In 1995, photographer Gavin Evans was commissioned by Time Out magazine in London to shoot David Bowie, during the recording of ‘Outside’. The results were a series of distinctive portraits that became widely used and well-known, and are currently on display in Harpa’s new fourth-floor gallery.
“David was working with Brian Eno at the time,” recalls Gavin. “He was feeling very productive and positive. I got him at a great time.”
During their one-hour session, they tried a range of different poses, expressions and lighting, sometimes with suggestions or pointers from Gavin, or with improvisation from his subject. In some shots, David shushes the viewer, or calls to them, his hands cupped around his mouth.
“There was play involved, and seriousness,” says Gavin, flicking through the sequence of images on his laptop. “At one point, I genuinely couldn’t hear him, so that was when he shouted. Then, he switched to the ‘shh!’ pose. People really liked those images because he was engaging the viewer so directly, I think.”
But the show’s central image is something darker—a close-up shot in which Bowie gazes at the viewer with a vulnerable, almost existential expression. It’s a particularly humane portrait of the singer that’s very much at odds with the stylized characters for which he became famous.
“When I looked back at these ones,” says Gavin, “I thought: ‘I’ve never seen him like this before.’ I don’t mean photographically, but in himself. I think he was very much allowing himself just to be. He wasn’t playing the public persona—he was being less controlled, in that way.”
Two years later, Gavin got an email from Bowie’s management about the image. “At first I thought ‘Oh shit, are they going to ask me to stop using it?’” he recalls. “But as I read further down, it said that this was David’s favourite image of himself. He wanted to hang it in his Manhattan office, behind his desk. I thought, ‘Hang on, he’s connecting with this image?’ Some of the other shots from the session, like the shouting and ‘shh!’ images, are perfectly good shots, and I can see why people like them… but the one he chose had qualities that made it very personal for me. The fact that he felt it so personally as well, and acknowledged that it showed him—it’s a huge compliment, I suppose.”
Despite the naturalistic look of the shoot, Bowie still had some creative input. “When we first met,” says Gavin, “he was wearing loafers and chinos—I was quite surprised how casually dressed he was. But then he brought out these blue contact lenses, and I thought: ‘Ah, here’s the twist.’ When people see the photographs now, they often ask why we did the shoot with the blue contacts, because his eyes were such a distinctive part of his look. That was all him—he was still playing with his image.”
Getting behind his subjects’ projected image is a part of Gavin’s approach. “My work is always about trying to strip away the star quality around someone,” he says, “to reveal the person in a way the viewer can connect with. It’s always my personal remit. These people are, behind it all, just people. And I want to find a way in.”
1995 was also the year Gavin shot Björk. “That shoot was five minutes,” he smiles. “It was meant to be an hour. I remember at the time thinking there was something magical about this young woman. She came in, and I did six pictures, and then she said: ‘Byeee!’ And that was it. She was gone. But that was her.”
“I shot Iggy Pop and had 45 minutes with him,” he continues, “and afterwards, put something like 146 images on the table and thought: ‘Which one?’ There was such a range. He looked like a young boy in some, and he looked completely demonic in others. He looked like everything. I went to the client and said: ‘Let’s run the whole lot.’ Because: there’s no point in asking: ‘Which one is Iggy Pop?’ Because they were all Iggy Pop. There’s never a single, definitive image of anyone.”
‘Bowie: The Session’ runs at Harpa’s new fourth-floor gallery space until the end of August. Entry is 1500 ISK.