The cockney photographers

Forty years ago, Swinging London was yet to swing. Everything was in black and white and, in class-bound Britain, fashion photographers were trades-men – polite, smart, seen but not heard.

A new breed of snappers changed all that – Terry O’Neill, Brian Duffy, David Bailey and Terence Donovan.

Bailey and Donovan, two kids from the East End, became probably the most celebrated photographers of glamourous women the Sixties produced. But while both moved in the glitzy fashion world of New York, Milan and Paris, they constantly returned to and celebrated their East End pasts.

Both men started their careers in the West End studio of the doyen of fashion photographers – John French.
They were a blast of fresh air, sweeping away the genteel atmosphere of the Forties and Fifties. Brian Duffy remarked on the culture shock the three were to the business. “Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual!”

Stepney actor Terence Stamp

And they were working class. A decade before they would probably have had to conceal their roots – in the Sixties they could celebrate them. In between fashion shoots for Vogue, and portraits of the characters that made Sixties Britain a creative and artistic powerhouse – pictures in the show include Julie Christie, Francis Bacon, Peter Blake and that other East End boy, Terence Stamp – Donovan was continually returning to Stepney.

The idea of leaving the city he loved for a home in the country alarmed him. “What do I do with it?” he demanded. “I don’t want to take a picture of it, and I don’t want to walk in it.” So he would come back to Stepney each Sunday to see his aunts and uncles, and to revisit the sites of his youth. Taking his camera and travelling alone round the streets of his childhood – marking the bombsites, the docks, the cobbled streets and the characters of an East End that was soon to disappear as the developers moved in.

National service in Singapore

Bailey was doing the same. His early attempts to snap his East End surroundings, on a battered box Brownie, had been a failure. He’d got his first decent camera when he was on National Service in Singapore. And by the Sixties he was at the top of his trade, having broken free of the career path he dreaded. “If you came from the East End there were only three things you could become – a boxer, a car thief, or maybe a musician,” he joked later.

Donovan, too, was grateful he’d broken through the horizons of his childhood, continually surprised he wasn’t “down at Tate and Lyle’s loading sugar”. And in the Sixties, in between fashion shoots of his muse Jean Shrimpton, of Twiggy, of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Bailey too would often return to Tower Hamlets with his camera.

It became business as well as pleasure. His set of pictures for the Sunday Times in 1968, East End Faces, was a technicolor record of local life, pubs, clubs and kid boxers – among them a youthful “Johnny” (later to become John H) Stracey.

Reggie Kray’s wedding photos

Most famously of all, Bailey became a wedding photographer for the day, doing the honours at Reggie Kray’s wedding to Frances Shea in Bethnal Green.
The worldwide fashion shoots for the likes of Vogue go on to this day for Bailey. Donovan was still photographing the world’s most beautiful women in couture’s most expensive clothes until his death in 1996. The East End they continually recorded is, sadly, largely gone.

“It was a kind of innocence,” says Bailey. “But it’s all gone now. My regret is not taking more pictures at the time.”

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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