July 6: Allure

Date #6Is fashion photography the camera art most closely scrutinised, and by the largest audience?

Let me admit to a blind spot in my love of photography; fashion.

Never ‘a dedicated follower of fashion’ itself, fashionably dressed people scare me witless (and I’m sure they’d be pleased to hear that).

Penn
Irving Penn (1960) Moments Preserved

Nevertheless, high fashion and high-end prêt-à-porter, the stuff you have to buy in a boutique, and which is seen on the catwalk, continues to elicit fascination. Even for those of us not in its market demographic, a boxed copy of Irving Penn‘s Moments Preserved (1960) will transport us, entranced, into his world of arch elegance and acute sophistication, in breathless admiration of fashion imagery that shares both textures and a double-page-spread with, say, a carefully insouciant stack of cards and casino chips cast into a drift of cigarette ash that, somehow, is visually magnetic. The nonpareil printing of that book conjures his original painstaking colour dye-transfers and platinum prints. Good fashion, and fashion photography, is not about achieving thoroughly unreasonable expectations, but excelling them!

So, when Australian fashion photographer Bronwyn Kidd (born 1969), asked me to write an introduction to her upcoming exhibition #STYLE at Frankston Art Centre, despite a lack of fashion savvy, could I refuse? First I once was her art teacher, and second, because she is persuasively remarkable, a very successful and yet modest person. I said yes.

Her exhibition is drawn from vintage transparencies and negatives, some vintage prints, digital prints from scans, and copious information from an archive such as is rarely kept by commercial photographers. Her pre-digital-era books of Polaroid test shots, which earlier just had the date of the shoot, were soon to include the name of the model, art director, film stock and got complex, and are now invaluable records. Some hours of interviews and copious texts and emails provide a commentary, quotations of which are excerpted in the wall notes. Thus Bronwyn shares with her audience a triumphal period in a career that for most remains a dream; to make it big in a world centre of haute couture, photographing the height of fashion in London. The show spans more than two vital decades across the turn of the century and their radically changing styles.

Those who look at fashion pictures would number millions more than would attend photography exhibitions. Entranced, they see in the clothing embodiments of desire as powerful as that exerted by politics, power and wealth, which enfold those very cravings. Does their eye unconsciously absorb the photographic aesthetics that provoke such reactions? Do they understand what the photographer is doing to them, and how?

In #STYLE Kidd generously reveals the machinations of that allure, and provides insights into how it is created in a meeting of arts; of sculpture, in the garment that transfigures the human form; of theatre, as performed by the model, by the set dressers and the lighting crew; and of the photographer who is the symphonic conductor of all.

Great Expectations

The high art and finesse of the fashion strives to satisfy fastidious and often unreasonable expectations—in design by Hardy Amies, Jane Hill, Julien MacDonald, Neil Cunningham, or that by Bella Freud, Jimmy Choo, and Bruce Oldfield, who appear in Bronwyn’s frank, face-to-face portraits. Bronwyn more than fulfils such vaunting expectations in her photographs; such is the stature of her achievement.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1997) Jimmy Choo
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Bronwyn Kidd (1997) Bruce Oldfield, Sainsburys’ Magazine UK
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Bronwyn Kidd (1997) Bella Freud

For her a formative experience was seeing Elle Macpherson at David Jones in Bronwyn’s home city, Melbourne;

“She was not beautiful, but an amazon, an amazing looking woman in a way I had never seen …such things started to become of interest to me.”

In a school essay she wrote of emulating her fashion campaign heroes; “one day these pictures will be taken by me…” she vowed. As her secondary teacher I had the privilege to witness the stirring of that ambition. At Ivanhoe Girls Grammar the students were treated with admiration and encouragement, yes, but hers was a rare case of single-mindedness, not adolescent dilettantism. When she asked to learn colour printing the materials were readily provided and she largely taught herself the medium, so that, using her father’s Pentax, when she set out to photograph dressed-up siblings in the Victorian-era Labassa mansion, she assimilated the aura of location that she was to apply in 2003 when photographing lingerie for major department stores.

Style and Situation

Lingerie, shot on location, rather than against a studio backdrop, risks being misread as that awful species the ‘boudoir photograph’, but here elegance and sophistication mercifully prevail, by virtue of the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper installed in Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire, by its 1920s society decorator Nancy Lancaster, and of the aristocratic lineage of the model, who behaved in the space with an abandon that she would feel at home, which transmits to the garment. Its silhouette and subtle decoration are enhanced by Bronwyn’s painstaking orchestration of light and shadow from two favourite 50cm soft box units subtly balanced to the warmth of the table lamp.

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Bronwyn Kidd Model (2003) Kelmarsh Hall, England, for Day Four Magazine, London. C-Type Print, printed 2003, 40.4 x 30.4 cm

She arrived on location with the shoot pre-visualised;

Often the night before a shoot I’d sit in bed with a piece of paper and draw the set, just two side walls and back wall (and I still do this) – anywhere really you just have two sides and a back – and draw where I wanted the lights and think; “I’d want this one f11.5 and a little one coming in f11.7,” and the assistants worked from that. The Rollei was in 3rd stops which worked in well with the Broncolor which went to .1 of a stop, which made it easy to imagine – I could see the numbers and then we’d get it pretty right with me often doing the light readings standing at the model’s position because then I could feel it as well, and then we’d do a Polaroid and move things if needed. I need to draw it out so I can feel a sense of theatre.

Bronwyn Kidd_Model Stanway House England No.1_1997
Bronwyn Kidd (1997) Model, Stanway House, England for Sainsburys Magazine UK. Vintage C-Type Print, Hand printed by Dennis Watson, Tapestry, London and Hand retouched by David Wayman 1997. 27.8 x 35.3cm. Fashion stylist Sarah Newton, Hair and make up by Aaron Guest.

In another of England’s heritage estates, the Jacobean manor Stanway House in Gloucestershire, and six years earlier, Bronwyn’s model, also an Australian, adopts a casual, ‘man-spreading’ posture at the end of the a daybed done in a Chinese style. It’s an antique that harmonises with the generous and glossy green fabric of her dress and delicate botanical embroidery of the blouse. As Bronwyn notes, the laid-back pose was made fashionable by the grunge style which was then becoming commercially mainstream, but, being as adaptable to new circumstances as her compatriot model, her bias toward elegance prompts her to build a story here to account for the attitude; that of an enervated daughter of an aristocratic family contemplating Sunday morning amongst opulent, but very much lived-in, surrounds. Despite the nonchalance, the staging, with its dominant verticals balancing an oblique angle, and lighting, is impeccable, augmented by some invisible hand-retouching.

As her career advanced, Bronwyn’s encounters with location inspired spontaneous reactions, as in these shots from 1998-2008. Those shown here include one made after an all-night shoot around Venice, pre-dawn, in a location familiar to anyone, but just as the lights went out, much to the glee of watching Polizia!

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Bronwyn Kidd (1998) Rachel Boss in Saint Marcos Square, Venice. Sainsburys Magazine UK. Vintage C-Type Print, hand retouched 1998.

We’d come from Verona and arrived early-mid morning, had a rest then recce’d though the night because Venice is too crowded to shoot during the day. We started at 2am and went to a market first, then as the light started coming we worked our way back to St Marco’s Piazza – there were police watching us and the lights were lit and I remember taking a Polaroid and the lights went out – “Oh No” – the police laughed – but we had to go on. I remember setting down the tripod knowing that I wanted to show where we were; I kept the lights in shot because they still looked beautiful and were integral. It was probably the second-last shot of a long day’s night and we were disappointed – but the model Rachel Boss, whom I’ve photographed a lot, was so accomodating and everyone just wanted to be there and make beautiful pictures. All of us were disappointed when the lights went out. I went back to the lab where I had great printers; for them it was art, not just a job. I discussed it with Dennis who printed it;  “What colour are we going to pre-flash – are we going to keep it cool?” He would try things just like you try things in Photoshop now, but much slower and more limited”

To Bronwyn, a sense of place is so important that, unlike many fashion photographers, she is prepared to leave the 200mm in the case and to shoot wide. Guided to his hometown by their Italian bus driver during the same editorial trip she pictured this Spanish model dangling her bare feet from her perch in a barn near Verona, in a brash paesano pose that shows off her dirndl style dress. The arpeggio of the ladder ascends to the black depths of the loft which effectively provides a studio-style backdrop, its broken wall admitting a view of a steep beyond lends further pastoral notes to a scene which would be the envy of Irving Penn.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1998) Verona Italy No.8. Sainsburys Magazine UK. Copy of vintage print, pigment inkjet print, 2019. 60.8 x 60.8 cm

No particular location was in mind as Bronwyn, model Katie, art director James Grubb, hair and make-up artist Amber Sibley and assistants journeyed from Barcelona to Andorra on an editorial assignment for Sainsburys Magazine, but;

…when we saw Mauro Staccioli’s massive sculpture at the Ordino Arcalís ski resort, it made a story; the model was on an adventure somewhere. The rusted O was a sculptural form through which people would ski. I had to show the whole thing. Often when I see something and I close one eye, that’s like a standard lens and that’s how I see it, and that’s how I want to show it. I like things as a record, to which I add fantasy. Nobody said anything about the model being so small because you’re not conscious of that. There’s no polarising filter, no lights, no reflector, or tricky printing — just the beautiful light, the right film stock and luck. We didn’t have the luxury of going back again with too many shots to be taken, you just had to go with what light was there. I’d bring diffusers, an 81A correction filter and some little Norman flashes with gels on them – but I wasn’t a photographer with a load of filters in my kit, except a neutral density or polariser to open up and reduce d.o.f.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1999) Katie, Andorra, Spain, No.5, for Sainsburys Magazine UK. Scan from original negative, 40 x 40 cm pigment inkjet print made in 2019

The Passion of Perfection

Kidd’s technical expertise was gained from experience, in just the same manner in which she taught herself colour; the week after school finished in 1986, she spent in the Melbourne city studio of Rick Wallace;

I was so nervous. He was pedantic, making everything quite perfect, calm under the pressure of getting knitwear garments lit properly in the changing light out of doors — that’s really hard to do — he had me stand by the camera and change the shutter as I was metering.

She left RMIT before finishing her degree, having found the course concentrated too much on ‘perfecting the greyscale’ and not enough on details of the industry and how to get into it. Instead she accelerated through a series of internships and assistant gigs around Melbourne, gaining an intimate understanding of ‘who’s who’, how they had got there, and what she must do to realise her ambition.

On her way she encountered that breed which is not entirely rare in the visual arts; the perfectionist with a sense of fun. It’s a quality she graciously embodies herself; not for her the strident screeching at cringing assistants notoriously practiced by some of her Melbourne peers, but days, and often long nights, laughing with the crew in their united task of making magic. From several paid and unpaid Melbourne internships, including with Jacqui Henshaw, and with Andrew Vukosav in his office decked out in zebra print chairs, she discovered Parkinson and Barbieri, photographers she wasn’t seeing at RMIT, but who were somehow familiar. Andrew who had assisted Maurice Rinaldi and Athol Shmith loved the theatrics of photography; he’d get into the shot to show the model the pose he wanted, make a midnight dash for sand from St Kilda Beach for a shot, or return in his Peugot bristling with palm fronds for another;

The theatrics and passion was for me was the means to achieve it. That and fashion went together, that was what you photographed if you were like that. I loved being around the energy of it. It’s the theatre of making it work – I’m not like Andrew in his exuberance, but what he would put into making a picture…the whole thing was the story. It’s the fantasy for me that makes it, thirty years later, exciting.

Photographer as Director

She was ready, aged barely 23, as she launched herself into the fashion universe of London where she worked with fellow Australian Polly Borland and fashion photographer Clive Arrowsmith, and soon secured a very prestigious client, the fashion house Hardy Amies. That moment on the threshold is echoed in the earliest picture here; in 1993, model Paula Hamilton, a favourite of HA and known from the ‘Changes’ Volkswagen commercial in which she was directed by David Bailey, stood before her like the winged Nike of Samothrace.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1993) Paula Hamilton modelling Hardy Amies at 14 Saville Row London. Pigment Inkjet Print, Scan of the Transparency 2019, 45 x 43.8 cm

“I was just 24, and photographing such beautifully designed and crafted garments and having a model like Paula in front of the lens set the bar for me. There are aristocratic models like Daphne Guiness but I never got to work with them; a model like Paula, who has come from a very different background, it’s amazing the poise and elegance she carries off”

Bronwyn’s prints in the show themselves are objects of desire; the original transparency from that 1993 shoot has been scanned and matched to the original by Visual Thing retouchers for this exquisite pigment inkjet print by Thirds Fine Art Printing. Also from that year is this arresting pose by Merci Matthews and Matthew Chambers, shot on location at Hardy Amies.

I asked Bronwyn: “This being the first time you shot for HA, were you nervous?

I had the day before to very carefully and respectfully ‘bump in’. On the first floor the beautiful decorative plaster walls, petite lighting sconces and mirrors of yesteryear to be covered with theatre blacks and Colorama to create the set. I had worked on a lot of catalogue shoots in Melbourne as an assistant and I had to break out of the conventional to give something different.

The models were seasoned, they knew what to do and on set were Ian Garlant and Jon Moore – head designers at HA who designed the garments and knew all of their features, I had the budget to get the lights that I needed and to build the set, I had a beautiful new camera too, and a mature and diligent assistant (which was a good move). It all felt right; I think we looked the part. I appear calm on set, though inside, when the model appears in front of the camera, my excitement kicks in and I let that override the nerves.

Brides Magazine
Bronwyn Kidd (1994) Shot on location in the staircase at Hardy Amies show room Saville Row, London. Stylist, A J Knight

A Brides shoot done the next year also at Hardy Amies show room of models perched in the unusual indoor balcony in the stairwell (above) gives an idea of the transformation undertaken.

That this image of models Merci Matthews and Matthew Chambers evokes the soaring violins of a cinema romance is no surprise when one knows that the shoot is crewed like a film set, with Bronwyn directing lights that curve across masculine shoulders, sparkle like fireworks from the fabric, and sharply shadow Merci’s ecstatically proffered neck and lips across an enraptured male brow.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1993) Merci Matthews and Matthew Chambers. Shot on location at Hardy Amies, 14 Saville Row London.

Homage to Style

The result manifests the cinematic that is inspiration to Bronwyn’s work, but in addition is her worship of a whole history of fashion photography. Her previous group exhibition was titled Homage to Style, and one image here is titled Homage to John French, taking cues from the great mid-century photographer who adopted a new approach to lighting and composition, eschewing the spotlit contrasts of the Hollywood style for flat, reflected light that would reproduce fashion imagery well on newsprint and its coarse dot-screens which coped poorly with dense blacks and sharp gradients. Bronwyn restricts the tonal range to pearlescent off-whites, while the small areas of black, the veil and hounds-tooth pattern on the clutch,  serve as reminders of that dot screen and provide graphic focus.

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Bronwyn Kid (November 1995) Wedding and Home Magazine. John French story shot at Holborn Studios London. Fashion Editor Sue Allman, Hair and Make Up Amber Sibley

When I was asked to make this editorial I was not aware of John French. My heart was with Beaton, Parkinson, Avedon and Horst. So I researched, camping at RD Franks and Zwemmers to search for anything on him that I could find, I even made pilgrimage to where John French’s studio once was – anything that might guide me in meeting the tall order of ‘making homage.’

Sue Allman the Fashion Editor on this was very knowledgeable of John French and we had books on set and photocopies of images to reference, but there does come a point in the shoot when you have to put some of yourself in too, so having studied  enough, we had a good starting point — then it was time to just let things happen.

To make this ‘Unique Edition’ print, it was a fantastic feeling to carry a folder of negatives into the lab, my heart beating fast with the hope that I’d chosen the right frame. Chemicals, paper and time are not to be wasted. After several test strips we made the colossal print and noticed a mark on the jacket, and I was back to searching for a hand retoucher, a bygone skill. I found someone. It took some time, and that felt appropriate, it felt right.

Working for Brides magazine at Conde Nast when she was still quite young, Bronwyn would find herself being asked; “…these are the models were thinking of – which would you like to work with?” She felt put on the spot;

I didn’t realise then that my opinion counted so much, and I was afraid of making a mistake, but slowly the realisation came that it was down to me to say “I think we should do this dress in that location…” I’d go on instinct and passion in selecting the dress. And then it would be; “Which do you want to shoot first?” It would come down to “Which can I really see?” I’d start with that one.

In the beginning I’d no idea that I had that power because it was just not apparent here in Australia, and probably that was why I left for overseas, feeling photographers here were undervalued for their contribution. Beaton and Parkinson in the UK, they’d set all that up with their personalities and celebrity. Being nobody, it took a lot of confidence and acting the part to convince myself that I had it. But they didn’t know that! They’d think; well you’ve shot for HA and come all the way from Australia. I’d want to ask “Do you think it’s good?” But there’s no time for that, you just have to go on believing in yourself. That was challenging.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1995) Beauty Brushwork No.2. Scanned from the original transparency, pigment inkjet print, 2019.

And yet, her apparent references to specific images or photographers of the past like Parkinson are mostly subconscious;

Apart from the John French shoot, I can’t really say that I have consciously made homage, it just came naturally to make the pictures in this way. The colour palate of Beauty Brushwork was discussed with the Art Director Martin Welch who is very 50s and 60s inspired as a designer and illustrator, and Mary Eddie the Fashion Editor was a lover of that period too, and was an editor back then, and was always talking of shift dresses and moped riding through Italy with her boyfriend in the early 60s.

I had always loved the colour of Hitchcock films – I probably take my inspiration from film as much as photography, though I love Blumenfeld and Parkinson. On set we were all aligned so that when the picture started to build we would just say “Yes, yes!” I guess we were all quite nostalgic, it was a lot of fun. I wanted the lighting  unobtrusive and soft. I was then close to moving from transparency to negative with images being printed with pale skin tones and pre-flashing of the paper to flush out imperfections. This shoot was on transparency, the magazine probably requested that at the time for speed and cost effectiveness.

Another of Bronwyn’s ideas might remind us of Cecil Beaton’s iconoclastic tearing and painting of the backdrop of the 1930s, though Cecil himself was ‘borrowing’ a few ideas…

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Cecil Beaton (1934) Elsa Maxwell, Social Dictator. silver gelatine photograph, 24.6×19.3cm, Sotheby’s, London. Appeared in Vanity Fair May 1934, p. 24.

It was while waiting for the No.19 bus that weaves through Chelsea, Belgravia, Sloane Square, Soho and Noho Studios in Tottenham Court Road, that Bronwyn had a similar idea, rang Hardy Amies fashion designer Ian Garlant…and he loved it.

I was offered the opportunity to exhibit images on the gallery window of my lab in Soho and  came up with the ’Step by Step’ idea in response. The lab was near Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and lots of restaurants, cafes, production houses, ad agencies, so the passing foot traffic was huge!

In 2019 I resurrected the series. Stored away since the original exhibition, two prints had fixing stains. I had to re print and it was wonderful to go back into the darkroom with these negs as when they illuminated the enlarger baseboard I got this fantastic rush of awe, and I realised that when I originally printed this series, it had been the the first time I had printed 20×24” and I was so excited!

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Cecil Beaton (1936) Mrs.Harrison Williams wearing Belperon jewelry. ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys.

In another apparent tribute to her inventive hero Cecil Beaton, Bronwyn shot Khefri and dancers at Holborn Studios at Eagle Wharf Road, London, a pleasant 15 minute walk from the No.19 bus stop at Angel station and along the City Road Basin canal.

I look back, and of course Beaton did it, and I would have seen his picture, but it didn’t register as “I’m going to do that because he did it.” Terence Donovan took a picture of Parkinson and also ripped the background; I was not aware of that. I had the idea because we were using the Colorama backgrounds so often – and it was either battleship grey or banana, so you’d say “Go get the 12 foot banana,” (we were laughing all the time). I suppose it was reactionary, because you’d be changing the backgrounds five times a day, cutting off the end because the model is always ruining it, then using a scrap for her to to stand on before the actual shot. Backgrounds took up a tiresome amount of time and I just had this idea of the model just bursting through it…I tore it myself a bit at a time and then I grabbed some of the torn bits and gaffered them from the back so it looked like a huge rip. More recently I’d get the team to do it, but I’m starting to rethink doing all of these things myself, which is really good; it’s a part of the process.

Her purpose here is to work with the striking blown-up harlequin diamonds, and the graphic contrast of the satin gown;

“Clothes we had on that shoot were by great designers – Ferragamo, Balenciaga – and it came to be about the silhouette. It was a change from what I was doing. I, among other photographers, was going back to an Avedon style of lighting and simplicity (he visited London to launch his book Evidence, which I had him sign for me). It was about the action, and lighting that space simply, with big lights”

Model Khefri Riley (now a yoga teacher) rises to the task with a defiant expression and high-strung pose as she brushes away the stiletto heels offered by the black-clad dancers as another appears to rip away the backdrop to reveal a corresponding diamond. Melbourne photographer Greg Bartley, who helped Bronwyn out early on when she arrived in London, provided the contact with the dancers.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1995) Khefri and dancers, Holborn Studios, London No.3 for London Magazine. Model Khefri Riley, Art Director Cathy Challinor, Styling Sarah Newton, Hair & Make up Amber Sibley. 2019 Selenium Toned Gelatin Silver, hand-printed by Asko, CPL Digital. 40.64 x 50.8 cm
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Bronwyn Kidd (1995) Fashion editorial, London Magazine, proof.

London and Beyond

When she first arrived in the city in 1992 she stumbled across Pudding Lane, lined with wartime posters. “Being so naive I thought ‘Wow – they’re still here!’, but it was for a film; you get pulled in by the whole romance of it.” London, its atmosphere and its celebration of photographers, its photography galleries, artisan photo labs, equipment suppliers, studios and specialists, were Bronwyn’s milieu. A sign of her success was her purchase of a house in the East End near Columbia Road Flower Market, where so many films are shot; it is nearly as it was 100 yrs ago. “That’s what I loved about it – and that helped with the creative process – it’s just THERE, everywhere – the inspiration.”

Roupell Street, a nineteenth century time-capsule of row houses, has been the location for episodes of Mr Selfridge, Call the Midwife, Silent Witness and Doctor Who; and more recently the Kray Twins’ biopic Legend. On her way to IPC magazines near Waterloo, Bronwyn detoured that way purposely, wanting to do something there, and had the idea of having a girl knitting her own dress as she’s walking. At the time that Matthew Williamson was making dresses knitted with broomsticks and this was one of his early creations. “The child at the window just appeared,” remembers Bronwyn. The experimental series, done for her folio, pans cinematically from the model’s legs to full body and then to her face, was exhibited in the window of Tapestry lab in Soho at A0 size. “I had a vision and I made it happen — I’d think; ‘if I can see it, I can do it!’ So many outlandish ideas.” Though eccentric, the idea in her hands produces a stylish result.

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Bronwyn Kidd (May 20, 1997) Model, Roupell Street.

She applies the ‘street photograph’ genre to other images here too, including during a shoot in Paris in which another witness, a woman in red, who appears to look askance at this apparition is actually the owner of the dog.

The Champs-Élysées is not an easy place to shoot, dodging traffic, and you don’t dare set down a tripod, but the French are used to photographers working in the street so are quite considerate. We just kept crossing the road back and forth, but as the image was to be a double page magazine ad, we wanted to walk her left to right. Pre-Photoshop, if we were to flip the transparency, any signs or number plates would be reversed.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1995) Model, Champs Elysees, from a series shot in Paris for Gown designer Jane Hill, Melbourne. Pigment Inkjet Print from scan of the original transparency 2019, 50 x 50 cm

Finesse

This series, from a roll saved from the Paris shoot for Australian gown designer Jane Hill, was not given to the client because of the overcast conditions, and provides an idea of the rate of shooting required in the very short amount of time authorities would permit photographers on the Eiffel Tower. The presence of this proof sheet in the show, apart from the series’ classic elegance, demonstrates a reason for the scarcity of such material from photographers during the era of colour transparency, since the film that went through the camera was given to the client. It is a tribute to Bronwyn’s preservation and organisation of an archive which is rare and valuable in containing such material.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1995) Model, 2nd Etage, Eiffel Tower, Paris, for Jane Hill, Melbourne. Pigment Inkjet Print from scan of the original transparency 2019, 55 x 55 cm

Bronwyn’s switch to colour negative around 1995 meant that she kept her raw material and had more control over the hue and tone through pre-treating the paper with a filtered flash after which it was developed, before sending a print to a client, which accounts for the overall coolness of Melissa, London that emphasises the icy quality of the necklace and creaminess of the skin.

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Bronwyn Kidd (1995) Melissa, London No.2, Saturday Times UK. Vintage C-Type Print.

Collaboration

Her father became mortally ill and Bronwyn returned to Australia in 2004, during the rise of digital imaging and where she took on advertising work and produced portraits of prominent Australians; business and legal people, scientists, personalities from the arts and from fashion.

She teamed up with Creative Director Virginia Dowzer and together they worked to enhance the briefs that came in. They dreamt up the series Strip Jack as an experiment in how far digital retouching could be pushed.

We talked to Visual Thing and asked how might dress someone but still have all the layers and the naked body underneath showing. In 2009 that was even for them quite a task and had to be worked out layer by layer. I think back  now to about 1998 to a job I had done for some windows at Selfridges in London, and it occurs to me that it is similar to an idea of the window designer Paul, not mine. The model was lying on perspex on scaffolding above the camera, so that she looked like she was up against the window of the shop. She would get into position, then we’d mark her position on the ground glass in the back of the camera, get her dressed in a skirt, put her back in position, then with a top on etc. Executing it was tricky, and probably dangerous (the whole thing might have collapsed and crushed me) and I was on my back for three days. I still have all the film. As presented she was printed to massive size on acetate and the garments hung in layers so that when you are in front, she’s fully dressed, but when you move past in the double decker bus you see her undress…you see all the layers and it showcases all the clothing.

Strip Jack is a love story and two meet in the middle, naked but for shoes, and also had to be shot in layers, the naked shot first, with subsequent images carefully positioned to match it.

The models (and I) were nervous about doing nude shots. We wanted them to look immaculate. I used a technique from hosiery shots I did in London, pre-digital, and to avoid expensive retouching we would make up the legs to be perfect, even to the illusion of sparkle or shine, and then the hosiery would go on and we’d shoot with a ring flash. The denier of the hosiery would pop out and the skin looked perfect behind. You could keep the density but it didn’t look retouched; if you retouch hosiery you lose the texture. A lot of the things I learnt early on were just there, so I approached these bodies as a sculpture. The wallpaper was vintage, handpainted by one of the last Australian companies to do that. We spent Australia Day weekend wallpapering and we shot over 3 days. Sun Studio said “Here’s the key,” because I was in there all the time for Suzanne and Jeans West.

In the resultant series the models have a figurine quality not unlike those cardboard dolls on which costumes are hung with fold-down tabs, an effect emphasised by the boxy space of the glossy continuous wallpaper of the set. They and their simple love story invite that sense of fun that dressing up, and more serious fashion, can invoke. The series also deconstructs the role of costume in courtship; underneath, we are all naked. Strip Jack  and its message marks a new move for Bronwyn and Virginia in the direction of fine art, and was exhibited in the historic fashion district of Flinders Lane in Melbourne.

Composure

From Australia, international commissions, or commissions that required shooting overseas, continued. It was expected Bronwyn would include the iconic form of the Empire State Building, but needing a new angle, she found this rooftop. Its harsh geometry of steel, concrete, peeling paint and tar boosts the beauty of the garment and model whose wing-like lock of hair catching the breeze makes her all the more angelic. Photographic technology is constantly evolving and here the contrast is made more dramatic through the use of flash units with parabolic reflectors that focus light exactly where it is needed.

2009_Jessica Hart_Melbourne Spring Fashion Week_NY
Bronwyn Kidd in collaboration with Virginia Dowzer (2009) Australian Model Jessica Hart, photographed in New York for City of Melbourne Fashion Week. Jessica Hart was the ambassador for 2009 MFW. Stylist Virginia Dowzer, Hair Kevin Murphy, Make Up Karen Mason
CITY OF MELBOURNE, Advertising Campaign, DANNI MINOGUE, Australi
Bronwyn Kidd in collaboration with Virginia Dowzer (2011) Commission for City of Melbourne for Melbourne Fashion Week. Pigment Inkjet Print, from Digital File 2019. 90 x 70 cm. Styling Virginia Dowzer, Hair and Make up Bernadette Fiscers. Digital Image, Retouching by Visual Thing retouchers, Pigment Inkjet print 2019 by Thirds Fine Art Printing

The aforementioned ‘unreasonable expectations’ of the fashion and advertising industry ramped up with the new possibilities presented by digital imaging. Bronwyn and Virginia’s collaboration brought challenges like publicity for the Spring Racing Carnival and for the City of Melbourne. For the latter, they had the spectacular, crazy idea of assembling in front of the 1880 World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building a circus troupe of celebrating performers and stylishly costumed singer Danii Minogue, in full voice, being lofted into the sky in a hot air balloon. The City was reluctant, but with determined organisation, the partners pulled off a result both timeless and iconic.

The saturated colour is made to work on this overcast day through some digital editing which was used also to colour the originally white hot air balloon , and through Bronwyn’s management of Broncolor Para lights, the size, position and power of which can be gauged from their reflection in the toy balloons. It’s one shot, the only montage element being the repetition of the female clown in puffed sleeves. The strong fill and contour lighting ‘pops’ the sweeping tableau against the neutrals of the venerable building and a typically grey Melbourne morning. While the scene is a riot, it met Bronwyn’s strict brief for Homage to Style with, historic references, bold volumes of dome and balloon and Minogue’s wardrobe as a focus.

Pushing digital imaging to its 2015 limits enabled another joint production, the narrative of a young man and his horse, here accompanying him and his wistful girlfriend, the model Jebediah, to the drive-in. Except that they aren’t there, but down at Merricks beach.

This editorial for London Magazine came through my London agent. We said ‘let’s do something amazing’, but then you think ‘who’s going to pay?’ so you pull a lot of favours. We had only two days.  We did a shot at Merricks beach early in the morning. Though we also wanted a drive-in cinema, shooting there at night isn’t practical. We shot the talent on the beach with no background, I just lit them. Then Virginia and I went to the drive-in and, with permission, did the shot at dusk then stripped it in. But she’s on the horse, he’s on the horse and the horse is looking at the camera. You get as many of the elements as you can, and everything you can, so that there are no stock library images, even for the hot air balloons that appear in another shot of the series; we went up in one and shot others in the distance. We orchestrated very element.

Bronwyn Kidd_Jebediah_Sam and BB_No.3_2015
Bronwyn Kidd (2015) Have Horse Will Travel editorial series. Pigment Inkjet Print, from Digital File 2019 100 x 71.9 cm, by Thirds Fine Art Printing. Styling Virginia Dowzer, Hair and Make up Julia Green, Production Grzan Squared. Digital Image Retouching by Visual Thing retouchers, Collaboration with Virginia Dowzer.

“I’ve had three assistants who were just like they were attached to you, all girls…” says Bronwyn who herself began her career as an assistant and is now glad to see her own right-hand women move on to careers as photographers;

“…Nicky Emmerson who went on to shoot fashion for Paul Smith and in 2001 took over Marks & Spencers from me; Corrie Bond in Sydney and who is English and assisted me in London, and has done really well with a style quite like Arthur Elgort’s but a bit more lit, reminiscent of the 50s but in a Sandra Dee way, a bit more cute; Stephanie Bradford, another assistant, is now doing museum work. Good assistants look out for you, stop you getting sunburnt, make sure you eat, and sort things out when they blow up.”

Bronwyn’s attitude to ‘her team’ is affectionate and respectful. In the fashion industry they number nearly that of a film crew, and include the assistants and set builders, models, hair and makeup stylists, art directors, retouchers, printers and so on.

Her warmth, humanity and sense of delight makes #STYLE more than an exhibition; it is an act of generosity from one major Australian photographer who shares with us the secret to the allure of these glorious photographs.

2 thoughts on “July 6: Allure

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Bronwyn when she was in Bendigo for her exhibition at the visitor information Centre. I agree with you James she is down to earth and not pretentious but highly skilled, I wish I had have spent more time with her.
    Really enjoyed your essay on her exhibition in Frankston, very informative and well researched.

    Liked by 2 people

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