Master Series: Brian Duffy of The Terrible Trio

Self-portrait of Brian Duffy

Self-portrait of Brian Duffy

This is a 3 part series to introduce three of fashion photography’s most notorious photographers: Brian Duffy, David Bailey, and Terence Donovan. These three Londoners captured London while it was swingin’ in the Sixties like no other photographers. But what they really did was give the “rock star” status to fashion photographers. Society photographer Norman Parkinson called them the Black Trinity because the group operated by few rules or they broke the rest.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll became the plat du jour during the Swinging Sixties. And London was the place to be to indulge in it all. With bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and of course, my beloved David Bowie, talented, legendary performers were building their careers and the Terrible Trio were there to capture it all.

I’m going to start with the least famous member of the Trio, Brian Duffy.  I have to admit, I was a huge fan of The Terrible Trio. They were irreverent, sexy and well, they were “rock stars”! Perhaps Brian Duffy’s work is not as famous as his two comrades because he burned most of his negatives in 1979. Another negative burner! However, in 2009, Duffy’s work was exhibited in Chris Beetles gallery in London and his name has been re-established with the Terrible Trio.

I suppose there was a bit of craziness about the three. I mean, Duffy talks about being fed up with the industry and how he tried to burn all his negatives: “The thing with negatives is they don’t burn as fast as you think they will. I’d thrown them into this fire bin and I just had to stoke them and I was pouring white spirit in to try and keep it going. It was, to be honest, making pretty stinking black smoke.”

After a neighbor started screaming at him, he had to shut down the negative burning party, which of course is good news for the world because he wasn’t able to burn them all. His response to why he decided to burn his work: “Life is life and things happen”.

Sounds like a responsible answer to me. I suppose we all get fed up with our work from time to time. I’ve been guilty of throwing a tantrum or two, especially back in the darkroom where I spent hours and hours on one print only to not get it just right and end up throwing the bath trays, grabbing the scissors and shredding the negatives. I saw a photographer pick up and throw the entire enlarger across the darkroom once. Costly little tantrum, that one.

But us crazy artists hopefully have some sane people in our camp and Duffy’s wife provided such stability for him. She suggested he revisit the shoe box full of un-burned negs. His son, Chris went through them exclaiming “Wow, there are some really interesting things here, didn’t realize you did this…”



Duffy started working for Vogue in 1957 and became one of the world’s biggest fashion photographers at that time. Perhaps the Terrible reputation came about from the controversial images he shot: He snapped Sammy David Jr kissing his white wife May Britt, the Swedish actress. This led to the White House canceling Sammy’s invite to the inauguration party for John F. Kennedy and Vogue not running it, not even discussing it. It was banned and never spoken about again. Thankfully that was one of the negatives that didn’t get burned and is a part of Duffy’s archives.

Apparently he was a juvenile delinquent but then they just figured he was artistic (sound familiar?) after he was sent to a school for troubled youths and their cure was to introduce the kids to the opera, ballet and art. At first he wanted to be a painter but switched to fashion design while attending the famed St. Martin’s School of Art in 1950. After graduating he worked for various designers and after a few years took a job at Harper’s Bazaar as a freelance fashion artist. It was here that he came into contact with fashion photography. He was mesmerized by the contact sheets on the art director’s desk so he decided he would take a job as a fashion photograher’s assistant in order to learn photography. It took him a few tries to get in but he finally did and a few years later was given his first assignment. Shortly after that he was hired by British Vogue where he remained working until 1963. He worked with some of the top models from that era including Jean Shrimpton and Joy Weston. He also worked for Glamour, Esquire and French Elle as well as huge advertising clients like Benson and Hedges, Pirelli and Smirnoff.



But. I haven’t gotten to the best part yet. He had a 10-year working relationship with my favorite rock star of all time, DAVID BOWIE. He not only shot, he art-directed Bowie’s album cover of Alladin Sane, one of my top 5 favorite Bowie albums of all time as well as he shot for the albums Lodger and Scary Monsters & Super Creeps. This fact about him alone makes him one of my heroEs. To have had the opportunity to work with an artist like Bowie, especially during the prime years of his career is nothing short than amazing! It has been noted that he had a huge influence on Bowie’s public image. I think that’s utterly fascinating, myself.

Duffy got fed up, burned his negatives and quit the still image biz. He did, however, take up shooting commercials in 1981 and joined the film production company, Lewin Matthews. He has directed music videos for Spandau Ballet and Human League. In 1990 Duffy quit all image making and took up furniture restoration.

He passed away in 2010, a year after his son Chris started the Duffy Archive and had his father’s work exhibited, for the first time EVER, with the famous Sammy Davis, Jr. photograph.

I think he was a brilliant photographer and another photographer that I relate to, I guess. The troubled youth, the burning of the work, and the other mediums he worked in, he was a true artist and visionary. And he just gets my full love and support because he shot with David Bowie!

There’s a brilliant BBC documentary called “The Man Who Shot The Sixties”  that you can find on Vimeo. Check it out. It’ll be a wonderful 58 minutes of your time.

Here is a selection of his work:

Melissa Rodwell