John Swannellu2019s classic, carefully crafted images have made him one of the major photographers of his generation. David Clark looks at his life and work


Image: John Swannell self-portrait, 2013 © John Swannell

John Swannell is rightly considered one of the great British photographers working today. 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, with David Bailey once describing him as ‘an incurable romantic’.

Swannell started photography at around the age of 12. His dyslexia made academic work difficult and he gravitated towards working with images, photographing school plays and sports days. ‘It was in the blood from the beginning,’ he said in a 2011 interview. ‘There was never going to be another job for me when I left school. It was always going to be photography.’

At 16, he went to work as a printer in a Fleet Street darkroom in London before landing a job as an assistant at Vogue Studios. He worked with photographers including Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson, and says that this formative experience gave him vital practical knowledge and skills that helped him throughout his career. ‘The best education you can have in photography is to work with a photographer,’ he said in 2008. ‘Forget about college; you can pick up everything you need on the way.’

Swannell also worked with David Bailey at Vogue Studios, and leaving Vogue to work in Bailey’s own studio in 1969 was one of his key career turning points. He stayed there for four years, assisting Bailey on fashion, portrait and advertising assignments, and meeting some of the world’s most famous models and celebrities along the way. Among these encounters were a chauffeur-driven trip to Stonehenge in Wiltshire to photograph the Rolling Stones and the experience of sharing a joint with John Lennon while Bailey photographed Yoko Ono.



Image: ‘Nude Behind Silk’ Series No.1, 2004

© John Swannell

By the end of that period 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 began doing regular work for Vogue at the less glamorous end of the market, photographing hats, handbags and make-up products. This work enabled him to develop a portfolio and have his work seen by editors. Soon he was commissioned to work for Italian Vogue in Milan. This prestigious appointment signalled his arrival as an important new figure in the world of fashion photography and he went on to have long-term associations with publications, including Tatler, Harpers & Queen, The Sunday Times and The Telegraph.

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.

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.’


Image: Princess Diana, Prince Harry and Prince William, 1994


© John Swannell

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, Swannell has photographed every senior royal family member (with the exception of Princess Margaret), and is often invited to shoot official portraits on significant occasions, such as the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees. The National Portrait Gallery in London now holds more than 100 of Swannell’s images in its permanent collection and in 2011 a room was devoted exclusively to his work.

Now aged 66, 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,’ he said in an AP interview in 2002. ‘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.’

Exhibition

Swannell’s work is currently on show in an exhibition at L’Hotel in Paris (until 13 February) and from 18 March-15 April at Cowley Manor, Oxfordshire.

Books and websites

Books: Swannell’s books include Fine Lines (1982), Twenty Years On (1996), I’m Still Standing (2002), John Swannell Nudes 1978-2006 (2006) and Landscapes (2008).
Websites: Swannell’s official website is www.johnswannell.com, which includes portfolios of his portraits, nudes, fashion work and landscapes. Video interviews with Swannell can be seen on www.youtube.com.

Biography

  • 1946: Born in London and spends his childhood in Finsbury Park
  • 1962: Leaves school and starts working in a Fleet Street darkroom before moving on
  • to a job at Vogue Studios
  • 1969: Begins working as an assistant to David Bailey
  • 1974-75: Starts work as a freelance photographer and sets up his own studio
  • 1986: Publication of Naked Landscape, a collection of fine-art black & white nudes
  • 1993: Becomes one of the youngest-ever photographers to be awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society
  • 1994: Diana, the Princess of Wales, personally commissions him to photograph her and her sons
  • 2002: Publication of I’m Still Standing, a book of celebrity portraits, with all profits going to help children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome
  • 2006: John Swannell Nudes 1978-2006, an anthology of all his nude studies, is published
  • 2012: Commissioned by Buckingham Palace to photograph the Queen to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee