Spring 1994

We are a camera

The Douglas Brothers would much rather see their photographs in a magazine than on a gallery wall

Commission the Douglas Brothers and you let them do it their own way. They would much rather see their pictures in a magazine, though, than on a gallery wall.

There is a school of thought which suggests that when it comes to creative talent, commerce and integrity are incompatible bedfellows. In the case of photography, this manifests itself in a tendency to draw an artificial distinction between those who work for paymasters and those who follow their muse. The art versus commerce conflict is one which British photographers the Douglas Brothers have confronted and endeavoured to resolve.

The brothers, Andrew and Stuart, work out of an airy, scruffy top-floor studio in east London. Work in progress is collaged to the walls, shelves brim over with photographic books and changing casts of assistants drift in and out. Andrew did a fine arts degree and then worked as a photographer for about ten years, at first as assistant to John Swannell and to Lord Snowdon. In 1986, soon after Stuart, who is ten years younger, finished college, they joined forces and began to make a living as a jobbing commercial photographic team.

But the brothers were dissatisfied with what they were doing. They felt they were being employed as technicians. ‘We were using crafts skills. The work was highly demanding technically and we were quite good at it,’ says Andrew. But many of these clients regarded photography ‘as a service in the process of making other people’s pictures’ - the other people being the art directors or ‘creative’ teams who would devise and detail images on the drawing board. The brothers were aware that they ‘didn’t have a voice, just a set of skills’.

Within about a year, they realised they were going in the wrong direction. They wanted to be able to determine the type of work they would be given and to escape the rigid categorisation that applies in the world of commercial photography, where the marketplace is geared towards specialists. Their beginnings were for the most part in variations on still-lives, and they were determined not to get pigeon-holed as, say, food or pack shot photographers. What they missed was people, and they had the sense that their cameras could serve to explore a much larger territory of human feeling than was currently open to them.

The change was made visible with their decision to put forward a new portfolio. This was to demonstrate the type of work that interested them and would imply a new set of ground rules. Rule number one was that you commissioned them only if you were willing to put your faith in their way of seeing things. The portfolio was uncompromising: now they were offering for hire a point of view rather than a repertoire of technical accomplishments.

The portfolio concentrated on portraits. The brothers set up a series of free portrait sessions with Peter Dyer of Secker & Warburg to produce author photographs for book jackets, and with a number of the new comedians, including Paul Merton. They were turning their backs on a potentially lucrative but creatively limited career to do what interested them . They gained confidence from one another in moments of self-doubt and questioning - ‘Two of us made decisions, which halved the boldness.’ The team became stronger than the sum of its parts.

The portraits in the new portfolio were a radical departure from the conventional view of what constitutes a good photograph. Part of the brothers’ break with the stereotypes of commercial photography was a dramatic reaction against the prevalent equation of image quality with evident high technical proficiency. They deliberately sought to loosen up their technique, favouring daylight or available light over the banks of strobes with which many photographers iron out any semblance of reality from their work. They were often giving little time to work on celebrity portraits and so would both take pictures at the same time using different format cameras, one brother taking the principal shots, the other hovering to capture the telling moment or detail. Spontaneity was crucial and they used a Hasselblad or a 5x4 camera as ‘snapshot cameras’.

In discussing the work of such photographers, as Karsh or Ansel Adams, the brothers’ position is uncompromising: ‘With that degree of technique you don’t stand a chance of getting the spirit.’ They see their own development as ‘a reaction against the pin-sharp, pristine and sterile - a move to mood’. The resultant images are sombre and atmospheric, often soft-focused but in a gritty rather than a romantic way, blurred evocations in deep tones. ‘We were pushing blur to see how far you could go, to see how little information the brain needs to make a picture.’ They would tone their images dark brown and were deliberately careless, exploiting grain, scratches and imperfections.

The prints, rather like the brothers themselves and their studio environment, have a degree of controlled scruffiness - call it ingenious casualness - about them. The message is clear: the print is not a precious object. What matters is the essence of the subject; if the photographic emulsions manage to capture something of that essence, then the image serves its purpose.

The camera can be a descriptive tool. ‘We were pursuing feeling rather than description,’ Andrew reminds me, ‘impression rather than reality,’ echoes Stuart. They were convinced that portraiture is not an exercise in topography. ‘A man is more than the sum of his lumps and bumps,’ insists Andrew.

Nor, when documenting a place, are they interested in producing the equivalent of an ordnance survey map. On the wall of their studio is a collage of photographs of a deserted highway in New Mexico. A central white line stretches into the distance, losing itself on the horizon. The inspiration for these images is evident. Robert Frank’s The Americans, first published in 1958, was much misunderstood, but eventually consecrated as a photo essay of vision and integrity. Frank’s US. 285, New Mexico was less a record of a specific stretch of road than an evocation of the idea of every long, lonely and frightening path. ‘It’s an enduring image,’ says Andrew.

Through a process driven largely by instinct, the Douglas Brothers were finding their voice. It is only now, with the benefit of hindsight and perhaps a greater exposure to the history of their chosen medium, that they recognise that their approach, ‘was not entirely original in one sense’. In fact, they were confronting a dilemma central to the photographic medium and one which has fuelled ardent debate since the birth of photography. As early as the 1840s, argument raged about whether the precision of the daguerreotype or the aesthetic of the paper negative, with its potential for broad, painterly images, was capable of greater artistic truth. The turn-of-the century Photo-Secessionist movement in Europe and the US eschewed the artless perfectionism of finely detailed photographs in favour of the poetic effects of a broader treatment of light and shade. Andrew derived immense encouragement recently from seeing an impressionistic portrait of Tina Modotti by Edward Weston, a photographer usually associated with high technical resolution. The image touched him, he says, ‘in terms of its emotional strength’.

The brothers’ new portfolio brought in work, but it was a trickle rather than a flood. Peter Dyer commissioned book covers; music business art director Bill Smith commissioned album covers; Chris Jones used them for New Scientist. Slowly they were able to increase the proportion of published work in the portfolio, but the British marketplace remained wary. The breakthrough came in 1990 as a result of a visit to New York. They showed their portfolio to Temple Smith of Esquire magazine, who understood their aims and realised that there was only one way to work with them. He gave them commissions, but with an open brief. He was buying the promise of a Douglas Brothers picture. At a time when Annie Leibowitz and her full film-production team approach defined the contemporary magazine portrait genre, Smith made a shrewd decision, anticipating a swing against the hard polish that had characterised the new glory years of Vanity Fair in the late 1980s.

The credentials lent by American magazine work led to more commissions in Britain, and the brothers started on a roll of success which they are still enjoying. The particular qualities of their work was recognised by Liz Jobey, a features editor on the short-lived Correspondent newspaper, who continued to use them after her move to the Independent on Sunday, where their work was regularly showcased in the Sunday Review section.

The brothers have built up a base of regular clients who put their trust in them. New clients must accept the unspoken rule: the brothers will do the job their way; that is what you are paying for. ‘We work for designers or art directors who do not have a strong preconceived idea of what they want,’ they tell me. Among the numerous commissions which have come their way - in addition to the portraits that remain the core of their work - is a good deal of what could be called ‘photographic illustration’.

Here they do not simply execute in photographic emulsion an art director’s sketch, but rather translate a feeling, a suggestion or an abstract idea. This has involved building messages from several negatives, collage and the use of symbols and clues - ‘our sellotape and feathers phase,’ as they describe it. The results are mysterious, enigmatic, curiously compelling - and have proved effective in selling books and records. ‘Once we had defined a sensibility, we were not unhappy to experiment, to make more complicated illustrative images,’ they say. Today, however, they tend to favour a more simplified approach.

The Douglas Brothers’ work has become fashionable. If their approach was not original in one sense, what was different, insists Stuart, was ‘bringing it into the commercial sector.’ They have managed to keep their feet firmly in the realities of the commercial world and at the same time to preserve their creative integrity. Andrew laughs at the recollection of a recent encounter: ‘I met a photographer from way back who, aware of how busy we are, asked ‘What about your personal work?’ She had missed the point.’ One result of their success is a host of imitators. ‘Students like our work because it seems attainable,’ they say. Again many miss the point, scratch their negatives, rough up the edges, print dark to achieve the Douglas Brothers ‘look’. But as Andrew observes, ‘there is no point in deliberate obfuscation to camouflage a bad image.’

The brothers have produced work for almost every kind of print form. The high-quality newsprint of the current broadsheet supplements has been an ideal vehicle for them. For the Independent, for example, the made a particularly strong and surprising picture essay on Miami. They were going to Florida for a corporate job. Miami’s South Beach had been the subject of numerous numbingly predictable magazine features on the ‘St Tropez of the 1990s’ theme. They felt there was another story to tell. Liz Jobey said go ahead, but the corporate job overran and they were left with only two days, during which they went into manic overdrive. The time pressure was such that, exceptionally they worked separately. The result is a series of 20 pictures, a selection of which has been published in a forceful photo essay which brought out the darker side of the city.

Major advertising campaigns have been more difficult to win, since the brothers’ independent approach does not endear them to the corporate mentality. They have developed relationships more easily with the cultural sectors of art and music with literature-related clients such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. The brothers were therefore particularly pleased to be given a stills campaign by Adidas with a completely open brief, which included not having to show the product. They photographed a runner in close-up. ‘We made one runner look like the essence of running.’

The Douglas Brothers love to make photographs, and ‘jobs are ways of taking pictures’. As working commercial photographers, however, they have been flattered and gratified to attract the attention of the gallery and museum world. They were approached by gallery-owner Kate Heller, who presented a show of their work in 1990, and were nominated in 1992 for the prestigious Fox Talbot Award, which meant seeing examples of their work hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. They have recently been invited to exhibit at the Photographers Gallery a group of pictures which will go on to be shown at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford and the Royal Photographic Society in Bath. ‘These were all pictures we did for a commercial context,’ emphasises Stuart.

They remain suspicious of the prestigious ‘white-glove’ approach to photographs as a collectors’ commodity - a scepticism reinforced by a recent encounter with the New York gallery scene. And they have no objections to seeing their photographs overlaid with type or integrated into print. Andrew pulls out a recently published edition of Dostoyevsky Notes from Underground, for which they have made the cover image. ‘I prefer the book cover to the print,’ he explains. ‘It exists as an object in the world. It acquires a real-life. The photograph is out there working, doing its job.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994