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Fergus Greer's Leigh Bowery
“Leigh Bowery, Session I, Look 2”, 1988Courtesy of Fergus Greer

The rare stories behind classic portraits of luminary Leigh Bowery

25 years on from his passing, photographer and friend Fergus Greer opens up about working with the late great artist

When photographer Fergus Greer was first introduced to a towering, seven foot tall in heels, artist named Leigh Bowery in the curtains of a 1988 London performance, he never could have guessed how seminal the duo’s future collaborations would become. Over six years, until the luminary’s tragic death in 1994, Greer photographed Bowery in what have become some of the most richly classic and culturally important portraits of the artist to date.

From Bowery swamping himself in head to toe latex as a metaphor for underlying fetishism of his work, to one of the most stripped down images of the artist the world has ever seen, the permanent relevance of Greer’s images is found in the way they have culturally preserved the icon. “Leigh used to rip up and re-make his costumes,” Greer explains. “So photography was really key to preserving his looks.”

Twenty five years on from Bowery’s death, the continual relevance of Greer’s portraits is a reflection of how important the artist was to contemporary culture. In 2016, Rick Owens took influence from Bowery’s birth performances and strapped models together for his SS16 runway. While the likes of designers Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Junya Watanabe, Maison Margiela, Gareth Pugh, and more (the list is endless) have also taken direct reference from his work. In art, Bowery is continuously found in the likes of Grayson Perry, Boy George, and, of course, through the paintings of portrait artist Lucian Freud. “And that’s just one side of creativity,” explains Greer. “If you look at museum curation, today it's all about gender identification, authenticity, challenging boundaries. Every single year, since his death I've had at least three museum shows which have had inclusion or wanted inclusion of images with Leigh in, that's in addition to other shows. That is 25 years, continuingly on a yearly basis, there's an interest in him. Whatever it is, Leigh allows people to think outside the box, stretch their imagination, push their fantasy.”

”Whatever it is, Leigh allows people to think outside the box, stretch their imagination, push their fantasy” – Fergus Greer

Illuminating the permanent relevance of Bowery through the lens of Greer’s portraits is London gallery Michael Hoppen’s latest show Fergus Greer: Leigh Bowery – Looks, which will feature a selection of Greer’s images until 27 April.

“If I had to describe Leigh in three words it would be authenticity, passion, and humour,” Greer candidly reflects on time he spent photographing the late luminary. “He was about being authentic to oneself and allowing people permission to be themselves; he lived passionately for his art and was generously supportive of others and their endeavors, and underlying whatever he did (including the challenges) was an element of humour. Whether it was dark, vulnerable or empathetic humour, he managed to find humour in the all the dark places.”

In light of the show, below Greer delves into the rare stories behind five iconic images of Bowery.

LEIGH BOWERY, SESSION IV, LOOK 21”, 1991

Fergus Greer: When we shot together, we found a rhythm. These photos are strobe, they’re not daylight or natural lighting, so they use strobe and flash. I think what would happen is we would get to the beat of the rhythm with the flash, a bit like a strobe in a night club. With this rhythm, he could tell when the flash was coming and he would move accordingly. This is a rhythmic stance. He moved, stopped, went left, right, back and forward. The only direction I gave him was to make sure that the images in the series had different shapes. 

His performative essence comes from his idea of music, pacing, rhythm – remember he worked with Michael in ballet, performance; clubbing for him was a performance, he did a lot of music videos and catwalk shows. They were all about pace and movement and timing, so it all came from that. I remember he dragged me out clubbing once after a shoot to a new club (in London) called Cambodia, it was on Hanover Square, that he had started with Toby Gordon, a music guy who DJ'd at Taboo. He was like, ‘come on you'll like it’. He was joking around because he knew it wasn't my scene, so he thought it would be funny me going. He was dressed up in some extraordinary outfit, I can't remember which one it was. So we went and I stayed the minimum amount of time before it was not rude to leave.

“LEIGH BOWERY, SESSION I, LOOK 2”, 1988

Fergus Greer: What he wore, whatever it was about, was purely his creation – that was his art. Leigh would bring whatever he wanted to do to shoots. He selected the outfits, or ‘looks’ as he called them. He would get ready, which took a long time because of the changing and the makeup, and everything else. Then he would come out onto set and we would think about how it was going to work. I’d observe the shape of his look and have a think about what might and what might not work in the silhouette, or how to reflect the lighting onto him. He would start moving and that's where the collaboration came in. Nicola, his wife, would always be there. She was his assistant and would help him with outfits that were difficult to get, and his makeup.

I was very excited for this shoot. As a young 26-year-old photo assistant who was looking for subject matter, I was very fortunate to be introduced to Leigh, who couldn't have been a better fit for a muse. I used to have to organise all the logistics for the photographer I was assisting and I got very little money, so usually, my own shoots were at the favours of others. It was very stressful making sure that we could actually do something when Leigh was available. So when it came together for the first time, it was really, really exciting.

Photography was important for Leigh because the costumes he wore didn't survive. The only thing that really recorded what he was as an art form was film or photography. So it was important to get that record with a style of photography which is very Richard Avedon classic, it's not like Nick Knight, who photographed him a bit. My work follows traditional conventions and because of this, you can really see the costumes because the image is not distracted by the technique. I wasn’t doing cross processing or flaring up or backlighting, and this was really important to ensure the costume was in focus.

“LEIGH BOWERY, SESSION VII, LOOK 37”, 1994

Fergus Greer: This was for the Sunday Times who asked if they could use my images for a feature on Leigh. After I sent the images, they came back and said that an establishing shot was missing, one which was more Leigh, rather than him and his looks. So I rang Leigh up, and I knew before he may not want to do it, I said, ‘Look, they want to run the feature but they want a picture more of you as you are’. So he came down to the studio without any makeup or anything on. I took one row on my Hasselblad and he said, ‘You know Fergus, I don't really feel comfortable with this’. So I pulled the roll out of the back so it was exposed, and asked Leigh what he wanted to do. He put on the helmet and the piercing back in his face and said that this was as ‘less Leigh Bowery’ as they were going to get. He wore that piercing day to day or he put studs in the holes so they didn’t close up. So that was our compromise.

The publication wasn't particularly happy but they were happy enough. He told me: ‘I am about what I do, it's my art, it’s not about me.’ Prior to this, he had a really bad experience in New York with Annie Leibovitz. He had gone to her studio for her to take photos of him, he got dressed in his costumes, took the pictures, and it was fine. But then she said to him, ‘Let’s do you as you are’. And he said, ‘Well, that’s not what this is about. I came here to be the artist I am.’ She said, ‘You don't know who I am, I'm Annie Leibovitz and I'll do you as you are’. And he said, ‘No, you won’t’. He told me that it was really awkward and upsetting, that they had this terrible argument and he left. He said to me, ‘I'm not going to be bullied into exposing myself, why should I do that’.

So that's how this image came about. Behind the costuming, Leigh was a gentle, softly spoken, intelligent, amusing man. He could talk intelligently about any subject, with a very good viewpoint, with the sense that it came from deep thinking and challenging.

“LEIGH BOWERY, SESSION VII, LOOK 39, 1994”

Fergus Greer: This is his wife hanging from him. The concept behind comes from Leigh's Birthing series. There were a number of performances he did where he comes on stage in a dress, then he starts having contractions, and he gives birth with all these effects to Nicola, who comes out of him like an infant being born, with an umbilical cord, etc. So this was the sling that they used in the performance to support her when the dress was over the top. But we never photographed it like that, we did it like this because it was a very strong graphic image, because of the dynamic and the body shape, and how it worked together, the foetal position and everything. It worked really well, so that’s why we did this one.

“LEIGH BOWERY, SESSION VII, LOOK 38”, 1994

Fergus Greer: Texture and fabric were very important with everything he did, meaning that when his images were blown up big you could still see all the detail, like the seams. The idea of the full bodysuit, he was very much about breaking up conventional viewpoints of the body, that's why you have the front foot. Also, he messes with gender identity with the breasts. And fetishism, obviously that came into it. What he quite enjoyed was being constricted so when he went to nightclubs in these outfits, he couldn't go to the loo easily. He got pleasure from that, he acknowledges that as his thing, he talked about it. It's very graphic, it's very sculptural – Mapplethorpe meets Michelangelo type thing.

It's all fetishistic. It's very sexual, it's very physical, it's very visceral. Whether its constriction, suffocation, the texture of the fabric, the chaps or the bondage approach – it's all challenging. It's about the relationship to the fetishistic aspects of the human condition.

Fergus Greer: Leigh Bowery – Looks runs until 27 April 2019. You can find out more here