Like his work, Bob Carlos Clarke was at his best playing the provocateur. Killing himself in 2006 was probably his most provocative act. And his most tragic.
Author Simon Garfield's new book Exposure: The Unusual Life & Violent Death Of Bob Carlos Clarke paints the Cork-born photographer as a contradiction as compelling as the pornographically charged black-and-white images he left behind. When the Daily Telegraph called his campaign in 2000 for Urban Stone jeans "the rudest ad ever printed," Bob couldn't hide his delight about the fuss. The graphic image featured two beautiful young women in an intimate embrace with a grateful young man. I was grateful to know Bob. In the 10 years I knew him, I had a friendship of sorts with him.
The whole point of erotic photography, he told me at the time, is that it should arouse people. And if it doesn't arouse people, then it doesn't work. "I'd be more offended," he grinned mischievously, "if they didn't think it was porn". In 2002, Bob showed me a copy of a private poem by his late father, Charles. These few lines typed on yellowing paper gave me an immediate insight into the background of the most controversial photographer ever to have come out of Ireland. Entitled A Passing Thought, the poem read:
"Give me, for choice, a millionaire's daughter/
They always f*** well and spend money like water/
It really is practically always a fluke/If you have any fun with the wife of a duke."
Whatever about a duchess, Charlie Carlos Clarke married the Fifth Earl of Ranfurly's daughter, Lady Eileen Maud Juliana Knox, on November 24, 1914. They divorced in 1935. The following year, he married his second wife, Countess de Pretrose. Eton-educated Charles, who had gained the rank of major in the service of the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars and managed estates for the Duke of Marlborough, was acquainted with Wallis Simpson and the Prince of Wales and the upper echelons of British society. However, he was to scandalise that very society when in the early Forties, he began an affair with his personal secretary, Myra Dora Lynn, who was 30 years his junior. He would eventually leave his wife for her in 1947.
Charles and Myra escaped the moral furore and the unwelcome press attention by retreating to Schull where their first son, Bob, was born on June 24, 1950.
"They came to Ireland to get out of the spotlight because there was a lot of attention, and my father's son by his first marriage was kicking up a lot of fuss and unpleasant stuff was coming out in the papers," Bob told me in that provocatively posh English accent of his in 2002. "So they got out of England and took a caravan to west Cork. I believe it was the very first time that anyone had ever seen a car-drawn caravan. It created a sensation. They set it up in Schull on the cliff-tops and stayed there for a year while he was divorcing the countess."
Bob Carlos Clarke inherited the seeming love of the mischievous from his father. When Bob was 16, he posted a bullet inside an envelope to a girlfriend who had written to him to say she was going to take her own life after he ended their relationship. The note inside said: "This one's on me."
The guards in Cork didn't see the funny side of it when the girl's parents notified them. His aunt Jessie, the Marchioness of Ormonde, told his mother: "Sadly, I can envisage nothing for Robert but prison."
"It was wonderful piece of cruelty," Bob recalled to me with a wicked laugh. It was an another piece of cruelty, less wonderful however, that scarred Bob's young life forever perhaps ...
He was shipped off to boarding school in Dublin when he was eight. He never forgot the experience. In Garfield's new book, Bob's widow Lindsey says: "I always imagined there was a big, dark mess in his head to do with his childhood that he never came to terms with. But it was probably even worse than I expected. I mean, lots of people get sent away to school. Bob hated every moment of, and everything about it. He wrote endlessly tear-stained letters home: 'Get me out of here, this is so awful.'
"His mother, Myra, didn't want Bob to be sent away to school," added Lindsey. "In fact, she thought it was the most terrible thing. And then she had Andrew, who was eight years younger than Bob. So Bob went away to school, got home and found somebody in his nest. He never got over it, never. He used to do terrible things to Andrew -- terrible, terrible torturous things. You know, nail him into a box and roll him down a cliff. Wished he was dead."
The sad fact is, Bob is dead. On March 25, 2006, the mercurial Cork man (who is hardly known in Cork), who had been attending the Priory for three weeks, checked out of the hospital in south west London, before walking a short distance to a railway track at Barnes where at 11.33am he threw himself in front of the train to Windsor.
Lindsey visited the railway crossing with a girlfriend who burst into tears. "I just felt absolutely nothing," she says. "What I realise is that he must have done it in a split second. Bob had fantastic timing, and he must have had split-second timing because you have to go over the barrier and then into the train. It's two jumps."
Bob's 16-year-old daughter, Scarlett, discovered a quote by Bob from one of his books after he died. It read: "For the purposes of deification an early and appropriate death is essential. If you want to qualify as a legend, get famous young, die tragically and dramatically and never underestimate the importance of your unrepeatable, irreplaceable, iconic photographs."
Dark of thought, Bob was more than at home in his dark room. When he photographed a beautiful young woman, he would think, "she'll age and crumble and yet I'll have her in my camera for ever". In 2004, in a bar in Chelsea before a Britney Spears concert he told me he didn't want to become an "old fart". He seemed frightened of getting old. One theory advanced as to why Bob killed himself was that he was depressed to be growing old while all his models always seemed to stay 21. He was becoming an old fart.
"We saw Terence Donovan about a month before he killed himself," Lindsey said of the photographer who hanged himself in his study in November 1996. "And they'd given all sorts of reasons what they think happened there. But Terence had also come to the edge of a situation where he was no longer the happening photographer who could dance with the girls. But Bob could really have been the grand master. I remember Scarlett saying, 'If only Daddy would calm down, he would be so cool.'"
When Helmut Newton died in 2004 after leaving an iconic LA hotel and losing control of his Cadillac and crashing into a wall across the street -- Bob told me: "If I could live that long and die in a Cadillac at the age of 83 coming out of Chateau Marmont -- I can't think of anything cooler."
Cliche or not, he was Ireland's answer to Helmut Newton. He photographed a topless Caprice in black-leather gloves and a black mask, Rachel Weisz in rubber, Jordan suspended semi-naked by her ankles from the studio ceiling. Bob Carlos Clarke's work was a celebration -- a dark Marquis de Sade-style celebration, albeit -- of female flesh. He was 16 when he was first introduced to the pleasures of the flesh. This carnal introduction was generously provided by a Catholic girl two years his senior, in the cabbage patch on the Ardmore Cliffs.
"I enjoyed all two minutes of it," Bob told me over lunch in London in 2004 . (Bob was always a pruriently entertaining lunch companion.) The red-haired Dublin girl in Cork for her summer hols was, he told me, "slightly brazen, upfront, none of this wilting Protestant shit. It was a relief." They arranged another rendezvous in the Metropole Hotel in Cork city the following week. The room cost a pound which, said Bob, was lot of money for a young boy in 1966.
"I haven't had any Irishwomen sexually since 1968, so I don't know how they've changed," he said in 2004. He told me in 2001 that he had met a woman from Crosshaven when he went home. "She was gorgeous and I said to her husband, 'If you get bored with her, can I have her?' He said: 'To marry her?' It had that straight-talking no-bullshit Cork thing and I found it very attractive."
He added that revisiting Cork -- a place he had decidedly mixed emotions about anyway -- brought back a lot of painful stuff from his childhood.
"But the bad experiences made me who I am. Photography is a lonely thing. There is something singularly solitary about being a photographer," he said, adding that "a photographer is basically a loner. When I shoot a beautiful girl, it is my way of keeping her."
Bob once said he began to truly grasp the power of womankind when he "was ripped from the bosom of his family in Cork for the first time for a long and bitter taste of all-male educational institutions. Of course I missed my mother and father desperately, but more significantly," he said, "I was to encounter so few females for the next 10 years that I actually began to look out for them, like a train spotter. In fact, sightings of attractive females were like spotting UFOs, rare, remote and very brief. From that interminable decade I can recall in detail every Close Encounter of the Woman Kind, for it was such encounters that sustained me, and reminded me that there was a life beyond boredom and brutality."
He saw the first glimpses of that life proper -- and a possible career among womankind -- at the various Cork Agricultural Shows in the late Sixties. Charles Carlos, who had an agricultural company, put the company's sexiest secretaries, recalled Bob, "on the shovels of the biggest tractors and put them up in the air for the crowd and the photographer for the Cork Examiner." All the girls wanted their picture taken. He also recalled watching the visiting starlets pouting for the photographers at the Cork Film Festival during the Sixties.
None was quite so glamorous maybe as one blonde he briefly befriended before her death in 1997. In March that year, Lady Diana dropped by his Battersea studio one day with a mutual friend. Her eye was drawn to a characteristically rude picture of a woman's derriere framed on the wall. "I recognise her bum," the princess told Bob. "I was at school with her." Within a few months, any chance Bob had of photographing Diana disappeared in a tunnel in Paris. She probably wouldn't have let him take her picture anyway. Bob's pictures tended to be too controversial. When he photographed teenagers in heated congress at uppercrust balls in London in 1994, the uproar was international.
He said he felt like a cross between David Attenborough and a peeping Tom. "But later, my camera became a time machine, returning me to a place where my own experiences were just as tragicomic and passionate." (He was referring to -- among other things -- boarding school at Wellington in England where he and the other boarders would take turns at the bathroom keyhole to spy on a housemaid taking her bath. "Sonia was a voluptuous, raven-haired 18-year-old. On Friday nights, after lights out, she'd take her weekly bath in the brightly-lit bathroom adjacent to the spartan dormitory I shared with a dozen of my fellow prisoners.")
Back in 1994, the Sunday Independent bought those famous black and white images of the posh teens' snog-frenzy in London from Bob. The only problem was we tinted them a la Andy Warhol. To say Bob was angry would be like saying Mexico mightn't be the best place to take a relaxing holiday right now. Because I had met Bob the year before in Dublin -- and got on with him -- I was assigned the job of ringing him to apologise.
"You f***ing arsehole!" he called me -- and this was when he calmed down. "You f***ing coloured in my photographs! What sort of f***ing arsehole does that?" he screamed down the phone. He could grump for Ireland. Yet it was the start of a sometimes strained but memorable friendship of sorts. In March 2003, I tried to get Bob an interview slot on The Late Late Show. This was one of our own with a story to tell (a story that included the likes of Mick Jagger, Jordan, Caprice and the Princesses Diana and Margaret -- the latter was at Bob and Lindsey's wedding in Mustique in a sarong). He also had recognition all over the world.
The Late Late Show wasn't interested. Bob said he wasn't bothered by Ireland's indifference to him or his work. I didn't believe him. I suspected he was hurt. His grumpy bolshiness, dressed up in a sort of posh aristo accent, hid the pain in this complex man. He could seem on top of the world one minute but angry and full of inner torment and self-doubt the next. A bully one second, a vulnerable little boy the next.
I remember one afternoon in 2004 in London asking Lindsey whether she had any regrets about marrying the maverick manchild who photographed women in increasing states of undress. Before she could reply, Bob jumped in. "Of course she has regrets. I don't think anyone who lives with someone for 27 years doesn't have regrets."
Lindsey was having none of it. "Of course I don't regret it. How could I? I could have gone with Sting..."
"You regret the time that I kicked red wine all over your carpet and all up the curtains on the ceiling!" he raged with his usual rakish charm. "You regret the time I threw a vase at your head and missed and it went straight through the window."
A year later, we met for a drink in a bar in London. I remember asking him about his views on monogamy. "We're sitting here having a beer, but if you told me that beer was going to be my exclusive tipple for the rest of my life, I'd look at my Budvar in an entirely different way," he said. "Some degree of sexual freedom and choice allows you to appreciate what you've got."
I asked if he had discussed this subject much with his wife. He shakes his head. "We don't discuss it. We don't need to discuss it because we live together," he answered. "She knows where I'm at and I know where she's at." He says that whatever he does -- "and I've never been promiscuous" -- in his relationship, the important thing is to have consideration and respect for his partner and an understanding of her feelings. "And then whatever you do with yourself, be prepared to suffer the consequences of your actions."
I asked him how Lindsey would say he has changed since he has got older.
"She would probably say I was much the same!" he laughed. "And that's probably the one thing that pisses women off largely which is that we don't change as fast as they do. On the other hand, a woman like Lindsey wouldn't marry if she wanted an easy life. Whenever we've had our hard times -- we've been together a long time -- I've always said, 'There's lots of nice guys out there you can marry. They'd love to have you.' She's great-looking and a wonderful lover, a wonderful cook, a wonderful homemaker. She's everything. I'm her problem, she's not mine."
Later that afternoon he insisted to me that Lindsey didn't feel threatened by him photographing beautiful young models. "The only times Lindsey and I have ever been threatened have not been with a model. Models are not really on the agenda. Models are what I do for a job. It's like asking if the fishmonger eats too much fish. Not necessarily. He might prefer a nice fat steak when he gets home. The girls whom I've found attractive have very often been secretaries or other people's wives."
There were other women, it seemed. Lindsey appeared to know of their existence. (She certainly ought to have an inkling: Bob had been married to his first wife, Sue Frame, for two years before she became aware that he was having an affair with Lindsey.)
"It was about secrecy," Lindsey says in Exposure. "He said to me, 'I don't enjoy sex unless it's a secret'. I said, 'Well, if I leave you, it won't be secret any more, so you will have to find another secret'." When Bob's mother Myra, who suffered from depression (her own mother had died of cancer when she was eight and her brother committed suicide in his teens) died, and left Bob some money, Lindsey suggested that they buy a beach house in Sussex in England. The idea, she said, was to recreate the beach hut he loved as a child in Ballyquinn beach near Youghal town. Lindsey said to him, "you can have your girls in the studio but don't ever bring one of them back here. The beach house was supposed to be pure but that didn't last long."
She says she loved Bob but she got no love from him. Bob couldn't be there for her, she felt, because Bob could hardly be there for himself. He had become something so complex and so difficult, she said, that she had begun to "mourn for him before he was dead".
She had threatened to leave him many times. Lindsey said to him that she couldn't live the way they were living. "And he just said, 'Don't bully me.' I could never get any communication... I said to him, 'Bob, I cannot go to my grave like this'."
Asked by author Simon Garfield what "like this" meant exactly, Lindsey replied: "Unloved, unf***ed, unspoken to, un... just robotic. I said to him, 'What do I do in your life that you couldn't pay somebody to do?' He said, 'Oh, don't be ridiculous. People our age don't have sex.' I looked at him and I said, 'That's not quite what I mean.' I found it very difficult to have a conversation with him on anything at all."
Lindsey recalled a troubling conversation in the Priory one night with her increasingly demented husband.
"He told me he was in trouble because he wasn't going to the right classes." Lindsey thought, "you think you're at school. And then he started to rub my cheek one night and said, 'Poor mummy, poor mummy.' And I thought, please don't do this. Please don't do this, this is agonising, this is so painful, please don't do this. I mean, watching somebody go completely mad in front of your eyes is just terrifying."
The terror had started months before when Bob's great friend, photographer Lord Lichfield died suddenly in November 2000. Bob told Lindsey that he "envied him." At this stage, Bob's mental health had been already deteriorating and necessitated him going into the Priory a few months later. When Lindsey told Scarlett that her father was in the famous rehab hospital, the teenager wanted to know: "Is Pete Doherty in there?"
In 2004, I recall sitting in a bar in London with Bob when an extremely beautiful and extremely young woman walked into the pub. I would be lying if I said we didn't gawp openly. I asked Bob if he still looks at a woman with the eyes of a boy -- in the sense that he looks at the 18-year-old as a teenager but she sees him as an old man; a Nabokovian old perv.
"I look at her through teenage eyes," he said, "and she looks at me as someone who's possibly older than her father."
Bob's only child Scarlett says in Exposure that she remembered thinking: "I can't imagine him being old." She added that her father saw her growing up "and that made him feel older. As I was getting older it meant that I was going to leave".
In the end -- as in boarding school when he was eight -- it was Bob who left home. Lindsey says that there's a wooden beam that hung in her late husband's studio -- and one day she believed she was going to find Bob hanging from it. "But I sometimes think this was absolutely on the cards for a very long time," she says. Apropos of which, she mentions that she went to a memorial for Isabella Blow -- the stylist, and the muse of hat designer Philip Treacy, who committed suicide in May 2007 -- and Tatler editor Geordie Greig said: "Isabella always talked about killing herself and normally Isabella got exactly what she wanted."
In 2007, on the first anniversary of Bob's death, when the Daily Telegraph asked Lindsey what was the overwhelming emotion she now has about his death, her reply was illuminative:
"It's set me free."
Exposure: The Unusual Life and Violent Death of Bob Carlos Clarke by Simon Garfield, published by Ebury Press on 14 May €20.18