Another side of the enigma: David Bowie's tour photographer on a new exhibition featuring unseen portraits

By Ben Miller | 09 August 2016

Denis O'Regan was David Bowie's long-term tour photographer. A new exhibition of 40 of his photos, including many unseen shots, shows Bowie in stadiums, deserts and inspecting his artificial eye

A photo of rock musician David Bowie looking sideways into the camera
ID Cover Shot, Amsterdam (1987)© Denis O'Regan, courtesy Off Beat Lounge
Denis O’Regan’s initial encounter with David Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust at a Hammersmith gig in 1972, defined his life – or, at least, his career.

“It made me take up photography,” says O’Regan, standing in a Mini showroom in Brighton, around which flow decades of his photos of Bowie, often accompanied variously by the likes of Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and, in one backstage shot from Los Angeles, taken in 1983, Cher, Michael Jackson and Bette Midler.

“But it wasn’t until 1990 that I told him that – 16 years. Being David, he wasn’t very good at taking compliments. I said, ‘it’s because of you I took up photography.’ He said, ‘nah, you’ll probably tell Bono the same thing tomorrow night.’”

That level of comfort took a while to attain, but O’Regan reached an instant rapport with Bowie after “really ricocheting” with him during the recording of Diamond Dogs, near where O’Regan lived in London, in early 1974. O’Regan says he “kind of invited myself”, intent on working with Bowie on a book. But the early stages of rock star-cameraman relationships are evidently precarious.

A photo of rock musician David Bowie looking sideways into the camera
Kick, Old Singapore (1983)© Denis O'Regan, courtesy Off Beat Lounge
“They tell you you’re only coming for a few days,” says O’Regan. “They know they’re stuck with you all day, every day for a year. You really do have to get on.” He should know: The Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, Queen (for whom he shot the record-breaking Wembley shows of 1986) and Thin Lizzy are among his colluders. But Bowie – his inspiration – was his most frequent flying partner.

“What he thought was funny and what I thought was funny might have been two very different things. We went to a temple in Bangkok and the whole area was flooded, all the houses and groves.

“We went out at three in the morning and went up to this temple. We were walking under this marble path and as soon as I went on it I slipped. So David thought that was hysterical.

A photo of rock musician David Bowie looking sideways into the camera
Mime, USA (1983)© Denis O'Regan, courtesy Off Beat Lounge
“We were on a plane watching Blade Runner before it took off. David was famously scared of flying, but he had to do it for touring. The pilot, who’d been at the bar with us the night before, just to reassure David, said ‘do you mind nodding off for a while? One of the jets isn’t working, we’re going to take it off with three and kick-start it.’ I loved that.

“We were flying out of Berlin and there was a very narrow corridor you could fly through. We came down the runway and aborted the take off. ‘Sorry about that.’

“We turned round, belted off the runway again and as we levelled off, I’m sitting opposite David at the dining table and he went as white as a sheet. We all thought we were going to die and the plane was crashing.”

A photo of rock musician David Bowie looking sideways into the camera
Gold Braces, Above France (1983)© Denis O'Regan, courtesy Off Beat Lounge
Between earth and the stars, Bowie’s alter-ego didn’t disappoint. “I’ve never seen anything like Ziggy Stardust, let alone associated with music,” says O’Regan. “It’s the theatre, the moves that he made – I’ve got photographs of some of them, and it’s the only time they happened on the whole nine-month tour.

“He would just ad-lib sometimes during the shows and create things, which I really enjoyed. Someone threw a pair of red shoes up on stage and he would dance with the person who was wearing those shoes, for instance. He practised mime whenever he could.”

Bowie’s longest tour, 1983’s Serious Moonlight, began in May with crowds of 10,000. Let’s Dance was released a couple of months in, and by the penultimate month, in November in Auckland, Bowie was playing to 80,000. “I think he was very happy: he really, really enjoyed it,” recalls O’Regan.

A photo of rock musician David Bowie looking sideways into the camera
Eyeing Things Up, Madame Tussauds, London (1983)© Denis O'Regan, courtesy Off Beat Lounge
“Going out was an issue, but he still did it. He’d put a baseball cap on and people wouldn’t recognise him, it was quite odd. He was able to get out and about but he didn’t do it very much because he wanted to lead a normal life.

“Being on tour is strange and everyone always knows which city you’re in. Everyone always knew he was in that city on that night. He coped with it really well, I think.”

Some live moments were more troublesome. One photo, Dancing in Yellow, was taken at an early show on the tour, at Milton Keynes Bowl. “David did Hang on to Yourself. The words are very quick in the original song and unfortunately David didn’t know all of them.

A photo of rock musician David Bowie looking sideways into the camera
That's You, Berlin Wall (1987)© Denis O'Regan, courtesy Off Beat Lounge
“I had been a fan long before I worked with him and I said ‘David, you’ve got to get the words right – it’s a tongue-twister.’

“There was a huge crowd of 60 or 70,000 people and a big inflatable globe bouncing along the top of the crowd. As it came to this song, David looked at me and winked.

“He was just about to start this song when this huge globe came down and landed on my head. He burst out laughing. I think he actually dropped the song for the rest of the tour.”

In Hong Kong, on the final Serious Moonlight date, Bowie is giggling. “I think it’s really, really sweet and very David – partly because there’s a full ashtray next to him. He’s so boyish and it’s the sort of picture that you would never get unless you were sort of hanging around all the time.”

O’Regan says portraying Bowie off-stage – “catching another side of the enigma” – was “a huge attraction”, and the production process sounds hectic.

“All of these pictures were approved by David. I’d send the films off in one city. A few cities later they’d be delivered. I’d transfer them into a hotel room, choose my favourites and load them into a projector carousel.

“David would come into my room and we’d have a slideshow. He’d say ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘I hate it’, ‘keep it for a book’ or whatever.”

Two more from 1983 stand out: Eyeing Things Up features a girl holding Bowie’s disembodied mock-up eye during a measurement for a statue at Madame Tussauds. On the Rocks, shot in the desert during a zipwire trip from France to California for a show so lucrative it paid for one of the tour’s stages, symbolises a 10,000-mile round trip on a plane with its own sushi chef.

And then there’s Berlin Blue, taken in 1987 in front of the wall in the city where Bowie had lived with Iggy Pop a decade earlier. “Two years later it came down, which is something we would never have believed would have happened,” says O’Regan.

“Anyway, we were at Hansa Studios when David recorded Heroes. The song was written because David could see the wall from the studios. I could also go across from there and do some pictures – no-one seemed to mind.

“At the show, of course, David could hear the fans on the other side of the wall cheering. After soundcheck, in the afternoon, we went round to where he lived in Berlin with Iggy Pop and knocked on the door.

“The new owner just opened the door. David said ‘hello, I’m David.’ It was great to see where he lived but it had also been repainted since he lived there.

“His son had drawn on the wall and the new tenant had painted over the drawing. It was an unusual couple of days, all in all.”

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