Peter Ashworth’s first ever solo show brings his iconic 80s rock imagery to The Gallery on Stanhope Street and Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody went to have a look and a chat.
There’s a FACE cover from 1983 with an image of Annie Lennox, arms raised from the elbow, wearing a black mask and bright orange hair that dominates the exhibition, right in front of you as you enter the room.
You’ve probably seen it before. It was bought by RCA and used as the cover of the Eurythmics’ album Touch. To say it’s iconic is not to overstate the status of the picture. It’s powerful and empowering. It shows Lennox as strong, determined and in charge of the situation and the way she portrays herself. And it’s probably Ashworth’s best known picture.
Ashworth explains the process: “Annie and I knew each other pretty well and we’d already done a number of shoots together … The Face wanted me to do a shoot with Annie, they were aware of the androgyny effect, the culture shock around the world and the genius music, which was quite experimental at that stage.
She just turned up with a bag of tricks, she was really good at putting on characters – in her videos she takes on lots of different roles and she could do that on stage live as well, she would play with her moods. It was compelling viewing, leading you into theatre.
It’s so wonderful photographing someone like that, who already is in theatrical mode. On this particular day we did this famous bent arm pose with the mask, but we also did the ballerina outfit, the gold lamé outfit – we did about six different shoots on that one day and it was such a breeze. She did her own make up. It was literally just the two of us and no one else.
The one with Bryan Ferry, it was exactly the same. he just turned up with a scratty old suitcase, a spare jacket and two shirts. He ironed the shirts himself and we just did this very simple shoot that produced some great pictures. The one I’ve got here is the only one I’ve got from the session.”
But, let’s go back to the beginning. This is Ashworth’s first solo show, ever, anywhere, and for a photographer of his standing and longevity, that’s quite remarkable.
His documentation of 80s rock, fashion and imagery was a thing we grew up with. We have countless LPs and CDs with covers shot by him and there were very few images in this exhibition where we didn’t recognise the subject matter.
There’s also a Liverpool heavy bias to proceedings with Julian Cope, Pete Burns, Space, Ian Broudie all getting a look in.
Naturally, we have questions, starting with the one about this being his first solo show and why it’s taken so long for this to happen.
Ashworth: “It was definitely me. Someone tried to get me involved in a book about 30 years ago and I refrained because I didn’t think I had enough pictures for a book [and I didn’t think it was the right way to promote myself].
The other reason is a lot of my work has been thrown away. I shot on colour transparency (slide film) and the trouble with doing that is – what do you give to the client? You give them the film out of the camera. There is nothing else. I would do what’s called clip test, where you cut a bit of film off in the lab to see if it’s gonna come out alright, and depending on that, then you’d process the rest.
So there would always be 3, 4, 5 clip tests from a shoot. I would always have those, but they may not be processed right. I would snip a few frames, but you can’t snip the best ones out because the client needs to have that. I was never the one that chose what went on a sleeve and sometimes I really disagreed with the choice, not in a big way. So fundamentally, when it came to doing something like this I didn’t have the pictures. So I just kept putting it back and putting it back”
We comment on the strong Liverpool element and ask whether that’s by design.
Ashworth: “Yeah, it is. When we were choosing the pictures, because it was in Liverpool, it felt right. And I also realised I’d shot quite a few people from up here, although I wasn’t quite so sure – you meet them in London and you don’t have a lot of time for chatting as I was often scrabbling around on the floor doing something rather than hanging around at the back of the studio. But, yeah, I really like the fact I’ve given it a Liverpool angle. If Liverpool people are going to be cool enough to give me my first show, then I should show some respect and get as many Liverpool people in it.”
Because it interests us we ask about the tech behind the production of the images on show. It’s absolutely clear, even to a casual observer, this show is not just a series of quick scans of a few slides dug out of an archive somewhere. There’s a hell of a lot of work going on in the background to get the images into a state where they’re fit to be on show.
Ashworth explains: “Everything is square. All shot on a Hassleblad because album covers are square. And because I had square film and it’s quite large, everything was scanned at a high level – I went for 10,000 px square at 360 DPI That produces a 560MB file. I would scan each image about 5 or 6 times at different exposures or different colour settings, maybe different contrasts.I would then drop all of them into Photoshop as one file with 6 layers and mask out bits of the layers.
That way, you can get really strong blues, strong yellows, strong reds in the same picture. Otherwise, some parts would be lessened to enhance something else. These pictures aren’t like that. They have been worked on to create works of art so that I actually adore the colours. Technically, they’re perfect as far as I’m concerned. I call them my 2018 remixes.”
On the back wall of the space are five images of Leigh Bowery
The legendary performance artist, club promoter and some time muse to Lucien Freud. These are striking images, taken in his flat in London. His inclusion in the exhibition is a bit of an exception because he wasn’t a musician and these images have been shown before. It was an editorial shoot for Attitude magazine and was something of a shock to Ashworth: “He’s about 6′ 8″, wearing 12″ platforms and towering over me, wearing something extraordinary. And he basically gave me a tour of his house. The big question, though, is he has a grand piano and the only way he could have got it into his flat is in the lift. How the hell did he manage that? But Leigh did. He just did insane things.”
And with that we pretty much wrap up the “formal” part of the interview, but Ashworth is happy to keep talking and he does for a few more minutes. Taking us around other shots in the show, describing how they were made or what he feels about them, or who inspired him to create some of the images.
It was a lovely way to spend an evening and we send our thanks to Peter Ashworth for giving us the time as well as the insight. Hat tip too, to Duovision for organising it.
It is well worth making the effort to go and see.
The exhibition is at The Gallery, Stanhope Street until July 8
Edit: Peter Ashworth has now put up a gallery of the images from the exhibition on line – here.
Images by Getintothis‘ Peter Goodbody