Life through a wide-angle lens
Sunday April 2nd 2006 , Sunday Independent Ireland
BOB CARLOS CLARKE roared up the King's Road on his motorbike in his leathers like a middle-aged version of Brando in The Wild One. He settled suavely into a chair inside the bar - but not before admiring every beautiful girl who passed by on that autumnal London afternoon. I asked him was it difficult to photograph some of the world's most attractive women. He laughingly recalled the great Teutonic photographer Helmut Newton telling him one time how if he was photographing a beautiful nude model in a launderette that he was "more interested in the tumble-drier than the girl itself".
Newton, a friend of Bob's, had died earlier that year in a car crash on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. I remember asking Bob how the master would have described Bob's photography. "I don't think he would have bothered. I probably wasn't even a blip on his chart. Helmut was a lot older than me, and he lived in a different world. If I could live that long and die in a Cadillac at the age of 83 coming out of Chateau Marmont . . . I can't think of anything cooler."
That was late 2004, the last time I met Bob, the most controversial photographer to emerge from Ireland. And he didn't die a glamorous death in a limo on Sunset Boulevard - he died under a train in London, his adopted home, last week - but I'll never forget him. His famously dark and uncompromising photographs ignored politically correct convention. Mercifully so. He wanted his pictures to make us aware that sexual desire is not something that we need feel guilty about or disturbed by. The Cork-born iconoclast suspended Jordan by her ankles from the studio ceiling, put a topless Caprice in black leather reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade, Rachel Weisz in circulation-haltingly tight rubber.
One of my favourite of Bob'simages is called Faithful unto Death. In it, a young widowis photographed weeping on the steps of a mausoleum. She is wearing rubber. The model in the photoshoot was supposed to get married but her fiance had cancelled the wedding that morning and she didn't want to be photographed. So her tears were real, Bob encouraged her to cry. The image was used in an ad by the Alliance & Leicester in the late Eighties. Perhaps the first ad with a sado-masochistic charge used to promote a building society.
Why not? Bob's fetishistic images of women challenged perceptions of fantasy and reality by blurring the line that divided them. And rare for an erotic photographer, Bob wasn't a misogynist. He loved women, and it was returned. "His death is so so sad, and I'm devastated," Caprice told me from her home in Los Angeles.
I got to know him quite well over the last 14 or so years. He was never graceless or uncouth - nor, indeed, bashful. It is easy, even normal, to exaggerate the spirit and the passion of a person when they die, but Bob Carlos Clarke was like no photographer I had ever met. His 1990 book White Heat, with chef Marco Pierre White - the original Gordon Ramsey - caused a stir, not least with the chef himself, who was mistakenly under the impression that Bob was pursuing his wife. "Marco responds from the heart or the fist," Bob told me, "so when he's pissed off you could get hit. But part of his success isbuilt on his flaming, vibrant, explosive personality."
He could have been describing himself. He'd bite the head off you one minute and then, when he calmed down, he'd be the nicest man in the world. But when you did something he didn't like it was best not to be in the country, or even at the end of the phone. He threatened to sue me in 1994 when one of his iconic black-and-white images (entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy) of some young lovers playing tonsil tennis at a teen disco was tinted with a touch of colour a la Andy Warhol for a feature in the Sunday Independent. He was incandescent. I had to fly to London to interview him to calm him down. Of course, when I got there he acted like nothing had ever happened, bought me lunch and talked about his great passions.
In March 2003, with the release of his new book, Shooting Sex: The Definitive Guide to Undressing Beautiful Strangers, I tried unsuccessfully to get Bob an interview slot on the Late Late Show. Bob was full of anecdotes about Mick Jagger, Jordan and Lady Diana. The Late Late Show wasn't interested. Ireland's indifference to his work - and to him - didn't seem to bother him. I thought it was sad that one of our own could have recognition all over the world but couldn't get a proper outing in this country. It was our loss, and also Pat Kenny's, because Bob would have been a sensation on that show. Bob knew everybody. He knew Jordan when she was just Katie Price. When she publicly declared her intention to have her breasts surgically augmented, Bob instigated a campaign to save her breasts. To Hell with the Rain Forest. Let's Save Jordan's Breasts. And like the campaign to protect the rain forest, it failed miserably.
In person, Bob had a rakish charm. Like his work, he was at his best playing the provocateur: he could tell you that in 1631 Rembrandt made A Woman Making Water and Defecating - and Picasso paid homage to it with his Pissing Woman. He wanted to be Gauguin "without VD", Van Gogh "with ears".
Most of all, Bob was a gentleman with a wicked sense of humour and an immense, aristo charm. It was this charm that Princess Diana recognised. They became friends, of sorts. In March 1997, she dropped by Bob's Battersea studio with a mutual friend. Her eye was drawn to an erotic image of a woman's peachy derriere framed on the wall. "I recognise her bum," Princess Di told Bob. "I went to school with her." Bob never got to photograph her. Five months later, she was dead. Perhaps the princess would have agreed to be photographed semi-naked with a whip just to teach Buck House a lesson. Perhaps not. His campaign for Urban Stone, featuring two beautiful females engaged in an intimate pose with a grateful young chap, caused the Daily Telegraph to call it one of "the rudest ads ever printed." He was thrilled that the pious and the holy dubbed his work pornographic. That's exactly the reaction he wanted. "I'd be disappointed if they didn't say that", he told me in 2002. "The whole point of an erotic photograph is to arouse people. And if it doesn't arouse people then it doesn't work. I don't do aesthetic."
I often wondered where Bob Carlos Clarke got his immodest, shameless, indelicate, thoroughly indecent but fascinatingly filthy imagination from. Then one afternoon in London a few years ago, he showed me some dusty old poems his late father Charlie, an Old Etonian, had written and the penny dropped. I knew there and then where this aristocratic Cork man got his wickedness from:
Give me, for choice, a millionaire's
It wasn't the wives of British aristocracy, it transpires, that young Bob Carlos Clarke got to have fun with but the Catholic girls of his Cork youth. Protestant girls, he remembered, in their pie-crust collars and pastel cashmere cardigans, looked plain, pallid and pasty compared to their "feisty Roman Catholic counterparts." All the hot talent, he recalled, was Roman Catholic: "RC girls ate with their pretty mouths open."
A posh public school Protestant boy who lived for a while in Patrick's Hill, he would go to dances in church halls in Glanmire. Protestant boys, he recalled, weren't allowed to mix with Catholic girls in Cork. They were "inaccessible, which made the fantasy of the Catholic convent girl pretty intense," he told me.
He finally fulfilled his desires when he was 16 with a red-haired Dublin girl (who was in the second city on summer hols) in a cabbage patch on some cliffs. She was two years his senior but, remembered Bob, "slightly brazen, upfront, none of this wilting Protestant shit. It was a relief." They arranged a rendezvous in the Metropole Hotel in Cork city the following week. It cost a pound for the afternoon. A lot of money for a young boy in 1966. It was worth the investment, however, five passionate hours were exhausted "pinned beneath her hefty, alabaster haunches". So passionate, it emerged, that a tea-maker on the bedside fell and broke in pieces on the floor. Bob and his RC conquest spent the rest of the afternoon "like amateur archaeologists re-assembling the shards" to avoid paying for it.
There was a price to pay, of course. When the RC hottie returned to Dublin, she told a priest what she and The Prod had done in Cork. Fearing for her soul, the priest told the poor girl's mother, who in turn contacted Bob's mother - who then found condoms and a letter in his jacket pocket from the girl, saying that she was going to kill herself because Bob had broken it off. In a particularly nasty prank that almost landed him in jail, young Bob borrowed a bullet from his father's service revolver, taped it to the inside of an envelope with a message inside: "Here, have a bullet on me." And posted it. The guards intercepted it before it could reach Dublin, and let him off with a caution for sending live explosives through the post. His aunt Jessie, the Marchioness of Ormonde, told his mother: "Sadly, I can envisage nothing for Robert but prison."
The marchioness should have known that scandal was nothing new to the Carlos Clarkes. Bob's father managed estates for the Duke of Marlborough and was well acquainted with Wallis Simpson, the Prince of Wales, and the British establishment in general. (In fact, he later used his ties to Lord Beaverbrook to get Bob a job in the Daily Express. ) Charlie had married the Countess de Pretrose but then caused moral outrage - a facility Bob inherited - when he left his wife for her personal secretary in 1947. Lady Eileen Chappell, his second wife, was also 14 years his junior. They escaped newspaper attention by going to Schull, and their first son, Bob, was born on June 24, 1950. "They came to Ireland to get out of the spotlight because there was a lot of attention, and my father's son by his first marriage was kicking up a lot of fuss and unpleasant stuff was coming out in the papers," Bob told me. "So they got out of England and took a caravan to west Cork. I believe it was the very first time that anyone had ever seen a car-drawn caravan. It created a sensation. They set it up in Schull on the clifftops and stayed there for a year. He was divorcing the countess."
Bob told me that for the Cork agricultural show, his father, who had an agricultural company, put the company's sexiest secretaries "on the shovels of the biggest tractors and put them up in the air for the crowd and the photographer for the Cork Examiner. All thegirls wanted their picture taken and I thought it was the best job in the world," Bob told me in 1995, adding that watching the visiting starlets mugging for the cameras at the Cork Film Festival only added to the glamour of photography as a career.
Bob not only did that but married her in 1977. I've met Lindsey often and she is an undeniably lovely, special woman. The Cork Prod and the English Rose shared a house in Fulham with their teenage daughter; as well as a house on the south coast of England (and a 4,000 sq ft state-of-the-art studio in Battersea, London).
I remember one afternoon in 2002 asking Lindsey asking whether she had any regrets about marrying the Bad Boy of Erotic Photography. (Being in a marriage with a man who photographed women in states of undress can't have been easy.) Before she could reply, Bob leapt in. "Of course she has regrets. I don't think anyone who lives with someone for 27 years doesn't have regrets."
Lindsey was having none of it. "Of course I don't regret it. How could I? I could have gone with Sting . . ."
His marriage, his work, his life . . . in all three, Bob was a contradiction as compelling as the images he left behind.
Bob's family and his agent Ghislain Pascal have set up The Bob Carlos Clarke Foundation in his memory to help aspiring young photographers. Details on how to donate can be found at www.bobcarlosclarke.com.