Brian Aris Reflects on a Lifetime of Photography

Thoughtful Interview with Brian Aris on Society, Shooting Indelible Moments, and Future Challenges

Brian Aris possesses a remarkable and unique perspective. Through his camera lenses, he has captured the diverse nuances of human experience with sensitivity and attention. Whether photographing royalty, celebrities, musicians, rights protesters, or individuals suffering from famine, he brought their stories to light with equal care and depth.

Jump to the interview with Brian Aris
Brian Aris’ official site, Instagram & prints

Brian, then 15 years old, was encouraged by his art teacher to pursue photography. His father also supported him after seeing his photo of firemen battling a horrific fire. Tragically, Brian later learned that the firemen were unable to save a baby trapped inside the building. His father, impressed by the power of his photograph, drove him to the Daily Mirror. There, the picture editor, after shaking his hand, suggested he start at a local newspaper and also recommended joining an agency on Fleet Street. Following this advice, he began his career at Central Press Photos as a runner.

Brian Aris interview
Brian Aris © Brian Aris

Eager to start his career and not wanting to wait seven years for a professional camera, Brian wrote to a local newspaper. They offered him a job and sent him on a training course. One of his early photographs, capturing a body on the pavement in Acton after a shooting, made the front page of the Evening Standard. This opportunity arose through his collaboration with John Rogers, the owner of the North London News Agency, who invested in establishing connections with police, firemen, and ambulance personnel via radio communication to facilitate the news.

Northern Ireland troubles
Northern Ireland troubles © Brian Aris

Brian Aris returned to freelancing for the Daily Mirror, where he covered the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Inspired by Ronnie Noble’s book, which he read at 14, he sought to document the biggest stories and issues. Covering these turbulent times remains the proudest period of his career. He believes that only by exposing and highlighting difficulties can we hope to resolve and address crises.

In an interview with Max Williams for Squaremile, Aris recounted a harrowing experience during a major riot. While driving about 500 yards with a Belgian news reporter, they were confronted by two armed men in balaclavas who tapped on their car windows. They immediately displayed their press cards, as these were respected at the time. In those days, journalists were encouraged to get out into the street and start recording. That day, three people were killed, including a young child standing at a window. Throughout the night, the tension and violence escalated. For Aris, the camera provided confidence and acted as a barrier between him and the chaos, allowing him to focus on capturing the events as they unfolded.

Northern Ireland troubles b
Northern Ireland troubles © Brian Aris

Brian Aris felt that he had captured an extraordinary set of photographs from one remarkable night. Later, he joined Camera Press for syndication work. They assigned him to accompany Princess Anne on a trip to Ethiopia and Sudan, where she was involved with Save the Children. Aris was interested in documenting the charity’s work, but his photos were unexpectedly chosen for the cover of Vogue. Reflecting on this, Brian Aris thought it was ridiculous, as he had no interest in fashion photography and didn’t want to be featured in Vogue.

Aris returned to Ethiopia, specifically to a particularly dire camp in Dessie. During his time there, an Oxfam worker running the camp, where about eight children died of malnutrition in one night, warned him that if he returned through Addis Ababa, his film would likely be confiscated. The worker mentioned that the Mirror Group was sending a plane to help. Despite the powerful images Aris captured, there was little interest in them when he returned to the UK. Only Len Hickman from The Sun published the photos. This coverage ultimately raised more money for Save the Children than the Telegraph could have ever achieved.

Brian Aris b
Brian Aris © Brian Aris

Brian Aris photographed the Band Aid initiative a decade after his first visit to Ethiopia. That Sunday morning marked a significant change in the music industry. Alongside Bob Geldof, he traveled the length of Africa to Mozambique to document the progress made with the funds raised by Band Aid. They observed significant advancements, including the planting of saplings, each representing a person who had died in the camp. A solitary hut was preserved as a memorial.

In 1975, Aris went to Vietnam at the end of the war to photograph orphanages and children in Saigon. He captured numerous images of the evacuation and managed to secure a seat on one of the last planes out to Paris. However, when he sent the films to an agency in New York, they were returned with a note of disinterest, citing that the wars were over. Although demoralized, Aris was not defeated. He found a rundown space in Old Street, East London, and bought some equipment. His background in reportage made it easy for him to transition to photographing people in the music industry.

Brian Aris in a helicopter over Vietnam
Brian Aris in a helicopter over Vietnam © Brian Aris

While he initially thought he would return to news photography, the music scene was booming, and he received numerous calls for work. Aris expanded his studio work to include pop and rock stars such as Blondie, The Jam, The Clash, The Boomtown Rats, Roxy Music, and The Police. Over the next two decades, he covered every aspect of the music scene, from punk rock and glam rock to straight rock ‘n’ roll with The Rolling Stones, and later, the rise of boy bands and the ‘girl power’ movement with The Spice Girls.

Bowie and Iman's wedding b
Bowie and Iman’s wedding © Brian Aris

Brian Aris was commissioned by Bob Geldof to photograph his wedding to Paula Yates. This led to him covering other high-profile weddings, including Sting’s marriage to Trudy Styler in Dorset, David Bowie’s wedding to Iman in a cathedral in Florence, Liza Minnelli’s nuptials with David Gest in New York, Joan Collins‘ wedding to Percy Gibson in London, and David Beckham’s wedding to Victoria in an Irish castle.

Brian Aris photographing Twiggy
Brian Aris photographing Twiggy © Brian Aris

When discussing his experiences with celebrities, Aris explained that they value their time and appreciate having professional people around, as their image is an essential part of their public persona. These individuals do not tolerate incompetence or flattery. To build trust and capture the essence of his subjects while maintaining his artistic vision, Aris always employed the same method: he would take one Polaroid and show it to the artist to gain their confidence. This approach helped him establish a rapport, as being photographed can be a daunting experience, even for those accustomed to it. He remarked, ‘Everyone has a hang-up about the way they look.’

David Bowie
David Bowie © Brian Aris

Aris is known for his extraordinary photograph of David Bowie with his daughter Lexi resting on his chest, which also captures the essence of New York in a single image. His profound understanding of human emotions, gained from witnessing harrowing events, allows him to connect deeply with his subjects. This skill even enabled him to capture a stunning smile from Queen Elizabeth II. Brian Aris’s archive is one of the largest individual collections in the UK, documenting a wide range of notable figures and moments.

In 2014, Band Aid reunited to raise funds to combat the Ebola crisis in Africa. Once again, Brian Aris was called upon to photograph the official lineup for Sir Bob Geldof.

Brian Aris (Left) with John Paul Getty Junior
Brian Aris (Left) with John Paul Getty Junior © Brian Aris

Interview with Brian Aris

A common thread runs from social unrest to artistic expression, as artists hold a mirror to the problems of their times. From the raw energy of rock and roll to the flamboyant rebellion of glam and the gritty anthems of punk, music mirrored the struggles and yearnings of a generation. What was the cultural atmosphere of New York like in the late 1970s? Which of your photos best demonstrates the feeling of this period? Any anecdotes about it? 

New York was one of my first trips to shoot outside of London. That first visit in 1969 is still etched in my memory today. I was a huge fan of modern jazz with little interest in pop music so I spent all my downtime at the famous Village Vanguard club listening to jazz and thinking how lucky I was. New York is a city that delivers exactly what you expect after watching all those movies set there. The constant sounds of sirens bouncing off the buildings, the steam rising from the pavements,the seemingly 24 hour hustle and bustle and of course the extraordinary energy.

I didn’t know on that visit that just across the block a young ambitious Debbie Harry was working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City before joining a folk group called Wind in the Willows and then of course moving on to Blondie. Debbie is one of those rare artists that the term iconic truly can be applied to. As she developed her music the New York influences of pop art with Warhol and the underground music scene around Greenwich Village propelled her into the world of punk rock and just a few years later into my studio in London. 

Debbie Harry seated with a portrait of herself by Andy Warhol placed behind her
Debbie Harry seated with a portrait of herself by Andy Warhol placed behind her © Brian Aris

That first session was very important for me. I loved photographing Debbie and as a result made a decision to work in the music business. Thankfully that decision meant I was a regular visitor to New York and was able to carry on enjoying the jazz as well as the exciting arts culture and creative forces around the Village. It certainly was challenging London but slowly the British music and fashion scene exploded and I found myself at the epicentre of a massive cultural change. Now artists from the US wanted to be in London and the Brit pop scene became firmly established around the World.

But New York and Greenwich Village and Debbie has given me one of my favourite images from that time. We were photographing in her apartment and had both looked at an early Polaroid and decided something was missing. The white wall behind Debbie looked very boring. But that was soon changed when Debbie left the room and within minutes came back with an unframed portrait of her by Andy Warhol which she simply stood on the radiator and when she came back to her original seated position the image was complete. That’s probably the most expensive prop I have ever used.

Having captured David Bowie’s iconic image throughout his career, you also photographed his wedding with Iman in Florence. What are your most cherished memories of this intimate occasion and friendship? Can you share a meaningful story from behind the scenes of these photos?

I never met David Bowie in the Ziggy or Aladdin Sane days. We were first introduced at the wedding of Bob Geldof to one of my old friends, Paula Yates.

David really did look like the Thin White Duke in his morning suit and top hat but the man I spoke to was sophisticated,gentle and extremely charming. A man I felt an instant rapport with and someone I would end up working with over many years. So when David announced he was going to marry Iman in Florence in Italy he asked me if I would take the photographs.

Both he and Iman were very keen to have a family wedding with just a handful of celebrities who were close friends. But Italy is the home of the infamous paparazzi and the couple didn’t want their wedding day turned into a circus but had chosen St James Episcopal church in the centre of Florence for the service. So I decided to visit the church the day before to see just what we were dealing with. Needless to say the properties opposite the church entrance had every window filled with telephoto lenses all paid for by the paparazzi. That meant a conversation with David’s road manager who was in charge of security. His answer was to rig up overnight huge drapes that could be kept to one side allowing the photographers a full view of the church entrance but which he would close as we arrived in the cars with David and Iman. I knew better than to question him and sure enough that is exactly what he arranged. 

Bowie and Iman's wedding c
Bowie and Iman’s wedding © Brian Aris

So on the wedding day it was a wonderful feeling to arrive in the limos at the grand entrance and see the drapes close as David and Iman stepped out of the cars. A victory over the famous Italian Paps is to be cherished and the couple just couldn’t stop smiling as those drapes came together.

Your photographs of David Bowie for The Buddha of Suburbia are particularly striking. Can you tell us about the technique you used for this shoot?  Was it achieved through cross-processed slide film or the cyanotype process?

The Buddha of Suburbia was shot on roll film in both colour and black and white. C-Type Lambda prints of the colour were made and silver Gelatin black and white with various tones were made and then scanned for the final uses.

David Bowie b
David Bowie, Buddha of Suburbia © Brian Aris

Throughout your career, you’ve captured iconic women like Paula Yates, Blondie, Annie Lennox, Madonna, Kate Bush and many others.  Witnessing their evolution, you’ve documented the changing image of women – their desire for freedom, changes and personal identity. Are there specific shoots that stand out as particularly memorable examples of this evolution?

I have been very lucky in working with so many influential women at the very beginning of their careers. They include Kate Bush, Madonna, the wonderful Annie Lennox and of course Debbie Harry. Such influential figures. But one person that I met at the beginning of my journey as a studio photographer and became a great friend was Paula Yates. That relationship really began when she walked into my studio for a joint portrait with her boyfriend Bob Geldof from The Boomtown Rats.

 

Paula had come to see me weeks before saying she wanted to be a model. She was the first woman I had met who proudly displayed a large tattoo on her upper arm. She put her feet on my desk and argued when I told her I thought she was too short to work as a fashion model and finally left telling me she would be back. And back she came and proved me wrong. Paula was irreverent, extraordinarily funny, very clever and ambitious and not only broke through the glass ceiling she broke the mould. We worked together on so many shoots and became great friends. She could be an outrageous flirt, loved men and having married Bob went on to become a brilliant mother having three wonderful girls.

Paula Yates in Egypt
Paula Yates in Egypt © Brian Aris

The babies always came to our photographic sessions and Fifi even travelled with us to Egypt for a fashion shoot at the Pyramids and modelled with her mother on the camels. She set the bar very high when she broke into television and as a presenter on the music show The Tube became a household name. Her influence and style of interviewing can still be seen today. Books followed that brought her talent to a much wider audience and I was convinced my friend had a great future to look forward to. But then she interviewed Michael Hutchence from INXS on the famous bed on The Tube and everything changed.That part of the story is still desperately sad for all of us that loved Paula and of course there wasn’t to be a happy ending. But Paula was a force of nature that I am so happy I was able to call a friend for so many years. She really did seem to make the impossible possible.

Brian Aris and Paula Yates in Egypt
Brian Aris and Paula Yates in Egypt © Brian Aris

Having begun your career in the era of film photography, you’ve witnessed a dramatic shift in the industry.  How has the rise of digital photography and social media impacted the way photography is communicated about human beings and contemporary issues?  What are your thoughts on the emergence of AI-generated photography?

I have embraced digital photography although I was reluctant at the beginning. I certainly took some convincing. I still love the idea of holding a negative or transparency that was present in my camera on that day when the subject was a few feet away. For me that’s an artefact that we no longer have when we shoot digitally. Now it’s all in the cloud. But moving to digital allowed me to go back to shooting hand held rather than from large format tripod based cameras and I love that. It gives much more freedom and seeing your work instantly allows you to react and make changes which is creatively very exciting. And from a commercial point of view the idea of waiting for a roll of film to be developed and come back from the lab for viewing now seems a very distant memory.

Sadly I feel less happy about camera phones. With the rise of social media it has proven to be a very intrusive tool and although without doubt it has widened the interest in photography I don’t feel it has been successful in improving imagery or producing great lasting iconic images. I actually enjoy the retouching and photoshop developments but once again feel they must be used very sparingly. We see far too many images that are the result of creative retouchers not the photographer.

Brian Aris with polaroids
Brian Aris with polaroids © Brian Aris

I have always believed the camera isn’t the most important element, it really is the eye behind the viewfinder that composes the image and selects that moment in time to press the shutter and record for all time a worthwhile photograph.

As far as AI is concerned I am definitely not a luddite but feel the jury is out on this development. Not just for photographers but for many artists in very many genres. 

I believe we need to watch very carefully and monitor AI with the consideration that perhaps in the not too distant future legislation may be required. We are already seeing massive abuse worldwide of copyright in photography. And that battle is only just beginning to be fought. Particularly in the US. But my fear is that I still believe that photojournalists still produce the truest form of photography with some of the finest examples produced by Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa and of course Don McCullin. But we are now being made aware that perhaps for the first time in our history we are questioning some images being made now. In the past we have had censorship and some misuse of photographs but now we are entering a period where the provenance of an image reproduced in the published media,on television or on social media might be questionable and even false. So I dearly hope that we can find a way to allow the contemporaries of those great reportage photographers to produce their work in the 21st century and be believed and allow us all to view the uncensored truth that a still image can illustrate so strongly. If we are unable to do that what are we left with?

Photos courtesy of Brian Aris
A special thanks to Matthew Archer

Last Updated on June 16, 2024 by retrofuturista

Thank you for subscribing!
There was an issue submitting the form!

Sign up for Exclusive Interviews

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Now playing: Artist - Track