David Bowie photo exhibition - review

Geoff MacCormack was a lot of things to David Bowie – a lifelong friend, a backing singer and percussionist, his movie-stand in, and now the chronicler of some amazing times during the perhaps the creative peak of his career.

Friday, 11th June 2021, 4:30 pm
Updated Tuesday, 15th June 2021, 11:01 am
Portrait by Geoff MacCormack
Portrait by Geoff MacCormack

Geoff MacCormack was a lot of things to David Bowie – a lifelong friend, a backing singer and percussionist, his movie-stand in, and now the chronicler of some amazing times during the perhaps the creative peak of his career.

Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me – Bowie/MacCormack 1973-76 is exhibiting at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery again following a pandemic-induced hiatus.

The exhibition, which includes 80 large original framed photographs of Bowie, begins with separate portraits of them as eight-year-old schoolchildren in Bromley, at the start of their friendship.

David Bowie and Geoff MacCormack

The pair shared a love of rock and roll, and the exhibition soundtrack chimes in with the sounds of Elvis, Junior Parker and Little Richard.

Fast-forward to 1973 and the ascendent star, who had found success after years of abortive projects and failed musical vehicles, with his Ziggy Stardust incarnation.

MacCormack took up the offer to tour with him and his band the Spiders from Mars, and the exhibition begins a photographic tour around the world and through a staggeringly prolific period of Bowie’s career.

The great man’s fear of flying meant the tours often took a ‘scenic route’ and all the long journeys by train and sea were all the better for MacCormack’s camera – initially just a cheap instamatic.

Image by Geoff MacCormack

The travel photos begin with relatively familiar images of the 1973 version of the rock and roll chameleon, orange bog-brush hair atop a near skeletal frame, shocking teeth, and the famously asymmetrical eyes unencumbered by eyebrows and looking every inch the androgynous space freak.

What isn’t so familiar is the locations. You immediately wonder what a conservative 1970s Japan made of him, and boozy images of Bowie aboard the Trans-Siberian Express give way to a Puckish-Bowie overlooking Moscow’s May Day military parade from a hotel room, where we’re told a hotel attendant ‘watched us like she was privy to the first sighting of aliens from Mars’.

Elsewhere there are marvellous candid shots of the Spider from Mars, Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and the brilliant Mick Ronson, whose musical nous and arrangements were such a important part to Bowie’s sound for much of that period.

The Spiders didn’t always look their best tottering about the stage in platforms and they’re mercifully make-up free in MacCormack’s photos. They’re instead seen sleeping on tour buses, playing chess, reading about Scientology and trying to make the best of the slog of touring. There’s an especially striking image of Bowie after the legendary show at the Hammersmith Odeon, where he announced an early retirement and the death of Ziggy, to adoring screaming audience, but hadn’t thought to share that news with the Spiders beforehand.

Footage from a BBC report puts the Ziggy images into the context of the mega success, as Bowie and the Spiders (in happier times) attempt to leave a venue but they’re limo is almost overwhelmed by hordes of crazed hairy, and superbly 1970s-styled fans.

There’s also a brilliant section of paraphernalia and odds and sods from their travels, including a deck plan of the SS Canberra (the ship they travelled to New York on), beautifully handwritten Amtrak train tickets, and 46-year old stage passes.

Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars also played a short distance from the exhibition, and an enlarged ticket of the 1973 Brighton Dome show reveals Brightonians had the chance to see them for the price of £1.20.

The retirement obviously lasted as long as one of Bowie’s adopted musical styles, and the exhibition moves on to the Diamond Dogs/Soul tour, then through to the New Mexico sands for the filming of The Man who Fell to Earth.

There are a few more interesting faces along the way, an impossibly cool-looking Bobby Womack, Herbie Flowers. Ronnie Wood, who played on session for the Station to Station album but didn’t make it to the final cut, and a sweet image of Bowie’s young son Duncan on the lap of film director Nicholas Roeg.

The final section of the exhibition features more larger scale images and the most arresting portraits of Bowie. A triptych sees Bowie sat outside a pawn shop, short, slicked back gold and orange hair matching the neon sign, cigarette held in nicotine stained, slightly grubby fingers but looking great all the same.

Equally as gorgeous is a huge black and white portrait of Bowie in a Japanese restaurant, appropriately in L.A. as the superbly composed, dramatically lit image could well be of a Silverscreen movie idol.

Elsewhere the shots of Bowie as the dapper besuited alien Thomas Jerome Newton are also rather tasty, but also hint at the sadness of the character from The Man who Fell to Earth.

But amongst the posed shots and cheekbones, there are some excellent candid images.

It obviously helped that MacCormack was a friend and bandmate to Bowie rather than a photographer, and he was able to capture of natural shots as result. Everyday images such as Bowie sleeping in a booze and fag-filled carriage on the Trans-Siberian Express, or attempting to get the better of a model aeroplane bought for Duncan (cigarette in the mouth again, naturally).

There’s also a lot of goofng around, snatched photos of nose-picking fellow travellers, larks with unsuspecting sleeping tour drivers, and gurning for pics in the style of the Monty Python characters.

The above will come as no surprise to Bowie fans, because for every insightful observation (he famously predicted the power of the Internet in a Newsnight interview in 1999) and every new style of music name-dropped, Bowie sense of humour was often in evidence in even the dullest interview.

The exhibition ends as it began with the two lifelong friends, this time photographed together in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York , looking fit, healthy and happy, and it all seems a world away from the remarkable times pictured in the gallery.