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"Their work is a celebration of photography’s faux pas."
"The Douglas Brothers combine the 19th century pictorialist tradition with a progressive contemporary sensibility."
Why Did the National Portrait Gallery Buy These Celebrity Portraits That Were Nearly Destroyed?
The Douglas Brothers were given just 48 hours to rescue their archive.
Skye Arundhati Thomas, October 17, 2016
The National Portrait Gallery, London, has recently acquired a series of photographs by infamous 1980s photography duo, the Douglas Brothers. The portraits feature important cultural icons of the 90s, including names like Tilda Swinton, Salman Rushdie, Blur’s frontman Damon Albarn, Bob Geldof, Daniel Day-Lewis, Alan Bennett, and many more.
The portraits were rescued from a disused storage warehouse in King’s Cross, where they had sat for nearly two decades, now condemned for demolition. “The storage company took over a year to track us down. Even then it was nearly too late,” said the brothers in a statement.
After hearing the news, the brothers contacted their manager Tim Fennell, who was asked to drop everything and head to the demolition site to clear out the locker.
“I had 48 hours before the building was bulldozed. I retrieved 30 crates of negatives and prints that hadn’t seen the light of day for nearly two decades. It was a remarkable body of work, just siting there, forgotten,” said Fennell.
Real-life siblings Stuart and Andrew Douglas, who started photographing in the 80s, spent over a decade working on these portraits, and were once described as the “most desirable photographers of their generation.” They were, in fact, the last photographers allowed to portrait Rushdie before he went into hiding following the death threats he received in response to the 1988 publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses.
The duo gave up their London studio in 1995, after a successful show at the Photographer’s Gallery, and started working separately, moving to commercial jobs, and relocating to LA.
“Making use of older, historic processes, [the Douglas Brothers’] pictures are still as fresh and exciting as the day they were made, and make a wonderful addition to the national collection of photographic portraits,” said Dr. Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs Collection at the National Portrait Gallery about the acquisition.
The series has been added to the Gallery’s Primary Collection, and will go on display next year.
"The Douglas Brothers created a style so memorable and touching that they progressed from being jobbing editorial photographers to their present status as guest-star photographic artists."
"The Douglas Brothers are two of the most desirable photographers of their generation."
Rediscovering the Douglas Brothers
DEC 14, 2016
Tim Fennell on the siblings whose decade-long photographic collaboration resulted
in an influential archive that almost ended up in a skip
Between 1986 and 1996, British photographic duo the Douglas Brothers straddled the art/commerce divide, producing a prolific body of work that unsettled conventional expectations on both sides of the Atlantic. But as the art world came calling, the siblings, Stuart and Andrew, disappeared and a decade of work came close to ending up as landfill.
I first worked with the brothers on an assignment in Cuba. A journalist at the time, I was used to working with photographers who would spend hours setting up a shot. The Douglas Brothers did the opposite: they travelled light and operated with an agility and ease that allowed them to capture a subject before self-consciousness set in. They were once given six minutes to take a portrait of sculptor Anish Kapoor. They were in and out in five. The fact there were two of them helped: one would use a large-format camera from the front, while the other floated around the sitter with a hand-held.
Andrew, a former assistant to Lord Snowdon and John Swannell, saw a future in deconstructing the photographic process. Younger brother Stuart was a school-of-punk graduate, keen to dismantle the prevailing gloss and perfection of image-making. The resulting fusion contradicted everything that was in vogue at the time. The brothers relaxed focus and courted movement, marginalised light and celebrated shadow. Darkness illuminated their subjects.
In the mid-1990s, as galleries in London, Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo started to exhibit their work, The Douglas Brothers disappeared from the photographic landscape altogether. They eventually settled in LA, but their stills archive got left behind in a warehouse in London's King's Cross. It was still there 20 years later. They never fully realised the value of what they'd created.
I gave up journalism to become an artist manager, developing careers in the fine-art world. Three years ago, I got a transatlantic call from the brothers - they needed someone to move their archive out of the warehouse, which had been condemned. I took a van, met a man on a building site and collected 20 crates of negatives and prints. Two days later, they would have been thrown in a skip.
I catalogued their work, which included photographs of many leading cultural figures: actors, authors, artists, musicians, directors, fashion designers, sports stars. Then I contacted Dr Phillip Prodger at the National Portrait Gallery, who fast-tracked 14 Douglas Brothers portraits in front of the gallery's trustees. They are now part of the national collection and will go on show in September 2017.
Yet portraits are only part of the Douglas Brothers' remarkable repertoire. They had the rare ability to switch between genres – abstract, collage, nudes, landscape, fashion reportage – and their work in those areas is equally extraordinary. An exhibition of those facets of their photography will go on show in Bermondsey in June, two months before the NPG exhibition.
The time spent hidden from view has done the Douglas Brothers and their photography a strange favour. Their imagery still holds up, two decades on, which is a testament to them and the distinctive furrow they chose to plough. And while their style has been much emulated over the years, their work has never been formally documented or celebrated. Next year, all that will finally change.
TIM FENNELL is an ex-journalist and long-time friend of the Douglas Brothers, and represents the duo in his role of director of art agency Bon Abattoir; bonabattoir.com