Portfolio: Not fade away

Like many of his bright young subjects, the Sixties photographer Michael Cooper died tragically young. But his pictures, at least, remain to tell the story, as Robin Muir discovered while curating a new exhibition of Cooper's work
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Michael Cooper died by his own hand in 1973. In his short life, he was just 32 when he died, the photographer accomplished much, but his career - cut off by depression and addiction - has been over-shadowed by contemporaries and friends like David Bailey and Terence Donovan, who lasted the pace.

Cooper is mainly known today for his extraordinary and intimate pictures of the Rolling Stones. But in the Sixties, he was also known as a skilful documentary photographer. He has slipped from view because he couldn't let that decade go. When it ended, Cooper couldn't move on or stand back with the scepticism of so many of his contemporaries.

For the ten years up to his death, Cooper was a member of the Stones' inner circle, granting him the kind of access that would not be allowed today. He went everywhere with the group. He was a companion in the backs of limousines and at court appearances, at airports and in recording studios. He shot on the set of Performance and he was in Marrakesh in 1967 with Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards and Brian Jones when the axis of the band shifted irrevocably and Jones' decline picked up momentum.

And he did appear to be everywhere at once: parties, clubs, galleries, on tour with Stones, shooting the Sgt Pepper sleeve for the Beatles, in the corridors of Vogue, in India with the Maharishi and Ireland with the Guinness clan.

In 1964 Cooper became the unofficial "in-house" photographer to the gallery owner Robert Fraser, a wildly flamboyant promoter of contemporary art. His gallery was as much of a survey of the here-and-now as could possibly be sought, as it appears that anything of any interest took place in the Robert Fraser Gallery in Duke Street, its doors flung open for the time's most memorable parties.

Ten years ago when Blinds and Shutters - a lavish pounds 375 tribute to the work of Michael Cooper - was published, George Melly likened him to a "dragonfly that darted and hovered across these careless years".

Cooper's friend, Christopher Gibbs, still calls him "the poet of the lens". But he might have liked Marianne Faithfull's appraisal of his work best. To her, he was a "lay saint" who "hovered over the scene with a single-lens-reflex eye, invisibly ever-present".

`Triple Exposure: Three Photographers from the Sixties' is at the Canon Photography Gallery at the V&A from 16 September to 30 January. `You Are Here - Michael Cooper: The London Sixties' is published by Schirmer/Mosel at pounds 25

Captions: Mick Jagger and Adam Cooper, Brazier's Park, Oxfordshire, 1967

The raid on Redlands, Keith Richards' West Sussex home, and the subsequent indictment to stand trial of Keith, Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser is well known. Fraser's predicament was the most serious, as phials of heroin were found in his jacket pocket, and the Old Etonian gallery owner was jailed for six months.

When press attention in the party was at its most prurient (Mars bars and fur rugs) and just after The Times had run its "Who Breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?" editorial, Jagger and Marianne Faithfull hid out with Michael Cooper and his young son Adam at Brazier's Park, where Marianne's father ran his "School for Integrative Social Research". Jagger had impressed the establishment during a live TV debate with the Bishop of Woolwich, Times editor William Rees-Mogg and a former Home Secretary.

He had been held in custody at Lewes prison, where Michael had, unsuccessfully, attempted to photograph him with a Minox spy camera. As four of them piled into Mick's Bentley to leave Brazier's Park, Marianne's father shouted: "Wait - you haven't paid your bill." "Now I look back on it," Marianne remembered, "I think he was right. We weren't special, although we thought we were ... They'd given us hospitality at a time when we very much needed it.

(From left) Brian Jones, Nicki Browne, Bill Willis, Talitha Getty, John Paul Getty II and Anita Pallenberg, Luggalor, Ireland, 1967

Michael Cooper and Robert Fraser had introduced the Rolling Stones to key figures in the art world and both were part of the band's inner circle. Fraser's gallery was a meeting point for the convergencies of the new "popocracy" that to many minds epitomises the "classless" Sixties.

This group, allegedly tripping on acid near Luggalor - a Gothic castle in the Wicklow mountains - shows more of the Stones intimates. "On this occasion," recalled Anita Pallenberg, "we were driving in a limousine and suddenly we saw a dead goat and all got out and were totally freaked out." Of the people on the moors that day, few emerged from the decade unscathed.

JP Getty II and Pallenberg famously struggled with addictions; Talitha Getty died of an accidental overdose in Rome; Brian Jones died in his swimming pool and the photographer took his own life in 1973 after years of heroin addiction. Not long after this picture was taken, the group's host, Tara Browne - whose mother owned the estate - swerved into a lamppost on the Fulham Road, killing himself in an effort to save his passenger, the model Suki Poitier (now dead too). The Beatles immortalised him blowing his mind out in a car in A Day in the Life.

Keith Richards in the Joshua Tree National Park, California, late Sixties

Michael Cooper photographed the Rolling Stones from 1963 until 1973, an association which ended only with his death. His last pictures of the band were taken at Villefranche-sur-Mer during the recording of their Exile on Main Street album. For Cooper, as much a friend as an intimate chronicler, his tenacious reportage represented, in his own words, "the triumphs, the tragedies and the tears" of a nascent rock'n'roll legend.

Though he had become friendly with Brian Jones first, Cooper was Keith Richards' closest friend for nearly a decade. "The amazing thing is," Richards has said, "that I don't remember meeting him. He slipped into my life and then slipped out."

Never on the payroll, Cooper was, with his cameras slung over his neck or with one eye to the viewfinder, the band's most discriminating and intimate recording angel. Despite such intimacy he was able to stand back.

With an antenna finely tuned to the fluctuations of popular culture, Cooper was convinced he was documenting a vital time and became increasingly frustrated that no one cared enough to publish his work. In this picture, Cooper had accompanied Richards, Pallenberg and the country singer Gram Parsons to the California desert to look for UFOs.

ELT Messens with Jann Haworth's `Lindner' Doll, 1964

The painter, patron and collector ELT Messens bought Jann Haworth's "Lindner" doll (a life-size realisation based on a Richard Lindner painting) from the Robert Fraser Gallery in 1964.

When Messens died, his collection was sold off and the doll came up at Sotheby's where Haworth bought it back with the help of her then-husband Peter Blake. The couple divorced and, in due course, someone asked to buy it. Blake, according to his ex-wife, refused to sell. "I needed the money," she wrote later, "so I thought `I'll make another'. But the day before that was delivered, Peter agreed to sell. I could have killed him, but it worked out all right in the end. Now there are two dolls."

ABC News cameraman at the Chicago Democratic Convention, 1968

When Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not contest a second term as President, media attention turned to the Democratic Convention in Chicago. America's counter-culture gathered to show support for the candidate that might best represent its hopes for peace in Vietnam while a 12,000-strong police force lined the streets. For a few extraordinary days, American TV highlighted the decade's most ruthless exercise of authoritarian brutality. The unrest gathered momentum when a pig was proclaimed the candidate of choice by the "Yippie" movement.

Esquire magazine sent the writers Terry Southern (best known for the Dr Strangelove screenplay), Beat writer William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg and darling of the Paris far-left Jean Genet to report for it.

Cooper had bumped into Southern at the bar of the Chateau Marmont and tagged along, gaining official accreditation as a photographer. Of the four delegates, Ginsberg was arrested for chanting "Om", Genet had little understanding of US interventionist policies, while Burroughs was recording speeches, to splice together to make a subliminal "white noise" to snap the mind of the listener and so solve America's problems. Only Southern had the intellectual acumen to report objectively. "It was like approaching a militaristic installation - barbed wire, checkpoints the whole bit," he wrote.

Claes Oldenburg, 1966

Cooper was frequently more interested in the transatlantic notion of "Pop" art than its newer homespun manifestations and he was much valued by Robert Fraser as a "scout" - although this arrangement was never formalised. "It was Michael," wrote Terry Southern, "who was dominant in terms of influence ... whenever he made a trip to New York, he would invariably return full of enthusiasm for the work of a new artist he had met through Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol or Dennis Hopper.

The American artist Oldenburg, was photographed here in a flat rented for him by Robert Fraser, across the street from his gallery, where an exhibition of Oldenburg's work was in preparation.

"I remember the opening was very well attended. Robert was a great one for mixing all the people on the scene and I know that at the end of the exhibition not all the money ended up in our hands but you have to look back and say maybe it was worth it ... " recalled Oldenburg.

John Lennon at his `You Are Here' show, 1968

A large part of John Lennon's first exhibition, held at Fraser's gallery, consisted of an arrangement of charity contribution boxes. The centrepiece, however, (from which the show took its name), was a large canvassed area in which Lennon had written "You Are Here". Fraser, Lennon, Yoko Ono and other volunteers filled up hundreds of balloons with helium, which were released into the air outside the gallery, and sailed over the London rooftops. A tag invited the finder of any balloon to write to Lennon at the gallery, which many did. In return the sender received a badge, and a letter from Lennon: "I am sending you a badge," it read, "just to remind you that you are here."

The opening night saw a huge crowd gather. Derek Taylor, the Beatles' celebrated press officer, one of whose tasks was to see to completion "the whims and fancies of John and Yoko" has said "the idea was presented to me under the all-purpose Sixties word `Great'."

Jean Dubuffet, 1968

The Robert Fraser Gallery was a conduit for the most avant garde art of its time and Cooper became its unofficial in-house photographer in 1964. Its private views were - in the words of Cooper's friend, the graphic designer John McConnell - "incredible - everyone was there. I remember Hockney arrived once in a white suit with big pink dots and his chauffeur arrived with a pink suit with white dots ... I think I met Brando there once." Through Fraser's connections, Cooper gained access to many of the more established names of the inter- and post-war years: Francis Bacon, Duchamp the influential proto-Dadaist and Magritte, who he photographed at home in Brussels. A show of Jean Dubuffet's graffiti drawings and gouaches opened Fraser's gallery in 1962, although this photograph shows the artist in Duke Street in 1968.