An interview with iconic photographer Joe Gaffney, who has recently returned to fashion photography.
Joe Gaffney entered fashion photography by accident in 1977 when French Vogue discovered the unique stamp he placed on his portraiture. His unbridled passion for his subject plays compliment to his innate sense of lighting and technique. In 1989, his departure from fashion came as abruptly as his entrance. So now what does he have to say for himself? "It was mad fun!"
Dazed & Confused: You enrolled in the Royal College in London in the late 1960's to study your initial love, painting. When was it that you first picked up a camera?
JG: I was at school. One of my A levels was Zoology. Other Zoology majors were studying Botany and were allotted a little plot of ground to grow things. I was the only person who was combining Zoology, Art and Art History as majors but was still given a plot of ground. So I dug it up. I built a sculpture, like a Henry Moore, out of these big chunks of mud. I was so worried that it was going to rain so I got a camera and I photographed this mud thing. It was the first time I was ever aware of documenting art.
Who were your major influences during that time?
JG: I lived in Kent and would hitchhike to London every single Saturday to do the Bond Street galleries and Tate gallery. I liked Richard Hamilton, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, and Richard Smith. I was into Pop art. I liked Warhol. Between 1971 and 1973 I was shooting for Andy's Interview Magazine. The London correspondent was Peter Lester. I was still at the Royal College. My first portrait for them was of Marianne Faithful. Then there was Serge Gainsbourg. It was a mad time.
So you started with portraits?
JG: That's all I ever did was portraits: I had never shot fashion. I was just photographing all of my friends, people that were interesting to me. I was much more concerned with people's work. If I admired their work, what they did, that interested me far more than whether they were fabulous or not. I didn't care – some of them were famous and some of them weren't. It was long before this celebrity cult that is going on now. I was very lucky. I got to photograph artists like Man Ray. The last time I saw his studded iron before the big Dada show at MoMA was when it was sitting on his studio ironing board.
What brought you to Paris after graduation?
JG: I went to see a still life photographer friend of mine who, before he moved to Paris, used to have the studio that the film Blow Up was shot in. I had been to Paris quite a few times before. It was during that trip that he introduced me to his agent who happened to like my portraits. She needed a portrait photographer to do a campaign with a major French chef. I had an agent, studio, and a job but nowhere to live.
Three for three. Having a roof over your head is important though. What did you do?
JG: An old acquaintance I had known in London ended up at this dinner that I went to that weekend and it turned out that her roommate had moved back to London and had a free room. I said "Listen, let me take the room for a month while I shoot this thing". So I took the room for month, and then another month, and then another month. And now I'm married to her. Every job I thought "well, let me just shoot this and then I'll go back to London". It was originally supposed to be a long weekend; a Thursday through Monday kind of deal, but I stayed for twelve years.
How did you transition from shooting portraits of your friends to shooting for French Vogue?
JG: Without me knowing, Zandra Rhodes contacted Francince Cresent and told her to look at my portraits. A few days later, totally unexpected, I get a call asking me to send my portfolio to the office of French Vogue. The first portrait I did for them was of Francois Truffaut for a feature they were writing on him. Francine, who was the editor in chief of French Vogue at the time, wanted me to then do a portrait of this girl. This girl was Sean Casey, who I had never heard of, and was one of the top models. I didn't know anything, I was a kid. They said not to worry about the hair or the dress, they'd worry about that, and just do the portrait. The next thing you know I'm a fashion photographer – I'm shooting fashion for French Vogue and I didn't even know what it was! That was 1977. From then on I was working around the clock. I was still doing small, little drawings & paintings but photography took over like a monster. It was a huge life that was not part of the plan.
Click here to view a selection of Joe's portrait photography
Where did you live in Paris?
JG: We lived near Le Palace; literally right around the corner. Those were the disco days. I photographed a lot of Saint Laurent. He was a genius. I did a lot of shots of Paloma Picasso. Couture was great then. I don't know what it's like now but then they would show it every day. There was only one of each dress so the only time you had to shoot it for editorials was at night. We'd shoot all night, every night. There would be one editor on set working on the picture and then another editor would be on the phone making deals with other editors saying "I'll give you Saint Laurent's red dress if you give me Madame Gres purple dress" and whatever. They'd make these deals and there would be motorcycles swapping these incredible dresses all night long. You had to have them back at their respective houses by morning.
That must be when you learned to make such strong coffee. Is there a shoot that sticks out from those days?
JG: At one point Le Palace, the disco, had it's own magazine. I remember during one shoot I was so bored with all these old French bourgeois women in these couture gowns that I proposed a shoot where everyone had just left the party and where everyone is completely gone to the point of throwing up and whatnot. They thought I was out of my mind. A week later they called me up and said we should do it. So we organized the shoot and shot all over the streets of Paris at night. We had huge generators for lights and all of these great party dresses. The girls were lying on the ground. Images then portrayed a life that was totally polished and clean. Nobody had done that before.
How did you land the Jean Claude de Luca and Thierry Mugler campaigns? Those images are what first introduced Andre Walker to your work and encouraged him to track you down.
JG: Patrick Hourcade, who was working at French Vogue at the time, was the one who asked me to shoot the de Luca campaign. He, I guess, had taken to the work I was doing for the magazine. The first person to shoot for Thierry was Helmut Newton. And then they asked me to do it. I shot two or three seasons. We had some really great shots but unfortunately a lot of it is lost. It was great. Some of the pictures were just classic pictures. They were big production shots. I kind of showed Thierry how to do it, how to run a shoot. Then he decided to do his own thing. He did some great work. He was one of the first designers to photograph his own stuff.
Was your departure from photography something you felt coming? Or was there a defining moment?
Kanebo Ruby for French Vogue
JG: My French wasn't very good. It never was. And when you live somewhere, life is really about the shades of grey. It's not about the black and white and my French was black and white. I wanted to live in the English Language but I hadn't lived in London for almost twelve years. My wife got offered a job in New York in 1985. They said they'd move us. The airline lost my entire portfolio - tear sheets, every record of my work. In New York, I shot a few things for American ads but I couldn't relate. I realized that you must photograph, in some way, the life you live.
New York during the mid eighties was a far cry from the disco era. Had life changed now that you were in New York?
JG: At that point it was like, if you are photographing couture gowns and going to the Mud Club what the hell are you doing? How can you? I was just hating fashion. I would photograph a few friends but by 1989 I started to really paint again. Every cell of my body went there. It was a total commitment to painting from the first brush stroke and I stopped photography completely. Years passed. And then Kathleen Turner saw some of my work.
It was Kathleen Turner who then put you back behind the lens?
JG: I will always be grateful to her. She couldn't believe it. She said, "You can't just stop photography. You don't have to stop painting either. You can do both. You can't have all of this talent and not use it. It's just criminal." I told her I hadn't taken a picture in years. She insisted, "well, you can start by photographing me." She went out and rented a studio, make-up artists and whatnot and got me to start taking pictures again. She was big on Broadway at the time. I got back into portraits. Back to how I started. And then I got the call from Andre.
How would you describe your work now? What's next?
JG: Although there were periods when I wasn't taking pictures, it's still forty years of work. It's not intellectual now. I just shoot. The vision is clearer. I think it's great that my first fashion shoot after twenty years time was for Dazed & Confused. I remember first seeing the title a few years ago at a newsstand and saying to myself, "Wow, that about sums it up." I enjoyed the experience tremendously. In a way, I'm still extending that first long weekend in Paris. And I'm still sleeping with my landlady.