Enjoy our faster App experience

What photographer Andrew Kent's images of David Bowie tell us about the singer

Acclaimed photographer Andrew Kent, known for taking some of the most iconic pictures of 70s’ rockstars, talks about the journey he embarked on with the legendary English singer and songwriter



David Bowie prepares his makeup in his hotel suite prior to an impromptu photo shoot that morning in Paris (1976)
David Bowie prepares his makeup in his hotel suite prior to an impromptu photo shoot that morning in Paris (1976)

By Mariella Radaelli

Published: Thu 5 May 2022, 6:37 PM

Last updated: Thu 5 May 2022, 6:39 PM

In the mid-70s, American photographer Andrew Kent witnessed privileged moments with David Bowie, a multifaceted, enigmatic music genius with striking looks. Kent intimately captured the magic of the incredibly versatile English rockstar, especially when Bowie took on a new persona known as the Thin White Duke. That specific alter ego was a ghoulish, theatrical and emotionally detached aristocrat who appeared in Station to Station, a 1976 masterpiece album steeped in occult beliefs, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought and Christian imagery. Bowie later revealed that the title alluded to the Stations of the Cross.

In the early spring of 1976, Bowie took friend and fellow musician Iggy Pop and Kent along on the Isolar Tour, a world tour promoting the album Station to Station. They toured through America and Europe and even quickly visited the Soviet Union. In Moscow, the photographer also filmed Bowie visiting Lenin’s tomb. They would travel by ship and train because Bowie had a severe fear of flying. Kent wielded the camera as one would a blade — precise and controlled, yet with delicate grace.

Bowie was losing himself in Los Angeles. While living in his rented house in Bel Air, he became obsessed with occult and black magic. He was in the depths of his addiction with related delusions and isolation. He would remain awake for days and survive primarily on a diet of milk and peppers. But at some point, he wanted to abandon the frightening experience of emotional, existential turmoil. He managed to find solace in Farewell to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s novel, and the music of Kraftwerk. Those two subjects pushed him to imagine his return to Europe, later transforming that into reality. At the end of the European leg of the tour, David Bowie and Iggy Pop set out to make new careers in Berlin, a unique, atmospheric city, bohemian, unpretentious yet glamorous.

Kent, 74, is an acclaimed photographer of musicians born and raised in Los Angeles. Today, he lives in Sun Valley, Idaho. He created many famous images of 1970s rock superstars, including Jim Morrison, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Elton John, Freddy Mercury and Keith Richards. However, Kent’s most incredible collaboration was with David Bowie from 1975 to 1978. His shots with Bowie are pure ’70s, starting from the clothes and atmosphere to the moods and textures. Sixty of his candid portraits of Bowie are currently on show in Milan at the Arcimboldi Theatre. The photography exhibit David Bowie: The Passenger, which will run until July 31, focuses on a pivotal period in Bowie’s career starting from the moment he decided it was time to leave America for Europe after the success of the 1975 album Young Americans that marked a departure from the glam rock style. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Andrew Kent
Andrew Kent

When did you first meet Bowie?

Cameron Crowe introduced me to David Bowie at the Cherokee Studios in the Fairfax district of West Hollywood, where he was recording his album Station to Station. In Cameron’s opinion, our sensibilities would mesh perfectly. So, thank you, Cameron! I flew to Vancouver, the first concert on the North American leg of the Isolar Tour. That was my trial by fire, and Bowie placed his total trust in me. Everything went well and I became part of a small travelling group that included Iggy Pop. We toured the US and then Europe.

Filmmaker and former music journalist Cameron Crowe said your photos portrayed “Bowie’s exhaustion and effort, insecurity, joy”.

I have never put the camera in Bowie’s face. That is probably another reason why he liked me. I have always tried to respect the man and the artiste. That is probably the reason why I have always thought that David Bowie, as well as David Robert Jones, was comfortable in front of my camera. I really hope so!

So, did you have long photo sessions with Bowie each time?

No, I preferred to spend time with him to understand the man behind the artiste. I often asked him to take a walk on the streets as an ordinary man and see what happened. And you can see that when looking at the pictures I took in Berlin or Paris, for example. Shooting live gigs was a different job, exciting but different. On the stage, there was David Bowie, wholly immersed in his persona.

David Bowie dressed in a full length black leather trench coat and hat in East Berlin (1976)
David Bowie dressed in a full length black leather trench coat and hat in East Berlin (1976)

After so many years, how would you define Bowie’s personality?

Bowie was changing at that time. And for a person like him, changing is a new departure. When I met him, he was planning to leave Los Angeles, where he was literally dying because of addiction and his lifestyle. As Cameron Crowe once said, Bowie was a chameleon, an ever-changing man, an intellectual, a conversationalist par excellence and an entertainer. I can say that I have never met another artiste like David Bowie. Everyone who had the chance to meet him in person had the same impression: he was truly unique.

Bowie had a great sense of humour. But he was in a fog those years. Did you ever feel any tension with him?

I have never felt tension with him. He was an entertainer but also a thinker who loved to save a few seconds of his tumultuous life to spend in silence to consider which one would have been the next step.

What is your favourite shot?

I am fond of many shots: the series of pictures I took of David and Iggy Pop at Red Square in Moscow, the ones in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. They looked like old stooges; they survived addictions, endured their own fame and survived their inner monsters. They were also ready to reinvent themselves in another place — Berlin — and make incredible music. A new beginning, and what a beginning!

During the European leg of the tour, Bowie asked you if you fancied a side trip to Moscow. You had to organise the transit visas. Can you tell us more about the Moscow hours, staying at the Metropol Hotel, and shooting on the Red Square?

We had a week off in Zurich and they had elected me to be the getter of visas and documentation to go to Russia on a transit visa from Basel to Warsaw to Moscow to Helsinki. Being an American citizen, I was really scared. We were in a country where ordinary people from the Western world weren’t allowed to travel. On the contrary, David seemed relaxed and I think he enjoyed his second visit to Moscow. The Russian police on the train weren’t friendly with us, but nobody came to the railway station to check on us. We went to the Aeroflot travel agency — probably the only place where people could speak English — rented a van and drove to the Metropol Hotel where David wanted to have dinner. By the way, the Metropol Hotel was then the only international hotel in Moscow. Before having dinner, we walked to Red Square, and I took many pictures. A great day! But, after that, being in charge of bringing our stuff to the train, I drove to the railway station. Fortunately, I had some chewing gum to share with the porters and make new Russian friends. But I could only relax once we left Moscow, heading to Helsinki.

What happened when the USSR customs detained Bowie on the Russian border for allegedly possessing Nazi paraphernalia?

I am Jewish, so I am very sensitive to these subjects. I had never thought Bowie had sympathy for the Nazi party and its adepts who conceived the Holocaust. I only remember the police stopped the train at the Russian border, and they confiscated some of his belongings, including books and one of my Playboy magazines.

And what really happened in London on the day of his alleged Nazi salute?

Regarding the alleged Nazi salute at Victoria Station, a British photographer took the infamous picture for a magazine. The editor at the bureau added Bowie’s hand in post-production because the camera flash was too strong, and the camera did not capture on film his entire arm. I believe that David was waving hello to his fans and nothing else.

David Bowie strolls about Moscow’s Red Square with Iggy Pop and manager Pat Gibbons (1976)
David Bowie strolls about Moscow’s Red Square with Iggy Pop and manager Pat Gibbons (1976)

Did you give directions while shooting?

David Bowie was magnetic with a mysterious and profound personality. He was leading every photoshoot in some way. Even when I tried to bring to the photo frame what David and I had in mind, his charisma was bigger than the picture I wanted to take.

Did you become good friends?

We became friends during the period we worked together in the ’70s. Then I retired into the Idaho mountains. Later, Bowie’s name became huge. I am talking about Let’s Dance, which marked a period during and after Bowie experienced global success. At that point, it was impossible to stay in touch with him.

How did you get started as a rock and roll photographer? Does it have something to do with the Summer of Love that you documented through your Nikon camera at only 18? Was it then that you wanted to be a music photographer, the time when more than 100,000 young hippies converged in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood?

I started working for the legendary Los Angeles Free Press, the largest of the underground newspapers of the 1960s. Then I met my business partner Neil Preston and we became two of the most booked photographers of the music scene in LA. The Summer of Love was something real, and San Francisco was another exciting place at that time, but LA has always been a world apart with its peculiarity. That said, me and Neil shared that empire for several years until I went on tour with Bowie.

You quit your career in the ’80s and left California for the quiet of Sun Valley, Idaho.

I am still living in Sun Valley. When I went there to attend my sister’s wedding, I fell in love with the place. I wanted to spend the rest of my life there. But first, I had to do a favour to a friend and I was committed to my last photo assignment: travelling the East Coast with the tour bus of The Black Sabbath and Van Halen. It was funny, but I wanted to go back to Sun Valley and stay there for good.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


More news from Arts and Culture