Bob Carlos Clarke Retrospective
The death of Bob Carlos Clarke in 2006 was a tragic loss to photography. Bob Carlos Clarke was best known for his powerful, graphic images of beautiful women clad in rubber, latex or nothing at all. These images were a personal expression to the world whilst he hid his darker side and suffering from acute depression.
Those who knew Carlos Clarke often describe him as someone who craved attention, who was terrified of rejection and who was often obsessive and paranoid about his work.
Depression afflicted his mother, as well as an uncle who killed himself at the age of 14. And it was depression that would claim Carlos Clarke’s life too.
Tragically, on 25 March 2006 Carlos Clarke left the Priory Clinic, London where he was a voluntary patient, and walked to a level crossing near the suburb of Barnes, where he threw himself in front of a train bound for London's Waterloo Station.
At the time of his death, he was working on a project with friend and chef Marco Pierre White, who he first photographed back in 1987. The pair were installing Carlos Clarke’s pictures in Pierre White’s London West End restaurant, Luciano. It fell to Carlos Clarke’s widow Lindsey and his agent Ghislain Pascal to complete the project. And earlier this year, they did just that.
To mark the completion of the Luciano project, we invited six people who knew Bob Carlos Clarke to come and discuss his life and work over dinner.
Joining Lindsey Carlos Clarke and Ghislain Pascal were printer Ted Chan, framer Tim?Blake, photographer John Stoddart and writer Simon Garfield.
Surrounded by Bob’s work in the private dining area of Luciano, conversation soon turned to the pictures, and what Bob himself would have thought of the completed exhibit.
LINDSEY CARLOS CLARKE: When Ghislain and I took over the project, we decided to let Marco Pierre White choose the images. If there was anything we thought wasn’t right then we’d offer him something else. All of the pictures are completely mixed up – they come from different books and projects. Bob always wanted to keep moving forward, not backwards. He said that artists were remembered for what they had done in the past, not their new work, and he didn’t like that.
GHISLAIN PASCAL: How long had it been going before we took over, Lindsey? Nearly a year? In all that time Bob and Marco only managed to get three pictures in the restaurant!
LCC: If Bob saw it now I think he’d make some comment, like: ‘why have you put that one next to that one?’ He would like it, but he’d have reservations I’m sure. Actually I’m not sure Bob would have let Marco have this mixture of pictures, he was such a control freak. At the beginning Marco would say ‘I’d like that picture’, and Bob would say no and tell him he couldn’t have it.
SIMON GARFIELD: Do you think Bob would have had reservations about making so many pictures available to the masses all at once?
LCC: Yes, I do. I would often say to him ‘look, you’ve got to let go’. People would come to him to buy a print and he’d say ‘oh, you can’t have that one’. In a way I think he was a collector – even the props he used in his pictures were all his, never borrowed. He would buy them, then hang on to them. I still have a massive collection of shoes just because he didn’t like the idea of not owning the props in his photographs.
TIM BLAKE: That’s interesting. That’s something that you’re not privy to when you are looking at the pictures on their own. I think once you give Bob’s pictures some dialogue, and learn about their history, they become a totally different thing.
LCC: He liked to find props too. We used to go on these walks down the Thames riverbank at low tide looking for things that Bob could use, and we’d find all sorts.
We even found guns – many a time he’d come home covered in mud, and I’d open the door and say ‘what have you found?’ He’d just grin and produce this gun from behind his back.
JOHN STODDART: Yes, he once gave me a picture of a model holding a gun.
LCC: We used to live not far from Putney bridge, so he was always down there.
People would throw all manner of things into the river – guns, knives, refrigerators, spoons, forks, bras.
The first gun we found, we couldn’t believe. In the end he handed in a load of them to the police.
TED CHAN: For Bob to be like that with his props… it must be like choosing a tattoo. Anyone can buy a prop, but it’s got to mean something more if you find it and own it.
LCC: I also think that he thought he owned the girls he photographed too. There was one girl – I remember looking at some contacts with Bob – and she gave us such a wonderful picture. I remember what he said: ‘She’s already older than when I shot her two days ago, and over time she’ll age and crumble. But I have her here in my camera forever.’ I really think he believed he owned them after he’d photographed them.
Professional Photographer: Where did he find his models?
LCC: Everywhere! They are a real mixture.
A girl called Charlotte, he found in a really filthy old club. He bought her to the studio, cleaned her up and photographed her. She eventually became a professional model. He took her to an agency.
He loved to find someone like that. Some of them weren’t so nice, of course, but I think it excited him that he never knew what he was going to have in his studio. The more dangerous they were the more they excited him.
SG: John, when did you first become aware of Bob?
JS: Very early on. I wasn’t even a photographer, I’d just left the army.
Bob used to have stuff in Ritz magazine, alongside work by Bailey and other classic photographers. I always thought Bob’s images had a kind of edge to them. In my eyes he made things look sexy without looking tacky.
There’s a difference between an artist and an artisan, and photographers are proud to be artisans. Bob used to phone up and say ‘I can’t believe Loaded haven’t asked me to do a job’, and I’d say ‘why on earth are you worried about what they think of you?’
PP: Did he often get passed over when it came to magazine work?
JS: Yes. He did worry about that. He’d say: ‘Bloody hell have you seen that Mario Testino, he’s getting loads of work,’ and I’d say ‘yes, but he does fashion, and you’re doing tits and ass! Vogue won’t ring you up because, to them, you are shooting porn.’
GP: Yes, because Bob wasn’t a fashion photographer – he wasn’t a Mario Testino. Instead he did advertising. Bob was out there in a league of his own and he would do some absolutley brilliant advertising campaigns, and win all manner of awards.
LCC: He always said fashion was ridiculous: ‘The most stupid thing you can do with a camera.’ He saw it as pointless, and not what good photography was all about. It might have been technically good, showing great models wearing brilliant clothes, but once you take a fashion picture it starts to date, and I think that’s what he was trying to get away from.
TC: Going back to this business of Bob struggling to get magazine work, a chap I print for was telling me his father had the same trouble. He knew Bob, actually, and was often passed over when it came to magazines too.
His theory was that art directors would come out of college as young kids and not know the background of what they were going into. They would be intimidated by the great, well-known photographers, so rather than appear unsophisticated and stupid they’d end up hiring the friends they went to college with.
LCC: Yes, and I think they are frightened of sexuality, especially of women’s sexuality
GP: I remember one of Bob’s shoots for Maxim. He was shooting Caprice, who was one of my clients, and it was the 50th anniversary edition of the magazine.
The art director turned up and said ‘oh my god Bob Carlos Clarke! I went to college and studied you. You were my absolute hero!’
But then an hour later he was trying to tell him how to take a picture. You just think, let him get on and do the job.
That was always the problem: Bob wasn’t his best when he had people hassling him and telling him what to do.
PP: Ghislain, was Bob an easy photographer to sell, as his agent?
GP: My association with Bob wasn’t typical of a photographer-agent relationship. I represent models and celebrities and I met Bob through that route. We became friends and he asked me to help get some celebrities for some of his projects, and that was the first time we really collaborated. I remember one day after work I just said why don’t I be your agent, and I think the reason our relationship worked was all down to trust. He trusted me.
One of the first things we did was set up a picture agency to start selling Bob’s pictures commercially and get the photographing celebrities side going. The aim then was to get him back on the exhibition scene, which we did with Love Dolls in 2004. It was his first show in 10 years, but I’m not sure he felt it was that successful, even though of course it was.
LCC: Yes – he said to me before the show ‘what am I going to do if this is a disaster?’ We talked about success and failure and what that meant to him. He said that success would be selling all the pictures, and failure would be selling none. He didn’t acknowledge the bit in the middle. That was when I started to realise that things with Bob weren’t quite right.
About three days before the show opened, Bob heard that someone had bought a whole set of huge pictures – about £50,000 worth. I said to him, come on, what is that: success or failure? He just said ‘oh, I can’t talk about that now.’
PP: Would he have been a fan of digital capture if he were here today?
LCC: Bob had the capability to do anything, but he never did anything he didn’t want to do, so he made out he couldn’t do it. He was like that with digital cameras.
He got quite upset about Patrick Lichfield going digital. Patrick was a great friend of ours, in fact he wrote the foreword to Bob’s book 'Obsession'.
JS: Patrick embraced digital, but regretted it. I think he adopted it too early. He said he lost so many pictures through it.
TC: I really believe that [the digital vs film debate] is all down to a photographer’s perception. It’s about comfort zone versus the great unknown. Digital photography is carried out so well, and so perfectly. But then there is such great photography being carried out by brilliant artists who are still working to what you’d call an old-school recipe. Still producing the goods.
JS: Film photography will become a kind of gentleman’s pursuit, an artistic endeavour that’s almost Victorian. Bob and I used to talk about this. I’d say to him that he would become – and sadly he never did – an artiste. People would go to be photographed by Bob, not digitised, but photographed. I still believe that’s how photography will be.
GP: Bob never really shot anything on a digital camera, to my knowledge.
I know that we called Love Dolls his first digital exhibition, but it was all shot on film. The digital element was that they were enhanced digitally and printed digitally.
JS: Now that’s quite normal though. I’m still photographing with film and magazines are fine with that.
TC: If film is exposed properly then, even working digitally, it reacts in a different way. It’s easy to break an image file though manipulation if it’s been captured digitally, but if it’s been captured on film then you can push and pull, and get so much more in dense shadow areas. There’s something in there other than noise.
JS: Bob was upset when Patrick died though, wasn’t he?
LCC: Oh yes, of course he was.?He was shattered. But don’t you remember what he said? You were there, John. He said “I envy him.”
PP: And that wasn’t too far away from Bob’s own death, was it?
LCC: No it wasn’t. In fact, when I went to Patrick’s memorial service, Bob was already in The Priory at that stage. Let’s hope they are together now.
SG: Ted, when you print Bob’s images do you print them as he would have wanted? Or do you just do the best you can?
TC: I think it’s a bit of both, but you do have to have some direction from the photographers. Some are more open to input than others.
In the old days they used to hand film over to be processed and, of course, they welcomed the input, because unless they wanted to do absolutely everything themselves they had to. I try to meet their vision whilst adding something to it myself. I might say, ‘I think this would look great’, and then hopefully the photographer will say, ‘fantastic!’, and then you’d both move it on from there.
GP: We’re always very true to people. If someone buys a print that wasn’t printed by Bob then we say so. It’s important that people know the origin of the work.
LCC: Bob used to say ‘it would be easier for Constable to reproduce the Hay Wain than it would be for me to reproduce one of my prints.’ And I know what he meant.
Sometimes Bob would produce 20 prints, but only be satisfied with two of them. He’d feel really bad for that, but I’d say ‘well, live with it. You’re an artist. Have an edition of two if you want.’ In reality he tended to print an image until he was sick of it and never go near it again. When I see ‘1 of 10’ written on a print I think, ‘yeah in your dreams, there are only two of them’.
TC: It’s like writing a song and having someone else sing it. Would you hand your neg over to another printer if you were a printer yourself?
LCC: A negative is so special. He used to say he should do one ultimate print, with maybe a second reprint, and the ultimate print would be sold along with the negative.
PP: Fetish has come out of the shadows since the 1970s. Do you think Bob’s photography had any part to play in that?
LCC: That’s an good question. I have to say, Bob and I weren’t into fetish from a personal point of view.
I have worn a rubber catsuit, but I don’t like it: it’s either too hot or too cold. Sometimes Bob would want to go to fetish clubs to find out more about that culture.
Typically there is always a dress code, which can be pretty strict. The first time we went you just had to wear black, so that was OK. We’d sit at the back trying to blend in and there were all these 72-year old men in stiletto heels as waitresses carrying trays. I would be going ‘Oh my god, oh my god’ and trying not to laugh.
They wanted to be bossed about because that was what they liked, and we hadn’t realised it wasn’t just about clothes. Because we weren’t fetishists we hadn’t realised there was so much more to it.
GP: Working with a title like fetish magazine Skin Two gave him the freedom to do what he wanted. Bob once shot for Skin Two’s 20th anniversary and they gave him total control of what he wanted to do.
They flew over a fetish model called Marylyn from the US and they ended up being fantastic pictures. Magazines like that appreciated his style and allowed him the free rein he needed. But then it worked against him because some magazines would get snobby and say ‘oh he’s only famous for rubber’.
LCC: But that wasn’t true. He shot everything: cars, children… all manner of things. If you look at the work he did on children you would see that it is amazing. He gets right into their soul.
SG: You see you say all that, and we know that it’s true, but look at where we are now – sitting here surrounded by his fetish work.
LCC: Where does one perceive art stopping and pornography starting? I used to have lots of women ask me ‘how can you live with a man who photographs women like that?’ I’d be thinking ‘well, he’s always been like that.’ I mean, if you don’t want to be with someone who photographs sex then you just don’t choose to be. You marry a bank manager or something.
PP: You could argue that, although he objectifies women, he does make them look fantastic in the process.
LCC: Yes, but does he empower them or disempower them? I don’t think any of the women in this exhibition are disempowered, do you?
GP: Many people completely missed the point of the Love Dolls exhibition in that way. They said ‘well, it’s demeaning to women’, but Bob was trying to demonstrate that it is women who are in control. If you read the words that go with the pictures, it’s obvious. That’s what Bob was thinking: women are in control.
PP: Lindsey, how will you remember Bob? Do you have a favourite picture?
LCC: It’s one called ‘Sex Kitten’ showing a girl wrapped up in brown paper and string – we were obsessed with wrapping things up. [laughs].
Bob liked real people and real lives, especially if they were screwed up. He loved people like that. I’d often organise dinner parties and he’d say he wasn’t coming because the gusts I’d invited were normal and boring.
I’d say ‘invite some people yourself then’, and he’d find a fire eater, a stripper and a hooker or something like that. I’d find these three weird people in the house, mixing with my relatively normal guests. It was quite odd. But that was Bob for you – he couldn’t bear normality.
This is it you see, that’s what he was all about. My mother said to me – everything has to be at full tilt with Bob. But he really was quite the most exciting man I?have ever met in my entire life.
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