When Fiona Adams returned to London in the early 60s she realised there was a new mood in the air and a youthful spirit inspiring music, fashion and the arts.  She quickly tapped into this and created some of the most famous and lasting images of the era with a style which seemed to typify the ‘swingin’ atmosphere of the time.

There’s a very telling picture in the book accompanying the exhibition Beatles to Bowie: the 60s Exposed at the Norwich Castle Museum which examines the pop world of that era and the work of the photographers who captured it. This particular shot was taken in January 1967 and shows the Rolling Stones sitting on a bench in London’s Green Park surrounded by a large group of snappers. The Stones’ PR people had called the photocall to promote the band’s latest album – Between the Buttons – and their forthcoming coast-to-coast US tour.

Amongst the dozen or so photographers seen in the photo, hunched over her Rolleiflex, is Fiona Adams, the only female present. Looking at the photo now, Fiona remembers the scene well.

“I was the only woman there. It was a completely male profession and I used to hate press scrums like this. I was so lucky in that usually I was sent out on individual assignments.”

Fiona Adams on a shoot with the Pretty Things for Fabulous

Those assignments helped make Fiona one of the top photographer’s of the sixties and undoubtedly one of the stars of the exhibition. Yet it all started on her native Guernsey when she was a child, with the gift of an old Kodak Brownie camera from a friendly holiday couple.

“They said to me ‘would you like this box Brownie? It doesn’t fire every time but you might like to have it’ ” recalls Fiona. “I would put rolls of film in it and about four shots would come out from each one, just messing about really.

“Then my mother got me a paperback about careers which had a section on photography and so I enrolled at Ealing School of Art. As I’d left school at 16 I had two free years there because we were living in Middlesex at East Twickenham at that time and the county supported me.”

Fiona graduated from Ealing as Student of the Year in 1955 and went for an interview with New Zealand-born portrait photographer Douglas Glass. Glass had come up the hard way doing a variety of jobs from sheep shearing to cowhand but eventually settled on photography. He had a regular section in The Sunday Times called ‘Portrait Gallery’ where he was commissioned to shoot famous politicians, dignitaries and stars of the day.

“He was a volatile character,” says Fiona, “quite small with a huge black beard and a mass of black hair, but he could be exceedingly charming. He looked at my portfolio and said: ‘how do I know you’ve done any of this?’ So I replied that he’d just have to take my word for it. I was a very shy, 18-year-old but he took me on and it was a fantastic learning curve. But he did say to me ‘people use me as a stepping stone: I hope you’re not going to do that.’ He also said most people didn’t last longer than six months with him.

“I learnt a lot from him though. At college one teacher took half an hour to light a portrait and then took one shot. Douglas Glass had a completely different technique. He would take many shots while talking to the sitter to create a relaxed, less-stylised result.”

Fiona managed to beat the six-month record, lasting seven in all, before she went to work at the old LCC – the London County Council – as a photographic assistant to help maintain a record of the council’s properties.

“I thought great, I’ll learn all about architectural photography, but when I got there they wanted me to be a printer really, not a photographer, which was not what I wanted.

“I stayed too long because they paid rather well. I tried to leave several times and attended a few interviews, but nothing appeared that was really interesting, so I stayed there for over four years. To any young person I’d say that’s the biggest mistake you can make, staying too long in any one job early in your career, because you need to learn from a variety of jobs at that stage.”

Fiona with exhibition curator Terence Pepper at the National Portrait Gallery, London

After an extended period in Australia, Fiona returned at Christmas 1962 to a changed and changing London. “I was walking around in a different world from the one I’d left a few years earlier. I’d been in a staid atmosphere for four years at the LCC but suddenly here I was in an exciting new environment with new, fun clothes and a new music scene.”

But Fiona was finding it hard to get work again until she walked into an employment agency in Oxford Street who offered her one weeks’ work as a photographer at Boyfriend magazine. Founded in 1959 and published by Picture Story Publications, Boyfriend – as the name implies – catered for the female pop fan with its pin-up section and romantic picture stories.

Fiona’s early assignments featured standard profiles of singers like Billy Fury and Adam Faith for the magazine’s pull-out centrefold. But she was beginning to think deeply about how she could make her shots stand out as the music scene took off in the UK. It was this thoughtful, well-planned approach which led to her most famous photo: the Beatles jumping in the air, used uncredited on the sleeve of their first EP, Twist and Shout, in 1963. The picture has often been said to epitomise the swingin’ sixties scene and helped set the tone for the era, and it came about partly thanks to the influence of an American photographer called Philippe Halsman and Fiona’s unique approach.

Halsman had published a book in 1961 called Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas in which he had set out three rules for producing distinctive photography: “the rule of the unusual technique”, “the rule of the added unusual feature” and “the rule of the missing feature”.

Halsman had arrived at these precepts through his experience on a 1951 commission from NBC to shoot famous comedians of the time such as Bob Hope, Sid Caesar and Groucho Marx. He captured many of them jumping in mid air which led to him adopting this as a style in his later work where he snapped such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and Salvador Dali, all mid-jump. He published his shots in a 1959 volume called Jump Book, containing 178 celebrity jumpers in all. He explained: “when you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.” Halsman even claimed to have developed a philosophy of jump photography, which he called ‘jumpology’, although his tongue at this point was firmly in his cheek.

“It’s a book where everybody in it is jumping against a pure white background. In a studio and he got everyone to jump – because that way they were less inhibited,” says Fiona. “They were coming to a studio shoot but unexpectedly he was gong to ask them to jump. And the one I always remember was of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor jumping. A fantastic picture!” Interestingly, this is one of  Halsman’s non-studio shots, taken in what appears to be the couple’s grand, Parisian villa, but the Duke’s leaping is prodigious.

Fiona took Halsman’s ideas on board and combined them with her own meticulous eye for detail and capacity for hard work. No stranger to London bus travel from her days lugging heavy equipment around for the LCC shoots, Fiona took to London Transport again, this time seeking out locations from the tops of buses. She explains:

“I used to ride around London looking for background locations in order to take the subjects out of the studio and make the photographs more interesting.”

Fiona had met the Beatles the weekend before the shoot in April 1963 at the ABC Studios in Teddington, where they were miming “From Me to You” for the programme Thank your Lucky Stars.

“I just sat down next to them and said I was from Boyfriend magazine and would they mind coming up to the studio for a shoot the following week and they said fine. It was as casual as that in those days. You didn’t have to go through a manager or  any other official channel.

“So I had that seed in my head about relaxing people from Halsman’s approach, not that the Beatles needed relaxing. I was on the top of a bus when I saw that particular location on the Euston Road. I also liked to photograph people from underneath or from above instead of straight on so that location provided that facility and it had a bombed out cellar.”

Fiona was not the first photographer to use derelict buildings – witness Don McCullin’s shot ‘The Guvnors’ of 1958 showing a north London gang standing in a decrepit house –  and Dezo Hoffman also shot the Beatles jumping in Liverpool that same month, but she was the first to combine the two. Her inspiration produced one of the most famous shots of the ‘60s.

Fiona Adams and her famous Beatles shot

After a year with Boyfriend, Fiona left to become a staff photographer at Fabulous, a weekly, in April 1964. The publication aimed at taking circulation from older, more formulaic titles like Boyfriend and New Musical Express and its circulation soon hit 250,000 copies.

Shirley Freeman was Fiona’s 18-year-old picture editor and she never hesitated in assigning the difficult jobs to her. “Unfortunately, the better you are as a photographer the tougher the job. That usually means when people don’t want to be photographed or if one group member is in a mood. One celebrity you can handle, but one moody group member is different. Fiona’s personality was such that she could just control the whole thing and bring subjects out of themselves, like getting the Beatles to leap three feet in the air. A lot of photographers couldn’t do that.”

From 1964 until she left in 1967, Fiona contributed 348 ‘pin-up’ colour shots of pop stars for the magazine. “This business was our whole life. You’d be shooting all day, then go to a record company reception, have a few drinks and go on to a gig. There was no time for anything else.”

One series of portraits she is particularly proud of from this period displays a contemplative Jimi Hendrix, who Fiona found an intriguing subject.

“He really stood out because no one looked like him. I was in the Bag O’ Nails club in London to see him when he played his famous gig there in January 1967 and the Stones and the Beatles were in the audience. Word must have got out but I hardly knew who he was. He’d just been sitting at one of the tables and got up on stage and he opened up and I couldn’t believe it! It was absolutely incredible. I’d never seen a guitar played like that and the sound coming out of it was amazing.”

A few months later, Fiona and Fabulous journalist June Southworth were travelling with the Jimi Hendrix Experience on a UK tour and, as they were driving by coach from Birmingham to Lincoln, Jimi came and sat with them, Fiona recalls. “We thought fantastic, we actually had a chance to talk with him. He spoke in an extraordinarily creative way, a very clever man, almost poetic. In truth, it was all a bit unexpected, but fascinating.”

Next morning, Fiona took a series of shots in the back garden of a hotel in Lincoln where they had all been staying. Until they were displayed last year at London’s National Portrait Gallery, Fiona had only previously exhibited them on her native Guernsey. They can now be judged as outstanding examples of Fiona’s art and some of the best ever taken of the great guitarist.

Fiona Adams and her Hendrix portrait

In some ways, that shoot can be seen as Fiona’s photographic farewell to the world of rock and pop, as she explains. “By 1967 things were becoming more difficult to cope with in terms of the job. The attitude of the bands was changing, they were becoming more distant and drugs were taking their toll. I remember coming back from a shoot with a band I knew well and liked and I was travelling with the drummer on the tube, and he was just incoherent. It worried and saddened me.”

Adds Shirley: “As groups became more famous they were increasingly insulated by their empires and the job became more difficult. The more successful they became the more hoops we had to jump through to get access to them. There would be publicists, managers and so on whereas before it was as simple as calling one of the group up directly to arrange a shoot.” And there was another aspect to the job which made for additional complications, as Fiona explains.

“In photography you can never relax. You always want to come up with new ideas, for yourself if for no one else. I think I was a very hard taskmaster to myself and it was becoming impossible to make things look different any more. You started to become repetitive and it was beginning to worry me. It was getting to the point where I needed a change.”

That change was radical as, at the end of 1967, Fiona went to work for American Express and travelled the world shooting for their high-end ads and travel brochures.  Marriage, family life and even more travel followed before Fiona eventually returned to the Channel Islands where she is still working as a professional photographer.

“For years I never really thought about what I’d done in the 60s. It was only two years after I got back to settle in Guernsey again, in 1989, that someone said to me why not mount an exhibition of your work? I’d never had one in my life and I didn’t really know what I’d got. I found an old suitcase with contact sheets and also I never left anywhere without printing up my portfolio of work from that job.”

Thanks to Fiona and her thoroughgoing approach, we can now take a fresh look at the stars of one of the greatest musical decades of the twentieth century, and marvel once more at the work of a great photographer.

‘Beatles to Bowie: the 60s Exposed’ is showing at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 5 September 2010

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