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Life through Brian's eyes

Paula Yates, West Sussex, 2000
Paula Yates, West Sussex, 2000

In his life as a photographer, Brian Aris has stared through a lens at some of the richest and the poorest people in the world. Helen Geraghty made the most of a privileged peek into his work, ahead of his new exhibition in Kent.

He’s risked death to get war zone pictures, he’s recorded images of tiny starving children and he’s been a friend to the stars.

Brian Aris started taking pictures aged 14 at the suggestion of an art teacher who had despaired at the boy’s apparent lack of artistic talent.

Now, after half-a-century of wielding a camera, his photographs have featured in Vogue and magazines all over the world – as well as in the National Portrait Gallery.

Brian Aris is settled at Eastling, near Faversham, and has just put the finishing touches to a major Kent exhibition of some of his favourite work.

His career began in 1960 as a runner for a London news picture agency, which allowed him to make contacts with picture desks at the national newspapers.

He says: “There was no way I wanted to wait seven years before getting a chance to take the pictures rather than just deliver them. The career path was clearly defined – from runner to darkroom dogsbody, helping out with the various developing and printing processes, before eventually being allowed out as an assistant with a senior photographer. I was far too impatient for that and, after a year with the agency, decided to write to my local newspaper.

“I managed to land a job in their darkroom but I was soon promoted to junior photographer.”

Annie Lennox, Cosmo cover, 1983
Annie Lennox, Cosmo cover, 1983

Brian’s plan to become a photographer on the big news stories wasn’t always easy. He says: “My plan was to follow any emergency vehicle that appeared with blue lights flashing so as to be the first photographer on the scene. In putting this plan into action, one major obstacle stood in my way – I didn’t have a car. In fact, I hadn’t even learned to drive. Undeterred, I saved as much of my wages as I could and used the money to pay for driving lessons.”

Next step was a news agency in north London – and the stories never stopped coming in. Belfast for the Daily Mirror in 1969 followed, Vietnam for Life magazine in 1970, and then it was off to Ethiopia to cover Princess Anne’s official visit on behalf of the Save The Children Fund. One of the photographs Brian took of the princess during the trip made the cover of British Vogue.

Madonna, London studio, 1984 by Brian Aris
Madonna, London studio, 1984 by Brian Aris

Moving into celebrity and royal photography, Brian mixed with the rich and famous, from Mick Jagger to Annie Lennox, and was photographer at some of the most amazing weddings.

He recalls: “The locations were often highly exotic – from the magnificent surroundings of the cathedral in Florence where David Bowie married Iman, to the castle in Ireland where Spice girl Victoria Adams and David Beckham exchanged vows. Joan Collins chose Claridges for her marriage to fifth husband Percy Gibson while Bob Geldof and Paula Yates celebrated their nuptials in the old priory where they lived in Faversham. Paula of course, not wishing to be conventional, wore a red Jasper Conran wedding dress and made the front pages.

“Trudie Styler made an even more eye-catching entrance when she married Sting at their splendid West Country home, arriving for the ceremony on a horse led by her husband-to-be, with designer Gianni Versace in attendance to look after his dress, or 'creation’ as he insisted on calling it.”

Belfast protest, 1970
Belfast protest, 1970

Brian went to Belfast for the Daily Mirror, from 1969

He recalls one terrifying night: “I arrived in the Falls Road in Belfast with a French photographer and a Belgian journalist I had met in Londonderry. We had been tipped off that the Falls Road area was where the real story was about to unfold so we loaded our cameras and drove straight there, arriving at around midnight to find the place deserted, the road itself covered in bricks and broken glass and every street light broken.

“Within minutes our VW Beetle had been hijacked by two masked gunmen, who were kind enough not to shoot us and even allowed us to keep our cameras so we could 'tell the world the real story of the rioting on the Falls’.

“Seven people were killed that night and we watched Belfast turn into a war zone.”

Vietnamese orphanage, 1972
Vietnamese orphanage, 1972

Vietnam was a proper war zone

Brian’s first trip to Vietnam in 1972 focused on orphaned children abandoned in refugee camps.

He recalls “Vietnam, to me, was a proper war zone and, as a long-time admirer of war photographers such as Donald McCullin, my great personal hero, I desperately wanted to work there.

“Despite the fact that the worst was over by the time I got there, there were still stories to be told. The first one I sent back to England focused on the wounded and orphaned children abandoned because they were half American, fathered by GIs who had then left them behind.

“However, when I got back home to Kent, the agency called to say that they would be returning my films unused as the American market was no longer interested in Vietnam. I was devastated by such short-sighted fickleness.”

Paula proved me wrong

The Whitstable exhibition is dedicated to TV presenter and mum of four, Paula Yates, who died of an accidental heroin overdose aged 41, just months after this happy photograph was taken in a sunny West Sussex in 2000.

Brian recalls: “I opened my first studio in Old Street, East London, a very run-down and unfashionable area at the time. One sunny summer day I answered a ring at the doorbell to find that there was a traffic jam in the street outside caused by the tiny slip of a girl who was standing on my doorstep. She was wearing a skimpy, see-through dress that was backlit by the sun to such spectacular effect that passing truck and taxi drivers had all ground to a halt and were leaning out of their cabs to voice their appreciation.

Bob Geldof visiting refugee feeding centre in Ethiopia, 1987 by Brian Aris
Bob Geldof visiting refugee feeding centre in Ethiopia, 1987 by Brian Aris

“Happily basking in all this attention was a very young Paula Yates. Paula wanted to be a model and refused to be put off by my explaining to her as gently as possible that she was a bit too short. She left vowing to return and prove me wrong, which she was to do repeatedly over the next 20-odd years. On her second visit she brought along her boyfriend, Bob Geldof. I took the first pictures of them together and an extraordinary friendship began.

“Too short to be a model? I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Her personality, drive and originality took her on to the covers of magazines and newspapers around the world.

“She married Bob, became a star in her own right and moved to Kent, becoming a neighbour as well as a dear friend. She truly was a unique soul who remained very special to me until the day she left us in such tragic circumstances. I feel privileged to have known Paula and I miss her mischief-making and naughtiness to this day. There is nobody more fitting for me to dedicate this little show to.”

Debbie Harry, New York apartment, 1988
Debbie Harry, New York apartment, 1988

Friendship has lasted 35 years

Brian’s career path as hard news photographer took a twist into the limelight when he met Debbie Harry.

Brian Aris
Brian Aris

He recalls: “By the time Debbie Harry arrived in my studio one day in 1977 I was ready for a change of direction and the Blondie star proved instrumental in sign-posting the way in which I decided to go.

“Debbie was stunningly beautiful and quite unlike any punk I had come across on the London club scene. For one thing, she didn’t spit at you! As soon as I got to know Debbie and her partner Chris Stein I realised that theirs was a world I really wanted to photograph and explore. I couldn’t have had a better first rock subject.

“And, to this day, Debbie still rates as one of the most beautiful women I have ever photographed. Our photographic relationship and our friendship have lasted 35 years.”

War Zones to the Red Carpet – Photographs by Brian Aris, runs from Saturday, April 7, to Sunday, June 10, from 10am to 4pm at the Whitstable Museum and Gallery. Entry is included in museum entry charge; adults £3, discounts £2. Children free to a maximum of two children per paying adult. For information ring 01227 276998. Whitstable Museum and Gallery is at 5 Oxford Street, Whitstable.

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