After a period in the doldrums, Wharton is exhibiting some of his best work (The Gallery, 74 South Audley Street, London W1, from 6-10 October). On my way to his lair, a converted church on the border of Chelsea and Fulham, I anticipate a faded peacock sifting through the dried leaves of a multi-coloured decade. I find something different.
His hair has gone from black to silver, and the extravagant sideburns and Zapata moustache have disappeared. Yet from his cravat to his Chelsea boots, Wharton remains the quintessential Swinging Sixties man. Interrupting last-minute selections of his black-and-white prints, he rummages in a drawer for some lines a friend had penned about him on a birthday years ago: 'Tis said he nourishes an inner joy / From knowing Rip Van Winkle as a boy; / From images he snapped of Jonny Swift, / Chas Lamb, Bill Blake and blokes like Charles V . . . His eyes crinkle over a large nose. Peter Pan has finally metamorphosed into Captain Hook.
His exhibits overwhelm one with nostalgia for the days when newspaper and magazine photography was an exuberant, high expense- account adventure. Wharton was a war photographer (Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Cambodia) whose work in the Paris student riots of 1968 left him with CS gas-damaged lungs (he still wheezes slightly). But it is his portraits of famous people, often savagely revealing, that endure. The one of John Paul Getty was deemed by the Sunday Times to be too cruel to publish while the oil king lived. Almost invariably, however, he established friendships with his photographic subjects: among them Peter O'Toole, Nubar Gulbenkian, David Hockney, Jill Bennett, Laurie Lee, and even George Brown, whom he photographed on the QE2 in New York harbour, just as the inebriated ex-foreign secretary's nose accidentally slipped from his own cups into those of a partygoer's bra.
The excellence of Wharton's portraits of the Sixties raises the question: where has he been since? His damaged lungs kept him off the road, and his name off the credits, for several years. Never entirely happy as a desk man, he abandoned the Sunday Times and tried his hand as a video cameraman, travelling to Rome, Monaco, California and remoter places in the hope of establishing a fresh career. But this - and a spell illustrating books - brought him neither fulfilment nor much financial reward. Filming in Monte Carlo, he severed an Achilles tendon while disembarking from a luxury yacht and was again incapacitated for more than a year. Friends noticed signs of dejection and loss of confidence. Once, visiting him in Gunter Hall, I was dismayed to see him lift a handgun from his coffee table and put it to his temple. He laughed: 'Don't worry, it's only a starting pistol.' But I knew he yearned for the assignments of old: tramping through a South American jungle in search of Nazi war criminals, exposing the horrors of an Italian earthquake, donning a designer flak-jacket for a Middle East war, chatting up princesses, being seduced by actresses.
This year, encouraged by former colleagues, he was persuaded to exhibit some of his work. The effort will persuade a later generation that the Sixties were not all birds, Beatles and bell-bottoms.
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