by Chris Cobb / Ottawa Citizen
25th February 2013
OTTAWA — When David Bowie’s manager called John Rowlands two years ago he never guessed it would lead to a pinnacle in his long and distinguished career as a leading, widely-published and respected rock and roll photographer.
Bowie’s people wanted to know if Ottawa-born Rowlands still had the negative of his iconic photograph of the Thin White Duke (Bowie’s theatrical persona at the time) in his ‘Archer’ pose during the singer’s 1976 Station to Station tour.
Two years on, Rowland’s stunning black and white photograph, shot at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, is about to become ubiquitous in London and likely across the world as the marketing image for an ambitious Bowie retrospective at the British capital’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Archer, which is one of Bowie’s own all-time favourite photographs of himself, will be fixed to buses and parts of the London Underground, as well as buttons, postcards and other merchandise.
“I’m told it’s even going to be on napkins at the opening cocktail party,” laughed Rowlands, who took his first rock and roll photograph as a 13-year-old in 1960 when American singer Brenda Lee came to Ottawa. He sent her photos and weeks later she asked for negatives and paid him $30.
The London exhibition will feature 300 Bowie artifacts including handwritten lyrics, costumes, music videos, set designs and concert and album photography.
Rowlands, official photographer for Bowie’s then-recording company RCA Canada, travelled on three of the singer’s tours — Diamond Dogs in 1974, Station to Station in 1976 and the 1978 Isolar 11 (Low/Heroes).
“In 1993 I showed up backstage at the Sound and Vision tour,” recalled Rowlands. “I had several images I wanted him to sign for charity and David’s always into doing that. So he signed them and signed a copy of (the Archer) to me saying ‘To John, One of My All Time Favourite Photographs Ever, David Bowie 1993.’
When Rowland was on the road with Bowie, the photographer developed film immediately after concerts and the two regularly met over breakfast when Bowie would peruse the contact sheets and choose what he wanted for publicity purposes.
“He liked that I could deliver the photos so quickly,” said Rowlands. “We would leisurely have breakfast in his room and he would thumb through 25 images. He said at one point ‘I like the way you shoot, choose six of these and tell RCA I like them.’ That never happened with Elvis. He just liked me because I was Canadian.”
Rowlands took the Archer shot about 30 feet away from the stage as Bowie was preparing to ‘fire’ his imaginary bow as a signal for his lighting engineer to kill the lights.
He credits his Hasselblad camera for producing an image that is striking in its sharp contrasts of whites, blacks and greys.
“It’s very nice — the subtlety in the sleeve and the detail of the spiff of hair at the front,” he said. “It was a $6,000 Hasselblad camera that took the picture so I have to compliment the camera for being that good. I’ve seen many other images of that exact same thing from various angles taken with various cameras. I am very glad I had a Hasselblad that day. It’s my favourite photograph of my 53 years in the rock and roll business.”
Down the years, Rowlands figures he’s sold 300-400 copies of the Archer — “many have found there way into gay hairdressing salons,” he says — but until now, circulation has been limited.
Rowlands last saw and spoke to Bowie at that 1993 backstage autograph session. He says the two of them were never “best buds” but developed a respectful working relationship.
“Bowie is the classiest guy in rock theatre I ever met,” he said. “He knew every aspect of his show — the lighting, his stage positions. He is an iconic figure. I’m impressed with everything the guy has done. He is a wonderful guy.”
The two have a tentative arrangement to meet in New York to shoot a promo photograph for the Victoria and Albert exhibition but Rowlands says he doesn’t know when — or even if — it will happen.
“Like everything David does, we talk about not doing it until we do it,” said Rowlands, now 65 (“three months younger than Bowie.”)
The Victoria and Albert has plans for a launch party but Bowie hasn’t yet said whether he’ll go.
“Mr. Bowie won’t fly so unless his attitude towards flying has changed, if he’s going to make the opening he will be getting on a ship a week before,” added Rowlands. “But he’s unpredictable and inexplicable when it comes to matters such as this. He retired two years ago and then eight months later unretired himself. I think that unpredictability is part of his appeal.”
There will be 300 prints for sale at the V&A Museum — 100 large, 100 medium and 100 small — all signed by both Bowie and Rowlands. Prices haven’t been fixed but Rowlands figures the smallest will sell for at least $1,600.
Ticket sales for the exhibition have already been brisk.
“That indicates to us that 300 prints priced for the high end market should fly out of there,” said Rowlands.
Bowie has never told Rowlands why he likes the photograph as much as he does.
“He just said it was one of his all-time favourites and that was good enough for me.”