Steve Falla pays tribute to the iconic photographer, who died on 26 June
FIONA ADAMS, who has died aged 84, was most widely known as the photographer who captured defining images of many of the music and fashion icons of the early 1960s.
To others, she was the gentle and gracious soul who manned an aloe vera stall at the Guernsey farmers’ market, giving away no hint of her earlier glamorous network and a life of adventurous global travel. A classic case of the understated high achiever.
She hit what is perceived to be the peak of her professional life over just a few years during which she photographed many rising stars, including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, David Bowie and Twiggy, all of these eclipsed by the famous shot of The Beatles jumping in the air on the cover of the Twist and Shout EP.
In short, Fiona assembled a little black book that would be the envy of many.
But there was very much more to Fiona Adams, who was reluctant to name-drop and always viewed her London career as no more than a job.
Throughout her life she saw the world from a positive disposition, through her own, self-curated, wide lens and she has been described by those whose lives she touched as intelligent, curious, non-judgemental, and unconditionally generous-spirited.
Fiona Clarke was born on 26 September 1935 in Paddington, London, the only child of Philip and Freda Clarke. Her father, who was fluent in Russian, rose to the rank of major in the army and was awarded the Military Cross when his platoon became stranded and he crawled back to summon help.
She spent her early years in Guernsey where her family ran the Grand Mare guest house on the west coast. The first time Freda visited the house she unloaded her luggage and dismissed the taxi, forgetting the young Fiona was in the back of the car.
During the war Fiona was evacuated with her mother and attended a boarding school in Cumbria before returning to Guernsey and joining The Ladies’ College in 1946. The guest house had been destroyed and her family took over the Imperial Hotel. Fiona is said to have been given her first camera, a slightly broken box Brownie, by a friendly holiday couple.
In 1953, fearing another war, she and her parents returned to London and set up home in Twickenham. It was there that, aged 16, she enrolled with the Ealing School of Art from which she graduated two years later as student of the year.
She entered the male-dominated photography trade when she was hired as assistant to Douglas Glass, who had a Sunday Times portrait gallery column featuring politicians, dignitaries, and stars of the day. He was notoriously difficult, introducing himself by saying he hoped she would last longer than her predecessors. The average was six months. Fiona stayed seven.
She was summoned one snowy day to join Glass at Downing Street where he was photographing Lady Churchill and had forgotten an important piece of equipment. Fiona hailed an incredulous cab driver who could not believe that his teenage passenger was visiting Number 10. On arrival the gear was taken off her and, to her disappointment, she was dismissed. However, there was nobody to show her out and she eventually found herself in the basement alongside the cabinet war rooms.
‘I could have had a bomb!’ she later remarked to friends.
The next four years were spent working for London City Council, attracted by the promise of photographing buildings for its archive, which to her disappointment turned out to be no more than a printing role.
She began to tire not only of the job but of post-war London with its ration coupons and smog and she and a friend took the opportunity to be £10 Poms and left for Australia.
This typified Fiona’s attitude to life – ‘What am I going to look forward to next? Is there an experience I can have? I’m going to check it out...’
The two young women astonished their friends by undertaking a 10-day Vespa trip from Darwin to Alice Springs, sleeping on gravel heaps and similar in the great outdoors.
She was married briefly to an Australian named Adams, a name she retained in her professional life.
After two years down under Fiona returned to London in 1962 to an era of fun, new fashion and an exciting emerging music scene. She took a job with Boyfriend magazine, the gateway to her involvement with many musicians who went on to be world famous.
She was a pioneer, taking portraiture beyond the set piece and capturing the mood of the era with her own fresh style. There is a picture of a press scrum in 1967 shooting The Rolling Stones on a park bench and Fiona is the lone female among them.
Influenced by American photographer Philippe Halsmann, and his ‘jumpology’ method – capturing people jumping in mid-air against a white background – she took The Beatles out of the confines of the Boyfriend studio and into the open air. Having researched locations from the top of a double-decker bus, she decided upon a bombed-out building in Euston, where she stood among the rubble in the basement and got the band to jump as high as they could on the wall above her.
Those were the days when the music industry was still evolving, without layers of management, minders and PRs blocking access to the stars. Fiona was able to hail a cab and pile in with The Beatles and all her equipment to travel to the venue. Later, in 1966, she joined them for part of a European tour.
She first met the Fab Four on the set of Thank Your Lucky Stars a few days before the Twist And Shout shoot and asked if they would be photographed for the magazine. Similarly, she was on a tour bus with Jimi Hendrix when she persuaded him to have his picture taken in the garden of a hotel in Lincoln.
Her disarming and natural bedside manner was key to her winning people over to achieve the relaxed results she produced.
But the music scene was changing, artists were less easy to access and drug use began making them unpredictable and less cooperative. It was time for Fiona to move on.
In an echo of her Australian trip, she applied for a contract with American Express in New York as a travel photographer tasked with providing pictures of exotic locations around the world for their magazine.
It was around this time that she was reunited with Owen Le Tissier, one of a circle of friends when a teenager in Guernsey, now in the oil industry, and they began an inseparable partnership that endured until he died in 2011.
Her kindred spirit in many ways, Owen, who was two years her senior, joined a bank in London following his evacuation from the island. He worked there with the express intention of qualifying for an overseas transfer to Brazil, where he soon quit the bank and became a lobster fisherman for several years. Later, he worked in the oil industry in the Middle East, laying pipelines under the sea and beginning a career which would see the couple live in Vancouver, Japan (where Fiona attracted much attention as a tall blonde in a mini skirt), Norway, Texas, Mexico and Ecuador.
Fiona quit American Express to join Owen and to raise the couple’s son and daughter as well as keeping up her photography with some ongoing commissions.
While living in North and South America the family travelled on many weekends, often on long road trips, absorbing culture and discovering new things. They thought nothing of taking two young children to see how others lived, sometimes in slum conditions.
Each year they would return to visit family, spending three weeks in Guernsey and three weeks in Norfolk.
The couple returned to Guernsey in the late 1980s after Owen was made redundant following the oil crash and Fiona brushed off her camera equipment and set about becoming the breadwinner, undertaking commercial and wedding photography.
Her involvement in selling and training others to sell aloe vera in Guernsey stemmed from its healing effect that she had witnessed when her daughter suffered from chicken pox scars while the family was living in North America.
Fiona, influenced by her global travels and experiences, believed there was more to health and wellbeing than medicines and had an open mind to alternative therapies.
Always interested in life-enhancing experiences, she pursued self-development courses, culminating in her walking over 1,000 degree hot coals, and she also kept up her passion for languages, going to sleep even towards the end of her life with recordings playing through her headphones.
Those close to her do not remember any cross words but she campaigned voraciously for freedom of choice and those causes close to her heart.
The arrival of digital photography meant that all those years of sitting in the upstairs window retouching photographs with a paintbrush were over. However, she embraced the arrival of digital to an extent and photography never left her, it was always her passion.
In 2009 she received recognition through an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery entitled: Beatles To Bowie: The Sixties Exposed.
She and Owen were party people and they soon built a network of new friends in Guernsey. Fiona was an accomplished cook and the couple revelled in entertaining friends and friends’ friends.
By coincidence, her next-door neighbour of more than 20 years was local photographer John de Garis, to whom she did not reveal for 10 years her rich legacy in the profession.
‘Fiona and Owen were a powerhouse team. Their door was always open. They were incredibly non-judgemental and open-minded and brought a wealth of experience from their world travels. Whatever your circumstances, they had an open heart for you,’ John said.
‘Much of her archive will be in landfill underneath London but she still had some old negatives in bad shape. I scanned them as they were and they came up like brand new, including Hendrix dressing room shots that have never been seen before.
‘In those days it was extraordinary. You literally got five frames, for example there were just two frames of The Beatles jumping.’
John’s favourite picture from Fiona’s London career is the Hendrix colour portrait.
‘It reveals the luxury of the time she had with him. She managed to catch him in a light that no one else had ever seen – introspection and softness in his eyes,’ he said.
‘She was very much about photographing the person and she loved using natural light. She hated the studio back in the ’60s; it’s why she took The Beatles out into the daylight, which is what she loved.’
Another photographer friend, Paul Chambers, said: ‘She was one of the most graceful ladies I ever met. I just loved being around her. She filled your life with big moments, but they were not glamorous, they were deep moments. She oozed kindness.’
Lynne Ashton worked with Fiona on documenting her life story, partly to bring authentic context to those famous ’60s pictures. She said: ‘She was meticulous and a remarkable woman of her time. As a middle-class girl, photography as a career was quite innovative anyway, but she took things to the next stage.
‘She was a very inspirational woman who didn’t lack confidence in herself.’
Former neighbour Bella Farrell said: ‘She was a role model for me because she never gossiped and she never judged people, she was a trailblazer and independent thinker. She was fascinated by all people and this, together with her homemaking skills, made for her always being great company over a cup of tea, a glass of wine, cake, or a delicious home-made meal.
‘Twenty years after first meeting her, even on her death bed, I was still hearing new stories. She died with the same grace that she lived by. She was comfortable and positive about joining all the friends that she had lost in the last few years.’
Bella’s daughter, Esme, 17, viewed Fiona as a grandmother and asked her, near the end of her life: ‘What makes a great photographer?’
The reply was: ‘You have got to love your sitters and I loved mine.’
Fiona was diagnosed with cancer in February this year and declined treatment. Initially she kept the news to herself and her immediate family but was quickly reconciled to it.
‘I have no regrets, but I am really glad that I don’t have to buy any more clothes,’ she laughed with her son. She is survived by him, her daughter and a grandson.
There are hopes that the book she worked on with Lynne Ashton and an exhibition of her work will come to fruition in the near future and, once travel restrictions are lifted, her life will be celebrated in keeping with her wishes, with an open air festive funeral.