For more than 40 years, Ken Russell directed some ofthe most provocative, controversial, and memorable films in British cinema, including Women in Love, The Music Lovers, Tommy, and Altered States.
Lesser known is his working life as a photographer, from 1954 to 1957, after giving upon his career as a ballet dancer, Russell freelanced as a photographer. Submitting work to the Pictorial Press agency, his photographs appeared in publications such as Illustrated Magazine and Picture Post.
He trained in photography at Walthamstow College. “You learned about texture, form and pattern, which I promptly discarded.” Russell’s“cinematic eye” is in early evidence in his photographic work, as he started to draw mini-dramas within the single frame; as illustrated in his series of Portobello, and his London Street scenes, they are more than snapshots from the everyday. His work emerging from the Troubadour; though were surreal compositions created with the help of the Troubadour coffee girls “They’re a bit odd and they’re of their time,” said Russell. “Some are a bit abstract or surreal.”
Through the 50’s and 60’s the Troubadour was one of THE centres ofLondon intellectual and artistic life. Ken Russell recruited staff for his first shorts here, and it was here that he became friends with Oliver Reed, and the path to his film career was set.
“In a way I was making still films, I suppose. Some of the photographs were catch-as-catch-can. But I learnt the value of the perfect composition. When they sent me the prints I thought, ‘My God, did I take these? They’re not bad.’ Secretly, I think they’re rather special.”
His series”The Last of The Teddy Girls” explores the Teddy Girl sub culture of London in the 1950s, and captures the suits and slick backs that epitomise this genre. Few people know that Ken Russell originally wanted to be a serious fashion photographer and tried to start by photographing Mattli, the Swiss-born and London-based fashion designer known for his couture designs and, later, his ready-to-wear clothing and couture patterns. Butas Ken himself admitted, he was hopeless and couldn’t connect with his subjects. His genius was to connect brilliantly with the Teddy Girls and boys and later with his actors, all of whom would do anything for him.
In the 50s, he had captioned a series of photographs he took of antique clothing stores series beginning with “Forget your Dior fashions”!” But actually, he loved all the couture stuff. Lisi Russell, Ken Russell’s widow remembers “Ken’s relationship with couture arose from his appreciation for the way clothes signalled a change in the cultural zeitgeist. He always kept a dressing box of clothes and props for his photographic subjects (though the Teddy Girls brought their own) and had an eye out for stylish models.
His interest in couture began as an undergraduate at Pangbourne Naval Academy where he wore a cadet’s formal uniform and incidentally designed the school’s first and only drag show. As a young professional ballet dancer, Ken decided independently to augment his huntsman’s costume with glitter and feathers, inadvertently upstaging his own solo.
Ken was known from London to NYC to France and Italy for his individual, quixoticstyle: his pink-patterned shirts, his braces, his gold-trimmed kaftan, hisdecorative walking stick; his boater hat, top hat and highwayman’s hat; his Tyrolean jacket, hooded cape, hip-hop outfit and voluminous Russian greatcoat.
He had lifelong friendships with Zandra Rhodes(his schoolmate), Vivienne Westwood (who designed a Ken Russell T-shirt) and Piers Atkinson (who designed him a couture hat). Ken convinced a certain men’s shop in Bournemouth to import silk waistcoats and unusual shirts personally fitted for him. Equally at home in couture shops, vintage outlets and street markets, Ken ruefully chuckled that he couldn’t make it in fashion photography because he hadn’t been able to afford a Bond St suit with a white carnation.
His last notes on his unfinished film (ALICE) of November 2011 read: “Ask Lagerfeld or House of Gaga to costume.’”
When asked about his pictures of the teddy girls, Russell remembered “No one paid that much attention to the teddy girls before I did them, althoughthere were plenty on teddy boys .They were tough these kids, they’d been born in the war years and food rationing only ended in about 1954 – a year before I took these pictures. They were proud. The teddy girls all dressed up were quite edgy and that interested me. They were more relevant and rebellious but good as gold. They thought it was fun getting into their clobber and I thought so too”
The gallery holds a series of signed Ken Russell prints for sale, starting at £2,000 and estate stamped limited edition prints signed on the back by Lisi Russell, Ken Russell’s wife are available to order from £900