London-based photographer Simon Fowler by# Author Ross Stapleton – Head of Artist Development Virgin Records 1981-1982
Whether through commissioned recording sleeves or official photo sessions, concert and theatre posters, or innumerable magazine covers and national print media featuring Simon Fowler work, he boasts an incredible portfolio. As principal photographer for Smash Hits at the height of its reign as the standard bearer for all things fashionably pop in the UK throughout the eighties, his signature work represents bespoke visual signposts for some of the biggest selling and most popular recording artists on the planet. Even more remarkable is the vast gamut of British and European cultural genres his photography embraces. Aside from photographing touring heavyweights including Bruce Springsteen, The Jacksons, Meat Loaf, Blue Oyster Cult and David Bowie, from punk to the present it’s less a case of who is present than who never made the cut. His archives include Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Pretenders, The Boomtown Rats, Ozzy Ozbourne,Thin Lizzy, Lemmy (Motorhead), The Police, The Human League, Duran Duran, Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet, Madness, Haircut 100, Depeche Mode,The Communards, Psychedelic Furs, omnipresent Boy George, Alison Moyet, Paul Young, Simple Minds, Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Mike Oldfield, UB40, The Waterboys, Marillion, Talk Talk, The Bee Gees/Robin Gibb, Rod Stewart, Paul Weller, AC/DC,Frank Zappa, Shakin’ Stevens, Judas Priest, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Twisted Sister, Hanoi Rocks, The Stone Roses, Manic Street Preachers, Primal Scream, Mick Hucknall, Underworld, Menswear, Suede, James. Simon didn’t so much shoot the ‘80’s as help nail it for posterity.
As eighties British music rewrote the manual for infectious pop in all its sublime manifestations, Simon Fowlers lens and imagination experienced a similarly creative joie de vivre. Among so many stand out relationships including shooting the cover for the Christmas 1981 number one (The Human League’s landmark ‘Don’t You Want Me’), was forming a unique long-term relationship with one of rock’s most challenging behemoths… Queen and its charismatic but notoriously guarded singer Freddie Mercury.A high point was being roped in to shoot the band on the fly in and around Queen filming ground-breaking ‘Coronation Street’ housewife video spoof for ‘I Want to Break Free’.
My first Queen photographic commission
“My first Queen photographic commission came with a trip to Munich in 1981 (recording ‘Hot Space’ their 10th studio album),” Simon recalls of that first fateful assignment. “I was warned that I might be lucky to only get half an hour with the band if all went well. But at worst it might not happen at all. Welcome to my nightmare scenario!”
Instead he forged a mutually respectful connection over an almost unheard of three-hour session given the normal recording studio time pressures. It was the start of a long and fruitful relationship. A Queen highpoint was being roped in to shoot the band on the fly in and around them filming their ground-breaking ‘Coronation Street’ video clip spoof for I Want to Break Free. Featuring “housewife” Freddie in drag along with the other Queen members, the clip and accompanying photos outraged the USA who totally didn’t get its visceral British piss taking qualities.
I was one of few a photographers that worked with the band until the time Freddie sadly passed away. I’m deeply honoured I had the chance to work with him; and obviously the results are there now for everyone to see in a whole stack of wildly memorable images.”For a decade made queerer by the ‘Wall Street’ “greed is good” manifesto as the yin to the yang of 1985’s ‘Live Aid’ good vibes, Simon’s camera captured all its contradictory exotica and excess as well as anybody.He happily bookended the late eighties before it ran headlong into the Britpop nineties with such rock luminaries as The Stones Roses, Manic Street Preachers, Primal Scream, Simply Red/Mick Hucknall, Underworld, Menswear, Tricky, Blur, Seude and James. Add to that photographing most of PWL Hit Factory, this meant not only Jason Donovan, but a coquettish Kylie Minogue (and later sister Dannii).
“One of my driving forces apart from seeking to photograph the best acts of the day, was to also show how I had a much better feel for creating a far more empathetic image to accompany their music than high-end fashion photographers,” Simon explains. “Until then they had traditionally been the vogue for the bigger name acts, but I knew I could communicate another kind of visual expressionism. Even more so with a lot of solo singers like Freddie Mercury, Boy George, Bryan Ferry, Paul Young, Mick Hucknell and a piano leaping Jamie Cullum, but especially the women.”And so it proved whether it was early on with Siouxsie Sioux and Lene Lovich or later Chrissie Hynde and a more mature Debbie Harry. The always sassy Kylie. A warmly demure and wonderfully neo-classical Enya or gypsy-like ingénue Katie Melua.
But it’s his prolific collaboration in both photo and video with Sarah Brightman that has seen him so satisfyingly help push fantastic visual boundaries via her penchant for flamboyance (and some exotic locations).
Looking back on all those years now, Simon is finally in a position to smell the roses in assessing his career satisfaction at all he’s accomplished.
“I think you’re so consumed with the creative process at the time, you don’t really get a proper perspective for where your own work sits in the context of everything until much later,” he muses. “But now as I go about digitally assembling those photographs for the website and a book I am planning for the future; there’s enough distance to now take genuine pride in all of it. I think I have managed to just about fulfill every ambition I could possibly entertain following my graduation. And to put it into the vernacular that has been my bread and butter for so long… it’s been a dream gig!”
Indeed… the things that dreams are made of!
# Author Ross Stapleton – Head of Artist Development Virgin Records 1981-1982