Transcript: Alice Maude-Roxby and Tansy Spinks in conversation, South London, 01.11.21

AMR: “Arcadia” is both the name of Vanda’s boat and the name of a short-lived band incorporating members of Duran Duran, formed in 1980s. In response to the request to compile a playlist for Vanda, I remembered the conversation we’d had during lockdown whilst walking in Brockwell Park. As we walked you described taking photographs for album covers throughout the 1980s. When I looked up the covers of Arcadia’s So Red the Rose singles, I saw that one of the images is credited to you. Can you tell me about the staircase photograph that appears on Arcadia’s Goodbye is Forever?

TS: It is interesting isn’t it, that during lockdown we had these various discussions about where images come from and what we’d done. I confessed to you that I’d recently been scammed- someone had professed an interest in buying my work and I’d fallen for it of course. Over some months we had had a conversation about some of my earlier images that he wanted to buy as a present for his wife. They had a wedding anniversary coming up - it all sounded very plausible. In the end, of course, I realised that it was a scam but decided that it really shouldn’t prevent me from looking over some of my back catalogue of images from that period, particularly from the mid ‘80s onwards, when I first started out using my photography. When you pointed out the connection to the Arcadia images, I looked at it and thought ‘well that’s not my image, it looks a bit like my image’... Then we looked at it a bit more closely and realised that it really was an image behind something that had been superimposed, in the way of a graphic motif. (Designer Malcolm Garrett of Assorted Images was responsible for the layering of the images it transpired).

AMR: It must have been a strange realisation for you, recognising your spiral staircase image on the Arcadia cover after all this time. How did you come to take that photograph, and how did it come to be used in this way?

TS: That is probably the most enduring of all my images. It has had a journey and a life of its own, and it probably still does. It is held by Millennium Images who represent me. The staircase was photographed around the time I was just finishing my MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art. I came across a semi-derelict building in Covent Garden which I managed to get into and found this extraordinary staircase. I was really obsessed by staircases, I photographed a lot of them and have done since. I had a boyfriend at the time who I got to run up and down the staircase, so there are some images of him at the top looking down, and there are some just of a hand on the spiral handrail. It was a very atmospheric space with the flaking plaster and peeling paint. (There was a fantastic acoustic as well, thinking back on it). It provided a really great raft of images which have been used for a Bauhaus album cover from 1989 Swing the Heartache, as the bookcover for Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis, a novel about a genuine mathematical formula. A version of it has been used on Italo Calvino’s novel cover, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller - it is very exciting when you are associated with an author who you really respect - and it still continues. There are images out there, which occasionally I’ll see, that are appropriated or a bit of it might be used. I just love this idea of ascension and descension that you get on a spiral staircase. Staircases are there for a purpose, to move us from one level to another and I’ve always found that an intriguing prospect to investigate.

AMR: Seen on the Bauhaus cover, the light at the top of the spiral staircase becomes like an eye, and the surface of the ceiling where the paint is peeling off, is a bit like skin. I imagine that there were quite a range of reasons for publishers choosing this photograph as a cover image.

TS: It is a bit disturbingly like skin… there is a discomfort about that, like the flakiness of skin, on the Calvino book. Hmm… but there are other staircases. Whenever I go somewhere, I try to photograph staircases. There are the Prague ones of the Old Town Hall that were used on Kafka novels which I was really pleased about. I’ve also done sound pieces with people on staircases, getting them to vocalise descending sounds when coming down, or ascending sounds when walking up. These make for some rather curious recordings - sorry this has taken us a little bit away from the covers and the life of images, which are sometimes beyond your control, which can be slightly alarming. I have come a cropper with some images in relation to the nude and ones which I did around this time (late ‘80s) when I was working with nudes with X rays and notably for Nancy Friday’s, book, Women on Top, around the subject of female sexuality and desire. Sometimes the images were seen as contentious, but that’s another conversation.

Our conversation about the Arcadia cover took me back to that period when I was asked to provide an image for the band It’s Immaterial, this was 1986 or ‘87. It was an image that they wanted ‘distressed’, (it would be interesting to try and find the original instruction). The designer found it too sort of ‘ordinary’ an image. My printing would often be used to make images look less ordinary, bringing in something slightly more disturbing by using lith[i]printing paper and toner. I’d put images through lots of different processes; re-photographing or making inter-negs, scratching the negatives, bleaching, all sorts of techniques that were used to make things look less literal. This image was biked over to me - it all came by couriers in those days. It was a close-up of a clown’s face - which in itself can be unsettling - a library image, and I never knew quite where it came from (we probably ought to have worked out what the provenance was, of that original image). The instruction was ‘work on it, change it, alter it and the bike is coming in the morning’. I would sometimes work all night in the darkroom and then send it back. So, the image is very tangential to me really, but it’s indicative perhaps of the things that were happening at that time, this notion of ‘strangeness’, of ‘otherness’, of how the image needed to feel removed from reality in some way. This was one of the roles I undertook in my photography at the time.

AMR: You talked of the clown image, on the Its Immaterial cover, undergoing ‘a treatment’ which I found interesting both in terms of how it is described but also in terms of the strangeness of someone requesting that an image, particularly, of a clown, be ‘distressed’.

TS: There is a bit of an irony there, clown images are already distressing. But yes, ‘distressing of images’ was part of that era and genre I think, removing it from the natural. I was often used by record companies to photograph artists who were perhaps slightly reluctant to be photographed or who didn’t feel that comfortable in front of the camera. Then a lot of the work would be done in the darkroom altering tonalities, driven by Lith printing which was a particularly big thing for me. It was a very magical process which has dropped by the wayside I think now, but really made things look very different; very contrasty but also the peachy, mid-tones were quite evocative. It was an unpredictable process, you’d often spend hours not getting what you wanted and then you’d have to keep the developer until it turned to the colour of beer and sometimes the images came out unexpectedly ‘muddy’, so it was quite hit and miss, but lith is timeless.

AMR: Once the clown image is ‘fixed’ as the cover for the single, it goes out into the world, the record cover is seen propped up in the homes of anybody who bought it. As a singles cover, handled whilst listening to the music, the photograph, the band name, the name of the song, the lettering and graphics all seem to become quite indelibly fixed to the music. When I looked through the list of the records for which you took photographs and listened to the playlist, I felt like I remembered pretty much all of them in some way. Some I remember well and others more vaguely, they conjure up hairstyles, locations, fashion…

TS: …and styles of recording of course. There is that ‘big acoustic’ which is inherent in some of them, the overproduction and early uses of synthesisers. It all felt very modern at the time. It is interesting, when an image becomes associated with the commodification of something like a band, or when I went on to do lots of book covers, (I did much more in publishing than I did in the music industry). I always felt quite awkward about being part of that commodification process. As you say, the sound becomes associated with the image (and vice versa). Very good examples are Pink Floyd’s Battersea Power station image with flying pigs. The image becomes embedded somehow in the notions of what the music represented. It is very interesting how that happens and how uncomfortable you can feel as the originator of the image, partly being part of that commodification and partly because of the individuals involved. This did involve some difficult conversations with the A and R and Design people and with the artists themselves who would often be unhappy with the notion of being swept up and presented to the public in a way that they may not have felt that they wanted to be, eg overly made up or over-styled. An example was All About Eve; they thought of themselves as a more folk related group, but they were packaged very much as, well…. not New Romantic, but they were certainly that sort of example. The leader singer, Julianne Regan really felt quite unhappy. So, I was sort of complicit in that exercise but when I was able to spend some time with the artists on their own or as a group without too many managers or A&R people hanging around, I usually got far better images. They felt more at ease with these, they felt this better represented their look.

AMR: Sometimes, other than taking the photograph, your role in this has been to apply ‘treatments’ to an image taken by another photographer. On The Promise’s cover there is a black and white Bert Hardy photograph onto which you applied colour?

TS: Well, we were talking earlier about Bert Hardy and what a very important figure he was in relation to Picture Post; as a social documentary photographer, mid twentieth century, he died in 1995. I was sent this image which I sort of recognised, it was from a series taken in Newcastle, (I don’t know if it was a self-instigated project for him, or not, it would be interesting to look it up), but it was considered quite a seminal image. The instruction from the record company was, “Please hand-colour it to make it look better to sell as an image for a record cover, in a record store window”. I was known for some hand-colouring at the time. So, I hand-coloured this Bert Hardy image, (Two Boys in the Street, 1948), and it went off on the back of a bike, and I was incredibly excited when I did see it in the shop window of a big record store in Oxford St. It was my very first commission. I also felt, ever since, almost guilty, about the fact that I’d used an appropriated image. It was credited to him of course but I had hand coloured it, which I’m sure he would not have approved of. Hand colouring gave it a nostalgic element which was probably out of keeping with the intention of the image but was more appropriate with the selling of a commodity, (the record cover for The Promise’s Away Away, from 1984, above).

AMR: Another one on the list is the photograph for Eric Clermontet, can you tell me about that one, how did this image come about?

TS: I’d been trekking around with my portfolio as we did in those days, looking up art directors for record companies, and later, for publishing houses. At the time Peter Saville, who was an up-and-coming designer, picked up on what I was doing and commissioned me to do Eric’s album cover. He was a Parisian artist and mainly a producer more than a singer. He was quite awkward to photograph - very strange hair which we had to do something about -   which I managed to do in the darkroom, cropping it out in a certain way. He wasn’t an obvious pop star and he felt awkward being photographed. Peter Saville and I decided that we would do what I’d been doing a little bit before, which was to go onto the Circle Line on the tube. I’d had this embarrassing article written about me in City Limits called ‘Tansy Spinks: Tube-ist’ written by Jonathan Futrell and I’d been using the Circle Line as my ‘studio’, because it goes round constantly, (or used to more directly then), so you didn’t have to think about getting on and off the train. I used the movement of the tube, the very curious lighting in the carriages, together with the slow shutter speeds and the darkroom treatments of the black and white images I’d taken. We spent a whole day on the Circle Line, Eric Clermontet, Peter Saville and I. I had lots of images to process and go through once I got back to the darkroom and was really pleased with the one that resulted because it was very, very simple. Peter Saville liked it so much that he didn’t even put text on the outside, he just designed a paper band that went around the album cover. So, when it came out, it just had a minimal, removable band, so that he could invest space in this blurry but central, blue toned image of Eric Clermontet on the Circle Line. You can just see the curved windows in the background - it says ‘tube’ without you necessarily having to know that it is definitely the London Underground.

AMR: It is interesting to hear about that difference between working on a commercial assignment and working on something that is more for your own practice. For the commercial work, having all these other people there, present and watching as you took the images is intriguing and must have impacted on your work, do you have more to say on that?

TS: I feel much more comfortable photographing people who I can just have a normal, sort of intimate relationship with, in terms of speaking just on their own and asking them how they want to be seen and what their interests are. I’d often start these exercises with a conversation without even having my camera with me. The most uncomfortable shoots were for example the All About Eve shoot, where I had to hire a studio and I was surrounded by people. I’d had to hire an assistant as I needed help with lighting, working flash, and directing it was the designer Robert O’ Connor from Stylo Rouge who I worked with several times on these commissions or shoots. The artist’s agent would be there, the make-up person, the stylist, … I felt very intimidated by those situations and never felt that I worked very well under those conditions. I was much happier taking people out and about, in an environment where they’d feel comfortable as well, like the All About Eve second album which was shot in Richard Branson’s country house, in beautiful surroundings outside Oxford. We went out into the fields at dawn, (no one was happy about getting up that early...) and I photographed them amongst the corn fields. We came up with some really nice images in the end. I also used layers of photograms on the prints and scattered things onto the print whilst I was re-photographing them. So, although these were very ‘treated’ again, they were ‘additive’ images rather than ones that were just shot in a literal way. They were very much collaged and visibly ‘processed’. I think the band was happier with those images - it felt more appropriate for them.

AMR: Did listening to the music come into it? Or was it more that you were responding to the brief that was given?

TS: That’s a really interesting question. I very rarely heard the sounds before I photographed them. I knew very little about the artists I was working with. I’d obviously heard of Sandie Shaw, and I had Puppet on a String on my mind when I was photographing her. She was working with Morrissey at the time, so she was hoping to be much cooler at this point than she’d been portrayed previously, and she still had a good voice.

Do you know, I was really quite snooty about some of the things I was hearing and thought that some of the music wasn’t that great. As a classically trained violinist, I had very particular ideas about what I thought was good. When I was photographing Maxi Priest, which was termed ‘Lovers Rock’, very soft reggae, we were about the same sort of age and he was on the verge of becoming really big. I did two albums with him. I remember turning up to the studio in Primrose Hill, that I’d had to hire in advance once again, a beautiful space. I turned up with my violin because I was going to go on to a rehearsal after the shoot, so I had a camera bag under one arm, and a violin case under the other. I just parked the violin in the corner, and he noticed it and said, “would I play for him?”  I just played him stuff while he was having his make-up done. We had a nice kind of bond between us since I was also a musician. It is really interesting; I was probably not very aware of some of the music, it just wasn’t something I was listening to in my own life at the time. I was a strangely remote 20-something, leading my life in a different way. I didn’t go to clubs or gigs. So, this is an interesting question, and I probably should have listened to the music more, (laughs).

AMR: We started by you talking about that scam, and how that had focused you on looking through these different covers that you did throughout the ‘80s. How do you feel about them now? Do they still feel like something that is close to you? Or do they feel like they are from a very different sort of commercial venture?

TS: It wasn’t commercial per se because all the commissions came up on the back of what I was doing anyway, which I think was the best way for it to happen. The record companies or the designers were picking up on the way that I was working; this lith printing and removing the realness of photographs, changing the way the image could be read or suggesting another reality perhaps, through these particular processes. I was always frustrated by a photograph looking too obvious or too surface based. I look back on this period, and I worked on record covers for about 4 or 5 years, as a very formative time. I’d finished college and before reaching 30, I’d actually done quite a lot - I hadn’t realised quite how much I’d done. I went off to Dublin to photograph Cry Before Dawn, but most of it was in or around London because that’s where I was based. It was of its era and I was very excited to be part of that era I notice in retrospect but I’ve really appreciated this exercise, it has pulled together what I had felt a bit ‘baggy’ and disjointed. I now see it was actually quite a considered body of work, with hindsight. A lot of it is being revisited now, isn’t it? ‘80s music, ‘80s fashion, ‘80s clothes is all quite in the air, currently.

AMR: And finally, the way things have gone, we should talk about the loss of touch, both in the processes of photography and print, but also in the way music is disseminated online rather than through people buying physical albums. How do you feel about that when you look at the images? Do they remind you of that time? Of working in darkrooms at night, having to get prints ready to deadlines, the locations of photo processing places taking you around London.

TS: Well it was a much longer process then. And also there was always the fear that something awful might have happened. All those rolls of film that you had in the bag and that you needed to get to the midnight processors might have nothing on them. There would be the occasional disasters where something had happened, the film had been loaded wrongly or the images hadn’t quite come out. There was fear, and a sense of trepidation, waiting for the colour processing to come out. I did all of my own black and white developing so I never had to get those processed. I’d go straight to my darkroom, make contact sheets and trawl through these, once I could see all the material, but that happens quite differently now. I think the other ‘loss’ - well it’s not a loss, it’s great knowing you’ve got images straight away which is hugely reassuring of course - but there is a loss spoken of by collectors of records, that there is no longer that wonderful 12inch image that gets associated with the sounds you are listening to, that would often be propped up around the room, as a student, or you’d have posters up, of the images, (many of these album covers also came out as posters).

It was really interesting for me just tracking this list of albums recently, and every time I googled in a name and an album title, the little thumbnail of one of my images would come up, so they are out there and they are poured over by collectors and they are still there as forms of tags. They originally acted as visual containers for the music, which is an interesting concept I don’t think happens so much now. Who would have thought people would be collecting these now?!

[i]For an outline of the lith process see the following from master printer Tim Rudman: