Amid the visual chaos and cacophony of the typical magazine newsstand, the February 1977 cover of British Vogue rose above the noise with a photograph unlike any other.
A tightly cropped image of a woman’s mouth came into view, her cherry red lipstick framing her mouth like a heart as crisp white teeth slowly plunged into a quivering slice of lime Jell-O. Promising “the fresh taste of spring” to those who dared to reinvent themselves, the cover rippled with sensuality, intimacy, and a decidedly offbeat sense of humor rarely seen in the glossies.
It was not British photographer Willie Christie’s first Vogue cover; he had achieved that back in ’74 when he and soon-to-be wife, the model and editor Grace Coddington, collaborated for the very first time on shoot featuring model Marie Helvin cast a 1940s nightclub chanteuse.
Word on the street was the chairman of Vogue was so incensed by the iconoclastic image that he tried to pull it off the press. But efforts at censorship proved to be a fool’s errand. Christie had broken all the rules — never have food, never use green and never, ever have a close-up on the cover of a magazine — and in doing so turned an off-season edition of Vogue into the second-bestselling issue of the year.
Now, the photograph rightfully appears on the cover of Christie’s first monograph, a very distinctive style: Then & Now, which brings together over 170 portrait and fashion photographs alongside a wealth of personal recollections from his days at Vogue and The Sunday Times, as well as collaborations with rock icons Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
A Very Distinctive Style
“For a brief but significant period, Willie Christie had made up his own rules and directed his own performances with flair and imagination,” curator and photography historian Robin Muir writes in a very distinctive style.
Christie’s original approach was an extension of a singular life. After leaving Eton College at 17, he embarked on a series of adventures that include working on infamous Hollywood couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s yacht, Kalizma; gigging as music designer for an early Yves St Laurent couture show in London; and auditioning for fabled film director Federico Fellini, who determined, “He is beautiful but not with enough experience” — before getting his start in photography.
After working as assistant to legendary fashion photographer, Clive Arrowsmith, Christie went solo in 1973. The early 1970s proved a transformative time in the landscape of fashion, photography, and print. Designers introduced ready-to-wear lines to the masses, while magazines introduced the first generation of models of color to the mainstream. Christie’s work perfectly embodied the exhilarating rush of modernity while embracing the tenets of glamour photography, capturing the zeitgeist with intoxicating imagery.
“He loved the shapes and shadows on Horst photographs, the reality and artifice of old Hollywood movies and the artistry and intrigue of Guy Bourdin, who especially inspired him,” Grace Coddington writes in the introduction.
“But then he had this other side that was very rock and roll. He played the guitar with a bunch of his friends late into the night, driving our neighbours mad, but you can’t be angry with Willie for long. He possessed a charming way of making you smile and forgive, and the neighbours forgave him over and over again.”
A very distinctive style: Then & Now is published by ACC Art Books, £50. On October 17, 2023,