More than girls
In the cut-throat world of professional photography, Bob Carlos Clarke is the King of Survival. Jon Tarrant delves inside the mind of the master of reinvention
Inspirational, passionate and sometimes more than a little bit controversial, Bob Carlos Clarke has been one of the hottest names in UK photography across three decades. In the Seventies and Eighties, his rubber-clad femme-fatales defined not only the mainstream advertising face of Afga but also an entire underground fetish culture lifestyle.
His books The Delta of Venus, Obsession and Dark Summer are now collectors' items, as are his calendars.
When the Eighties gave way to the Nineties, Carlos Clarke became more 'conventional' a word that should be applied only very lightly in this particular case with a series of calenders for PowerGen and a book on fiery chef Marco Pierre White. His profile soared, aided by columns and articles written at different times for various photographic magazines, together with a lecture campaign that he conducted for Ilford. The same company also commissioned Carlos Clarke to shoot its year 2000 calendar, and Canon used him to create a series of adverts that launched its innovative Ixus camera.
A few years earlier Carlos Clarke had shot something of a rarity, a colour calendar using the Polaroid 20x24 instant camera. The subjects were all celebrities, and the proceeds went to charity. In 2001, two more calendars followed, a strictly commercial venture in colour for Loaded magazine, alongside a more personal black and white limited edition for Ilford. So the big questions that need to be answered are; how does anybody manage to survive such an amazing metamorphosis from cult hero to blue-chip marketeer and on again to glossy colour editorial and what drives a man who has presented so many different forms to the world with such a high level of success?
'Some time ago I asked myself, "am I in photography for the love or the money?". I certainly started in photography for love, but this is an expensive business in an expensive town, and although it is nice to get a round of applause, you can't eat it,' admits Carlos Clarke with characteristic candour. 'Photography for me still doesn't feel like a real job, and I still do what I want to do. I don't have to get up at nine in the morning but being freelance and attempting to be creative is very insecure, so it's a double-edged sword.' It should be explained here that two book projects; Insatiable (a personal monograph) and Shooting Sex (Carlos Clarke's guide to photographing nudes); have suffered one set-back after another, resulting in a seriously fed-up Carlos Clarke. 'It is not even as if publishing photographic books is the route to riches, especially when a publisher pays you around 8% of the published price. So for "Shooting Sex" book, I have decided to bite the bullet and do it myself. I want it to be 100 percent mine. heavily illustrated and autobiographical.' For more information about "Shooting Sex", see the accompanying panel.
Turning to the type of magazine work for which he has recently become known, Carlos Clarke admits that this sort of photography can at times be less than fulfilling. 'There really is nothing more pointless than being a celebrity photographer who is only known for shooting celebrities. Thank god Brassai and Cartier-Bresson weren't obsessed with celebrity. They were simply passionate photographers. I do celebrities to make money, but I seldom get enough time to develop the sort of relationship one needs to make great enduring results. If Celebrities are your obsession, then to make it work you need to be prepared to hang out with them day in and day out, and get the pictures that nobody else gets. It's a sad indictment of the UK market that there's really nowhere to publish pure photographs any more: the public would rather peer in to Posh Spice's refrigerator or down Jordan's cleavage than see great photographs.' 'The thing is to find a niche where you are happy. It has got to be something that feeds you: I got that from the series I did of things from the river and from the stones I'm doing now. I prefer rocks, to rock stars,' quips Carlos Clarke, knowing that his turn of phrase is the perfect sound bite. And this is one of his secrets, for as well as a great eye for pictures, he also possess a sharp sense of sentiment.
Coining the right phrase to epitomise anything from a simple emotion to a complex method of working appears to be something that comes naturally to Carlos Clarke. If not, it must be something he practises in the bath while others sing their hearts out. Examples of his wit invariably sound easy, but at the same time they relay fundamental truths. ŒWhen you photograph a model, it's a duet a tango. When it goes well it's better than sex, and lasts forever'. Perhaps because he is, in his words, 'just on the dark side of 50', Carlos Clarke has recently started to think about what makes a great photographer. 'It struck me that UK photographers reach an age where they become invisible. It doesn't matter how great they've been, they just fade in to obscurity. Norman Parkinson once said to me that the secret is never to stay in one place long enough to become a target keep moving around and stay fresh. A lot of young photographers have never heard of Don McCullin or Terence Donovan or Terry O'Neill, and yet they are among our greatest talents. It doesn't take you long to vanish, so I keep making just enough noise to get noticed. I have had a weird career that has had many different facets. I might be doing a private commission and a calender at the same time, and shoots for Maxim and Tatler and Loaded, and an ad' campaign for Persil, a series on lapdancers, a shoot for Renault, and my stones down on the beach.
'After 30 years as a photographer I can say that this business has got harder, more callous, less open and much more competitive. There are more photographers chasing less work, we're like a pack of rats on a very small island. (please drop this line - very old fartish!). In the Sixties, photographers ranked just behind rock stars in terms of image, now they're way down the list behind brawling footballers and provincial DJs. Although I understand why it happened, the school of point-and-shoot photography, as expounded by Corrine Day, Terry Richardson and Juergen Teller has not necessarily improved or enhanced the broader public's perception of photographers. Why pay £5000 for something that looks like their own holiday snapshot?
'Also, the big agencies no longer hold sway. It's all about young agencies who work on a shoe-string. The media is obsessed with "edginess" and youth culture, but it's wearing a bit thin now because it's got too self-serving. The more edginess something has, and the more fashionable it is, the faster it dates.' Rebirth has been the key to Carlos Clarke's own most recent self-renewal. To break into the burgeoning 'lad-mag' market, he started working under a pseudonym. 'What was funny,' he recalls, 'was that within a few hours of my alter-ego hitting the news-stands in a copy of Front, I got a call from a young multi-media company wanting to commission my pseudonym. I probably wouldn't have got that call if I'd used my own name. It's a label thing. But how far do you take all that?
It's not good for the spirit to worry all the time about whether you're right on the edge: there is a very fine line between cool and ridiculous.
I would never have survived on photography alone: I've made more out of moving homes that I've ever made out of taking pictures. In terms of 'image-maintenance', the worst thing that you can do is take the family out to the country and set up a studio in a picturesque barn. If I move anywhere now it will be towards the centre of London, like Notting Hill or Soho. You have to stay right on the front line, if you get out of the loop you may never reconnect.' This is the voice of an older and more mature Carlos Clarke than the one who first invested in The Village, an exclusive south London property development that was previously a base for Viscount Linley, among others. 'What I'd really like to do now is draw people together through my website,' he reveals. 'I believe that photographers should communicate. As things are, we stand alone and often get shafted by clients. Photographers could gain so much through co-operation, so I would like my website to be a sort of portal "everything you've ever wanted to know about photography". It's something I truly believe has potential.' The other thing in which Carlos Clarke believes is his personal work.
'The vast majority of my work has never been published, and maybe never will.' The reason, he explains, is simple. 'My personal work is primarily for me, and I don't want to have to try to persuade people to buy it. When I had my last show, at Hamiltons over 10 years ago, I didn't sell a single print although I have sold many of those images since. Terence Donovan said it was one of the best shows he had seen, and Bailiey swopped me for one of his, but some people were disappointed that I wasn't sticking to the all-girl formula.' And, of course, girls are still what Bob is best known for. 'But my stuff is usually pretty tame now: it's gone from being controversial to quite genteel. The climate has changed, porn is everywhere, and I have seen enough fannies to see me through.' This seems a strange reflection considering that Carlos Clarke recently shot the shockingly erotic campaign for Urban Stone, was described in one tabloid as 'the rudest ads ever seen'.
To his detractors and they are certainly vocal if not many in number Carlos Clarke has one simple defence: he is now a father. 'I was out shopping with my nine year old daughter a while ago and we were in the children's section of French Connection, where they had T-shirts with FCUK on them. Maybe it's me, but I'm just not into a three-year-old wearing that. Maybe I'm getting soft. God forbid.'