On Photography: Part One

My very first camera was something my father bought me when I went on a school trip to Switzerland when I was twelve. It was quite a long time ago so it was beautiful, but not terribly sophisticated or expensive. I had no idea how to use it. It was a classic black and white film camera, you gave it to the drugstore, and they processed and printed postcard-size pictures. My biggest regret in life would be not documenting everything I experienced, the way Jacques Henri Lartigue did from the age of five. I would have loved to have had an iPhone fifty years before anyone else did because I have so many memories of such extraordinary things, especially when I started working at René of Mayfair.

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

I befriended the photographers, that’s what I remember. My favorite was Barry Lategan, a South African who came to London and eventually became one of the top Vogue photographers, specializing in beauty and hair, and he was good at fashion too. He took those iconic images of Twiggy that helped launch her career. He and Leonard of Mayfair worked together frequently, and I just loved his photography.

I got to work with him once when I was quite young, maybe 20, and I was hopelessly terrified to actually be in a studio with Barry Lategan. I was working for Elizabeth Arden, and they gave me a piece of paper and told me to go to this studio in Chelsea to do hair for a photoshoot. So I got there and it’s filled with people: a famous makeup artist, Barry (who I don’t think even said hello), three statuesque models, and then there’s me, with my little bag of tricks. At lunchtime the photo assistants would set up a ten-foot long piece of wood over a trellis table, and all this food came out. I had never seen food like this before. It made a deep impression on me. My ambition was to work with Barry in his studio more often, but it didn’t happen. I left England in 1972 to move to South Africa.

I started doing hair for one of the best fashion photographers in South Africa, Georgina Karvellis. She would send a girl in, often her girlfriend Marge, with a tear sheet from American Vogue. I would do the hair, and they’d jump in a car and go to the studio without me – and yet, amazingly enough, the hair looked pretty fantastic in the photos. I had a friend, Alan, who was a yoga teacher and a photographer, and he had a studio in his house where we used to do pictures for Bumble.

I moved to New York in 1977, and then Barry moved to New York around 1978 – he fell in love with someone, that happened a lot. I used to work quite a bit for Mademoiselle magazine, where the beauty editor was very supportive of Bumble and I was comfortable with her. I overheard her talking about doing a beauty story with Barry Lategan, so I asked to do the hair. The studio was in the West Village, I still walk by it sometimes. He didn’t remember I was the same little guy from London.

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

I started talking to Barry about living in South Africa, and it turned out he knew my first wife Di, because she’d been a model there. We all had dinner together a few times. He asked if I’d like to come to Rome and shoot the collections with him for Italian Vogue. I said yes, I’d like that very much.

In those days Rome was the fashion capital of Italy, and had fashion shows twice a year. There were two studios, with Barry and I in one, and David Bailey with the legendary Italian hairdresser Aldo Coppola in the other. They actually asked me if I’d cut Aldo Coppola’s hair, that was kind of a thrill. We’d start getting the models ready and photographing them at 6pm, and it would go on until about 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a great experience.

I did a few more shoots with Barry. There was one stunning story that we shot in Fort Lauderdale, with ten pages of saturated blue skies and colors. (This was where I first heard the name Steve Hiett, because people kept asking if it was inspired by his work.) I also did a few ad campaigns with him. But I realized that if I was going to make Bumble a success, I couldn’t be out of the salon so often. I stopped dreaming about being an editorial hairdresser at that point.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

I started taking photos for myself around the early ‘80s, when my daughter Sian was maybe three or four. I used to take her and her big sister Heather away once or twice a year on vacation, just the three of us. I took pictures of the girls at the beach, and they came out well. I’d always been around photographers, and one day I just knew how to take a picture.

Eventually I moved from photographing kids to photographing models. In 1985, we had moved Bumble to the new location on 56th Street. On the top floor of the building was a model agency called Zoli, one of the top agencies at the time. They often sent their new girls downstairs to Bumble to ask us to make their hair different, to give them a look. That’s where I met Stacy Williams, from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s common that if you’re a model with a photographer boyfriend, they usually take the best photos of you, because there’s trust and intimacy between you. Stacy’s friends started asking for pictures, so we had a steady stream of girls that wanted to test at Bumble.

I got so much information about photography just from watching talented people on set. I was never formally trained as a photographer. There were only four things you could control on a camera, which did a lot: the f-stop, the speed of the film, the aperture opening, and the shutter speed. Eventually it just clicked for me. Photography must have been just occupying my brain until suddenly I figured out how to do it. I was also building a library of images from English Vogue, American Vogue, Italian Vogue, Avedon and Penn and everyone I’d worked with – my eye was becoming more sophisticated.