Exclusive Interview With David Bowie & Tin Machine Photographer Brian Aris

January 23rd, 2020 | by Nick
Exclusive Interview With David Bowie & Tin Machine Photographer Brian Aris


Brian Aris has not only been a photographer of fashion, a professional who portrayed numerous actors and several artists from the music business. During his career he has been called by the royal family to fix on photographic film its components for happenings like the 70th birthday of the Queen. Aris has also portrayed the weddings of some celebrities, without forgetting his work for the Live Aid project, or the Freddie Mercury Tribute. The English photographer collaborated many times with David Bowie, occasionally during the Eighties, but systematically from the beginning of the Naughties. He took photos of Tin Machine and of two very special and particular moments in David’s private life. I talked about all of this with him, and of his early services as a photo-reporter around the world, his friendships with Twiggy, Terry O’Neill and of that time when Bowie disappeared for 30 minutes to prepare a very special present for him…


Click on pictures to enlarge





Mr. Aris, how did you get into photography?

When I was at school I loved art but I was hopeless! I couldn’t paint, draw or even make pottery. But my art teacher believed I had an eye for composition and suggested I join the school photographic club. I did and I fell in love with the whole process of taking pictures and then processing the film and making a bromide print. I was 14. Then I read a book called Shoot First by a newsreel cameraman called Ronnie Noble. His adventures decided me. I would become a news photographer!

I carried a small 35mm camera with me all the time and one Sunday morning I heard emergency vehicles racing past my home and ran out to follow them. They were attending a fire close by and I photographed them, trying to put out the blaze in which a child died. My father decided to drive me to a national newspaper and they developed the film for me. The picture editor came into the waiting room to meet me, he was impressed with my work and suggested I should seriously consider becoming a press photographer. He offered to get me into a Fleet Street agency. So, with the blessing of my parents, I left school without taking my exams and joined Central Press photos as a runner boy, delivering prints to the national newspapers situated on London’s Fleet Street. The apprentice period was seven years and I quickly decided that I wanted to shoot pictures straight away. I left after just a year. When an opportunity to move to the North London news agency came along I took it and began a period during which I made my name known to the London nationals and I was soon able to freelance for the Daily Mirror which at that time had a reputation for news photography.



I think your career could be divided into three periods. In the first you worked as a photo-reporter around the world, where there were conflicts or humanitarian emergencies, from Northern Ireland to Lebanon, from Jordan to Africa and even Vietnam. What from those experiences has mostly hit you?

In 1968 I begged the picture editor to send me to Northern Ireland where the riots and civil rights issues were becoming the top news story of the day. He finally agreed and I then became a regular commuter flying to and from covering the troubles most weekends. I think it was this period that convinced me that my future definitely lay in photojournalism.

My travels had brought me into contact with Save the Children, whose patron was Princess Anne and they asked me to travel with her on an official visit to Sudan and Ethiopia. We never saw signs of famine on that trip but rumours were strong that there were serious problems. I had also joined the international photographic agency Camera Press and they persuaded Vogue to use one of my images of her royal highness in Sudan on their cover. With their help I returned to Ethiopia and finally photographed the horrendous famine that the regime had been hiding from the west. Some of the images were too awful for the newspapers but the new UK tabloid The Sun published them and the famine became page one news.


Then you completely changed your direction, working with models in the world of fashion. It’s the second period. Why this decision?

When I returned from Vietnam in April 1975 two days before the North Vietnamese army marched into Saigon and I discovered the reality of working in news. I had really good material of the evacuation but the war was lost and the west seemed to lose interest in the region entirely. I became very disillusioned and when the picture editor of The Sun suggested I try something photographically completely different, I accepted. I had fun shooting their models and found myself in St. Tropez or Jamaica with lovely girls. Some of whom became friends and still are to this day. But it presented little challenge. I found it so easy and although it gave me the income to buy my first Bentley and a house in the country. I soon decided I must move away and perhaps go back to news work.




Is it right that something started thanks to your friendships with Paula Yates and Debbie Harry? The second half of your career (the third period) was more focused on pop-rock industry. Was this a precise choice or simply happened?

I had a studio in east London and I was suddenly being asked to photograph some of the new music artists appearing in London, as the British music scene started to explode. Of course I said yes and that’s how I met Debbie Harry. Debbie was different. Not only one of the most beautiful girls I had photographed, but also talented. And of course she was exotic. She came from New York and among her friends was Andy Warhol. She fronted the band Blondie and we got on really well. I think that first session had such an impact on me that I felt this was the way forward.

I opened the door one morning to find a scantily dressed blonde who announce she wanted to be a model. I gave her a cup of tea and politely explained she was just too short to be a successful model and she left telling me in no uncertain terms that she would return! Later she called me and said she was going out with a singer and would I now photograph her if she brought him along. I said yes as she had intrigued me in that first meeting and of course that’s how my lifelong relationship with Paula Yates and Bob Geldof began. We became friends and I was made to eat my words as Paula and I travelled around the world with her modelling for me, for magazine shoots.



Do you remember your first singer, or band, you shot?

It was The Beatles! During the Sixties I joined a local London newspaper where I was able to shoot the bands who played a local theatre. Among those were the Beatles playing their first London gig. So I found myself in the dressing room with them one day and then covering their show.

Then I was now shooting bands and after my first session with Debbie along came The Police and another friendship this time with their lead singer Sting. Of course I was lucky enough to be able to travel with the bands and shoot some of their recording sessions. The Police in Montserrat, Roxy Music in the Bahamas, The Rolling Stones in Boston at their secret rehearsals and many more. Tina Turner came to the studio as did The Jam, The Clash, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Dire Straits, Rod Stewart and many others.


In the ‘80s you were recruited to shoot Band Aid. And you were also at the Live Aid concert. What do you remember from those days?

Bob called me to insist I shoot a recording session he was putting together to raise funds for Ethiopia. So one Sunday Morning I arrived at a London studio to find Bob and Paula waiting to see who would turn up to record the song. I wasn’t convinced everybody on the list would be there but it soon became clear that this was very different. Bob had obviously used his Irish charm and suddenly the rooms were filled with Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Sting and a string of famous musicians all keen to record Do they know it’s Christmas?. When I left near midnight Bob and Midge Ure were sitting in the recording studio exhausted. But they had pulled off a slice of musical history. We had the front pages of the British media the next day and the music industry had changed for ever.

Band Aid was a worldwide success story and then Bob decided to produce Live Aid. Once again I had a studio backstage, this time with David Bailey along the way and Paula next to me interviewing the performers for an American network. The day was hectic to say the least but I really don’t think anybody involved at the start of the show realised the impact Queen and Freddie Mercury were having when they turned in a performance that has gone down in music history. Interestingly, my memory of that very long day was how well the performers were getting on back stage. I think after Band Aid the artists realised that they could discard their rivalries and work together occasionally for a great cause. And Bob was brilliant at putting that together with Live Aid and the then much later Live8. Then more recently with another campaign featuring the new younger British musicians to raise funds and awareness of Ebola in Africa.



I think your previous experiences were very useful to help with campaign photos for the Live Aid project

My trip done in Africa years before left me memories that I will never forget. In one camp I visited eight children a night were dying of malnutrition. When you see that at first hand you will always argue that we must do something and not stand idly by. So imagine how delighted I was many years later to be asked by Bob Geldof to photograph Band Aid and get involved in fund raising to help Ethiopia in its ongoing struggle with famine.



You worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Blondie, The Clash,  The Eurythmics, Madonna, George Michael, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay… which one is closer to your musical taste?

My musical taste in the early days was modern jazz. I loved Miles Davis and the American greats along with Sinatra. But that changed when I went as a guest to the famous Albert Hall concert when Bob Dylan went electric. Many people booed and left as he picked up an electric guitar after the interval. But for me that was one of the greatest moments I have experienced at any concert. I became a huge Dylan fan and then of course I found Van Morrison as well. In the Eighties my taste expanded and became very catholic. I have a huge collection of both vinyls and CDs and now I love Elbow as much as Coldplay and The Stones. Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Keith Richards remain firm favourites as do many others. I feel extremely blessed to have grown up in a period of time for music that I doubt will be surpassed. And of course very lucky to have met and worked with some of the finest of those musicians.





I was very curious to interview you because you portrayed David Bowie in very different phases of his life. Your sessions with him are not only from and about his musical career, but I think you started to work very closely with him in 1991, during the Tin Machine project, am I right?

Yes. Interestingly I never met David Bowie in his early years. The first time I photographed him was at Live Aid and then shortly after at Bob Geldof ’s wedding to Paula Yates. By this time he was a much more mature man absorbed with art and had a very dignified and charismatic presence.


How were the relations among the four members?

The band was extrovert, loud and very playful. They threw themselves into everything suggested by an equally extrovert director.


Probably your first photo session with the band is the famous one in Ireland. What are you best memories about?

When I travelled to Dublin to shoot the stills on a Tin Machine video directed by the fabulous director Tim Pope I had no idea what to expect. But that day provided wonderful images and thanks to Tim’s set some of the strangest: the Thierry Mugler lime green suit, the Versace shirts, the red crucifix along with the devil, the silver guitar and of course the bare chested mirror shots of David performing made a wonderful day. I’ve been asked about that bandage and although it was never discussed on the day I think it might have been covering a tattoo that David had inked as a prayer of love to Iman who he was later to marry.



I know in that occasion you received an unexpected visit.

Without question the oddest moment came when the studio bell rang and I volunteered to answer the door. Imagine my surprise when on this quiet Sunday morning in Dublin the gentleman at the door says “Hi, I’m Tom Cruise and this is my wife Nicole Kidman and we have come to say hello to David”. What could I say other than do come in?!


What happened then?

I think the couple sat quietly and they were as bemused as I was by the set and strange props as well as David dressed in long shorts and a Versace shirt finished with his bandaged left leg. Adding to the people watching came Marianne Faithfull and another picture for my ever growing set.



Some fans have been very critical about that musical project. Your opinion?

I think that You Belong In Rock and Roll is still one of the strongest Tin Machine tracks.



You were with them also around the world.

Concerts with the band followed. Small venues where I was convinced I would end up with Tinitus as I always seemed to be forgetting my ear plugs and yet always found myself in front of the speakers blasting out at full volume. But the rawness and closeness of the audiences at this gigs are what makes the images so strong.


In Italy you took a curious photo of Bowie in front of the Quirinal palace, in Rome, where he jokes with a statue on the background.

We travelled to Italy and became tourists for a day. David was very knowledgeable about Rome and the band and I followed him through the tourists spots like he was a local guide. Of course he was recognised occasionally but nobody ever troubled us. I am told that one day he went to the Vatican with his PR Alan Edwards and at the end of showing Alan around and explaining the story behind the wonderful paintings he had a group of tourists following him who actually thought he was an official tour guide.



You worked also at The Freddie Mercury Tribute.

Before that concert David asked me to go along and photograph the rehearsals. The studio was filled with performers but the room went silent when David rehearsed Under Pressure with Annie Lennox. George Michael stood in the shadows singing along with every word. Interestingly when George then rehearsed the same thing happened. All the other musicians including David watched and listened and clapped when George finished a performance that was as good as any played to a huge stadium audience. But the image I cherish from that day is one where David embraced his guitarist Mick Ronson. I manage to grab the shot on the dark side of the stage and it remains a favourite. Sadly within a year Mick passed away.





In a photo of group you took at Geldof’s wedding (1986), the couple are surrounded by their friends. All of them were singers but Bowie seemed to have a prominent placement: the only one to sit on a big chair, like a throne, actually. Ok, he was the (thin and white) duke, but… why?

He naturally would be the one to sit in that chair in the famous Geldof wedding picture. Also when he performed on stage most eyes would be on David not the band or other performers.



You are not only famous to realise weeding portraits to very famous people (David and Victoria Beckham, Sting, Liza Minelli) but also to have several photo sessions with some members of the royal family. For example you portrayed the Queen. Any gaffes?

I nearly dropped my camera when her majesty settled for the first shot. But thankfully my assistant grabbed the rather large Hasselblad and ticked me off saying: “You shouldn’t be doing that, Mr. Aris”. The Queen found that very amusing and burst out laughing and thankfully with my old press photographers hat on I managed to shoot three frames one of which is a favourite of all my royal pictures.



You portrayed Bowie in some very private and intimate events of his life, not music related. The wedding with the supermodel Iman in Florence is the first one. David was really determined to protect his privacy and I know you and your assistants had to cover the windows of the church with the bed sheets from the hotel

When David asked me to photograph his wedding to Iman I was delighted until he announced the ceremony would take place in Florence, the home of the paparazzi. The wedding pictures were meant to be exclusive and so we had to find a way to stop the photographers getting pictures. The plan we came up with was to drape the front of the cathedral overnight and pull back the huge swathes of material until David and Iman arrived. At that point David’s road crew would close the drapes and the paparazzi would have no view. David loved the idea and it worked perfectly. That was the thing with David he loved the challenges and even at his wedding thought this was great fun.



How was the atmosphere during the ceremony and the party?

Of course the wedding was also a family affair and there were very few music people present. Just Yoko Ono, Bono from U2 and Brian Eno. They seemed only too happy to pose for pictures and join in the fun of the day. Having photographed quite a few celebrity weddings the ceremony in Florence was one of the most moving despite the grandness of the cathedral and seemed almost intimate when I was shooting the images. Tears were in many eyes and the intense feeling between David and Iman was very evident. But alongside that was the playfulness between David and his family, particularly with his son Duncan. I was very happy to be able to record those precious moments.





You again portrayed the David and Iman inside their beautiful apartment in New York. The occasion was a very special one: the exclusive session with their newly born baby, Alexandria Zahra. Better known as Lexi. And its evident David and Iman were over the moon.

As that one in Florence, equally important was the session in New York when I photographed the couple with their baby. I doubt that there had ever been a happier time in David’s life and that made shooting the pictures so easy.


I think you really did fantastic work. Some pics are simply stunning! Was there an art director with you? How long did it take?

We just spent a lovely day together in the apartment at the Essex House, overlooking Central Park, and without an art director or crew I shot image after image that reflected the happiness they were experiencing.


What about the one of David lying with Lexi on a chair near a window?

The picture of Lexi resting on David’s chest came about because I wanted a sense of New York in one image. I explained this to David and he got it straight away and lay down in front of the window with his baby and the shot was finished in minutes.



Any anecdotes during that occasion?

An extraordinary part of that day was when David disappeared whilst I was photographing Iman with her baby. He was gone for around thirty minutes and when he came back he gave me a print of myself laughing which he had produced on his printer in the office. At that time we were still shooting on film and digital work was a while away and yet somehow he had managed to produce this colour print. He signed it and said it was a small thank you for coming to New York to take the pictures. I treasure that print and it has pride of place in my office.



David seemed to become a very different man in the second half of his life. A wiser, fulfilled and satisfied human being. Did you perceive this sensation?

Without question in my opinion this period of time was David at his most content. Still prepared to experiment musically and explore his art but fulfilled in a very happy marriage with family around him.


About ten years before (late 1992, I suppose) you also did some beautiful and interesting portraits of David while he was filming the video clip for The Buddha of Suburbia. It was a sort of comeback to the very first years of his life, where he grew up. St. Matthew’s Drive, in Bromley. Did he share anything about his origins or did he look nostalgic?

When he went back to the suburbs of south east London to shoot a promotional video for The Buddha of Suburbia I tagged along for stills. I think David had been back before and didn’t show any great signs of nostalgia for the suburban street where he grew up. He was definitely amused by how prim the area was. Neat lawns and identical bungalows, many with net curtains and no sign of any occupants. The streets were deserted on that weekday morning and apart from a few neighbours peering our from behind their curtains nobody came out to speak to the crew or David. No curiosity at all. Very suburban middle England. All I could think of was how much the American film director David Lynch would have loved the location. It would have worked beautifully for an English version of Blue Velvet that’s for sure!



What was the most noticeable thing to collaborate with him? Did he have a precise vision for the sessions?

For a photographer he was a natural model. Always willing to cooperate and always intrigued by the shots which he understood really well.


Once you defined David as ‘a modest and generous man. Could you explain me better why?

My meetings with David Bowie were always a joy. From Live Aid to the suburbs of Bromley for The Buddha of Surbubia to the studios in London and New York and the concert halls in England, Ireland and Italy. I always found myself dealing with a clever, articulate and generous man who appeared almost modest at times and yet was truly one of the most important and creative musicians of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.





What can you tell me about the fashion model Twiggy?

In the same way that I didn’t meet David Bowie in his early years the same happened with supermodel Twiggy. Despite growing up in the same area of North London and attending schools a few blocks apart our paths never crossed. I went into photojournalism and had no interest in fashion photography when Twiggy was hitting the headlines in London and the USA. But that changed in the early Eighties when I was booked by a magazine to shoot some portraits of Twiggy who by then had appeared on stage on Broadway in The Boy Friend and had exchanged modelling for musicals and the stage. We shot that first session without props or major styling. Twiggy wore her long trench coat and a sweater and I loved working with her and I was surprised at how she had left behind the stick thin model of the swinging Sixties and had turned into a beautiful woman who I thought had a very sexy look!  That session led to a very long professional relationship that continues to today and a continuing friendship with her and her husband Leigh Lawson.

Interestingly I had photographed Leigh very early on in both his and my career when I  worked on a Franco Zeffirelli film in which Leigh appeared. Brother Sun, Sister Moon was shot in Sicily and convinced me that I didn’t want to shoot on movies. The cast were great fun and I enjoyed shooting images with Franco who was such a wonderful director but I hated hanging around the set waiting for that moment when stills were allowed thirty seconds to shoot one or two pictures. Dealing with first and second assistants on film sets certainly wasn’t enjoyable and I couldn’t wait to get back to Vietnam and reality.


Many actors have sat for you, too: Brad Pitt, Sofia Loren, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Richard Gere… better to work with them, with musicians or with models?

Over the years I have photographed many actors and discovered the secret with them is to direct the shoot. Being photographed is not the easiest thing to endure. It can be very intrusive so making it fun and giving a lot of direction and never taking too long are all good tips for portrait photographers to abide by. I have found comedians are probably the most difficult because they always want to perform their act and keep you away from their true personalities. That’s a challenge for sure. But I always look forward to going into the studio. You can never be quite sure what is going to happen and how the day will turn out. Thankfully I have had very few days where I walk away wishing I was doing something else. And considering how many decades I have been shooting pictures for that says a lot about the joy of photography.

I was always being told the artists could be difficult but I never found that to be the case. I would always sit chatting over a cup of coffee in the make up room and never rush into sessions. And I always directed my shoots in a very personal way which I believe is extremely important. The better your relationship with the subject the better the photographs will be. Very simple really. So I was very happy in the studio and getting lots of people coming to me for pictures.


Thinking of English photography, it’s clear you have something in common with Terry O’Neill, I once had the privilege to interview him. Both of you worked with so many celebrities in numerous fields of society. Though your first steps with this media were quite different. Had your ways ever crossed each other?

Very recently we mourned the passing of him, a photographer that I greatly admired. We shared the same photographic printer for a while and I got to know Terry looking over contact sheets on the huge lightbox in the dark rooms in central London. He would be marking up images of Robert Redford and I would be showing him Debbie Harry. I always used to think that he would have liked to have swopped places knowing how much he loved beautiful women. But Terry never changed. Despite marrying into Hollywood and living the life in the US he always retained his London cockney humour and great generosity with other photographers. When I was asked to photograph her majesty the Queen for an official portrait celebrating her 70th birthday I rang Terry for advice. He had already worked with her majesty so I thought he could help me through my nervousness. He was his usual self and just said don’t talk about football and remember one thing when you are in that room at Buckingham Palace. When you walk out with your photographs safely on film there will not be another actor, musician or politician you will be concerned about photographing. As a London lad growing up in her majesty’s reign you will have reached the top and nerves won’t be an issue ever again.


Did you have mentors or someone who particularly inspired you?

Finally when I think back to that book, Shoot First, and the adventures of a newsreel cameraman in the Forties and Fifties, it amazes me how much of an effect it had on a 14 year old schoolboy. It definitely shaped my early thinking. But as I grew up in London chasing fire engines and police cars the photographer I yearned to be was Donald McCullin. If I ever had a hero it was Don. I believe him to be the greatest conflict photographer as well as a man blessed with a poetic eye for composition. Today he is working away on his landscapes and occasionally dips into an editorial shoot so still remains an inspiration. Like Richard Avedon who was shooting until the day he passed away,camera in hand,these are my true greats And of course I feel blessed to have had an art teacher who spotted some ability and suggested I join that school photography club!





It’s four years since David Robert Jones, the man, passed away.

Blackstar and David’s death shocked and moved me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the album. But nevertheless I was. His death along with other wonderful musicians in the last few years has left the world a less interesting place. We have lost David as well as Amy Winehouse, George Michael, Freddie Mercury and a many others. And of course I lost my wonderful friend for so many years Paula Yates and then tragically her beautiful daughter Peaches.



Interview conceived and realised by Matteo Tonolli, exclusively for David Bowie News, © 2020.

Edited by Nick Vernon.

All photographs © www.arisprints.com


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