Brian Duffy: Innovative and irreverent photographer who caught the Swinging Sixties on camera

The inventive and innovative photographer Brian Duffy shot some of the best known pictures of the Swinging Sixties for magazines such as Vogue, Queen, Town and Nova in Britain, and Elle in France, and became as infamous as his friends and contemporaries David Bailey and Terence Donovan. His dynamic style of fashion photography and his playful portraits of Michael Caine, John Lennon and Harold Wilson leapt off the pages and embodied the free spirit of the era. In the 1970s, this irreverent, occasionally cantankerous character, moved into advertising and devised intriguing, effective and memorable posters and full-page ads for Benson & Hedges cigarettes and Smirnoff vodka, as well as the striking cover for David Bowie's first chart-topping album, Aladdin Sane.

Yet, at the end of 1979, something seemed to snap in Duffy when he walked into his studio and was told by an assistant that they had run out of toilet paper. "I realised I was chairman, CEO and senior stockholder of my business and I was now responsible for toilet paper," he later reflected. "Ninety-nine per cent of my work was advertising and crap. The people who were hiring me I didn't like. Keeping a civil tongue up the rectum of a society that keeps you paid is an art which I was devoid of. I had nothing more to say in photographs. I'd taken all the snaps I needed to take. Maybe I didn't think I was good enough."

Whatever triggered this breakdown, it resulted in Duffy sending his staff home and attempting to burn boxes of his negatives in the garden. A neighbour objected to the acrid, black smoke and called the council who sent round an official to put a stop to this act of lunacy. This fortuitous intervention meant that, even though Duffy stopped working as a photographer and spent the last three decades of his life restoring furniture, his son Chris could eventually catalogue the remaining negatives and talk his father into agreeing to his first exhibition, held at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London last autumn. Earlier this year, Duffy was also the subject of a BBC4 documentary, The Man Who Shot The Sixties, which reunited him with the actress Joanna Lumley, a favourite model of his in his heyday, and Lord Puttnam, the film producer who had been his agent between 1966 and 1969.

Duffy was born to Irish parents in north London in 1933. The family moved to East Ham and remained there throughout the Second World War. After two attempts at evacuating him and his two brothers and sister – another sister died of meningitis aged three – his mother resolved that they would not be separated again. He became an unruly child and troublesome teenager, cutting school and running amok on bomb sites, until an attempt at social engineering by teachers at a progressive school in South Kensington introduced him to the opera, ballet and art galleries. In 1950, he enrolled at St Martins School of Art to study painting, but soon switched to dress design because of the added attraction, as he recalled, of "a lot of good-looking girls doing it."

After graduating he began working as an assistant designer at Susan Small Dresses and at Victor Stiebel. In 1955 he was offered an apprenticeship with the Balenciaga haute couture house in Paris but turned it down as his soon-to-be-wife June was pregnant with Chris, their first child. Instead, he freelanced for Harper's Bazaar as a fashion illustrator and then decided to take up photography "as an easy way to make money." He assisted Adrian Flowers and in 1957 bluffed his way through an interview with Audrey Withers, the formidable Vogue editor.

"The arrogance!" he admitted. "I showed them a bunch of off-the-wall snaps I had, including one of a glass eye with a snail on it. I don't know how I had the nerve."

While shooting Otto Klemperer for his first Vogue assignment, he forgot to take the lens cap off his Leica camera but the boys in the dark room spoiled the film accidentally on purpose and he photographed the German conductor again during rehearsals and got away with it. Duffy stayed at Vogue for six years, and photographed the leading fashion models of the day, Jean Shrimpton, Jennifer Hocking and Pauline Stone. He encouraged them to drink or sing and often preferred the streets to the more formal environment of the studio.

Dubbed the Black Trinity or the Terrible Trio, Bailey, Donovan and Duffy enjoyed a healthy rivalry and brought a sense of fun and irrevence to what had been a staid provision. Indeed, they shook up the world of fashion and publishing nearly as much as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones revolutionised the music industry. Duffy had an uncanny eye for detail and the unusual, as well as a knack for solving technical problems which made him stand out in the pre-Photoshop era. He was also something of an enfant terrible and a mischief-maker, and illustrated a Nova article entitled "How To Undress For Your Husband" with a series of photos of Amanda Lear, a model whose true gender was the object of much speculation.

From 1964, Duffy freelanced for a host of magazines like Glamour and Esquire in the US as well as the Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Observer newspapers. In particular, he was celebrated for his black and white portraits of such well-known figures of the sixties as Jane Birkin, William Burroughs, Sammy Davis Jnr, Charlton Heston, Christine Keeler, Reggie Kray, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, Terence Stamp and Keith Waterhouse. In 1965, he shot his first Pirelli Calendar in Monaco and went to Mexico to document the filming of Louis Malle's madcap comedy-adventure Viva Maria! starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.

Duffy developed an interest in film and started a production company with the novelist Len Deighton. In 1968, they produced an adaptation of Deighton's crime caper Only When I Larf, directed by Basil Dearden and starring Richard Attenborough and David Hemmings. After seeing a performance of Oh! What A Lovely War at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Duffy convinced Bailey to invest in a film version of Joan Littlewood's anti-war musical. However, Deighton, who wrote the screenplay, had his name taken off the credits, and Duffy dismissed the 1969 film, Attenborough's directorial debut, and its cast – including John Mills, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Maggie Smith and Susannah York – as the work of "a gang of luvvies."

Diplomacy was never Duffy's forte, and he famously fell out with the British pop artist Allen Jones over the 1973 Pirelli calendar they collaborated on. However, the mixture of techniques employed for that project inspired the powerful and distinctive cover of Bowie's Aladdin Sane. "Tony DeFries, his [then] manager, wanted to make the most expensive cover you could possibly get a record company to pay for," Duffy recalled. "He couldn't have come to be a better con artist than my good self. Dye transfer is a genius method of being able to spend the most amount of money to get reproduction from a colour transparency on to a piece of paper. And we went to Switzerland, the most expensive place to get a plate made. Bowie was interested in the Elvis ring which had the letters TCB [taking care of business] as well as the lightning flash. I drew the design on his face. We used lipstick to fill in the red. To me, it [the cover] was competent, very competent, but I wouldn't take it much beyond that."

Bowie hired Duffy again to help create the covers of two of his subsequent albums; 1979's Lodger, with the British pop artist Derek Boshier, and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), with the British graphic designer and painter Edward Bell, the following year.

By then, the photographer and his Duffy Design Concepts company had become over-reliant on commercial clients and, even if his eye-catching, playful, surreal campaigns for Smirnoff and Benson & Hedges – the golden cigarette packet as mousetrap, in a bird cage or inside a bird's egg – won awards, he grew tired of the medium and the sycophants and quit in spectacular fashion with the attempted burning of his negatives.

Duffy brought the same single-mindedness and perfectionism to restoring antiques in his workshop in Camden. This line of work continued the family tradition since his father, who had spent time in prison for his IRA activities, had been a cabinet-maker. Duffy also lectured for the British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association. He died of pulmonary fibrosis.

"I never wanted to be famous," Duffy said in the BBC documentary. "Artists are always talking drivel, including moi, because the work is the statement." When asked how he'd like to be remembered in the annals of photography, he replied: "He wasn't as steady as a tripod."

Brian Duffy, photographer, film producer, furniture restorer: born London 15 June 1933; married (two sons, two daughters); died London 31 May 2010.

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