Martin Elliott: Photographer whose iconic print adorned millions of bedroom walls
Tuesday 13 April 2010
Martin Elliott, described as a "free spirit", was the photographer of the iconic 70s and 80s poster depicting the "Tennis Girl" whose skirt was hitched up to show the curve of her bottom. The unassuming student photographer had created the seminal poster that would adorn the walls of teenage boys' bedrooms the world over.
Born into a middle-class family in the Black Country town of Oldbury on 12 July 1946, Elliott, an only child, followed in his parents' footsteps and attended Oldbury Grammar School. Described as a "bright boy", he left school not knowing what he really wanted to do. As his father worked in insurance, he decided to join an insurance company, where he made rapid progress. He was, however, a clock-watcher and left within the year. Having a passion for photography, nurtured by his father, Elliott enrolled at Loughborough College of Art after having attended an open day which he described as a "sea of denim" due to the high number of girls' bottoms clad in short denim skirts.
Following the successful completion of his course, Elliott attended the Birmingham Royal College of Photography alongside Terence Donovan, who became known for his direction of Robert Palmer's video "Addicted to Love" and his 60s fashion photographs, as well as his pictures of the late Princess of Wales.
It was as a student in 1976 that Elliott came up with the idea for the photograph that would ultimately lead him to success. The shot was actually one of a series that he was working on at the time to be used for calendars. Elliott and his then girlfriend, Fiona Butler, an 18-year-old Fine Arts student, went down to the tennis courts to take the shots. Elliott took shots of Butler from behind as she teasingly lifted her borrowed white tennis dress to touch her bottom. However, he was not happy with the light. They returned the following afternoon and took the perfect shot.
It was alleged that Butler received nothing, but the two did remain together for another two or three years. She later married the millionaire businessman Ian Walker. Elliott and Butler remained friends and Butler is, nonetheless, still proud of her iconic status.
The photograph was first published as part of a calendar for the 1977 Queen's Silver Jubilee, the same year that Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles title. Retaining the copyright, Elliott sold the image to poster chain Athena, where it sold over two million copies before the company went bust in 1994. The poster, however, continued to sell. Sales netted him a small fortune, with royalties continuing to this day. It went on to be parodied by a raft of celebrities and was often seen in the background of the satirical puppet show Spitting Image. Over the years, others tried to lay claim to the photograph and to being the model, but all were eventually exposed.
Elliott graduated with a distinction and then carved out a successful career as a professional photographer in the advertising industry with a studio in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. He developed his own style, which revolved around different lighting techniques, and thus his work became instantly recognisable. He was involved over the years in different types of photography, one such being dubbed as "tits-and-bum" photography. One series was entitled "Girls at Work", a colour sequence of shots with women posing as cinema usherettes, truck drivers or secretaries; all the sets were meticulously built and lit by Elliott at his studio. This work was published as calendars.
Elliott never allowed his early success to go to his head. He seemed to capture the essence of the 60s and 70s with his free-living spirit and spontaneity which followed him throughout his life. Over the years, he had a series of camper vans, the interiors of which he designed himself, and a Harley-Davidson motorbike. He also became well-known among the surfing fraternity in Cornwall, spending 49 out of 52 weekends a year, Thursday to Monday, on the coast. With his home sporting pinball machines and other boys' toys, he was truly a bachelor who enjoyed life to the full.
In 1987, at the age of 41, Elliott's life changed for good when he met Noelle Bott through a mutual friend in Birmingham. She became the love of his life. Bott was a successful computer sales rep and was about to depart for work in Sardinia. Elliott, however, was smitten and wrote constantly. Within months of their courtship, they married in Interlaken, Switzerland on 15 February 1988. Bott described the honeymoon as "the most divine 10 days of my life."
Tragedy struck the couple, however, in 1999, shortly after they had moved to Cornwall. Following a fall from a friend's boat, Elliott went to A&E for a routine chest X-ray only to discover that he had a very rare form of cancer in his chest which was believed to have been there for at least 10 years. Not one to dwell on the negative, Elliott was determined to fight it. As Bott explained, "He had a marvellous sense of humour and was a great joker. He always thought he would get better and was still playing jokes up to the end." After a 10-year battle, he eventually passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Robin Crowshaw, long-time friend and work colleague, said, "Although he had achieved early success, it never changed him. He was simply just a really nice guy who got on with everyone."
Martin Elliott, photographer: born Oldbury, West Midlands 12 July 1946; married 1988 Noelle Bott; died Pulla Cross, Cornwall 24 March 2010.
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