Art & Photography / The Story Behind The Image

Flash of Genius: Photographing Aladdin Sane

As a new exhibition of Brian Duffy's portraits of Bowie opens, we recall the stories behind one of the most iconic photoshoots of the 20th century

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David Bowie, Aladdin Sane, Contact Sheet, 1973© Courtesy of the Duffy Archive

What is the first image that comes to mind when you hear the name David Bowie? For many millions of fans, it’s one of the musician, bare-chested, with a bold red lightning bolt scrawled across his ethereally white face and a mystical pool of water nestled in the nook of his collarbone. The photograph is one of the most famous ever made by photographer Brian Duffy, taken for the cover of the pop icon’s album Aladdin Sane in the second of five sessions which the pair conducted together, and has become one of the most recognised photographs ever taken.

Chris Duffy, the photographer’s son, remembers Bowie’s Aladdin Sane era well. “I was 17 at that point, so I was still living at home,” he tells me over the phone. “One Sunday morning Duffy had this record blasting out in the living room, and I came down the stairs and said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool, who is that?’ and he said, ‘it’s this guy called David Bowie, who’s playing as Ziggy Stardust. I’m doing his album cover, do you want to meet him?’”

A budding photographer himself – Chris would go on to become his father’s assistant later that year, before developing a professional career himself – he couldn’t resist the opportunity. “I went down at about seven o’clock and knocked on the door of Trident Studios," Chris continues. "Bowie opened it, looked me up and down and said, ‘Who are you?’ I was, like 'uh, I’m Chris, Duffy’s son'. He replied, ‘God, your father is a lunatic. Come in, come in, come in. Sit down, sit down.’

"Bowie opened the door, looked me up and down and said, ‘Who are you?’ I was, like 'uh, I’m Chris, Duffy’s son'. He replied, ‘God, your father is a lunatic. Come in, come in.’" – Chris Duffy

"At the desk was Ken Scott, who was recording the session, and Mick Rock was doing the over dubs to Let’s Spend the Night Together. So I kind of melted into a big leather sofa, and made myself sparse. Whenever I listen to Let’s Spend the Night Together now it’s like I’m back in that room.”

The decision to get Duffy in to shoot the Aladdin Sane album cover was made by Bowie’s then manager, Tony Defries. “I was looking for an iconic cover image and artwork that would help me to persuade RCA that Bowie was sufficiently important to warrant megastar treatment and funding, in order to propel him to exactly that status,” Tony Defries remembers in the book Duffy/Bowie. “Engaging a master, world-class photographer to shoot the product/brand and to design the artwork was the best way to send that message. Brian had the ability to make the mundane image interesting and the interesting image fascinating.”

The famous red and blue lightning bolt which is painted across Bowie’s face was, in fact, inspired by the logo on a rice cooker in the studio kitchen. “In the studio we had a sort of mobile make-up table with mirrors on it, and on wheels,” Duffy's studio manager Francis Newman recalls. “I remember David sitting in front of that with Pierre Laroche, and they had obviously talked about using this flash. Well, Pierre started to apply this tiny little flash on his face and when Duffy saw it he said, ‘No, not fucking like that, like this.’ He literally drew it right across his face and said to Pierre, 'Now, fill that in.' It was actually Duffy who did the initial shape – I’m not saying he did the actual make-up. It then took Pierre about an hour to apply properly. The red flash is so shiny because it was actually lipstick.”

"Pierre started to apply this tiny little flash on his face and when Duffy saw it he said, ‘No, not fucking like that, like this.’ He literally drew it right across his face and said to Pierre, 'Now, fill that in.'" – Francis Newman

In the years since his father’s passing, Chris Duffy has devoted much of his free time to archiving his father’s astonishing back catalogue of works – from making books and curating exhibitions to contributing images to the record-breaking show which took place at the V&A in 2013 – and Bowie’s is a name which crops up often in it. “My father was very friendly with David, having shot five sessions with him,” he says. “He was kind of a regular punter at my mum’s dinner table.”

Still, he’s well aware of the cultural impact the sessions they conducted together continue to have. “Duffy’s pictures of David are so iconic,” Chris says. “Eventually we have all got to pass on, but I would guess that David’s legacy will be the Aladdin Sane picture. It has become a cultural icon. Several years ago I started calling it the Mona Lisa of Pop. I think it is quite befitting – there isn’t really an image that is as ubiquitous. It’s been on used fridge magnets, caps, calendars, t-shirts, lighters, beer mats and it is quite extraordinary, you know? You can go somewhere like a market in Goa and you will find people selling rip off Aladdin Sane T-shirts.”

Portraits of Bowie by Duffie is at Gallery Vassie until February 27, 2016

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