“I never said no to anything!”
Renowned British photographer John Swannell has worked with some of the greatest photographers, supermodels and celebrities in the world. His career – and his ability to get the most from his subjects – is based on determination, enthusiasm and the knowledge that the best is always yet to come, as he explains...
Words and pictures: David Corfield
“Do you take sugar?” John Swannell proffers coffee and biscuits, as I remark on his collection of early pre-Raphaelite paintings that adorn the walls of his sitting room in Highgate, North London.
“I never throw anything away,” he quips. “In fact the only reason I’ve stopped collecting these paintings is that I’ve run out of wall space. I think I’ve even got my first ever camera, too; a Kodak 127 film job. It took very blurred pictures because of its plastic lens, but for a 15-year-old it was magic. It got me into the darkroom and from there my world changed.
“I always wanted to be a photographer,” he continues. “I’m dyslexic so I drifted into the arts because it was easier. [David] Bailey was the same and he was the photographer I always wanted to work with. In the mid-sixties in London he was the one everyone wanted to be around and I knew that to get that chance of assisting him I needed to be in the Vogue studios where he would occasionally work.
“They had six full-time studio assistants at Vogue at the time and I managed to get an interview, only to be turned down because I was too young. I was 19 and Vogue would only consider you if you were over 21 because of the responsibility of working with those big name photographers. They had people like Norman Parkinson, Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon coming in to shoot so the pressure to get it right was enormous. But one day I was scanning the pages of the BJP and spotted an ad for a store man at the Vogue studios. So I applied and got it. That was my foot in the door.”
Swannell worked as a storeroom assistant at Vogue for about six months, lugging furniture into the studios for all the magazines that Condé Nast owned. And then one day David Bailey walked past.
“He was wearing black tight corduroy trousers, a black polo neck jumper, cowboy boots and a Prince of Wales jacket. I’ll never forget that moment,” he smiles. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. And my chance to get closer to working with photographers came three months later when one of the regular assistants was ill. I managed to convince the studio bosses that I could do the job and so they threw me a Hasselblad and asked me to change a roll of film. I did it in two minutes and the next thing I knew I was one of the regulars. That was the big breakthrough.
“I had enthusiasm and determination and worked as a second assistant for lots of famous photographers, such as Parkinson and Helmut Newton, but never Bailey. Until one day I saw my name on the job board in the studio against his. But I almost cocked it up.”
Swannell continues: “I was so nervous that I dropped his camera onto the floor and it shattered into a thousand pieces. I scraped it up and thought that was the end of it. But he came in again a week or so later and asked for me. After the last time I thought it must be a mistake. But the studio manager assured me that Bailey wanted me, and said ‘he asked for that dickhead that smashed my camera.’ From that moment on, we worked together all the time, culminating in him offering me a full-time job as his assistant. So I left Vogue and went to work for him and the first weekend I was there we were off to Hawaii. Up until then I’d never even been on a plane...”
Life in the fast lane
It was Swannell’s enthusiasm plus a natural ability to load films and change lenses in double-quick time that secured his position as an assistant, and he is quick to praise his own.
“If I didn’t have good assistants then I wouldn’t be able to do the job I do now; technology has moved on at such a rate that I’m too old to learn all these new skills. All I’ve ever done is look through the lens and compose. My assistants do the rest.
“It’s not like the old days of black and white film,” he rues. “Black and white was what I was brought up on. And in those early days that’s all I’d shoot. It was controllable and the darkroom was such an integral part of the process. I miss it and yet I don’t miss it.” He explains: “In the old days I would disappear after dinner at ten o’clock at night and be in my darkroom until four in the morning and now, I just come to my office and press a few buttons. Now I shoot digitally. There’s no doubt it has made my life better in a thousand different ways.”
After years of assisting and learning his craft, Swannell began to refine his style as a photographer. “Bailey joked to someone about me after I’d left,” he recalls. “He told them: ‘That f*cking John Swannell. He works for me for four years and then goes off and copies Barry Lategan!’ I used to use a silver board underneath the sitter, which bleached their face out a bit. Avedon started it – it just used to make people look better – and I used to do a lot of that. But the style wasn’t Bailey’s, which was actually a good thing because what I didn’t want was to have people comparing me to him.”
He explains the route from fashion to portraiture: “The fashion work from Vogue would lead to portraits and that’s when I started to find my niche,” Swannell reflects. “If you look at [Richard] Avedon and [Irving] Penn, who were proper fashion photographers for Vogue and did it for ten years, they got into portraits on the back of their fashion work. That’s the way it would go: you’d get really famous at Vogue and they would call you up and say ‘can you just take a quick portrait of Mick Jagger, who’s in town for the night’, or whatever, so what happens is that through the fashion you got the portrait jobs and after four or five years of that they started to mingle. I didn’t set out to do only one thing; I never said no to anything!
“But I usually wing it with my portraits. Although many years ago when I photographed John Hurt – just after he’d won his Oscar for playing The Elephant Man – I was really nervous. I used to feel insecure when I’d photograph these great people so I phoned a few friends who knew Hurt and learned that he liked a drink. He turned up in the morning at my studio and the first thing I asked was ‘would you like a drink, John?’ He looked at his watch and said ‘but it’s only 10am, a bit early.’ I felt like an idiot and apologised profusely while we got ready for the shoot. And then it all went quiet, whereupon he said ‘what have you got?’ He was only meant to stay for a couple of hours. As it turned out were still shooting at 6pm, by which point we were totally pissed...”
Models, muses and marriage
Swannell met his second wife Marianne in the 1980s when she was a model for Vogue. “We used to do a lot of work together,” he remembers. “Photographers and models, eh... we fall in love with our muses.
“But models are just models at the end of the day, despite their fame. The famous ones though, well they are the good ones. I was flown out to photograph Cindy Crawford once and I must admit I was slightly apprehensive. It was a three-day shoot and she was so good we had the shoot done and dusted in two days. It was embarrassing! I had to keep on shooting to stretch it out.
“Kate Moss is incredible too. Full lips, wide eyes, just perfect. Even if she has an off day, she still looks incredible. I think she is the most successful model in the world ever. I can’t see anyone overtaking her.”
Helmut Newton, and that bag...
Swannell trips out his stories with affection. It’s clear he’s had a great life, despite occasional hiccups. We pause to reflect on Helmut Newton, an abrasive character to many, but to Swannell a bit of a diamond in the rough. “I once spent four days with Helmut on a shoot in the south of France and he took a shine to my camera bag.
“I’d found the bag in a charity shop in London for a couple of quid and really loved it because it had lots of pockets. But Helmut wanted it and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept on offering me money for it during the shoot and went up to $500 and still I wouldn’t sell it to him.”
Swannell laughs at the recollection: “This made him really grumpy with me and on the last day, as we were walking across the tarmac to board the aircraft, he turned round to me and said ‘there must be something of mine you want, I have to have that bag!’ so I replied ‘OK, sign me a print from the cover of your book White Women’ and you can have it. He said ‘you must be mad, that’s about $3000!’
“He was so mean, was Newton, and wouldn’t have it. But I held my ground and said that was the price of the bag. And then suddenly, in front of everybody, he took my bag off me and tipped all my stuff onto the tarmac, and marched off with it. I turned to his wife Alice [Springs] and said ‘you are my witness!’ And a few days later, a signed print arrived. Ten years later I sold that print for £32,000. So that old bag wasn’t a bad investment...”
And the future?
Swannell’s future is as busy now as his past. He’s squirrelled his archive away in various places and knows that the task of cataloguing and sorting everything out is something he needs to tackle soon. “I bought a garage down the road that was three times the price of my first flat, and that’s where I keep all my negatives,” he laughs. “It’s temperature controlled. And all my transparencies are mounted up in plastic sleeves and reside in a friend’s country house in boxes in their loft. So yes, my work is all over the place, quite literally.
“But that’s because I keep busy,” he says, almost apologetically. “I’m just as in love with photography now in my seventies as I was when I started. I’m still very busy and I really enjoy what I do. It’s varied work and it’s fantastic. When you get well known, people think you are unapproachable and that they can’t afford you so the phone stops ringing. I never want that to happen to me. I feel I’m not worthy and I worry about my work all the time. At the end of the day I’m just a jobbing photographer.
The different is, I just got lucky.”