Before we were men / David Gwinnutt Interview

Photo 17-03-2017, 20 04 01

There are so many things that make David Gwinnutt notorious:

He was part of the Blitz Kids movement in the 80’s and the British art and club scene (Grayson Perry, Boy George ,Steve Strange) They broke free from the prevailing and slightly tragic gay identity stereotypes influenced by popular American culture such as Judy Garland, the rainbow flag, lumberjack shirted clones and Sondheim queens. And they paved the way for the YBAs and helped Britain steal the Art crown from New York which had held sway since the 50’s with the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists.

A tireless human rights defender and director of the Peter Thatchell Foundation, he is the creator of the ‘Pink Jack’, a current symbol of a diverse Britain and LGBT inclusion. His works are part of the permanent collection in the National Portrait Gallery in London and Australia
Even Edmund White has dedicated a full chapter to him in his book “Inside the Pearl” with the paperback cover a portrait of Edmund by David.
Hence it was no brainer I had him on the top of the list of people I wanted to interview, and I am very glad he agreed to it.

I met David a few years back through an A-list couple and friends of mine: “he is an amazing photographer. His stuff is in the National Portrait Gallery…” . I got that but then as we met on many occasions afterwards, I quickly forgot David the artist and just saw David the friend.
David is renowned for his portraits of famous people in the 80s. His subjects relax their guard and allow him to show us the real person. It was only when I was researching him to do this interview that I discovered the true extent of his career and the significance and relevance of the crucial period of British culture he so brilliantly reflected.

David Gwinnutt and Quentin Crisp

National Portrait Gallery: ‘David Gwinnutt; Quentin Crisp’ by David Gwinnutt. Bromide print, 1986

First I came to realise that he is also an accomplished writer and storyteller, as he documented in a playful narrative these encounters with real icons in the Arts at the time: directors, writers, dancers, actors etc. David was young, beautiful and had the right tool set to make himself very appealing to these powerful gay men. Hence the double meaning on this interview tittle as he indeed has no qualms on confessing that he sometimes used sex as a way to meet these people and disarm them. No wonder they all looked so natural and relaxed! There was no kiss and tell afterwards, or bragging about it. David never pursued fame or a rich partner, he just wanted to persist, to be relevant and to leave an artistic legacy.

His technique is basic; just the use of the camera, regular settings and natural light. The results are raw and intimate. He strips the celebrity from the person and shows us just the real human being, with all the wonder that this means as in David’s eyes we are all special, all unique and equal. I now better understand why he is such a keen defender of human rights.

National Portrait Gallery: ‘Cerith Wyn Evans’ by David Gwinnutt, modern bromide print from original negative, circa 1984

David is the personification of avant-garde. Although frequently touching upon taboo subjects, he cannot be off the mark because he is simply unaware of boundaries. Any otherwise vulgar conversation turns epic coming from David’s mouth. He can talk about S&M sex and make it sound as delightful as a weekend in the Cotswolds. However devoid of the usual “fabulousness” of other gay people as he doesn’t need artefacts to convey any message.

Recent studies I read on the class system tell that nowadays this is still measured not by the family one was born into, wealth or education, but by the cross section and variety of people of different backgrounds one interacts on a regular basis. Based on this David has indeed more class than the Queen! Easy jokes apart, the man is in a league on his own. He is a rare, unique jewel of the British underground, subculture, culture that permeates in everything you see nowadays in media worldwide even when most people will never realise it.

You were part of the Blitz kids movement, and captured many of its key figures with your camera. What was it like back them? were you aware that you would become such an influential movement for British arts and culture nowadays?
That time was really bleak, it was Thatcher’s Britain, ‘Hard Times’ was the look on the street and being ‘loved up’ on ecstasy was yet to come. The blitz was full of unsmiling bitches wearing outfits inspired from a bygone era, their faces painted in scary ‘fright’ slap, they looked like the cadaverous cast of a strange costume drama,. Marilyn and Boy George went around telling people to ‘Die!’ and Steve Strange’s eyes were large black staring discs – he wore special contact lenses for effect and the effect was of numb and void pools of black.
Everyone thought they were incredibly relevant..or were going to be. No one was hiding their light under a bushel, shameless ambition was apparent wherever you looked.

Neil Vivian Bartlett by David Gwinnutt

National Portrait Gallery: Neil Vivian Bartlett by David Gwinnutt. Bromide fibre print, 1986

You are renowned for capturing the essence of the myths showing us the real person and exposing the true self. Your art is simple, extremely impacting and raw. Is this an innate quality or a developed style?

Where do you draw your inspiration from? what are your influences?
David Bailey was my first inspiration, I met him a few times when I was nineteen and living in the studio of artist Brian Clarke. I thought he was a cool figure photographing all those interesting people. I wanted to do that. When I got beyond my superficial interest I was heavily influenced by George Platt-Lynes, Cecil Beaton, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. In the early 80’s, for a short time I lived in a Wapping warehouse next to the avant grade gallery B2. David Dawson the owner was the first to exhibit Mapplethorpe in the UK and they were considered shocking at that time but it was exciting to see my culture presented in such a modern and high-art way. We knew David well and stayed in the gallery often and I remember waking up one morning under Mapplethorpe’s portrait ‘Man in a bath’. I thought that was pretty cool.

National Portrait Gallery: ‘John Richard Schlesinger’ by David Gwinnutt, bromide fibre print, 1983

What other artists/ styles do you like?
Always Warhol! Wolfgang Tilmans takes pictures I wish I could. His exquisite colour sensibility and what he looks at is genius. Except the Concord pictures!

You also met some of the most influential gay artists and icons in the 80s. You documented these intimate, sometimes very intimate, encounters in a series of stunning articles. I felt that your writing was a bit like your photography, you seem to effortlessly reach where no one seems to. How do you get away with it?
I’ve not got away with anything yet! I’m still trying to break in and steal the jewels!

You have never shone away from controversy. Your exhibition ‘Compulsion – A nature revealed’ showed gay men cruising for outdoor sex. What brought you to the topic?
The most interesting Art and photography shows us something we haven’t seen before and in a way that adds and enhances our understanding of the world. It’s the artists vision of their world revealed. I was conscious that this secretive pursuit of cruising hadn’t been documented before. It’s pretty much a taboo subject not much talked about but it reflects part of my world and I wanted to show it.

The most interesting Art and photography shows us something we haven’t seen before and in a way that adds and enhances our understanding of the world. It’s the artists vision of their world revealed – David Gwinnutt

You are the creator of the ‘PinkJack’, symbol of a modern and tolerant Britain. We’ve seen the Pink Jack in the 2012 Olympics, Sochi, everywhere. As they say, an image is worth a thousand words. Did you ever think this symbol was going to become so popular?

Pink Jack, created by David Gwinnutt

Pink Jack, created by David Gwinnutt

I hoped it would (!) but no, I had no idea it would. It took a few years for it to catch on though. I tried launching it in the 90’s but the time wasn’t right. I tried again at London’s Europride in 2005 after getting the flag noticed by a magazine at Pride the year before. It went bonkers , I remember our stall in Wardour Street being mobbed throughout the day , everyone wanted one. A mate called me from Oxford Street shouting down the phone ‘Your flags are EVERYWHERE!’. It was definitely a top moment.


You are a well known human rights (LGBT rights) activist, and Director of the ‘Peter Tatchell Foundation’. How important is it for you to continue fighting for LGBT rights and what are the current issues to concentrate on.
My activism is pretty low key, just through the Pink Jack and supporting Peter Tatchell who is the real activist. It’s incredibly important to get equal rights for LGBT people and other minorities, especially in other countries- we know who they are! The Commonwealth included, where being LGBT can lead to imprisonment, torture and death. It’s a no brainer in a modern world.

National Portrait Gallery: ‘Duggie Fields’ by David Gwinnutt, modern bromide print from original negative, 1982

If you could have the ultimate portrait subject, who would this be and what would you do with him/her?
David Bowie, David Bowie and David Bowie! It’s both easy and difficult to photograph people who understand their image. Easy because they know how to pose and what to offer the viewer and what looks good. Difficult because you want to get something they can’t see in themselves at that moment, to steal something of them, rather than take what’s the nicest possible way.

Having been at the epicentre of modern Britain culture for years, how do you see it evolving?
I’m really not sure, I ‘m not sure anyone can predict what will happen in Art and you wouldn’t want to but I think trans culture, which has been coming for a while now, will be much more prominent with trans people in high profile positions. Finally, hopefully it’ll be cool to be whoever you are without fear of discrimination.

National Portrait Gallery: ‘Patrick Procktor; Jill Bennett’ by David Gwinnutt, modern bromide print from original negative, circa 1984

Where can we buy your art?
Contact me directly (

What are your future plans?
To be welcomed into the artists quarter in Heaven by Truman Capote and Oscar Wilde and be given the dish on Julius Caesar… and hopefully have a fling with him. Seriously!

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