"The Douglas Brothers are two of the most desirable photographers of their generation."
They photographed the stars; they sound like stars; they are fast becoming celebrities in their own right. But there is much more to the photographic art of the Douglas Brothers than glamour, says Howard Rombough.
The Douglas Brother sounds like an American rock band, a cross between the Doobie Brothers and the Neville Brothers. Also sounds like a circus act, as in the flying Douglas brothers. Only the tone isn’t foreign enough – it’s not quite on the same level as The Amazing Marconi Brothers.
The Douglas siblings are indeed performers of a kind. Andrew, 37, and Stuart, 28, are two of the most desirable photographers of their generation, becoming popular for their intimate, grainy portraits of top rank authors, actors and musicians. In the three years since teaming up, they have photographed everyone from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Roland Gift and Salman Rushdie to Daniel Day Lewis.
Ironically, they are about to propel themselves into the shaky realm of cult celebrities when the pair appear in the latest series of Gap press ads in American glossy magazines this month. The trendy piece for the casual wear clothiers was shot in New York late last year by the doyenne of American portrait photography, Annie Liebowitz.
Surrounded by the Gap client, caterers, make-up people, stylists and assistants in Liebowitz’s Tribeca studio, Andrew says “standing in front of Annie and her team is kinda impressive and intimidating at the same time. And they applaud you when you finish. It all confirmed that we like to work in a very light way. We don’t want distractions and we like using natural light when it’s possible.”
The Douglas Brothers stress the point that they are multi-disciplinary, equally at home with manipulated imagery as much as their subtly toned black and white work. Though they had been working consistently here for three years, most notably on design and corporate work, it was America, last year, which picked up on the murky and strangely private portrait work. “Our first selling trip to America was very fruitful,” Andrew says. “And now with more and more trips and after looking at American magazines, I understand why. American photography is terribly technology-heavy.”
“So I think what happened was suddenly we’re there with our carrier bag, using daylight, with our blurry indeterminately spaced portraits which hint at a kind of intimacy, real or illusory. There wasn’t that a year ago; you’re beginning to see more of it now. It had been there already, it just took some heavy-weight in the magazine industry to show the way.”
That heavy-weight was the curiously named Temple Smith, the picture editor of Esquire. Smith took one look at the Douglas Brothers’ portfolio and immediately started scrambling across the desks of the magazine’s New York offices trying to find a suitable assignment. Within weeks the London team was handed a six-month Esquire commission called “Man Power”. The first four shots were somehow appropriately impressive: designer Giorgio Armani, cinematographer Vitorio Storaro, art director Dean Tavoularis and trumpeter Mark Isham. The “Man Power” pieces catapulted the Douglases into the major league of American portraitists. They’ve just come back from the States having shot writer Hanif Kureishi and singer Najma Akhtar for Interview, Adam Ant for Detour, four rap artists for Egg, De La Soul for Village Voice as well as subjects for British publications: actor Liam Neeson in LA for The Correspondent magazine and musician Michael Penn for The Face.
They are now at the point where they can, and do, get away with insisting on first edit of their work. It hasn’t always been this way. Here in Britain, art director Peter Dyer, then at Secker and Warburg, was one of the first people to commission them. “Andrew gets something from the authors’ personality,” Dyer says, explaining why he gave the pair a break when others wouldn’t. “He doesn’t put them into places. The portraits are alive and forceful.”
The team is casual and extremely personable, yet charmingly coy about its past. Both grew up in Southend. Andrew studied fine art and did record covers for the Jam and the Pretenders, among others. His entry into the music industry was via his brother Graeme, a band-member of Eddie and the Hot Rods. After studying photography and working in the industry, Stuart joined his brother in late 1986, when the two called themselves, for a brief while, World Travel.
In fact it was Andrew who gave Stuart his first camera, an instamatic, when he was nine. Stuart’s first shot, he remembers, was of an egg poacher thrown off the roof of his house. “It looked a bit like a blurry flying saucer with a washing line.”
The pair share the photographing duties equally. Andrew tends to do more of the printing, and explains: “The printing technique grabs the grain and gives the illusion of sharpness, so you’re extending your own language. A blurred or moving shot ends up having a sharpness and an appearance of fluidity.”
They are now eager to pursue “project-orientated work”, solving briefs and coming up with ideas, and are disposed to the idea of advertising. Their pieces will be exhibited this year at the Kate Heller Gallery in London and the voguish Staley-Wise Gallery in New York.
Creative Review Text: Howard Rombough