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21.04.23 / 01 / aladdin sane is 50

It doesn't seem 5 minutes since Ziggy was 50, and now it's Aladdin Sane's 50th (19th April 1973). There is a nice little exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall - some photos here, as well as my own half-century-old copy.

One thing I didn't photograph was the wall of Brian Duffy photography - celebrity portraits, magazine covers, fashion (I suppose all those things are interchangeable). The images are just superb, and he was one of the 'court photographers' of Swinging London with David Bailey and Terence Donovan. There is an amusing magazine article from 1964:

"Before 1960, a fashion photographer was somebody tall, thin and camp," said Duffy. "But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual!"

"You mean, we're in it for the birds," said Terry Donovan.

"No, I don't agree," said David Bailey.

"You get up in the morning, you've got a terrible hangover," said Terry Donovan. "There's the camera. You look through it. There's this woman. You've got to make it so when she sees the picture she's going to think 'I wish I looked like that'. It can happen, you know, for the model to look at a picture of herself and say, 'I wish that was me.' You take a roll. But you never know if you've got a good snap. Just a fraction of a second - you can't be aware of it at the time. You only know later, when you look at them. It all boils down to a chemical thing between you and the girl."

You couldn't make 'Blow Up' in the age of Photoshop.

The Aladdin Sane cover required a unique seven-colour printing process that could only be done in Zurich at the time. Bowie's manager Tony Defries wanted the cover to be expensive (in fact it was the most expensive cover up to that time) so that RCA would spend heavily on promotion to recoup the cost. Defries is a controversial figure but I have to admire him for this. In fact it was unnecessary, Bowie was riding a wave of fandom and the album was a huge hit. We didn't even think about the printing.

The exhibition shows how the source for the gatefold image was in a Pirelli calendar shoot by Duffy the year before, where pop artist Allen Jones had created outlines in his trademark fetish style for the girls' lower bodies, airbrushed by Philip Castle. Duffy used the same idea and airbrush artist for Aladdin Sane. Jones wasn't involved, but I'm surprised I hadn't seen the connection to his work before. It makes sense of an image that seemed risqué at the time - a centrefold, indeed.

There is a context section showing the world into which this cover was released. It was, to say the least, at odds with its surroundings, like something dropped from space. It became, immediately and indelibly, the defining image of Bowie in the public consciousness, partly because there is a level of symbolism in it that contained his whole career. Bowie wanted to use a lightning bolt somehow, but Duffy grabbed a lipstick and drew it big across his face, making it a psychological symbol of inspiration and madness (drawn on his body it would have been a physical symbol of power or speed). The closed eyes suggest one touched by a god, looking inwards. Bowie never wore the lightning bolt again, but they had defined him for ever.

16.04.23 / 01 / a phase in my life

So what just happened? My suitcase went away for Christmas and finally made it back home after Easter.

My mother’s health was causing concern last autumn, and reached a crisis point during the family Christmas at my brother’s house. I returned with her to her own house, to arrange medical help and look after her while she recovered. I expected this to take about a month, but it took more than three.

My mother has long been proud of her self-sufficiency and ability to cope in old age. She has now reached the point of needing help in certain aspects. If she were happy to receive it and had a realistic grasp of her situation it could all have been arranged quite quickly, but she interprets most kinds of help as personal criticism and interference in her way of life. I have had to proceed slowly, one small step at a time, with some stealth and misdirection - just to achieve small things that safeguard her health and independence. Attempts to have open discussions met with anger, denial, misunderstanding and suspicion. It’s funny how you can be a highly experienced middle-aged professional, and yet to your parent you are still a child that knows nothing of medical matters or domestic appliances, and is not entirely trustworthy or responsible.

I had to make a snap decision after Christmas to step away completely from work for a while. Caring for my mother was intense and stressful and I simply could not cope with work pressures as well, nor was there time in the day to achieve anything meaningful. The little time I had to myself was needed for personal recovery. Often my head felt like a ball that had been kicked around. Often I was full of anxiety, or anger, or hurt. Most days I woke up frightened and upset, struggling with feelings that had become unpacked during sleep, and had to spend an hour or so stuffing them back into containment before I could face the day. As the situation calmed down I was able to return to the office a couple of times to pick up threads, and then work remotely, although the experience was akin to WFH during the pandemic with a toddler - dealing with interruptions, emotional needs, domestic duties - at best I could manage half a day, in two-hour stints.

Finally we have got to some kind of ‘new normal’, and I can reverse the pattern, living at home with short visits to check that things are going OK. It has been a hard journey and it will take me a while to recover. I feel like an emotional punchbag, and am carrying a lot of bottled-up grief and pain. There is a real risk that this will unbottle itself at work when someone says the wrong thing (which will at least be amusing). I am not temperamentally well-suited to being a carer - I am (nowadays!) decisive, logical and like to act quickly, and I have been dealing with someone (nowadays!) indecisive, illogical and slow. Who is my mother, that I do not wish to hurt, even for her own good.

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