The passing of Bob Carlos Clarke robs the world of photography of
After writing the tribute to Patrick Lichfield just a few short months ago, I hoped that it would be some time before I had to sit down and put words together to sum up the passing of another one of photography's larger than life characters. Sadly this wasn't to be the case: like a bolt out of the blue, the news about the passing of Bob Carlos Clarke has come as a massive shock, as unexpected as it was untimely.
The images with which Bob made his name had the capacity to alienate and attract people in equal measures. There is no doubt that some saw them as little more than soft porn, and were repelled by the predominance of latex and tight rubber wear that Bob's models unfeasibly squeezed themselves into. Others loved the whole look, and the enjoyed the frisson of excitement that was provided by this illicit glimpse of the darker side of sex. Bob played to the tastes of the second group and through his books established himself as a photographer with a wild side.
The truth was, however, that there was a lot more to Bob than just a producer of high-class erotica, even though there was never any doubt that sex remained one of his favourite photographic subjects, and something he was very good at capturing in a still image, right up to the end. He produced a very underrated series of still lives of objects that he had recovered from the muddy banks of the Thames, for example, which ranged from the banal through to the downright scary – such as a revolver that he had found rusting in the silt – and he also showed a softer side with the ‘Tiny Hats' charity calendar, where his then-baby daughter Scarlett and contemporaries modelled creations that had been made for them by some of the top milliners of the day. His book ‘White Heat,' which was a ground breaking look at life in the kitchen and elevated chef Marco Pierre White to stardom, was another project that demonstrated that Bob was more than one-dimensional.
I first came to know Bob while working for Amateur Photographer magazine, and was initially rather intimidated by his reputation, and by the pictures that stared out at me from The Dark Summer. Filled with forebodings, I visited his studio and was confronted by a charismatic and erudite individual, who had a gift for exactly the right turn of phrase, and for a touch of essential self-depreciation whenever he was in danger of sounding too serious or arrogant. I also discovered that he was capable of putting down his searing wit on paper, and soon he was writing for the magazine, his first interview being a memorable face-to-face with Helmut Newton.
This was a revelation, with Bob being able, as a notable photographer himself, to command the respect of Newton and to be able to put challenging questions – and to receive intelligent answers – from a legend who clearly enjoyed the cut and thrust of the occasion.
One of Bob's next assignments was to interview John Swannell, a story that started with the immortal words “My interview with John Swannell got off to a bad start, when I forgot to show up…” Only Bob could get away with it, and Swannell duly rescheduled and gave his interview without a word of protest.
There followed a series of columns, which essentially rewrote the idea of what a columnist in a photographic magazine could get away with – the inoffensive Chris Packham in particular coming in for a sartorial slating when he had the effrontery to land a slot on TV, exposure that one suspects Bob himself would have coveted. Bob vented his feelings with great wit and with final grudging respect for the fact that a fellow photographer had managed to get himself a break, and in typical style he got away with his comments without causing offence. On another occasion he sent in his latest image with the caption ‘Pulchritudinous prick teaser, Rachel Weitz…' Not the average combination of words you were likely to find in a photographic magazine at the time, but the readers had grown to love his columns by then, and so it was almost expected.
The truth was that Bob enjoyed his capacity to shock, but used it with enough restraint to avoid alienating the majority of his audience, and he was charming as well as edgy, an all-too-rare combination. Perhaps ultimately he went the way he would have wished, a dramatic departure as opposed to a slow burnout, and he leaves behind a body of pictures that will continue to have a dedicated following long into the future.