It’s fair to say that Tony McGee’s life would have been very different had he not discovered photography at an early age. A natural aptitude for the camera coupled with an outgoing and approachable demeanour opened all kinds of doors for the boy from west London, one of a family of eight children, who went on to work for some of the world’s leading fashion magazines and to hold up a mirror to some of the most iconic people of his generation.
“I’ve always had a fondness for photography,” he reflects. “As a boy I had a happy family life and the camera became, for me, a symbol of good times, because it would always come out when there was a celebration going on, such as a birthday or some other important family milestone.
“I acquired my first serious camera while I was at the Boys’ Club off Vauxhall Bridge Road playing one of regular games of snooker. My father had loaned me some money to buy a special cue, and I was playing with it when this tall and rather spotty youth came up to me and said ‘that cue is mine.’ When I refused to give it to him he offered me a camera wrapped in a jumper, which he said he’d found in a dustbin. I told him that I’d put a roll of film through it to see if it was any good and, if it was, then we’d have a deal. It worked fine and the swap was done.”
Tony was just 12 years old at the time and he quickly became besotted with his new love. Remarkably, just four years later, he became a fully-fledged professional fashion photographer, and by the age of 17 he was shooting covers for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. He’s never looked back since then, and to listen to him reeling off stories about the people he’s photographed, the places he’s been and the experiences he’s had it’s clear to see just how much photography has influenced his life, and he’s every bit as excited by it all today as he was back then, just starting out.
His incredible career was brought into sharp focus at a recent Olympus-sponsored exhibition in the foyer of the ultra-swish ME London Hotel in The Strand, where the walls were hung with a selection of shots taken at different stages of his life, featuring celebrities such as Bryan Ferry, Naomi Campbell, Wham! and Kate Moss. The biggest section was taken up with a series of shots of David Bowie, emphasising the close professional relationship between the star and the photographer. Every image had its own incredible story, and to walk along the line of pictures and hear the story about how each one came about was to be given a very privileged insight into what was really going on at the instant the shutter was fired.
The Olympus connection was particularly apt, since Tony has been a user of the these cameras throughout most of his long career. “Back in the day I would never travel anywhere without a half-frame Olympus PEN-F,” he recalls. “The Zuiko lens on it had real quality, and was as sharp as anything. And the camera was really compact, would shoot 72 pictures on a roll of film and could slip in a pocket or a bag really easily.
“I can honestly say that just about every other photographer I knew at that time had one of these cameras, and they were a way to record things as you travelled about.”
These days the connection is still as strong as ever, although the PEN has now given way to a state-of-the-art mirrorless Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which comes with a host of cutting-edge features, such as a 20.4-megapixel Live MOS sensor, 121 all cross-type on-chip phase detection focus points and up to 60 frames-per-second shooting speed. And like the film cameras of old it’s a compact marvel, with a body that weighs in at a mere 500g.
Along with Tony, a number of other professionals have chosen to work with this flagship Olympus model, and more information can be found at the ‘It’s not you it’s me’ website.
The Bowie Connection
Tony photographed David Bowie over a number of years, and has a wide selection of shots of him through many stages of his career. A great admirer of the musician, the first encounter Tony had with the star was as a member of the audience at a 1973 gig at Earl’s Court. Many years later he had a face-to-face meeting at a private cocktail party hosted by theatrical impresario and producer Michael White, where the photographer was introduced to Bowie by Jerry Hall and Coco Schwab. The two immediately bonded, building a friendship that would span for more than 30 years.
A few days after their first meeting Tony was contacted by David’s record company and the first of their many photographic shoots together was arranged. Their first collaboration was to shoot all of the publicity for the Let’s Dance tour in 1983, and their photographic relationship continued well into the 90s. One of Tony’s portraits of Bowie is in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, while he also photographed one of Bowie’s most famous covers for The Face magazine, which is regarded by GQ magazine as one of the most the influential magazine covers of the 80s.
Bowie was photographed by McGee on a number of occasions, and Tony would personally take the contact sheets from the photoshoots to the singer who would then sign off on the images and put gold stars on the images of his choice. “I last saw him three days before he died,” says Tony. “I consider him to be probably one of the most inventive musicians of the last eighty years. To have worked with him on such a personal level was an enormous honour.”
The camera Tony McGee uses
The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is the brand’s flagship camera so it is rich in cutting edge features demanded by enthusiast and professional photographers. Its headline features include a 20.4-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor, the ability to shoot full-size Raw files at 60 frames-per-second and a 121 all cross-type phase detection AF sensors to give super-fast, deadly accurate focusing in all sorts of lighting. And you get all this in a compact camera body plus the system support of Olympus’s family of M-ZUIKO DIGITAL lenses.
As Tony McGee say: “The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is an extraordinary camera that now allows a photographer or filmmaker to do almost anything you want with it. It is simply loaded with wonderful options and the M-ZUIKO DIGITAL lenses are second to none. Delicious clarity and contrast with a very ’motion picture’ like bokeh. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II has now become my pride of place on my carry on bag for any international assignment.”
See more of Craig’s work at tonymcgee.co.uk and on Instagram @tonymcgeephotos
Article featured in Photography News Magazine issue 53