Burn Baby Burn

Leo Benedictus, “Brian Duffy: ‘Photography was dead by 1972′” The Guardian 12 January 2010

One morning in 1979, Brian Duffy, then one of the most famous photographers in the world, came into work. One of his assistants told him they had run out of toilet paper. His memory is hazy, he admits, but what happened next became an ­episode of snapper folklore.

“I realised,” he recalls in a documentary that airs on BBC4 ­tonight, “that I was making decisions about toilet ­paper. And I thought, ‘This has got to end.’ Either by me murdering my staff, killing myself, or setting fire to the whole fucking thing.” So he gathered every negative and transparency he had ever shot and burned them on a fire in his back garden. After that, he never took another picture.

Except, as it turns out, negatives do not easily catch fire. And when they do, they produce an acrid black smoke: this bonfire ended when an official from Camden council peered over the fence and insisted Duffy put it out. Duffy packed what remained away in shoeboxes in his attic and turned to painting and furniture-restoring. It was only in 2007, when his son Chris went through the boxes, that he reluctantly agreed that they were worth another look. This led to a show in London last year – the first, anywhere, of his career.

To devotees of photography, these surviving pictures were like a salvaged stack from the library at Alexandria.

…So when did it cease to be interesting? Duffy offers some clues in the BBC’s documentary. Talking with Bailey, he says he feels the US photographers ­Irving Penn and Richard Avedon “fucked photography for us”. What does he mean? “They got there,” he says, ­referring to their revolutionary work, which pushed at the boundaries of photography. “You’re a bit annoyed when someone does something and you go, ‘Shit! I was just about to do that!'”

The result, says Duffy, was that “photography was dead by 1972”. He takes a rare pause, then explains: ­”Everything had been resolved between 1839 and 1972. Every picture after 72, I have seen pre-72. Nothing new. But it took me some time to detect its death. The first person who twigged was Henri Cartier-Bresson. He just stopped – and started painting and drawing. God, he was useless.”…

…So Duffy experimented, until he felt the scope for experimentation had ran out. By the 1970s, he was doing most of his work in advertising — with people he didn’t like, on briefs that bored him. “The more I got into it, the more I ­realised I was hanging out with things I was diametrically opposed to. And they wanted me to keep a civil tongue up their rectum.”

So he burned everything….