John Swannell Forty Years On, Clarendon Fine Art Hampstead
PUBLISHED: 13:24 06 December 2019
The veteran Highgate photographer chooses is favourite images from four decades of photographing royalty, rock stars and celebrities
Choosing your best pictures after four decades could be a tricky task, but John Swannell knows them "instinctively".
"Mind you they say photographers should never choose their own pictures," adds the dapper 73-year-old with a smile.
Over the years he has captured models, rock stars and more royalty than any other working photographer, and now picks out his favourites for John Swannell Forty Years On at Hampstead's Clarendon Fine Art from Dec 5.
Swannell's elegant, beautifully crafted images betray an eye for detail and encompass exotic travel, high fashion, and portraits of Judi Dench, Helena Bonham Carter and Julie Christie.
For the Love Fish campaign, Christie agreed to lie naked in a coffin, covered in seafood.
"The fish was fresh cold and wet from Billingsgate, I said 'I'll try to be as quick as I can', it took me four minutes, and she was still shivering, but she never complained."
He's full of admiration for the intelligence of Bonham Carter too but says some actors ask: "'What do you want me to be?' When you say 'be yourself' you can see the panic in their eyes because they haven't got a role to play."
Swannell was born in 1946 to an unmarried mother who left Northern Ireland because of the stigma. "She was taken in by nuns in Archway and scrubbed the floors there until she met my father who took us both on."
He grew up in a council flat in Ferme Park Road Crouch End.
"It wasn't like estates today Every family knew each other, it was a wonderful childhood. My dad worked in a factory and never went on social security. He was just proud that me and my step brothers were healthy and never got in trouble with the police!"
He attended Bishopswood in Muswell Hill (now Highgate Wood) where he started photographing school plays and sports days. But he left at 16 to work in a Fleet Street darkroom and three years later landed a job at Vogue Studios. It was 1966, the great Cecil Beaton was still there, but it was David Bailey that the teenage Swannell admired.
"If you dreamed of being a rock star you wanted to be Mick Jagger, an actor it was Michael Caine, and if you were a photographer you wanted to be David Bailey."
He bribed the man who handed out the jobs with tickets to see Sinatra at the Albert Hall and was rostered on as Bailey's assistant.
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But he nearly blew it on the first day by nervously changing a film and smashing a valuable Rollefleix. Humiliated, he got his head down and worked hard for the rest of the session. Bailey noticed and requested him again.
During four years as Bailey's assistant he learned "how to light women" and build a rapport with the sitters. "He is very creative and talks and jokes all the time when he is taking a portrait. For an East End boy he could engage with anybody, he is so clever and entertaining."
When he left, Bailey gave him a box of Nikon and Pentax cameras and the use of his studio while he was away. "He offered to buy me a flat but I was 24 and needed to set up on my own, he was like a big brother to me, and still is."
Swannell went on to work at Tatler, Harpers & Queen and The Sunday Times. He met his wife the model Marianne Lah in the early 80s and some of his favourite shots are of her. He says speed is just as important as putting sitters at ease.
"Most personalities are so busy they don't want to be there, so I get them in and out as quick as possible. Michael Palin (one of Swannell's favourites) insists I do him because I am always quick and easy, and there's a rock star who says 'I like you because you never make me do anything daft'."
His royal photos have adorned stamps, and 120 of his shots are in the National Portrait Gallery's collection. For the Queen's diamond jubilee he posed the Monarch in a mirror with a portrait of her father reflected in shot. When he told Buckingham Palace he was disappointed they hadn't used it, they said "oh but she's got that in her bedroom.'"
For the Golden Jubilee he tried to superimpose the Queen on the battlements at Windsor but was told. "Her Majesty thinks it's very interesting but I'm sorry we can't use it." However his photograph of The Queen with the Victoria memorial in the background was approved of. In 1994, Anna Harvey at Vogue asked him to photograph 'a friend and her two children'. It turned out to be Princess Diana. Swannell played ping pong with the boys while she was having her make-up done and says 10-year-old year old Harry was "pretty good with a bat". The pictures of the trio in fits of laughter are joyful and heartbreaking.
"She was great to work with, totally natural and making rather wicked jokes all the time."
Joanna Lumley is a favourite; "you get what you see," Charlotte Rampling egoless, telling him: "If you're happy I don't need to see it". Grace Jones failed to show up for their shoot until he called her, then asked to be paid in furs.
Swannell's career has seen him he make leap to digital: "It was quite scary for photographers our age but it cut the costs of a shoot by a third. It's completely revolutionised photography. Now I can almost do a job with my camera phone. You used to be careful about how many rolls you shot, now everyone can take a picture, they just carry on until they get a good one."
He's photographed all the Beatles but not Jagger who turned him down for his book about public figures who had endured. "Even the Queen mother said yes. "Eric Clapton thought I was taking the piss."
Margaret Thatcher was "a tough old bird" who tried to tell him what angle and light to use, but found the result 'most attractive' and afterwards sent him a "sweet note".
He doesn't think too much about how far he's come from a Finsbury Park council flat to photographing royalty.
"From a young age I've been conservative, I've always loved royalty, for the same reason I liked Vogue - because of the glamour."
"I always loved Hampstead and Highgate, they were posh and I came from a rough area. I bought my first flat 40 years ago in Highgate, I moved up the hill and I've never left, I feel privileged."
John Swannell Forty Years On runs at Clarendon Fine Art in Hampstead High Street from December 5-15. clarendonfineart.com