Sunday 4 February 2024

Britain says "Goodbye" to its Photographic Genius, Brian Griffin

Brian, who has died at the age of seventy-five was called 'The most  unpredictable and influential British portrait photographer of the last decades' by the British Journal of Photography in 2005, and 'One of Britain’s most influential photographers' by the World Photography Organization in 2015. 
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He was born, just after the end of the Second World War, into a working class family of factory workers on a sunny Spring day in 1948 in the bomb damaged industrial Midlands city of Birmingham. At the age of eleven he passed his 11+ exam and didn't go to a grammar school for boys, but attended Halesowen Technical School, created in the 1940s to teach 'technical' subjects such as mechanics and engineering and prepare students to work in related trades. 

In 1964 left school at the age of sixteen and he began his apprenticeship as a draughtsman in a metal engineering factory making conveyors. His parents were against him working there, so he played with the idea of doing something more exciting, like many teenagers at the time, of becoming a fighter pilot, a speedway rider, or something more creative like a painter. In fact he was encouraged by the foreman to join the local photographic society. (link)

Many years later, when Brian was fĂȘted as one of Britain's greatest photographers he paid homage to the Black Country where he had spent his youth : "The Black Country was black and white. I didn't see any colour in the Black Country when I was a boy. I didn't see any colour at all. It was all black and white - an expressionist movie really, living there. All the hot steel; all the rolling mills; all the sound. I loved the music there - the music from all the machines; all the forges and the wonderful light from the hot steel. It marries itself so well to black and white photography that would, it seemed to be like, a black and white world. The Black Country made me what I am. It gave me all those inspirations, those motivations in regards to all my life in photography ".(link)

He raised his horizon when he finished his apprenticeship at the age of twenty-one in 1969. He recalled seeing the rats running along side the canal and realised that was pretty much what life had in store for him – a lifetime of routine and work that he’d seen his parents endure. So he made the step which would change the course of his life when, as he said :  “I put some pictures in a Boots photo album and tried to get a place at an art college. I got into Manchester Polytechnic. I was 21 and, to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in photography. It was a form of escape”. It was here that he learnt the crisp technical skills that have made his photographic images of precision and clarity which became his professional hall mark in the years that followed.

When he graduated in 1972 he found it incredibly difficult to get started as a photographer and said : "People just didn’t want to give jobs to a young lad and there weren’t many photography jobs to come by in the first place. In the late sixties photography wasn’t a terribly fashionable thing to do, it wasn’t something anyone desired to do”.(link)

Surprisingly, when Brian later spoke about the influences on his work he said : "Looking at the history of cinema, especially German and French cinema, it just fed my imagination and also the surrealist painters at that time. I've always been very close to painting. I've not been close to photography. I've always led a a slightly detached life as a photographer, from photographers. I've always been closer to artists, I like to feel. I feel I've reached the point where I sort of jump into photography to get my idea across. It's not something which is second nature to me. I'm more interested in other art forms much more than I am in my own art form".(link)

Brian recalled in 2010, when he was a successful sixty-two year old : "As a photographer you've got to work 24/7 every year of your life and never give up because at times it gets so bad, so horrible and unbelievably difficult and that's why some one my age, since I'm a senior person in British photography now, never reach my age in photography. They go off and make furniture or babies or whatever they do, estate agents, because you've got to stick at it. And it's just unbelievably difficult, but the rewards are immense". (link)

His first big break came when he went to work as a photographer on a business publication called 'Management Today' where he said his shot of a ballroom dancer got him the job. It was he came under the influence of an Art Director called Roland Schenck. Brian recalled says that Schenck would send him back time and again to take pictures or shoot portraits until he returned with something fresh, stylish and distinctive. He shot 'Rush Hour. London Bridge' for the magazine in 1974.(link)

Brian later recalled : "I'd grown up in the Black Country. It's all black and white, heavy shadows and I started with the inspiration they gave me - when to use bright light etc. Through the back of the cab, the metropolis shot was the shot that I found when I left college, was the shot that I found I could become a photographer. I was over the moon when I'd taken that picture. I was about to go down on my knees on London Bridge, pray to God : "Thank you Dear Lord". Maybe I can make it in photography".(link)

When London became the centre of a business boom, Brian became a highly sought after photographer for corporate clients, shooting major projects for businesses as he said : "Accountancy Age, Computing, Marketing, all those kinds of magazines”.

Brian said : "I was a creative person, I felt, I was far more capable than just clicking the shutter. I’d grown up in my late teens engineering, so I was quite good at maths and all that stuff. I found the analogue side of photography quite easy, so that suited me. Secondly, I wanted photography to be more than just capturing something. You could create your own environment, your own set. I’ve always been desperate to make photography more than just being a photographer. We were the dirty raincoat brigade in the 60s. It was really looked at as pretty low-brow". 

Brian said : "I was aware that I had a very different way of looking at things and that my own style was ‘not of the time’. I shot on black & white Ilford film and colour and, if you look at my images from that time, I do think there’s a remarkable stillness to them". (Traffic Island. Wandsworth)

“I started to do advertising, editorial and music when I got my first studio, which was in Rotherhithe Street, London, in 1980. 
I was technically quite adept because I’d studied engineering, so during the analogue days I was right ‘on it’ mathematically with exposures and all sorts of stuff. I could really get on top of things, hone my technical virtuosity and I made a great success in the ’80s through this studio. You need a studio to get really deep into photography and the analogue days helped with this because you could build multiple exposures and exciting things”.

After Margaret Thatcher came to power as Prime Minister in 1979, to capture the heroes and victims of what became known as Thatcherism and Globalization, Brian created a new photographic style, which became known as 'Capitalist Realism' and parodied the earlier 'Socialist Realism'. He undertook a major project in the City of London in Broadgate.(link)

He recalled that he : "Did all this photography of the workers building this massive site near Liverpool Street Station and it became a famous piece of work, primarily because most people went interested in photographing workers, businessmen at the time and it became extremely well-known. it formed the body of work in a book called 'Work'. 'Work' was voted in 1991, 'The Best Photographic Book in the World', which was extraordinary, at the 'Barcelona Primavera Fotografica' . It was also exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery for a few months". 

* Liam. Steel erector
* Carpenter 
* Train carrying tunnel    workers under London 
* Big Bang.(link)
* Felix Hyde. Foreman
* Alasdair Cathcart. Contract Manager
* Augvidas Baradinsksa. General labourer

Brian said : "Its a very difficult thing photographing people, particularly people who have not been photographed very much. A photographer who is going to hang around for two to three hours and really go at it for two or three hours at you and really try to develop something up. It's new to these people and I have to control them to a certain extent in order to control them and in order to the situation". 

He said he had to be : "Extremely, extremely observant watching all their mannerisms, the way they react between each other. Watching how they interact between each other. Watching how they relate together, how they feel together and I source that attitude from one experience or two and always get public transport. I use public transport all the time. I watch people do the most basic things in life. So I'm fascinated when I have a group of people in front of me, observing the minutiae about them and I apply all that minutiae into the group shot".
The other important strand in his career centred on his work for the music industry. He recalled that : 
“Post-punk bands tended to dress quite smartly and were quite fashion-conscious. I thought they looked just like the businessman I was photographing, so I wondered if I could get a job shooting music". He discovered that Elvis Costello was signed to the indie label Stiff Records, based in Notting Hill, London, and so visited them. Brian said : “I got my first cover through going to see Dave Robinson at Stiff Records. It wasn’t because I loved music or wanted to photograph bands. I just wanted to expand my repertoire and source of income. But, like all the best choices I’ve ever made in life, it was the most basic decision. I liked music, so I just made the basic decision to go to a record company. I looked at Elvis Costello and he wore a suit and tie and that, and I thought, ‘well I could do a good picture of him, he looks interesting with those horn rim glasses’. He looked just like an everyday person, which he was. It was a basic, obvious choice".(link)

It was a choice which subsequently led him to photo shoots with Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Toyah Willcox, R.E.M., Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr, Queen and Peter Gabriel.(link)  In addition, his work appeared on many album covers, notably that of Depeche Mode's 'A Broken Frame' in 1982 cited as one of the best color photographs ever shot.(link) It appeared on the cover of Life's 1990 edition of 'World's Best Photographs 1980–1990' and helped earn him the title of 'Photographer of the decade' by The Guardian in 1989.

In 2013, of his profession Brian said : 

"If you're passionate enough and are willing to sustain the efforts it takes, it can be an incredible thing. But you've got to be a little obsessed and you need a strong disposition”.