breaking news

An Exclusive Interview With Vernon Dewhurst

June 26th, 2021 | by admin
An Exclusive Interview With Vernon Dewhurst
Interviews
0

Vernon Dewhurst is one of the key collaborators in the “Space Oddity” period. His Vasarely design background portrait of David Bowie graced the cover of the Philips album and has become certainly iconic. He also shared some amazing moments with David, sitting down for a talk exclusively for David Bowie News, here’s Vernon Dewhurst…

-Hi Vernon. Can you tell us about your beginnings in photography? How did you get interested in this medium?

Photography ran in my family as both my father and grandfather were keen amateur photographers, and my father bought me a camera and taught me the basics of printing and processing at a very early age. And it was he who suggested when I had finished A levels  and wasn’t keen on going to Uni that I could study photography. As we were living just outside London I was accepted by the Regent Street School of Photography, the oldest photographic school in the world. For a young guy to be able to study in the centre  of London in the ‘swinging sixties’ was a dream, and the ‘Poly’ was quite a cool place. The students union hosted the first UK performance by Jimi Hendrix, as well as gigs by Pink Floyd, Georgie Fame, Manfred Mann, Fleetwood Mac and other bands that later became big names.

On qualifying I spent an interesting year in Dublin before returning to London to join Studio Five, a group of photographers based at a studio complex in Mayfair. I was shooting mainly fashion and beauty at this time and it was in 1968 that I met David in the house where I was living in Clareville Grove.

-Can you share some of your memories of Clareville Grove, living downstairs from David and Hermione?

There were, as I recall, five of us sharing this lovely house in South Kensington, David and Hermione occupying the room on the top floor. From the start I found David very friendly, and with a great sense of humour, passionate about his music and fascinated by showbiz, fame, pop stars etc.

What was your impression of David’s songs when he played them for you on his acoustic guitar?

I’d often pop up to his room to share a bottle of wine, smoke and listen to his latest creations. I enjoyed listening to him as he sat cross legged on the floor accompanying himself on his big acoustic. But I must admit that when he first sang Space Oddity accompanying it with his new Stylophone I wasn’t sure it worked, the sound was so harsh and metallic, but of course when I heard the finished track it fitted perfectly.

-What memories do you have of watching David perform at The Arts Lab?

When David asked me to come to his arts lab it wasn’t quite what I had imagined. A rather dingy back room in a pub in south London seemed a long way from fame and fortune. However, seeing David perform before a public convinced me that he had something very special. His rapport with the audience was genuine, and his natural friendliness really came over to all watching. That plus his voice, his stage presence, and his pure talent changed the drab surroundings into something else.

-It was lovely to see your work in the Conversation Piece book set, what do you think about this great release?

I thought Conversation Piece an exceptional work, so much real history there, and nice to see David’s mention of me in his letter to Ken Pitt. And of course Nigel Reeve’s (my Warner Music contact) design and production are superb.

 

-You revealed a few weeks ago that after 52 years you finally located the original portraits from the 1969 album shoot. Can you tell us more about this fantastic discovery?

After the Space Oddity cover shoot everything was passed to Mercury Records, my client. As it was shot on colour transparency there was nothing for me to keep. This was quite normal at the time, the results of the shoot became the property of the client but the copyright remained with the photographer unless he assigned it to the client. So I kept nothing from the shoot and it was not until many years later, maybe around 2000 I started to wonder where the actual pics had gone. I reasoned that with the passage of time the film would start to fade and it should be duped or digitised before the happened. My first enquiry to Warner was fruitless and over the following years I tried all the record companies that had amalgamated with Mercury over time such as Philips, Parlophone,  Polygram, Island Records, even EMI, without success. Then a chance email to RZO referred me to Eileen D’Arcy at Isolar, who kindly agreed to provide me with superb hi-res scans of nearly the whole session. I must admit I was pretty excited opening the files of these pictures I hadn’t seen for over fifty years, and very satisfied with the quality of the images. David was there as I remembered him, very young, very natural with no makeup, and very beautiful.

-What was your initial impression of the Vasarely background when it was put forward to you?

The Vasarely print for the background hung on the wall of Calvin Mark Lee’s office in Mercury Records just off High Street Kensington. Calvin had a collection of them, maybe about a dozen, so I was familiar with the work before David and Calvin suggested using it. I was quite happy both with the idea of having an op-art image and using the particular image that I could see would fit well with the idea of David’s face emerging from it. Op-art was very much in vogue at that time, modern, with connotations of multi dimensions, space, and technology…very fitting for David’s image we thought.

-How was the atmosphere of the photo session, what did David tell you about his vision for the portraits and what did you seek to convey with them?

The actual shoot went very well, David was a natural model in that he enjoyed posing without any shyness or self consciousness. There were just four of us for the shoot in my studio in St Michael Street Paddington; David, Calvin, Zin my Chinese assistant, and myself. The studio was all black, walls floor ceiling, in order to control the lighting. I kept a quiet music playing for background. David sat in the centre in front of a black background with Calvin to his left and Zin next to me. It was all very relaxed and comfortable, we knew what was required and the whole session was over in less than two hours.

-The album cover is superb and certainly iconic, and it works very well with the back cover. It also sets the tone perfectly for the music within, capturing the essence not only of the songs, but a whole era. What were your thoughts when you held the LP in your hands?

When David, or it might have been Calvin, gave me the finished album I was pretty happy with my part. I thought the image stood out well comparing it to other albums out at that time, and there were many very good ones! David looked great, a real golden god appearing from the very ‘spacey’ Vasarely. But I had no idea that David would become such a star and the album image so iconic. I guess the ultimate accolade for the image was when I was asked for permission to use it in the Pompidou Center exhibition of Vasarely a couple of years ago. It was blown up to nine foot square and I must admit looked amazing. The French minister of Culture who opened the exhibition was very complimentary to me about it and had a lot of questions, I think he must have been a bit of a Bowie fan!

-Your portrait photography is distinctive and very interesting – in the way that you capture the subject’s personality. But you also photograph nature and you document your travels. Can you tell us more about your work?

As a professional photographer my work and what I specialise in has changed over the years. Starting off in fashion and beauty I moved to advertising and PR, and in later years almost accidentally into Architectural. But for me it is people who are interesting both in portraiture and in situation photography as I in my travel pictures. I moved from film to digital as soon as professional quality digital cameras became available, but I still prefer wherever possible to work in traditional film. It’s not so much the results, but the discipline that film imposes on a photographer, the need to think, to take time, to use imagination instead of constantly checking a screen.

-Please tell our readers about your prints.

I have a number of David’s pictures available as limited edition prints and some of the recently discovered will be available from RPM Archives (mail@rpmarchives.com) in USA, or myself (vernon1234uk@yahoo.co.uk).

-Finally, would you consider making a book with your photos of David and including some anecdotes and unreleased pictures?

As regards a book, I don’t think I have enough material for this. I did have a lot more pics of David shot around the house in Clareville Grove but unfortunately they were stolen in a burglary of my basement in Paris…I keep hoping they’ll appear somewhere but I don’t think so!

You can follow Vernon on Instagram here

All images © Vernon Dewhurst.

Interview by Francisco Beristain, exclusively for David Bowie News. © 2021.

Edited by Nick Vernon.

Comments are closed.

David Bowie News | Celebrating the Genius of David Bowie