The Times, published 30/3/06
Bob Carlos Clarke
June 24, 1950 - March 25, 2006
Photographer equally accomplished at creating pensive still lifes and immaculately erotic commercial work
ONCE, when quizzed about his unexpected propensity for photographing
still lifes, Bob Carlos Clarke observed casually, “I shoot celebrities
for a living, but photographing rocks is more peaceable than
photographing rock stars.”
Earlier in his career one would have guessed that the last thing he
wanted to be involved with was something peaceable. It was hard to
believe that anyone who plunged so immediately — and so successfully —
into the world of fashion and celebrity, not to mention the
glamorisation, and usually sexualisation, of products such as Smirnoff
vodka and Volkswagen cars, could fail to be deeply attracted by all the
glitter and the tinsel.
And no doubt he did change over the years: it would be less than human
if a young man from Co Cork fresh out of art school, and making his way
in London in the 1970s, was not, just a little, attracted by the
trappings of luxury and celebrity in the world before his camera.
Certainly he managed very rapidly to shed his rustic background: the
main thing he remembered about his childhood was wandering out from the
wooden shack his family had on a clifftop to collect interesting stones
from the beach and arrange them into abstract yet faintly suggestive
In this respect, the child was father to the man. But not immediately.
First of all he had to get to England, which he did when he was 14, to
work in journalism and advertising, and then to recognise his need to
be involved in design. This interest took him to the Royal College of
Art, where he gradually found himself becoming obsessed with
photography. He graduated with an MA in photography in 1975.
The glittering prizes were not long in following, and a lesser talent
might well have stuck with the commercial work indefinitely. But Clarke
felt the need to express himself as well, and the more successful he
was in the commercial field, the stronger the need became to do
something above and beyond, something just for himself.
Many had noticed that all of his work, whatever its ostensible subject,
took on a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) tinge of eroticism, and
this was confirmed with his first photographic book, an illustrated
version of Anaïs Nin’s erotic text Delta of Venus (1980), followed
rapidly by Obsession (1981), a further collection of erotic subjects
which inevitably, if not very accurately, got him compared with Helmut
Newton. These were capped four years later by The Dark Summer, which
achieved a worldwide success with its immaculate, severely sensual,
But Clarke’s life and art were about to move in a very different
direction. In 1987 he came into contact with a then not very well-known
chef, Marco Pierre White, and shot the pictures published in 1990 as
White Heat in White’s kitchens, which he described as “a hellish
inferno” in stark contrast with “the genteel restaurant out front”.
Once he got used to it, however, Clarke discerned the order beyond the
chaos, and, for the first time, fell under the spell of the objects
that surrounded him, instinct, as he then realised, with hidden life of
Hence his famous series of monochrome studies of still lifes,
especially the Cutlery series of 1999, in which forks and spoons stand
sometimes alone, sometimes entwine and seemingly embrace.
Another experience which affected him profoundly was the sinking of the
Marchioness pleasure boat in the Thames, with much loss of young lives,
when he was living nearby on the river. The event set him off again on
his childhood hobby of beachcombing, though this time with a deeper
appreciation of how much human life was encapsulated in the pathetic
remains he would pick out of the mud. He admitted that his attitude to
these objects tended to anthropomorphise them — even the most inanimate
of the pebbles he collected. But then so what? If that was the way he
saw things, then that was the way he would photograph them.
In any case, he said: “Stones don’t have egos. It’s very therapeutic:
all it takes is a warm beach, a pile of stones, a camera and a cold
pint of Guinness.”
And, he added: “The still lifes are very much for myself; the river
series was made when I had a year of no commercial work. I shot the
cutlery to stop myself going crazy, and I consider these and the stones
to be among my best photographs” — a judgment with which many concurred
in the years before his tragic death in an accident, when just
approaching the height of his powers.
He is survived by his wife, Lindsey, and their daughter.
Bob Carlos Clarke, photographer, was born on June 24, 1950. He died on
March 25, 2006, aged 55.