Categories
Photographers

Neil Selkirk

In late November 2022, we visited the photographer Neil Selkirk in his house and studio, a stone’s throw from the David Zwirner Gallery on W.19th Street. Opening a little iron gate with a latch, we descended three steps from street level, to an oak door. Selkirk greeted us and led us through a little courtyard to his home at the rear of the building.

Inside, a lit wood-burning stove added a warm glow to the arts and crafts interior, with its dark roof beams and wooden kitchen presses. On a large wooden table, a scattering of autumn leaves and branches made a colourful display. Mounted on the wall, an ornate silver tray bore an engraved testimonial to a Selkirk forebear from the congregation of a Free Presbyterian Church in Glasgow. Even after decades of living and working in the United States, Selkirk, a cheerful conversationalist, retained his English accent. As he prepared coffee, he described his years in New York, his pride in his two children, now grown adults and working in the city, evident. Although divorced from his wife Susan, he radiated confidence and a contentment with life. “I’ve been lucky”, he commented, although this underestimates his achievements gained through skill, hard work and dedication to photography. He made coffee with the same attention to detail as though he were in a photo lab, grinding the coffee beans, and carefully preparing the steamer for warming milk.

Selkirk’s own photographs have featured in Esquire, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Interview and Vanity Fair. For over a decade he also worked in the corporate world, taking photographs for annual reports. His exhibition of portraits Certain Women was held at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in 2015. At the time of our visit, he was working on a series of close-up still life photos of bar-room toilet door locks entitled Security Matters. Printed in a large scale, several of these decorated the walls of his studio in the basement of the building. It was formerly a fully-fledged darkroom, complete with water filters and sinks, but no longer used for darkroom printing. 

Best-known in the art world for his work printing the photographs of Diane Arbus since her death, Selkirk was born in London in 1947. After initial studies at Chiswick Polytechnic, he graduated from the London College of Printing, and aged twenty-one, embarked on a life-long career as a photographer. From the outset, he demonstrated a deep understanding of the science of the process; developing and fixing film, and utilising advanced printing techniques. Keen to work with the best photographers, even as a student he travelled to France and the United States. In March 1968 he was in New York, visiting the studios of leading photographers and offering his services as an assistant. This direct approach worked, and he was offered work, not only by Richard Avedon, but also by Irving Penn, Melvin Sokolsky and Bert Stern. Fortuitously, Selkirk even found himself on 40th Street, photographing Bobby Kennedy outside the New York Press Club just after he announced his candidacy for president. Although he accepted a job offer from Penn, it transpired the studio was unable to obtain a work visa for him. In the meantime, Avedon had been asked by an English advertising agency to work on a cigarette campaign and came to London, where Selkirk worked for him as an assistant.

When Selkirk realised that getting a visa to work in the US was not going to be straightforward, he sought employment in London, and was taken on by Adrian Flowers, [on 9 September 1968] at his studio in Tite Street. In a recent interview with Elizabeth Avedon (former daughter-in-law of Richard) Selkirk recalled his time there; affirming how Flowers was ‘a big name’ in the London photography scene from the 1950’s through to the early 90’s. Flowers’ studio was ‘the place to be photographed’ for advertising and editorials, and for actors, celebrities and artists.

While working at Tite Street in 1968 and the following year, Selkirk assisted Flowers with a number of advertising jobs, including trips to France and Italy, and photographing products, even Christmas puddings. He explained how photographs taken in London were sent to New York, to be converted into dye-transfer prints, an expensive and technologically advanced method that gave high-quality reproductions for magazine advertisements. At that time there was no dye-transfer lab in London. On one occasion, when a large 15 x 12 inch duplicate transparency, made from a standard 35mm negative, was sent back to the studio, Neil was so impressed, he immediately went in search of a large-format camera capable of making large negatives. At Brunnings, the photography shop in Holborn, he found two such cameras, dating from at least the 1920’s. He bought both cameras, and still has them.

25.9.68 for the Observer magazine.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Selkirk recalled his time working with Flowers in London with delight and occasional chagrin. One time, the leg of a heavy tripod had unexpectedly slid down and injured his foot. In spite of the pain, and the wound taking a long time to heal, he continued to work, standing behind Adrian, ready to hand over film and equipment as needed. However, Adrian had a habit of stepping backwards when he was working and did so several times, stepping on Selkirk’s injured toe. He looked back in surprise to see his assistant bent over in agony. Selkirk laughed as he recalled this. But even at the Flowers studio, he was ambitious to move on and establish his own career. Through Avedon, he was offered a short-term contract in Paris, to assist Japanese photographer Hiro (Yasuhiro Wakabayashi). A decade earlier, Hiro had himself been an assistant to Avedon. Selkirk requested leave of absence from Tite Street, to work on this project with Hiro. Flowers responded “And what if I say no?”. “In that case”, Selkirk cheerfully replied “I’ll quit”. But Flowers relented and let him go. Back in London, Selkirk, who now admits that he must have been insufferable at the time, describes Flowers addressing him in quiet desperation “I know you’ve worked with the most famous photographers in the world, but would you mind passing the film holder”. In stories such as this, Selkirk revealed a self-awareness and self-deprecating sense of humour. “I’m sure I was impossible”, he acknowledges.

The shoots he worked on included trips to Malmaison, outside Paris, and to the Medici palazzos in Florence; both for the Observer magazine. Also for the Observer Selkirk accompanied Flowers to Bonn and Vienna to assist on the Beethoven feature [see previous blog post on this site].

Beethoven’s last piano,
photographed by Adrian Flowers in Bonn, Nov. 1969 for the Observer magazine

Selkirk also worked on several of the early Benson & Hedges ads, the ‘Gold Box’ years.

1968 B&H for
Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP)
Photography: Adrian Flowers

Another memorable job was for the book cover of Len Deighton’s An Expensive Place to Die, art directed by Ray Hawkey [see previous blog posts on Deighton and Hawkey]

JN6102 September 1968 Book cover for An Expensive Place to Die by Len Deighton.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

However, in London, Selkirk was earning just two pounds and ten shillings a week as an assistant at the Flowers studio and knew he had to move on. Working at Hiro’s studio in 1970 and ‘71 had led to further opportunities; while there, he met Diane Arbus and her friend and collaborator Marvin Israel. Arbus invited Selkirk to participate in a master class she was giving. He was more than just a student; at that time Arbus was looking to move on from working in the 2¼ square format, and was researching larger format cameras. Hiro had been using one of the first Pentax 6 x 7 cameras, which took the 120 film Arbus was experienced with, but produced larger images. Familiar with this camera, Selkirk showed her how to use it. After working at Hiro’s until July of that year, he then went to work for fashion photographer Chris Von Wangenheim. This brought him back to Europe, to Rome and Paris. While in Paris, he learned of the death of Arbus, and wrote a letter of commiseration to Marvin Israel. He also offered his services, should a book or exhibition be organised in the future.

Back in New York, Selkirk immediately was put to work by Marvin Israel, working on the forthcoming Arbus exhibition to be shown at MoMA, and on the monograph “Diane Arbus”. He jumped at the opportunity, however he was faced with an intimidating task: Arbus had never labelled or dated her prints. Selkirk was baffled as to how she found a negative. She evidently had a system, but only she knew where things were. Selkirk’s work making prints for the 1972 book and show were intended to be a one-time project, but evolved over the years into his being the only person ever authorized by the estate to make prints from Arbus’s negatives.

For many years now, Selkirk has worked with Doon, eldest daughter of Diane Arbus, who manages her mother’s estate. They periodically are involved in organising exhibitions such as the recent one, entitled “Cataclysm” at the David Zwirner Gallery, that reprised the 1972 MoMA show. The accompanying publication, Diane Arbus Documents a massive tome of several hundred pages, contains Fifty years or more of reviews and essays by Susan Sontag and others, along with an extensive bibliography. It is co-published by Zwirner and the Fraenkel Gallery, with David’s son Lucas guiding it through many stages of development. Doon is also a writer, and in addition to producing books of her mother’s work, has collaborated with Richard Avedon on many projects, including The Sixties, and has recently published her first novel, The Caretaker.

There was a pause in the conversation as Selkirk put a log in the wood-burning stove that added a bright touch and warmed the apartment. Beside the stove was a stack of split wood logs. “The difficulty”, said Neil, “is getting the logs all the way from my place in upstate New York to this room, they’re so heavy!”

In his last years at the old mill – the moulin, in France, Adrian Flowers would often photograph logs from the wood stack. He would set them up in rows outside the barn. Lit by the evening sun, each log acquired its own personality. The photographs were like distant memories of the actors, artists and celebrities who had visited the studio at Tite Street half a century before.

Adrian Flowers Studio, Tite St, London Jan. 1969

Neil Selkirk website: neilselkirk.com

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

Categories
Advertising agency work

Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP)

Advertisement for Silk Cut King Size, JN 7192, a/d Richard Dearing at CDP 12.6.72
Photography Adrian Flowers

Beginning in April 1960, when John Collett’s firm was acquired by Ronnie Dickenson and John Pearce, their new advertising agency CDP (Collett Dickenson Pearce) grew rapidly, so much so that within a decade it had become one of the most successful in the world, rivalling the best of Madison Avenue. Witty, sharp, and with an adventurous use of images and fonts, CDP proved an exciting new addition to a British advertising scene that had become staid during the 1950’s. Sharing a background in publishing (both had worked for Hulton Press), Pearce and Dickenson were alive to new possibilities in advertising. The winds of change, coming mainly from America, were epitomised in the work of DDB [Doyle Dane Bernbach] and summed up in David Ogilvy’s irreverent but insightful book Confessions of an Advertising Man. Initially occupying offices near Tottenham Court Road, under the creative directorship of Yorkshireman Colin Millward, CDP threw itself with gusto into campaigns for billboards and the new colour supplements published by The Observer and The Sunday Times. This was later accompanied by a string of award-winning television commercials. Typical was the 1964 ad “What the Duchess Saw”, made for Whitbread Pale Ale at a time when tolerance of class distinctions and social inequities was at a low ebb, and British middle-class consumer society was on the rise. The agency’s taglines were to become everyday phrases; ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’, Fiats were ‘handbuilt by robots’ while Heineken ‘refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.’ Richard Foster and John Horton devised campaigns for Parker pen, while Ron Collins was responsible for the ‘We knew how before you-know-who’ for Rawlings Tonic Water. In 1969 Millward began to look after CDP’s international work while John Salmon took over as creative director in London. Three years later, account director Frank Lowe replaced John Pearce as managing director. Following the example of DDB, art directors and copywriters at CDP were united into teams. Alan Parker and Ross Cramer led teams that included Alan Waldie, Paul Windsor and others. The client list grew rapidly, with Ford, Bird’s Eye, Land Rover, Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Parker pens, Fiat, Pretty Polly and Ronson all seeking the firm’s magic touch. Such was the level of self-confidence, if a client rejected a concept, it might well be the client who was shown the door. John Pearce, himself a heavy smoker, characterised the firm’s initial clients as ‘fags, fashion and booze’. Seeing the “What the Duchess Saw” ad induced David Puttnam to apply for a job at CDP; he worked there for five years, and compared it to a top university education: “with good reason I believed I was working for the best agency in the world. Most of the work we were doing was both different and good; and we were winning awards and gaining recognition left, right and centre.” Among the actors who appeared in CDP commercials were Joan Collins, Leonard Rossiter, Alan Whicker, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Sid James and Jean Shrimpton. Puttnam and other executives at CDP worked with copywriters, art directors and photographers. Among the former, Tony Brignull and Neil Godfrey, specialising in poster and press work, were regularly feted at the annual Design & Art Directors (D&AD) award ceremonies, while among the latter, photographer Adrian Flowers regularly featured prominently. With talents such as Mike Everett, and tv commercials for Heineken, Hovis and Cinzano being directed by Ridley Scott and Alan Parker, the ads created by CDP were, and are, consistently rated among the best ever made. The creative teams cheerfully hi-jacked Surrealism and other art movements, employing them in the pursuit of pure capitalist gains.

Much of the firm’s success was due to the adroit boardroom skills of John Spearman, who, although he grew up in Dublin, is from a family with strong West Cork connections. After graduating from TCD, Spearman worked for Lintas, the in-house advertising firm at Unilever, before joining CDP in 1972. Account director for the 1977-78 EMI “Diana Ross and the Supremes” ad that won several television awards, Spearman remained with the firm for seventeen years, ending up as chairman, and, along with Frank Lowe, was a main driver of the firm’s success. In New York, Spearman made a presentation at a Loebs board meeting, informing them that the behemoth advertising agencies of Madison Avenue were doomed; it was nimble firms like CDP that had their finger on the pulse. Shortly afterwards, Loeb bought thirty percent of CDP.

In retrospect not all of the agency’s work was ethical. Frozen peas were one thing, but CDP campaigns enabled the tobacco giant Gallaher to double sales of its cigarettes, at a time when the dangers of smoking were becoming public knowledge. With cigarette advertising progressively restricted, initially from television, then print media, CDP created campaigns for Gallaher that were subtle, allusive and often surreal. Even if it was not identified, consumers understood the product being advertised: Hamlet, Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut. Dead-pan and humorous, the Hamlet ads played on peoples’ responses to stressful situations. There was a hidden sub-text, this stress being associated with increasing affluence and social change. Devised by Alan Waldie and Mike Cozens, the Benson & Hedges campaigns were legendary. Adrian Flowers worked on many of these, devising and photographing elaborate sets. Although illogical and irrational, the ads doubled the sales of Benson & Hedges, and in 1978 Waldie was awarded the D&AD Gold Award. Flowers’ photographic shoots included a brightly-lit doorway in a hotel corridor, a cigarette pack standing amidst Stonehenge orthostats, a jig-saw puzzle, and a box containing cufflinks, ornate lighter and a cigarette pack, labelled ‘props for Elyot Chase in Private Lives’.

Another Flowers sets featured tickertape machines, a weighing scales with a packet of B&H outweighing other cigarette packs.

Flowers also photographed a half-open coffin of an Egyptian pharaoh, the gold of the tomb echoing the gold-coloured packaging of the cigarettes. It was launched on the same day that a hugely popular Tutankhamun exhibition opened at the British Museum.

Ad for Benson & Hedges 17.2.72, JN 7074 ‘In the search for gold, leave no stone unturned’ for CDP. Photography Adrian Flowers

Notwithstanding days and even weeks of effort, some of Flowers’ work was not used. “An early Benson & Hedges ad called for a survey to find the perfect golf course. Arthur Parsons sent me to look at one on Majorca and another in Eire. Alan Waldie mentioned a course at Greenwich that proved to be the most suitable. The picture was to show the pack nestling in the long grass in the extreme foreground within putting distance of the green. The title was ‘Lost’, which as we all know is something that too often happens to gold balls and gold cigarette cases.”

Test shot for B&H golf course for CDP.
Photography Adrian Flowers

Although a technical triumph, with everything in perfect focus, the photograph was turned down, as Gallahers felt it represented their product as litter. Alan Waldie was also art director for a series of Harvey Bristol Cream ads, also involving elaborate photographic sets.

Many of the Benson & Hedges sets were built by Shirt Sleeve Studio, an enterprise set up by American-born surrealist artist Nancy Fouts and her husband Malcolm Fowler. The duo’s work was featured in an exhibition at the Angela Flowers gallery in 1970, and two decades later they founded the Fouts and Fowler Gallery. Richard Dearing at CDP directed a series of ads for Silk Cut, the resulting 8 x 10” colour transparencies being among the most impressive ever produced by the Flowers studio.

Test shots for Harveys Bristol Cream for CDP, JN 7115, 29.3.72

Flowers photographed Birds Eye products (for Carol Nelson, Ray Gundersen and Arthur ‘Art’ Parsons at CDP), and National Panasonic televisions. Art Parsons and Richard Dearing directed a series of Post Office ad campaigns, with photography by Flowers, who also worked on campaigns for Olympus cameras.

Other famous names who worked for the agency included Robin Wight, Don McCullin, Gray Joliffe, John Wood, John Hegarty, Charles Saatchi and Hugh Hudson, the latter going on to direct Chariots of Fire, a film produced by David Puttnam. After the departure of some of its most creative talents—Scott and Parker both went on to become well-known film directors, while Puttnam established himself as a leading film producer—the high energy levels at CDP began to flag. In 1981, Frank Lowe and Geoffrey Howard-Spink left to set up their own agency. The company then went through a number of changes, including being taken over by Dentsu, the Japanese marketing agency responsible for Toyota, and in 2001, under chairman Chris McLeod, was re-branded cdp-travissully.

Birds Eye ‘Family Pie’ JN 7135, 13.4.72 for CDP, Alan Waldie/Arthur Parsons

Selected CDP jobs:

Benson & Hedges (Golf Course 35mm) 7102 a/d Alan Waldie
Harveys Bristol Cream portrait 7115 29.3.72 a/d Alan Waldie
Birds Eye frozen desserts 7133 11.4.72 a/d Arthur Parsons/Alan Waldie
Numerous Birds Eye products – 1972 – a/d Parsons/Waldie/Gundersen/Carol NelsonBenson & Hedges ornithologist 7143 19.4.72: Mike Taylor/Alan Waldie/R. Knapp
GPO – ‘The quick and the dead’ (roses) 7155 7.5.72: Judi Smith
Benson & Hedges International 7166 12.5.72: Arthur Parsons

Harveys Bristol Cream 7182 25.5.72 a/d Alan Waldie
National Panasonic TV 7386 30.3.73 a/d Ted Eckman
Silk Cut 7006 7.12.71 a/d Arthur Parsons
Nescafe 7212 2.7.72 a/d Arthur Parsons
Silk Cut (menthol) etc 7214 8.7.72

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©