We speak to photographer Willie Christie best known for his work for British VOGUE and director of many successful commercials and music videos including Pink Floyd’s ‘Final Cut’.
Q: Hi Willie, when you were just 19 you worked as an assistant for the British fashion photographer David Anthony. Were you interested in fashion photography before that?
A: Since the age of 14, I’d always wanted to work in film. I had never considered stills photography in any shape or form.
Later, I made friends with our leading film producer, Jeremy Thomas at school in Somerset. Ironically, because of him, I had a brief flirtation with being a racing driver. Luckily that didn’t last long and after returning from a year in Australia I came as soon as I could to London to make my way in the film world.
This was now by the end of the 60s, and the British film industry was at a bit of a plateau. I ended up going on a film shoot and realised very quickly I was not cut out to work my way up from tea boy, that it just wasn’t for me. Arrogance or prescience? I don’t know!
In 1968 my sister was going out with David Anthony – a leading fashion photographer at the time. His assistant went away for a bit and so I volunteered to help out and ended up staying for a year learning about photography and lighting. I caught the bug…
I then worked with Clive Arrowsmith (VOGUE photographer) for the next year, building up a portfolio of work in between. He was working a lot with Grace (Coddington) which is how we then got introduced.
Q: In the 1970s and 80s you worked for British VOGUE, shooting several covers and inside spreads. How did you navigate working in high end fashion at such a young age?
A: I was about 21, 22… I had the most wonderful time, assisting and travelling with Clive and Grace on shoots to the US, Milan, Paris etc. After Clive, it just evolved. Very slowly, it has to be said. Small jobs here and there. But gradually I began to develop a style of my own. Eventually my name started being suggested for VOGUE shoots in my own right. David Bailey and Terry Jones the then art director, to name but two. I had my first cover when I was 24.
The photographers shooting in the studios on the sixth floor of VOGUE House were the best. Bailey, Parkinson, even Irving Penn for one magical week when everyone wanted to meet him and tried to sneak looks into his studio to see what he was doing and how he was lighting.
Grace and I had by now moved in together and she had become my muse. She was the perfect model. Not for publication but ideas I wanted to shoot. She styled, we shot. Usually set up in our kitchen!
Q: Two of your Limited Edition prints feature carefully constructed fashion photography (Parasol & Grace). How did you create and capture the essence of 1970s glamour?
A: The 70s were just glamorous in the arts – it was all around us in the films and the music. Parasol was on a fashion shoot in Thailand 1977 with the late Anna Harvey (Later Deputy Editor at VOGUE). It was later chosen for the ‘The Summer Exhibition’ at The Royal Academy in 2011.
Grace in a Window by the Sea was one of the images I wanted to do mentioned above. In our kitchen! There was photography by Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton for French VOGUE. Images tended to be stylised then. Grace was so inspirational and brought the glamour.
Q: In the early 80s you moved away from photography and started writing and directing adverts and music videos. What inspired you to re-enter the realm of motion pictures?
A: After a point I felt I had done fashion – I’d just had enough. I wasn’t working full time or for VOGUE anymore but I had a client called Medway shoes. I was able to create very sexy shoots with their shoes. I wrote and made a commercial for them, which was shown in cinemas. My first calling card!
At the time, I had also shot the album cover for the latest Pink Floyd album ‘The Final Cut’ – Roger Waters was my brother-in-law and we had spent many hours discussing the new album – and from that he asked me to shoot the video as a series of four linked tracks.
Q: One of your Limited Edition prints features The Rolling Stones rehearsing in 1969. Why did you decide to create this as a contact print?
This was created specifically for an exhibition at the Little Black Gallery in 2011. The original images I shot were for an article in Melody Maker, however due to the fact I wasn’t totally welcome, I wasn’t allowed to use flash and there was very poor lighting at the studio. I don’t know if there are any other shots of the Stones rehearsing so they are really unique..
This sheet from the session appears in Taschen’s definitive book, The Rolling Stones. All works included in the book were endorsed by The Rolling Stones.
Q: You also have a print of David Bowie in the 1982 film ‘The Hunger’. Can you tell us more about the creative process behind this iconic shot?
A: These were for a magazine editorial, and I was given a day with the three of them on a cleared set – Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.
I had met the producers beforehand, read the script, saw some of the rushes and seen what Tony Scott the Director was looking for, so I had a feel for the direction. I was given a totally free hand to shoot as I saw fit.
Q: Would you ever go back to photography full time?
A: No never! It’s changed so much. I have dipped my toe back in for a few fashion shoots recently – I was happy with the results (so were they!) but the experience was overall less collaborative than it was back in the day.
Grace and I found it easy to work together creatively. It doesn’t really work like that now. Everyone else on the shoot seems to think they are taking the picture. They’re not!
Q: Who was the last inspiring photographer to catch your attention?
A: The Don McCullin retrospective at Tate Britain in 2019. Just seeing his whole body of work was quite extraordinary. He never used long lenses, he was always involved, right in the action, and technically brilliant. He was telling us about the state of the world… an amazing man.
Willie Christie’s new book ‘Then & Now’ will be published in October 2023 by ACC Art Books & Images Publishing.
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