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An Exclusive Interview With Bowie Photographer Tony McGee

October 20th, 2020 | by admin
An Exclusive Interview With Bowie Photographer Tony McGee

Tony McGee is a British photographer and filmmaker, whose career spans over four decades. His 40-year career started at the age of 14 and by 21 his images had appeared on 25 magazine covers. He shot covers and travelled internationally photographing for publications such as British and American Vogue, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Sunday Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, New Yorker Magazine.

Tony first met David Bowie at a private cocktail party, where the two immediately bonded, building the beginning of a friendship that would span for over 30 years. He photographed one of Bowie‘s most famous cover for The Face Magazine, which was regarded by GQ as being the most influential magazine cover of the 1980s.

Ahead of Tony’s new exhibition in London, Matteo Tonolli interviewed Tony exclusively for David Bowie News.

Mr. McGee, you started to use a camera when you were only a teenager. What were your first favourite subjects at that time?

I started taking pictures at the age of 12. My favourite subjects at that time were taking pictures of my family and celebrating happy moments: birthdays, Christmas things like that.

Nowadays a young boy or girl have infinite possibilities, much more than once. The chance to use particular devices (like a smartphone or a camera) is very easy but in a certain way the approach has become more ordinary. What is your opinion about that?

I think modern technology like the iPhone is amazing. I think its the perfect gateway to introducing aspiring photographers to eventually buying a real camera. Theres a quantum leap from using an iPhone to eventually using a camera. There are a set of skills one acquires from using a camera which I think every keen young image maker needs to have.

Your shots probably helped to define the luxurious decade of the 80s. What are you most proud of?

The explosion on the fashion scene in the 80s was due to the creation of the supermodel. It speaks volumes that David Bowie ended up marrying one. I am extremely proud of my portraits of David Bowie, George Michael and Tina Turner.

You became a professional photographer in the world of fashion before your twenties. What do you think have helped you more to have a successful career? Your talent, meeting the right people or starting to work in the Seventies?

Those three combined. One couldnt have been possible without the other.

In 1980 you were awarded as the Best British Fashion Photographer and your career definitely took off. During the Eighties you portrayed dozens of celebrities: models, musicians… How incredible was that period? And what are your first thoughts when you think about those years?

I can remember every single detail vividly and might need a book to fully answer that question! From photographing my favourite musicians, the nights spent at Studio 54 in New York City to handing David Bowie a glass of water as he came off stage in Milton Keynes. The 1980s also saw the birth of my first son Jack. So it was a very special decade for me.

It was when you met in person David Robert Jones at a cocktail party of mutual friends that enabled and defined a long collaboration. But I know you had seen him years before, at a concert during the Seventies.

For the record, I first met David in the Tate Gallery in London when I was 12 in 1966. We had a very brief conversation and I introduced myself. He was unusually dressed in a long shirt/dress with very very long hair. He was extremely friendly and polite.

Your statement about David published on Dylan Joness book ‘A Life’ surprised me: the sweetness of your words and the memories about the moments spent together. It seemed more a lovers witness. The joy to share a very particular period of time, like a holiday. Could you please tell me something more about it?

David and I had a common interest in beautiful women!

How many photo sessions did you exactly have with him? Which was the best for you?

had 5 sessions with David. The first and last one stick out of my mind. We managed to capture some incredible moments on camera in these shoots.

Were there any no-working moments with him?

David and I hung out outside of the studio. There were some very enjoyable times with U2 at Cafe de Paris. The wonderful actor Jack Nicholson and Jerry Hall were also there.

In 1989, your session with Bowie at the abandoned Rainbow Theatre to promote the SOUND+VISION catalogue and tour. Something particular happened. Could you recall it for me?

The set was invaded by around 50 homeless people who David asked for them to stay and watch the shoot. It was a very special event and shows testament to the extremely kind man he was.

Which was the last photo session with him?

The final session was in my studio in London at 99 Farringdon Road in 1992.

Did you receive any suggestions by him and were you to decide the gestures and the postures assumed in the photo sessions?

David appreciated direction and he liked the fact that I was technically organised. Then he relaxed and he was able to feel comfortable in the shoot and truly express himself.

Your forthcoming exhibition is opening on October 21st at the Saatchi Gallery in London, titled 20/20 Vision. What has been your approach to this collection of black and white snapshots? Has it been difficult to select from your contact sheets?

It is a somewhat melancholic collection where the focus is on Davids eyes. As we know, they were uniquely different. Both of which I am sure he was very proud of.

Beside the obvious commercial interests, who do you think is the best audience for your exhibition?

Firstly, the musical devotees of David Bowies work. It is great to share the room with them. It is very exciting to be able to show fans of young and old this very up close and personal collection. It speaks volumes that people of all ages adore his music. I think everyone can enjoy this exhibition.

Are there any unpublished photos of David in your archive?

100s of them. I anticipate I will eventually make a book, including all of the unseen images. Please ask Mr. Rizzoli to call me!

One photo in particular reached the cover of The Face MagazineGQ regarded it as the most influential magazine cover of the 1980s. I like it very much because, despite David embodied his new brand pop mask, in that session you portrayed him in a very stylish way. Like a modern version of the old thin white duke. More sober – and for me very much more interesting – than the aesthetically rougher pop singer who sold millions of records and reached the taste of his fans in the following months. What is your favourite Bowies character?

Thank you and what a great question. I think for me, Ziggy Stardust was phenomenal. It was unlike anything anybody had seen before and he shocked the world. It was fantastic.

David had been portrayed by many photographers. What did he look for in a session? Did he ever show and share with you his intents?

David had an enormous interest in photography. He was also fascinated with photographers. He had been photographed by the worlds greatest. He came into the studio with the desire to create a great photograph and that is the best type of person to work with.

Did you visit the David Bowie is exhibition in London in 2013? I saw it twice in Italy and was simply stunning. Much more than I could hardly imagine. I perfectly know Bowie was a very complex artist, but the installations were definitely brilliant and above any expectations.

That was an incredible show. I have to agree with you. Of course, it was prior to Davids premature death. It showed how huge Davids fanbase is and one which continues to grow.

Is it true you have been in touch with him a few days before he passed away?

I had been informed by a film producer friend of mine who told me that David wasn’t very well and so out of courtesy I called him and he was very friendly and optimistic.

I am proud and it is a great honour for me to be able to support his timeless legacy with my exhibition.

Thank you for the interview.

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

Edited by Nick Vernon.

Thank you to Mark Armstrong.

‘David Bowie 20/20 Vision’ photographs by Tony McGee at Saatchi Gallery, London, 21-25 October.

Click here for exhibition information


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