Born in Kinsale Co Cork, he became one of the most iconic photographers of his time. On the 25th anniversary of the publication of ’White Heat’, Suzanne Harrington examines the life of Bob Carlos-Clarke
It’s 25 years since the publication of a cookery book — yes, a cookery book — which changed the way we perceive chefs, kitchens and cooking, and which catapulted the idea of celebrity chef into being.
White Heat, featuring food writing by Marco Pierre White, the original macho maverick of the modern restaurant kitchen and then the youngest chef to have earned three Michelin stars, has been reissued as White Heat 25.
Most enduring of all is the book’s photography, most notably its cover — a shot of a young cleaver-wielding Marco, photographed by the late Bob Carlos Clarke. Immortalised in black and white, surrounded by metal and steam, it became one of the most unforgettable images of the era.
These days White appears in adverts for Knorr stock cubes, but Bob Carlos Clarke himself chose immortality by jumping under a south London train almost exactly nine years ago, on March 25, 2006. He had been on suicide watch at the Priory treatment centre, psychotic and clinically depressed.
It was a dramatic end to a life which encompassed all kinds of photography — portraits of famous people, photojournalism, and most striking of all, erotic and fetish photography, particularly his use of latex and PVC. He was wild, dark, tortured, tempestuous, and desperate for endless affirmation.
Bob Carlos Clarke has been described as Britain’s answer to Helmut Newton, but given Newton’s penchant for stick-thin models, the work of BCC — as he was called by his friends — was perhaps even more erotic, less stylised, more sexual. He produced six books — The Illustrated Delta of Venus (1979), Obsession (1981), The Dark Summer (1985), White Heat (1990), Shooting Sex (2002), and Love Dolls Never Die (2004) — and today his work is highly collectable.
His subjects included the Rolling Stones, Bryan Ferry, Jerry Hall, Elton John, Dita Von Teese, and a naked, pregnant Yasmin Le Bon. Princess Diana visited his studio, and for decades, he was a regular at the most glamorous, decadent Chelsea parties.
Terence Pepper, curator of photography at the National Portrait Gallery, described him as “one of the great photographic image-makers of the last few decades”.
So how did a kid from Kinsale end up under a London commuter train at the age of 56? With a portfolio of era-defining work, a loving partner and daughter, and a job which involved being surrounded by nude beauty all day long —why did he kill himself?
What was it in his psyche that drove him, like fellow photographer Terence Donovan who hanged himself in 1996 aged 60, to end his life so early?
His wife, Lindsey Carlos Clarke, was furious that he had abandoned her and their then teenage daughter Scarlett, whose moody portrait of her father, taken when she was 14, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Yet her father’s work remained unrecognised by the institution when he was still alive — this proved another factor in his depression, along with the advent of digital photography, which he felt devalued the work of trained photographers as anyone with a decent camera and a few filters could think of themselves as the next Robert Capa, which enraged him.
Bob Carlos Clarke was born in Kinsale in 1950 to an aristocratic father Charlie, and his father’s former secretary Myra Dora Lynn, who became Charlie’s third wife. When Charlie ran off with his secretary, the couple came back to Ireland to avoid the fuss caused by their relationship, and Bob was born.
Charlie was already 65 when his first son with Myra was born, and 73 when she had their second.
While he ran an agricultural machinery business, Myra became the first woman in Ireland to receive an auctioneer’s licence.
“She was a real lady,” remembers Anthony O’Regan, of Cork estate agents Keane Mahony Smith, who would later work with Bob’s brother, the equally flamboyant Andrew.
As recounted in Simon Garfield’s biography, Exposure: The Unusual Life & Violent Death of Bob Carlos Clarke, the photographer’s life began to unravel aged just 8, when he was sent away to school, as was the brutal tradition of the time.
While lots of kids coped with the separation, he did not. He wrote endless despairing letters home begging to be rescued, (“Get me out of here, this is so awful”) but instead his parents had their second son, Andrew, eight years Bob’s junior.
So not only exiled, but cuckholded as well, despite his mother Myra never having wanted to send him away to school in the first place.
Bob, said his second wife Lindsey, never quite got over it. “I always imagined there was a big, dark mess in his head to do with his childhood that he never came to terms with,” she once told an interviewer.
As a child, Bob hated his younger brother, and did dreadful things like nailing him in a box and pushing him down hills. When he was 16, he was already causing an aunt to remark, “Sadly I can envisage nothing for Robert but prison.”
However, instead of prison, Bob left for England in 1964, aged 14, and studied art and design at the West Sussex College of Art, before taking his interest in photography to the London College of Printing.
He got his degree in 1975 from the Royal College of Arts. The rest is history — Bob went on to become one of the most acclaimed yet edgy photographers of his generation.
Despite the acclaim, he never felt satisfied. Nor was he able to do relationship fidelity. His first wife, Sue Frame, has spoken of how he “tore my heart out”.
When Lindsey, the second Mrs Carlos Clarke, questioned him about his sexual incontinence, he replied, “But I like being a shit.” He had a terror of growing old, in a world where the models were eternally young; he was scared he would no longer be attractive to them, that they would no longer want to have sex with him.
Such was his narcissism and need for constant reassurance via sex and admiration that the ageing process became, for him, catastrophic. Even the presence of his teenage daughter, whom he adored, could not prevent his depression from overwhelming him.
Back in Kinsale, his younger brother Andrew also died young, two years after Bob, when Andrew was still just 50. So was he too as colourful as his brother, who had long cut his ties with Ireland?
“Andrew was game for anything,” says Anthony O’Regan, of KMS — the younger Carlos Clarke ran the Kinsale branch of the company for about a decade.
“He was a thorough gentleman with great presence, always beautifully turned out, and not short of female company. He had many, many partners.”
Like his brother, then. Unlike his brother, Andrew was a recovering heroin addict, before becoming an auctioneer. His recovery, however, did not last. His early death, according to the London Evening Standard, was from a heart attack brought on by a heroin overdose.
Which meant Bob’s daughter Scarlett, for whom her uncle had become a father figure, was bereaved all over again.
Now in her 20s, she lives in London, and is making her own name as a photographer. With a surname such as hers, let’s hope she has inherited her mother Lindsey’s resilience as well as her father’s talent.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved