Open Studio: A Conversation With Photographer Kevin Davies

Open Studio: A Conversation With Photographer Kevin Davies

Portrait of Kevin Davies by Charlie Schaffer. Self Portrait 2022.

As a young man at the Winchester School of Art, Kevin Davies studied sculpture, before a fateful conversation with a straight-talking tutor changed his life. “He suggested that the photos I was taking of my sculptures were much better than the sculptures themselves!” Says Davies with a laugh. Since then, his warm and candid environmental portraits of David Bowie, U2, Martin Amis, Bryan Ferry, Grace Jones and artists like Jenny Saville and Frank Auerbach have been published in ID, The Face, Tatler and Arena, while a Phaidon photography book charts a 20 year friendship and collaboration with the renowned milliner Phillip Treacy. 

Davies is also a friend of Drake’s and the latest artist whose work is being exhibited at the Drake's Open Studio on Canal Street, which is why we thought we'd give him a call to find out more about his life, work and process. 

Drake’s: Hi Kevin, how did you develop your style as a photographer?

I started as a studio photographer, even when the location  for the portrait was a hotel , I’d set up a mini studio within the room.  Going into an unknown environment scared me, so the studio concept  helped to control that. I guess I became more confident/comfortable with  locations and began to enjoy the surprise of seeing somewhere new for the  first time. I’ve always liked to pick up details from a room, as well as the  person in the picture. I feel if you show the room and everything in it, that  tells its own story about the person, too.  

Drake's: Is there a defining encounter from your early photography days?  

Kevin Davies: I was sent to photograph the artist Jenny Saville for i-D magazine. Jenny was working on an upcoming show, so she needed to  carry on painting throughout the session. She wasn’t going to stop for me.  So I just took pictures of her painting. I was there for two hours, then I  said: "Ok, I’m done, I’m off!” She replied, “Oh, are you still here?” She  honestly hadn’t noticed. And I thought, 'that’s brilliant! That’s what I need  to do.’ I want to shoot artists at work, while I blend in a bit. Hopefully then I will capture the process.  

Jenny Saville 1998

Drake's: What's the secret to making someone feel comfortable before taking their portrait?  

Kevin Davies: I bring a small portfolio of work to the shoot, which I show  to the subject. It helps if the subject a visual of my approach. And often  they recognise people they know. I don’t have much of an ego, so I’m  quite happy to not force someone to do something. I’ve never been  discriminate, whether it was a politician or whatever. Even if the person  was quite boring, I just embrace it and make it work.  

Drake's: How have the last couple of years been for you and your practice?

I’ve actually had time to go back through my archive for the first time. For instance, I hadn’t looked at my David Bowie prints since 1992. I did the work, put it in a box and went on to next job. It’s only in the last year and a half that I’ve gone back to them. I’m really enjoying it, but the strange thing is living in the past. If it wasn’t for lockdown I probably wouldn’t have done it, but I like discovering old jobs; things you thought were the right picture then, but aren’t now. To look at something purely from my perspective, I’m seeing different things and pictures that are much more interesting than maybe I gave them credit for at the time. 

David Bowie 1992 (Black Tie, White Noise)

Drake's: Outside of celebrities and public figures, what else do you enjoy capturing?

Kevin Davies: The youngest of my two daughter's recently asked me for some photos to accompany an essay she was writing. I've always tried to take pictures of family life, but in a slightly different way, like first visits to the dentist and things like that. My mother died two years ago and some other family events occured, so that’s why she asked for the pictures. Looking back at these photos, they made me immediately rethink what I call my ‘family photography.’ At the time it’s 'just' a picture, but 21 years later it’s an important document. It has that power. I went through a period when I was really busy with work and didn’t want to pick up a camera outside of it, but when I look at the family pictures, I think: ‘I did this!’ This was the other thing. 

Frank Auerbach 2001

Drake's: Can you discuss the story behind your famous photo of the artist Frank Auerbach? How did that meeting and picture come about?  

Kevin Davies: I had seen early of pictures of him where he seemed almost  like Marlon Brando, or like an abstract expressionist — brutal in a way,  like Jackson Pollock. I was really fortunate, because the person who asked  me to do it for Tatler knew Auerbach and he came to the shoot, so I took photos while they were chatting. Sometimes it doesn't work and sometimes  it works really well. He was so funny! I was shocked. I feel he lives quite a  monastic life. I really admire him. Someone who has dedicated their life  to a singular practice. I have also photographed his son Jake. He talked  about sitting for Frank. The first hour is chit-chat and the second hour is down to business — no talking.