BOB CARLOS CLARKE
By Tamara Beckwith for TATLER
Brompton Cemetery: A jet black coffin with a decadent plumage of blood red roses and a former assistant snatching every moment on film. The funeral of Bob Carlos Clarke was a suitably theatrical farewell to a brilliant photographer and lover of the erotic, the dark and the dangerous - a man who thought in black and white, in life and art.
On 25th March at the age of 55, Bob apparently put himself in the path of a train on a level crossing near Barnes. Friends are shocked at the suddenness of his untimely death (as was the photographic world; the accolades were endless), but agree he’d love all the fuss that surrounds it. Bob adored and craved attention more than anyone else I have known.
One society girl I spoke to imagines Bob sitting wherever he sits now, watching his last drama unfold; the tears, the endless late night phone calls, the gossip as people traded stories. Rubbing his immaculate artistic hands together, he’d be thrilled with the validation that he was as loved and revered in death as he had always longed to be in life.
In my late teens I, like every hardcore Chelsea girl and would be model, was beyond desperate to shoot with the infamous, risque Bob Carlos Clarke. He was fast and furious and seemed so cool (he even had a parrot - very Keith Richards). Born in 1950, he had grown up in County Cork, Ireland, the son of a retired major, and as a teenager in the Sixties had all the textbook wildness and sexual frustration that went with the territory. After Wellington he’d become a photographer by chance, when he convinced a part-time model at his Sussex art school to pose naked for him. At the Royal College he completed an MA in photography and became interested in fetishistic images of rubber-clad women in high-heels. Allen Jones, the British Pop artist known for his erotically charged sculptures of women in similar outfits and positions, thought Bob should avoid being labeled an erotic photographer, but he had begun a life-long mission to capture these women on film.
I first met Bob through the effervescent, curvaceous Lindsey, who had been his model and muse and mother of his daughter Scarlett before becoming his wife. For our first shoot together he arrived to collect me clad in tight vintage leather on a menacing motorbike. All I remember thinking was ‘I mustn't let my mother see me straddle this giant hog ridden by a stranger, let alone a photographer.’ Bob was cavalier yet self-deprecating: Why was I happy to have tea with an old has-been photographer? How dreadful if something happened to his bike - would I still be his friend? It was at precisely this moment the bike spluttered and died. For years afterwards Bob repeated this story as a form of self-torture. The second time we shot together I had a crashing hangover and he punished me by squeezing me into a tiny latex catsuit and putting me high up on a rickety wooden box in screamingly tight patent stilettos. The shoot lasted so long I wanted to kill him. A week later, Bob told me the magazine refused to publish the pictures because the editor thought I looked fat. Little did he know she had written me a letter saying she hadn’t liked his Eighties styling. I faxed the letter to Bob, who was horrified at my having caught him out.
I always thought Bob only played at being the grumpy old man, because any time spent with him was bizarre but brilliant, whether he was playing practical jokes or shooting a bunch of you in the hot tub wearing almost nothing (I still have the framed print of that one in the downstairs loo – my hall of fame - with four of Bob’s other pictures).
Claudia Rosencrantz , television producer and friend of Bob and Lindsey's, says: “Bob composed a hymn to my derriere, which he would sing with gusto to the tune of Baby Face. It went ‘Rosencrantz, you got the most enormous underpants.’” Her favourite memory is of a balmy summer night when Bob and Linds invited us to dinner and told us to meet them in the car park by the Serpentine. There Lindsey cooked a delicious supper in their camper van and we ate overlooking the water. Utterly wonderful, completely original, that was Boblet.
One of his favourite Alpha males was Marco Pierre White, the wicked but loveable kitchen rogue with whom he famously shot White Heat, the book that made chefs sexy. They were working on another project, around Marco’s new restaurant Luciano’s, at the time of Bob’s death. “Potatoes,” exclaims White. “Whatever delicacy I was preparing, all he cared about was his consumption of mashed potato. It must have been his Irish roots...” Another friend was the photographer John Stoddart. “Bob was a real enigma. In his work he was utterly authentic and never dumbed-down - a genuine artisan. The work might sometimes have been classed as pornography but Bob always retained a high aesthetic. But there was increasing anger at the recent lack of recognition.”
For all Bob’s pomp and ego, he was deeply insecure. Lindsey says, “He was terrified about becoming old - in fact he was repelled by age. He had been such a handsome man that the very thought of losing his looks was devastating.” She openly admits that it was his dangerous edge that initially drew her in. “Bob was an actor, it was his artistic side. He loved to impersonate people and loved to perform. But he was always the eternal pessimist, which is why I suppose he was attracted to me, the optimist, always positive.” He was unable to deal with the mundane, the dull. “I can remember so many agonising dinner parties where we would have just arrived and Bob would mention leaving. When something or someone bored him he just shut off.”
For all his melancholy and dark moments, his humour was wicked. Eighties bombshell Mandy Smith recalls him as “a wonderful man with a crazy sense of fun. One time we were meant to be doing a shoot but I was ill in The Cromwell Hospital. I'm lying in bed and suddenly this man jumps through the window. It was Mad Bob! Another time I received a letter, supposedly from Tatler, saying, "forget about Hello, we would love to run a feature on you, but our only proviso is that the story is shot by Bob Carlos Clarke." A story he really did shoot for Tatler was on the photographer Amanda Eliasch. Asked for his observations on Amanda for the article, he casually mentioned that for breakfast at her house in the South of France she served ostrich eggs. On publication, the comment was picked up by the press, much to Bob’s delight.
Then there was his fascination and friendship with the ultimate boytoy Amanda de Cadenet. She was as rebellious as they come and Bob was there to catch it all. He told me the story of how he had been asked to photograph Amanda's teen wedding to the dark, desirable Durannie, John Taylor. But the precious moments had not been immortalised after all - Bob hadn’t put film in the camera! To appease Amanda they had to mock it up the following day, or so he said. Why he didn’t realise there was no film in the camera remains a mystery.
Bob was never happier than when the air was heavy with provocation and sexual innuendo. At shoots he would launch into highly inappropriate conversations about his Seventies heyday - threesomes with gorgeous models and forbidden S&M clubs. You always felt that half of it was a public schoolboy act and the rest pure wistfulness. He liked nothing more than to make you feel a bit uncomfortable. After an advertising shoot I did with Patrick Lichfield, one of his great friends, Bob told me that Patrick thought I was extraordinary looking, a bit like a goldfish.
One girl I never heard him openly tease was Nicola Formby. "I was the first girl through the door when Bob Carlos Clarke was casting for the Lambs Navy Rum poster campaign about 20 years ago,” says Nicola. “He signed me immediately. In fact I think it was sexy Lindsey who made the decision. I had to be a figurehead on the front of a ship, so my body had to be cast in plaster. A little nervous and naked in the studio, covered in vaseline and then slathered with plaster, I had to keep still, barely breathe, until it set. Bob kept teasing me and making me laugh and then I fainted, falling forward and breaking the cast in half. That is how my intense, fun, happy relationship with Bob and Lindsey started." Bob photographed most of my big parties; you always could count on him getting something forbidden. Our party last Christmas saw Phillipe Junot flirting like the legendary Italian playboy he is. Bob was so jealous. He popped around the following week with the contact sheets and could not get over the fact that he had caught Junot with three different girls! The pictures are my last mementos.
After the accolades and the obituaries, what remains is an exceptional body of work, which is bound to prompt a retrospective in a major institution. The irony is that his pictures never been in such demand; that his death should happen now leaves his friends in a state of angry disbelief. Tim Jeffries, director of Hamilton's Gallery says: “There were so many dark aspects to Bob that it was fitting the darkroom should have been his domain. He was a master printer; it even trumped his brilliance as a photographer. I enjoyed many belly laughs with Bob, who was extremely irreverent and instantly detected your Achilles heel.” Hamilton’s showed Bob’s work early on, in ‘81 or ’82. It was there that Bob met one of his heroes and mentors, Robert Mapplethorpe, who was dying of AIDS. Mapplethorpe commented that it was because he was moribund that his work had risen in value so significantly. This was not lost on Bob.
"For the purposes of deification an early and appropriate death is essential. If you want to qualify as a legend, get famous young, die tragically and dramatically and never underestimate the importance of your unrepeatable, irreplaceable, iconic photographs.” This quote appeared in Shooting Sex, his semi-autobiographical book, and discovered by his daughter Scarlett after his death.