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The day that lightning struck

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In 1973, Celia Philo directed the shoot for David Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane. The result was one of the most iconic images ever created. She talks exclusively to Stylist about her time with the legend

Photography: Brian Duffy, Words: Jackie Hunter

"Sometimes, when you’re doing something that you know is going to be good, it’s because it’s come from an extreme end of the spectrum of experience: either it’s incredibly hard work, or it comes together almost effortlessly.

The photographic shoot for the cover of Aladdin Sane, David Bowie’s 1973 album, happened like magic. I always say its success was the result of a lucky collaboration of people who worked together just once, but created something truly special.

It was an evening shoot at the photographer Brian Duffy’s studio in Primrose Hill, north London. The route that had brought me there began with my studying graphic design at Maidstone College of Art in the Sixties – at the same time David Hockney was there teaching the fine art students – and after moving back to London, getting married and doing a lot of different design commissions in my early 20s. I was introduced to Duffy by someone who knew we’d both worked on the legendary Pirelli calendars. We got on well from the start, so Duffy asked me if I’d join him in setting up a little company, Duffy Design Concepts. It was just the two of us plus an assistant, with an office at the back of his existing photographic studio.

Duffy was very well known by that time for fashion and rock photography – even so, it was thrilling when RCA Records approached us, as a design company, about photographing and designing the cover for Aladdin Sane. Up until that point, David Bowie had had something of a cult following, but Aladdin Sane put him on the main stage and I think it’s true to say the lightning-flash face contributed a lot to his image.

It was so exciting to be working with David Bowie. That evening in the studio there was just Duffy, myself and Pierre La Roche, a French make-up artist who Duffy chose for the shoot. David arrived all by himself; there was no fanfare, no entourage, not even his then-wife, Angie Bowie. I’ve never met Angie, but from what Duffy had told me it was probably a good thing she wasn’t there, as she was known to have very strong opinions of her own about Bowie’s image.

When David came in, my first impression was that of a quiet, polite yet highly intelligent and confident man. He was very friendly and relaxed, but always completely in control of what he was doing. He seemed to have a great sense of self-awareness – he was very young, about 26 or 27 then and only a couple of years older than me, but he seemed so much more mature and I can only imagine that was because of his life experience. He’d seen and done things I’d never even heard of at that time.

You have to realise that, in 1973, men weren’t walking down the King’s Road with brightly coloured hair and wearing make-up. London was on the cusp of all that, with glam and then punk fashions about to explode. But with Bowie it was always theatrical, not fashionable – it was all about adopting different personas, an act during which he became someone else.

There are lots of versions of the story about where the famous lightning flash make-up came from. RCA Records had sent us the songs from Aladdin Sane to listen to before we did the shoot. On the day, we already knew that our main references would come from the song The Jean Genie and also from a famous 1973 Pirelli calendar Duffy had worked on with the pop artist Allen Jones and the airbrush artist Philip Castle. We also knew that we wanted the cover to show David’s torso with no clothes on. Had we not come up with the lightning flash idea, I think the image would have portrayed David in the guise of a genie.

Duffy – who sadly is no longer with us – had been heard to say that the lightning flash was inspired by a symbol that was on the little electric cooker in our studio. But I recollect all of us sitting round the studio table with a big pad of paper, talking through ideas, jotting them down. We knew that David had appeared wearing costumes with a lightning flash on them in the past, and Pierre said, ‘Let’s put the flash over his face’. I remember thinking, ‘That sounds a good idea’ and so we went with it. The orange, spiked-up hairstyle in the photo looked exactly as it did when David arrived at the studio – we didn’t have to do anything to it.

To my mind, the look evolved organically, and the reason it worked was all to do with people working well together. It was one of the most exciting jobs I ever worked on; there was a real buzz going between the four of us. I think David enjoyed it too – I suspect he’s someone that doesn’t like being interviewed, feels awkward appearing on TV chat shows, all that side of the business. But he was a total pleasure to work with in the studio, very open, creative and receptive to ideas, and completely comfortable about being made up and photographed. There seemed to be a particularly strong chemistry between him and Pierre. For David it was all about being an artist rather than a pop star, you see. He’d studied mime with the choreographer Lindsay Kemp, and was heavily influenced by Kabuki theatre.

Having decided on the look, we worked on until very late, well into the small hours – and when it was over, we all just went home to our beds. We were back in the studio the next morning to look at the test strips, and it was when we saw the photographs developing on paper – a much more rewarding process than the digital method used today – that we thought ‘We’ve cracked it.’ You know, I did a lot of different things in my design career, won a few awards [including the D&AD Silver Award for the 1972 Pirelli Calendar], but this was one of the most thrilling. It gave me more satisfaction than any other job I’ve ever done.

From that point on I wrapped up everything to do with the cover design. I got the colour separation done in Switzerland, organised the artwork for the front, back and inside covers of the album, and arranged for the airbrushing to be done by Philip Castle – London’s airbrush king at the time. We sent the finished result to David and he was absolutely thrilled. I spoke to him on the phone and he told me it was the best thing he’d ever done. Funnily enough, Aladdin Sane was the first and last album cover I ever worked on, but I’ll admit it’s a pretty good one to have on your CV! Shortly after that, I dashed off to Paris with my husband, where I worked for a couple of years in a British design agency that had just opened there. I was pregnant with my first child Phoebe [Philo, the head of design at French fashion house Céline] and she was born in Paris in 1973. British artists, like the British music scene, ruled the world back then. If you had a British art school education you could get a creative job just about anywhere. David Bowie came from an art school background too, of course [Bromley Technical High School in south London].

When the album was launched in April 1973 David tracked me down via Duffy and invited me to a party in London, but we were pretty entrenched in Paris life by then so I didn’t go back. But he did send me a very sweet gift – a lovely box of all his albums. Duffy photographed two more album covers for him [Lodger, 1979, and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), 1980], but I haven’t seen Bowie since the night of the shoot.

The original photograph of Aladdin Sane by Brian Duffy will be on display in the V&A exhibition. It’s probably one of those things from which Bowie can’t get away. His whole visual style has had such a strong influence. It’s come down through the generations, too, with people like Kate Moss and Lady Gaga referencing it. I once saw a man on a beach in Thailand who had the Aladdin Sane lightning flash tattooed on his back, and in my bus-pass holder I’ve even got a photograph, from my youngest daughter, of a hamster with the lightning flash on his face! Someone asked me recently what I think when I look at the album cover – well, the fact is I don’t tend to look at it, but I think it still stands up as being incredibly modern and fresh even now.

I think this comeback in his 60s is really nice – what we get to see in the video for his new single The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is a mature Bowie. It comes across as very thoughtful and interesting. I like it a lot. It’s rare to meet someone that doesn’t like David Bowie. I’ll be at the opening of the V&A exhibition. I wonder if he’ll be there?"

David Bowie Is will be at V&A, London SW7 from 23 March to 11 August. Visit vam.ac.uk for more information

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