekend and so told the assistant that he was unable to fulfil the commission. Incredulous, the Italian promised that the children would be entertained, and that the family would be installed in Milan’s most luxurious hotel for the duration. John apologised again, and explained that it was simply impossible for him to make the trip; his duty was to his children. Such was John’s pulling power that Valentino backed down and flew his entire team and collection to London, thereby ensuring that it was shot by the photographer of the moment. John Swannell had come a long way.
Fashion photography was always John’s main source of income, but from 1975 he was at last able to fully indulge his own artistic inclinations on a private level. This was as a result of his finally securing his own studio accommodation, housed in part of a large private house in Belsize Park that was owned by an artistically minded landlord. He began to experiment with the female nude, a genre which captivated his imagination and for which he is now particularly renowned. Of course, John was remarkably well placed to embark on this project; he was trusted both professionally and personally by legions of models and, on the whole he found them willing to pose nude. Although nudes have become part of his commercial repertoire, they have remained a mostly private endeavour. There are certain recurring themes that enrich these pictures, notably the relationship of the female form to nature and the inspiration of sculpture. John refers to the latter most passionately, citing Henry Moore and Rodin as major influences on his efforts to pose the female body.
Today John is amongst those few photographers that have continued to enjoy commercial popularity through the decades because of their talent, adaptability and consistency. However, it is his ability to build and continue relationships with magazines and influential figures in the media that has provided the quiet foundation to this success. The most obvious was his symbiotic affiliation to Vogue in the early days that brought him continued work, and it remains the magazine of which he is most fond. Also important is John’s long association with the Daily Telegraph, and in particular with its current Fashion Director Hilary Alexander. Their careers have mutually complemented each other for over twenty years, and John’s shots in the Monday fashion pages have been a regular fixture over this lengthy period.
The other association of which John is justifiably proud is with the Royal Family. In 1994, John was asked by the assistant editor of Vogue, Anna Harvey, to take a private sitting for Diana, Princess of Wales and her children (Plate 14). He nurtured this first contact into a series of commissions and since then he has gone on to photograph every senior member of the Royal family. In 2002 John was one of the few asked to photograph the Queen to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, the startling results of which can be seen in Plate 21 of this catalogue.
These days John takes fewer fashion photographs than before, believing the genre to be the domain of the young. He prefers to concentrate on nudes, landscapes and particularly portraiture. The latter has provided a rich seam of work since the early 1990s as is evident in the two published books. Twenty Years On was published in 1996 to accompany a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London; while I’m Still Standing of 2003, presented a collection of British icons whose careers had shown particular longevity. The result is a remarkable assembly of talent photographed in John’s inimitable, polished style, that often reveals unknown facets to their supposedly well-known personalities.
John Swannell’s reputation as one of the biggest names in British photography is no accident. His consistently inventive work and unerring professionalism have kept him in demand by press and public for over thirty-five years. Always looking to the future, he fully embraces digital photography, continues to contribute to the country’s top publications, and remains one of the nicest men in the business.