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