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Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 11:19 UK

Why would you burn your life's work?

Duffy images of Sammy Davis Jr and Sidney Poitier on either side of the celebrated Aladdin Sane cover

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Along with David Bailey and Terence Donovan, Brian Duffy took many iconic images of the 1960s. Then, one day, he decided to set fire to his life's work.

Negatives don't burn quite as well as you might imagine.

If they did, Brian Duffy would have seen his life's work consumed by the flames. As it was, whole sections - but not all - of his images chronicling the 1960s and 1970s were lost.

Brian Duffy
I was employing four staff, was managing director, head of this organisation and my decision was on toilet paper - at that moment I cracked

Known to friends and colleagues by his surname alone, Duffy was a rival of David Bailey and Terence Donovan throughout the 1960s. They were dubbed the Black Trinity and the Terrible Trio, three working class Londoners who redefined British photography, particularly in terms of their fashion and magazine work.

They snapped the pop stars, actresses and models of the day. The Lennons, the Caines, and the Twiggys were captured in black and white, frozen for posterity in stark contrast prints.

Donovan died in 1996. But Bailey still plays the role of Yoda to glossy magazines, having cavorted with models and partied with the infamous while those now commissioning him were still in nappies.

Matches moment

Duffy, on the other hand, has seen a fading of his fame, perhaps not unrelated to his decision to try and incinerate all his own work.

There have been a few creative people who have left instructions for their work to be burned upon their death - Kafka was a notable example - but it's rarer for people in the middle of their career to reach for the matches.

Terence Stamp
Many of the images show a dynamic between snapper and snapped

Duffy is able to look back on his incendiary moment in 1979 with a certain amount of phlegmatism.

"One morning I came into work, my assistant said we haven't got any toilet paper. I was employing four staff, was managing director, head of this organisation and my decision was on toilet paper. At that moment I cracked. Later that day I burned something, then I went into burning mode. I got reported and the council came round.

"They were in a big bin. I was making a lot of smoke. Negatives don't burn easily. They make a hell of a lot of smoke."

The intervention of the authorities meant much work was saved. His son, Chris, has spent the last three years sifting through thousands of negatives looking for the best examples from Duffy's career for an upcoming exhibition.

Perhaps his best known image remains the cover of the David Bowie album Aladdin Sane.

Rice cooker

Today, the image might have been produced with a generous sprinkling of Photoshop trickery.

Then, everything was a bit more manual.

"Bowie was interested in the Elvis ring which had the letters TCB [taking care of business] as well as a lightning flash."

Kray family scene
Criminals as well as celebrities were the subject matter

It was decided that Bowie would have a flash on his face. Duffy drew inspiration from the mundane objects in his studio and, along with make-up artist Pierre La Roche, copied the red and blue flash off a National Panasonic rice cooker lying nearby.

"I drew on his face the design... [we] used lipstick to fill in the red," he says.

Duffy hadn't always wanted to be a photographer. In the beginning he had wanted to be a painter and had then ended up working in fashion before a chance glance at a contact sheet persuaded him to change direction.

Despite the work of pioneers like Man Ray, it still wasn't clear in the 1960s that photography would be widely accepted as a genuine art form.

"The idea of photographs as an art form is [only] 30 years old," says Duffy. "It wasn't art; it was a craft."

Seminal snap

But even the craft element could contribute to a certain degree of insecurity on the part of the photographic profession. As the years rolled on and cameras got cheaper, so more and more people became amateur snappers, even before today's era of total digital camera ubiquity.

By the tail end of the 1970s, Duffy was having doubts about photography and its role.

"If I give you a violin, you will not be able to get a tune out of it. If I give you a camera, you run the possibility of taking a seminal snap."

In 1979 Duffy decided he no longer wanted to be a photographer

The photographer can at least say he was there during an interesting patch of the post-war history of Britain. After the years of post-war austerity, the 1960s provided the first flashes of colour both metaphorically and literally.

"The '1960s' - they started in 1956 and finished by 1965-66," he asserts. "'68 is the seminal year for colour. Before then, if you asked people if they dreamed in black and white or colour they would have said black and white. Then colour television came in."

Duffy was part of a group that kept bumping into each other at the same clubs in London's West End, a heady mix of actors, pop stars and "jelly men", criminals who used gelignite to blow safes. It didn't seem strange that photographers like Bailey and Duffy could take pictures of the Beatles and the Krays.

"Everybody was known. There was a very elitist group," he notes.

Now Duffy is 76, motivated to re-examine his past work by rifling through a few old shots and by the knowledge that none of his 10 grandchildren were even aware he had ever been a photographer.

He was part of a school of photography that got a lot more "personal" with the subjects. Many of the images clearly show a dynamic, not always friendly, between snapped and snapper.

"I had a short fuse," Duffy explains. "People can pick that up."

The Duffy exhibition is at the Chris Beetles galley in London from 15 October.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I was fortunate to work for Duffy from 71-74, first as assistant then as studio manager. I was there that Sunday when the Aladdin Sane pic was taken and well remember Duffy drawing the outline of the flash on his face. What to me is more technically interesting is the back cover, with the outline of Bowie's face, which we painstakingly produced photographically when today it would be so quick and easy to do in Photoshop. I recently met Duffy after a gap of more than 20 years, after filming an interview for a TV programme. Part of my life that I will always treasure and it was great to see and talk to him again. One of life's real characters.
Francis Newman, Twyford, Berks

I worked with Duffy back in 1983 as a runner for his production company "Duffy & Mitton" I spent nearly two years working at his studio near Swiss Cottage. He had moved from stills photography to directing pop videos and TV ads. Certainly a man who did not suffer fools. The young advertising executives in the early 80s were instantly put in their place with a sharp rebuff if they attempted to push their ideas across to Duffy... I learnt so much from a man who was, and still is an outstanding talent. He was kind enough to give me 60 double sided posters of the Bowie image you refer to as a farewell gift.
Kevin Boag, Bournemouth

One of the results of a house fire this past April was the loss of all my negatives and prints - 30 years of documentary and fine art work gone in two hours. I was initially devastated, and occasionally still have pangs of anguish, but more surprisingly it has been cathartic. While those bodies of work are irreplaceable, and those stories now lost forever, I can start afresh, with "new" eye to my subjects. And I think I've said good-bye to film. Digital means no "lost" images ever again, though no digital camera will ever give me the thrill of setting up a large format camera in the field and exposing a large sheet of film.
David Green, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada

Virgil requested that his seminal work The Aeneid be destroyed in his will, but this was ignored under the direction of the Emperor Augustus I believe.
Christopher, UK

Duffy remains one of the most erudite and inspired figures produced by that era - incredibly unsung considering the impact some or most of his work had on pop culture... should be regarded as a British gem but typically uninterested in pursuing media plaudits.
Raymond Mcveigh, Chad Valley

Maybe Duffy is a fan of Nikolai Gogol - he took to burning his Dead Souls manuscript, years of work, and did a pretty good job of it too - most of the second part went up in smoke.
Mike, Manchester

Destruction of connections to the past seems to be a normal human reaction to a cusp in a person's life. Personal creative works seem to be a natural target in that mode.
ChrisJK, UK

I can relate to the idea of destroying your work, I'm sure the relief would be immense, briefly anyway. A few years ago I got burgled, everything got stolen, records, mementoes, furniture, computer... in fact I couldn't call the police as they had stolen the phone. I felt unbelievably calm and really felt as if I had been liberated from the trappings of all my stuff (as cliched as that sounds.) Of course I have spent the time since then collecting and in most cases replacing the rubbish that I lost but for a second I felt like I could reinvent myself utterly.
Lyken Love, Scotland

Throughout my teenage and college years I had a huge poster of that Bowie pic on my bedroom wall. It was my favourite ever photo of him. Sadly, it got crushed and crumpled in a house move and I had to throw it away. Wish they'd re-issue it: I'd buy one and frame it, although I'm not sure what my wife would make of it.
Rob, London, UK

It would be nice to see an article in the BBC acknowledging Lewis Fry Richardson, a man who burnt a lot of his work. He was the forefather of modern weather forecasting, his techniques still being used today and a pacifist.
Thomas Dean, Sheffield, UK

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