The other day I picked up a signed first edition of what’s been called “the best photography book in the world”, for £15. “Work” by Brian Griffin, published in 1988, was named the best photo book in 1991 and in 1989 Brian was named as photographer of the decade by the Guardian. Shortly after these events, Griffin turned his back on photography and spent the next couple of decades shooting TV commercials and music videos. It’s a stunning example of the way that fashion and style can influence the reputation of photographers and the value of their work. Maybe this is why Griffin says that photography is incredibly hard and that to have had a career that’s lasted over 40 years in photography is incredibly rare: there’s a wonderfully revealing interview in this National Portrait Gallery film.
Quite often I’m staggered by the prices of some photobooks that have made it onto a list as being collectible: books that just a few years ago were selling for £10 or £20 new or second hand are now worth hundreds of pounds yet you can pick up a first edition of something equally significant but not so obviously collectible for less than £10. In recent months I’ve bought books by Lee Miller, published in the 30’s, or from Fay Godwin, published in the 80’s or 90’s, for well under £20.
Brian Griffin was a bit of a rediscovery for me: I’d been vaguely aware of his work in the 80’s when he shot album covers for bands such as Depeche Mode, REM and Iggy Pop but hadn’t followed his career.
Then recently I ordered a copy of David Moore’s “Pictures From The Real World” and Amazon suggested Brian Griffin as another author I might like…. Amazon was right. I bought “Work” and also Brian’s latest book, “The Black Kingdom” and began to dig around on the internet to find out more about the man who made these gently surreal and distinctively odd pictures.
What I found was a body of work that I think is uniquely British, and a combination of distinctly surreal vision with superlative technical control. “Work” was a perfect introduction to Griffin’s photography, as the working life of the British industrial man seems to have shaped not only his own work but also his life. The pictures in this book were taken during the building of a massive development in London called Broadgate. Griffin chose to photograph the site like a medieval ruin and to shoot the the workers as if they were fallen Crusaders on their tombs or as heroic statues against the sky.
Griffin’s photographic career grew out of his early working life. He was born in the Black Country, the industrial heartland of Britain, in an area that was famous for chain making. Leaving school he was apprenticed to a metal engineering factory and was encouraged by the foreman to join the local photographic society. In interviews Griffin recalls seeing the rats running along side the canal and realising that’s pretty much what life had in store for him – a lifetime of routine and work that he’d seen his parents endure. Griffin applied to and was accepted by Manchester Polytechnic’s School of Photography. It was here that he learnt the crisp technical skills that have made his images some of the most precise and clear of any photographer working today.
After leaving college, Griffin went to work as a photographer on a business publication called Management Today and here he came under the influence of an Art Director called Roland Schenck: Griffin says that Schenck would send him back time and again to take pictures or shoot portraits until he returned with something fresh, stylish and distinctive. When London became the centre of a business boom, Griffin became a highly sought after photographer for corporate clients, shooting major projects for businesses. It is from this period that the photographs in Work were taken. It’s also worth noting that between 1978 and 1988 he self published 8 books, two of which one major awards.
After this Griffin moved into shooting a wide variety of commercial work including album covers for bands such as Depeche Mode, Iggy Pop, REM, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel. This work led him into the world of music promos and directing TV adverts and he virtually turned his back on the world of stills photography for a couple of decades.
His fascination with photography but slight despair at making a career in the business are clear to see in the National Portrait Gallery film mentioned above. There’s a lovely short film about his recently re-invigorated career, which sees growing recognition of his work and a move to creating gallery exhibitions, as well as a major retrospective of his work: Brian Griffin – Face to Face.
There are a couple of informative articles here:
Brian Griffin & His Industrial Revolution – also has a good interview with him
Digital Photography Review – Brian Griffin