There's a photo exhibition currently at the Kopeikin Gallery in Culver City that, 20 years ago, would have been impossible to mount. That's because the photographers — the brothers Stuart and Andrew Douglas — weren’t talking to each other.
The Douglas Brothers, as they’re known, got their start working in London and New York in the late 1980s. They made a name for themselves with a unique style of black-and-white photography that looked at once very modern and somehow also like images taken in the 19th Century, buried, and only recently dug up — like their 1989 portrait of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, as a young man.
When The Frame host John Horn recently spoke with Stuart and Andrew Douglas at the Kopeikin Gallery, Stuart explained that there was an element of luck in the creation of the portrait, which was taken at a photo shoot as part of a press junket after Day-Lewis’ film, “My Left Foot,” was released.
We were a little bit late into the studio because the photographer in front of us had overrun his time. And so we had no time to actually set up a lighting [kit] or anything like that. Daniel walked in right at the same time with us, so we just started talking and shooting at the same time and just carrying on and carrying on 'cause he didn't have much time. And then we took all the stuff into the darkroom and this one, if you like, appeared out of the shadows. It wasn't one of the first obvious pictures, because we had pictures of Daniel smiling, pictures of Daniel joking, pictures of Daniel being a Hollywood star. And then this one loomed out of the shadows and we realized that we had come across something that might set out a template for us. So we tried it again after this, and it appeared to work.
In the 1980s and '90s, much of celebrity photography and portraiture was about manipulating an image to eliminate any flaws, focus or exposure problems. But Andrew Douglas says he and Stuart were actively working against that.
The model in America was Annie Leibovitz on the one hand and somebody like Herb Ritts on the other, so everything was very polished and beautiful and glossy. And for whatever reason, we decided to be punky about it. When you used to take a roll of film to the chemist or one-hour photo and it was wrong, it came back with all these instructions that were wrong, that almost became our philosophy — like against the sun and blurry, and clearly we moved the camera. So we very deliberately went in a different direction and then saw what came up. And Stuart was right, this was kind of a glorious accident which let us lay our stall out for really the next couple of years.
But the brothers had an acrimonious falling out and stopped their photography collaboration in 1996. For years, they didn’t talk as they pursued separate careers as directors, mainly in television commercials. Here's how they explain what happened:
Andrew Douglas: It's a little difficult. I mean, I will forever be the older brother thinking that I'm being gracious, even when I'm being dominating, and that still hasn't changed. And I think it was a lot to do with that. And Stuart was the kind of punky younger brother who followed me into the business and then wanted to do it on his own and I wouldn't let him.
Stuart Douglas: It was a fairly bitter dispute. And when we split and went our different ways, the work represented something different and neither of us actually wanted to look at the work anymore.
So Stuart had their collection put away in a London storage space. It was a decision that 20 years later, actually helped to bring them back together. When the building was marked for demolition around 2016, the brothers were forced to talk. Stuart Douglas:
We got the work out and it started to do its work on us. So we started to talk about the work, which meant we were talking to each other again. So it's done something fairly magical. As well as appear on the wall, it's actually helped the brothers be brothers again. And that's quite special.
Looking now at the work hanging in the gallery, the brothers see something of who they were 25 years ago in the images — from their celebrity portraits, to shots of the Empire State Building, a palm tree, or an old blind horse.
And interestingly, Andrew says, the conflict that ultimately pulled them apart actually helped them to produce better work.
When we work on our own, we're as good as our first idea and then you just follow that idea through. There might be a collaboration with an agency, but there’s not really a kind of central creative conflict.
Now, showing their photos together again, Stuart Douglas says it’s all come together again in a strangely perfect way:
We showed some work actually right at the awkward point of our evolution — right as we were splitting, actually. Paul showed some work and I think if we hadn't split, we probably would have carried on showing work through the decades since. But there's something rather perfect about the first time it comes back, it comes back to the same place. It’s nicely circular.
The Douglas Brothers exhibition at the Kopeikin Gallery is called SEE/SAW. It’s open through Feb. 17th.