Photographing Bowie – Gavin Evans on The Session

By Mariko Finch

G avin Evans has photographed some of the most iconic names in popular culture; turning his lens on stars from the worlds of music, film and theatre, to capture intimate moments and candid portraits in his distinctive style. In 1995, during the production of the album Outside, David Bowie came to Evans' studio with long-time collaborator and friend Brian Eno to have his picture taken. The resulting photographs are some of the most widely reproduced and evocative images of Bowie, and form the backdrop to the current touring Bowie/Collector exhibition, ahead of the November sale in London. We spoke to Gavin Evans about the shoot, now known as The Session.


Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?

I was at the impressionable age of 12 when introduced to the dark art of photography. A neighbour invited me to a watch how a print was made. As I waited to be summoned into the darkroom I spotted a photo album and picked it up. My jaw dropped as I leafed through abstracted images of contorted figures languishing in tropical foliage. A shimmering disco ball eluded explanation. I was seduced by the Kodachrome palette of emerald greens and sanguine reds. These extraordinary images, terrifyingly beautiful, were a keepsake from his time as a forensic photographer in the Bermuda Constabulary. The bodies were cadavers; victims of domestic and gun crime. The disco ball was the head of a crash victim encrusted with the cubes of windscreen safety glass. This was my epiphany; the camera could be trained on anything – no topic was taboo and no subject sacrosanct. Watching the alchemist turn a blank piece of paper into an image confirmed my calling. I picked up the camera and dropped school.

Did that early experience – and the meticulous way that he documented events influence you? Do you look at things in a forensic way?

I couldn't shake the idea that the camera had no boundaries and was limited only by the photographer’s imagination or conviction. Photography was a powerful medium that could present and explore ideas in a way that could provide the viewer with a new outlook or understanding. Perhaps, subconsciously, something of the forensic embedded itself. In the digital darkroom everything must be pixel perfect – the devil is in the detail and I am constantly performing exorcisms. Maybe I am influenced by the forensic approach – to discard the superfluous and focus on the tangible. Where I differ from the forensic is on the question of impartiality. I always contaminate the evidence and sometimes I plant it!


How did photographing Bowie in The Session come about?

The call came from Time Out magazine. Bowie was promoting the release of his album Outside and the shoot was scheduled for a Friday afternoon in July '95. Meeting him was confusing, it was as if I knew him already. He was so familiar I forgot what, not who he was. He greeted me as if he knew me too. There were no surprises, no diva, no division, no disappointment. The Starman was down to earth and stood right in front of me. David called me to the changing room and took me to one side.

He put his hand in his pocket like a watch hawker reaching under his overcoat and pulled out a jewel case. Face-to-face, eye-to-eye, he held the box under my nose, undid the clasp and lifted the lid. A pair of sapphire blue contacts lenses stared back. Bowie was revered for his vision and foresight. He knew my work and knew I would see the subtle yet profound effect of this disguise; rendering his trademark eyes normal. I would be the first to shoot him wearing them; this would be a first for the both of us.


I was given a window of an hour which, after introductions and make-up, ended in 40 minutes photographing time. Bowie arrived at the studio in high spirits accompanied by his friend and long-time collaborator Brian Eno. We started the session by shooting a couple of rolls of Brian. David put me to the test, trying his damnedest to distract Brian from the job in hand. Come his turn Bowie was the master of the pose and immediately assumed authority, taking control – or so he thought.

"Photography is the medium, not the photographer. We all are multifaceted and cannot be encapsulated in one immaculate image."

After joking about, shouting and hushing, I reminded him of the contact lenses. Concentration was required and posturing put aside. David spotted a serving tray as he was leaving the studio, picked it up and put it behind his head to create a halo. I wasn’t about to let him get away without shooting this. Hurriedly a light stand was stuck up his back and the tray taped behind his head. David transformed into Peter at the gates of heaven. This was no ordinary Peter, no angel. David’s Peter was a rambunctious bouncer at the gates of a celestial night club and if you were lucky you were sentenced to the happening club downstairs. David had a wicked sense of humour.


Do you think it's possible for a photographer to perfectly 'capture' the essence of a person in a photograph?

This simplistic definition was imagined-up to elevate the portraitist to a higher social status. The notion that a photographer can capture the personality, spirit or essence in a single image requires little examination. I’m pragmatic, I'm not a Creationist. Photography is the medium, not the photographer. We all are multifaceted and cannot be encapsulated in one immaculate image. The photographer creates the conditions and selects which aspects of the sitter will resonate or appeal. The portrait is ultimately the making of the artist, not the subject; both personalities reside in the frame.

What did Bowie think of the pictures?

In 2005 I received a request from David for a print. I presumed it would be one of the flattering images from The Session. To my astonishment he chose my favourite image, one where he appears lost and vulnerable. For me this image of Bowie was different from the rest, it was intimate and touching – the antithesis of the star shot. I felt a connection by his acknowledgement of this image; we were on the same page. The print hung in his Manhattan office, and in 2012 Bowie instructed the portrait to be on the cover and the final page of the V&A Bowie Is book. And there you have it, the portrait – two personalities in the frame; David and me.


Can you tell us about future projects you are currently working on?

The Session is now on show in locations around the world, and is travelling as we speak. I got the keys to my atelier at Holzmarkt here in Berlin in January. My intention was to launch the space, The Institute, with the current exhibition The Trinity which included photographs of Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, who along with Bowie, had all spent significant time in Berlin making music. Then came the tragic news of David's death and I decided to dedicate the space wholly to him. The exhibition became a place of pilgrimage with over 4,500 visitors paying their respects in the 6 week run.

At the moment I am proofing my book of The Session which will go on sale in November, and my atelier in Berlin will fluctuate between an events space, gallery and studio. Anyone interested in my projects can follow me on Facebook or visit my website.

The Trinity featuring portraits of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave by Gavin Evans runs until the 30th October at The Institute, Berlin

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