John Swannell is considered one of the great British photographers of his generation. During his four decades in the business, he has shot celebrity portraits, fashion, beauty, advertising, nudes and landscapes, but whatever he’s photographing he does it elegantly, professionally and with meticulous attention to detail. He has a natural instinct for creating beautiful images.
He started taking photographs at around the age of 12. Being dyslexic made academic work difficult for him and he gravitated towards working with images, photographing school plays and sports days. ‘There was never going to be another job for me when I left school. It was always going to be photography.’
After leaving school at 16, he worked as a printer in a Fleet Street dark room before being offered the position as an assistant at Vogue Studios working with photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson, this invaluable experience gave him practical knowledge and skills that helped him throughout his career ‘ The best education you can have in photography is to work with a photographer,’
John Swannell also worked with David Bailey at Vogue Studios and in David Baileys own studio in 1969 for the next four years which proved to be a turning point in his career. By the end of that period John Swannell was ready to launch his own solo career and Bailey generously helped him in the difficult early stages by giving him a year’s salary to start his business and set up his own studio
He spent the next ten years traveling and working for magazines such as Vogue, Harpers & Queen, the Sunday Times Magazine and Tatler. During this time he developed his distinctive, individual style in both fashion and beauty photography.
Although the majority of his professional work was devoted to fashion during the ’70s, by the middle of the decade he was also working on a long-term personal photographic project on the female nude. The early nudes were shot in the studio, and were beautifully lit and often erotically charged studies of women. A selection of these images was collected in the book Fine Lines (1982).
This book was followed in 1986 by Naked Landscape, which showed nudes in outdoor locations, sometimes as a small, statuesque element in a much wider scene. At other times he used nudes as abstract forms, comparing and contrasting their shapes and textures with those of rocks and trees.
John Swannell is aware that his nude work runs the risk of being misinterpreted. ‘If you’re working with beautiful women, you can go to the very edge of the precipice to produce a strong image,’ he told me in a 2009 interview. ‘If you go beyond that, it easily becomes erotic or pornographic, which I’m not really interested in. Sometimes people look at my pictures and say I’ve pushed the barriers too far. For me, it’s about producing images that stir people. I love to see people’s reactions when they look at my photographs.
Along with nudes, another constant in Swannell’s work since the 1970s has been portraiture. He has shot formal portraits of a wide range of famous people, including rock stars, actors, politicians and royalty. He is known for working quickly and instinctively in creating images that are usually both insightful and flattering to the subject. ‘I think women should look beautiful and men should look interesting,’ he told The Independent in 2008. ‘And everyone looks better with retouching.’
His reputation for celebrity portraits led to him being commissioned to photograph Princess Diana with her sons for her personal Christmas card in 1994. The resulting relaxed family portrait captured the affectionate mother-and-son relationship perfectly, and further commissions to photograph Diana and other members of the royal family followed.
Since then, he has photographed every senior royal family member – with the exception of Princess Margaret and is often invited to shoot official portraits on significant occasions In February 2012 John Swannell was commissioned to take the official photographs of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh to mark the Diamond Jubilee of her accession to the throne.
This was a difficult shoot, George had seen some pictures I did of Duran Duran so he booked me to do some PR snaps of Wham. The thing is with George is he’s such a control freak it was hard for me to loosen him up and get him to relax, Andrew was ok he just went with the flow.
We worked quite hard all morning and I thought I was getting some good stuff, but I could see George wasn’t really happy. So later in the afternoon I said to him “let’s call it a day”. Funny thing, later that night we bumped into each other at a party, he came over to me and said he was sorry about the shoot, no I said I was sorry for pushing him too much.
Then we both had a laugh about it, which was great because he became my neighbour in Highgate a few year later and we often bumped into each other in our local restaurant.
What is ironic after George tragically died, one of the photographs from that session we did all those years ago was used on the cover of his new biography by Sean Smith, I hope he approves.”
Duran Duran came along in the 1980’s as one of the main New Romantic bands. I enjoyed photographing them as they were such a good looking bunch of guys.
I’d photographed them a couple of times before, but this time they asked me to do the cover of their new album “Notorious” in 1986.
They wanted it shot outside, so I found a spot in the countryside with a tree silhouetted in the distance with a moody sky behind. It was a gatefold so I had three of them on the right of the picture and Christy Turlington a future supermodel, who was only about seventeen at the time, on the left. This was one of her early pictures.
In 1989 John Swannell had a one man show at The Royal Academy in Edinburgh, followed in 1990 by an exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. In July of the same year The Royal Photographic Society held a retrospective of his fashion work.
In 1993 John Swannell was awarded a Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society; he was one of the youngest members to have achieved this status at the time.
From November 1996 to March 1997 John had a solo show of his portraits at The National Portrait Gallery in London to celebrate the publication of his book ‘Twenty Years On’. His work is held by museums and collections such as the V&A, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Royal Photographic Society.
The National Portrait Gallery in London now holds more than 100 of John Swannell’s images in its permanent collection and in 2011 a room was devoted exclusively to his work.
Now in his 60’s John Swannell continues to shoot portraits and nudes, although in recent years he has increasingly concentrated on colour landscapes that are devoid of people. These usually tranquil images of the natural world show the same formal elegance and meticulous attention to detail as his studio work, and he plans to spend more time on them in the future.
‘In my old age, I’ll be a landscape photographer, I won’t need people – models or stylists or fashion editors – just the landscape and the elements. Even if I end up selling funny little postcards of local scenes at the post office, that’s fine. I wouldn’t mind that.’
Featured Photography – ‘Nude Sleeping’ available from Flying Ducks Art Gallery, Stone, Staffordshire.