Bob Carlos Clarke
Thursday 30 March 2006
Robert Carlos Clarke, photographer: born 24 June 1950; twice married (one daughter); died London 25 March 2006.
The photographer Bob Carlos Clarke's work is synonymous with glamour, fetish and the female body. He was always surrounded by the beautiful and the famous, and his career seemed evidence of photography's ability to scale the heights of a celebrity-conscious culture.
The world of Carlos Clarke was one of film stars, glamour models, dancers and society personalities. His books, with titles such as Obsession (1981), The Dark Summer (1985) and Insatiable (2002), explored the darker side of glamour, toying with our imaginations and our guilt, exploring a world of fetish and play (albeit a carefully controlled one) far removed from ordinary British existence.
Bob Carlos Clarke was the photographer whom advertising agencies went to when they saw that his kind of photography might perhaps enliven a tired brand, or bring a new one thumping into public and media consciousness. He made campaigns for Levi's and Volkswagen, for Wallis, even for the Alliance and Leicester Building Society, campaigns which pushed at the boundaries of acceptability.
But Carlos Clarke was always a realist, knowing of the fickleness of fashions in photography, aware that his work, difficult and controversial as it was, was at the mercy of cultural and social changes: "I've had to become a photographer who can survive by doing a little of everything," he once said,
from cars through the fashion, editorial and advertising work. Becoming known for just one thing was far too dangerous: those who have a reputation for being fashion photographers, for example, inevitably run the risk of moving in and out of fashion themselves.
Bob Carlos Clarke was essentially a serious photographer whose work was never taken seriously by photography's tastemakers - critics, writers and curators. The subject matter and contexts with which he engaged - celebrity, fetish, performance - became valid in a contemporary context only when they could be subverted. Carlos Clarke's work was neither subversive nor celebratory - he was a photographer of surfaces rather than notions, and, as such, he challenged prevailing ideas about the meanings of photography and the status of the photographer.
For many, he embodied the stereotype of the sexist, macho photographer characterised by David Hemmings' London fashion photographer in the Sixties film Blow-Up. In interviews, he spoke provocatively about the sexually supercharged relationship between model and photographer, and saw himself as a hunter of models - young people whom he spotted in the street or in clubs:
You get the feeling of having picked your own wild mushroom, otherwise they feel they are attached to a product and getting a lot of money for it. It's strange because it's like a hooker. It's like the difference between having sex with someone who loves you and someone you're paying . . . I much prefer to work with real people, it's much more rewarding. To work with prepared models is a bit like processed food, you tend to get something that's already been half-boiled by a bunch of other cooks. "Virgin" models are like wild strawberries - elusive, tastier and fun to find.
Born in Co Cork in 1950, Carlos Clarke studied photography at the London College of Printing (now the London College of Communication) before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in 1975. Photography was, for him, an obsession: the flippant way in which he responded later to interviewers - giving them the answers he knew they wanted to hear - masked a deep seriousness about this demanding and fast-moving medium. "The secret of success," he wrote in a rare unguarded moment,
is to please yourself as often as possible. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Robert Frank, the greatest photographers are the ones who shoot for no one but themselves.
Carlos Clarke was constantly engaged in a battle between media demands and personal concerns. Like most photographers, he wanted not only to be successful, wealthy and admired, but also to be afforded the respect shown by offers of exhibitions, lecture tours and peer group validation. But, above all, he wanted to keep working. When new magazines came out in the Nineties in the wake of Loaded ("For Men Who Should Know Better"), Carlos Clarke wanted to work for them. But he found that his name was too closely associated with old-school Eighties celebrity style to impress a new school of art directors. Undaunted, he adopted a pseudonym, and successfully submitted work as "Jackal".
As attitudes to sexuality polarised during the late Eighties and Nineties, Carlos Clarke often found it difficult to adapt to critiques of his work. He remarked to one interviewer:
It's the feminists and lesbians that should be supporting female nudes. The female fashion editors have colluded in the demise of their own sex by going along with the ludicrous charade of supermodels. Fashion poses a far greater threat to modern woman than pornography, with its wild demands that she conform to that freakish body shape. Helmut Newton's work and my own accept the imperfections of women's bodies. We want to show women as they are.
For many women comparing the smooth, rubber-encased glamour icons which emerged from Eighties photography with their own lives, the claim that either Newton or Carlos Clarke portrayed women "as they are" was both puzzling and troubling.
So, for many, Carlos Clarke's work was consigned to a category of commercial fetish, existing in a world of chicks and birds and sex in the studio, of night-clubs and VIP rooms, of Peter Stringfellow, footballers' wives and television soap stars. But, reading between the lines, looking at the photographs, and listening to the thoughts of a man who was caught between generations, lost in style, one can glimpse a serious, committed character who knew and understood photography and its history.
In 2004, Bob Carlos Clarke visited the Photography and the Archive Research Centre at the London College of Communication as part of a tour given to distinguished alumni. He noticed a set of photographs of a young woman which had been found on the streets of east London. These small Polaroid photographs, a little faded, a little damaged, were family snapshots, divorced from their original context, victims of history and circumstance. He was struck by their power and their poignancy.
Beyond the celebrity, the fetish, the artificiality of the studio, Carlos Clarke appreciated that at the centre of photography are ghosts and memories, clanging, clamouring, engaging and heartbreakingly "ordinary".
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