Revisiting a 1978 photo shoot encounter with The Thin White Duke….
by Gordon Campbell
When David Bowie was in New Zealand in May 1978 on the Heroes tour, the great New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart took a beautiful shot of him. At the time, Bowie was on the last lap of what had been a year-long tour, and Aberhart was on assignment for a local music magazine. ‘I was living in Lyttleton,” Aberhart recalls on the phone from his home in Russell,“and I knew Murray Cammick of Rip It Up. For a while, the promoters would bring acts in through Christchurch as the first venue, and so they’d do all the press down there, to get it over and done with. When that happened, Murray would get hold of me and ask me to go along…I was just being a photo-journalist, really.”
On the Bowie shoot, there wasn’t time for niceties. ““He was in a room and we got ushered in, one by one. I just asked him to stand over by a clear, white, stucco wall…[as] the most un-obstrusive shot, really. He was very obliging.“ There wasn’t much chance to talk either, yet Aberhart does recall that he asked Bowie if he had a favourite photographer. “He said ‘John Heartfield’ , and I thought that was a pretty good answer.” Heartfield was among other things, an anti-Nazi photo collagist. In his white shirt, Bowie offstage looked like a more relaxed version of his last major persona, the Thin White Duke.
Good photos are one thing. Sensitive cropping and printing can turn a good photo into a great one. Aberhart’s photo of Bowie is a case in point. Some years ago, Aberhart cropped the image he took for Rip It Up and gave a print to his friend, the late Canterbury painter Quentin MacFarlane. Ultimately, it was through that print that some years ago I became aware of the image. The cropped version takes the essential features of the original photo – Bowie’s face and steady gaze – and sets them within a sea of whiteness. From memory, these are the closest approximations I can get to how Aberhart had cropped the original photo:
Ask yourself: is the photo better when you crop it too include all of Bowie’s head, or when you let his whole upper body float free?
These are the decisions that photographers – the bad, the good, and the great – have to make every day. By way of comparison, compare the two cropped images with Aberhart’s original piece of photo-journalism reprinted at the top of this article – which conveys how Bowie had looked up against the wall, Gitanes cigarette in hand.
Footnote: Finally, it seems significant that by 1978, Bowie should have chosen to cite an anti-Nazi figure like Heartfield as his favourite photographer. In the mid 1970s, there had been a rash of stories – in the tabloids and the British music press – claiming that the Thin White Duke was actually a neo-Nazi figure, an emotionless Aryan superman. At the time, Bowie hadn’t done himself any favours by saying things in interviews like “Adolf Hitler was the first rock star….” Many times subsequently, Bowie retracted those comments, putting them down to him being off his head on drugs during the whole Station to Station phase of his career. In 1978, singling out Heartfield doesn’t seem like corrective p.r. – it seems a signal of where his real sentiments lay. An example :