Ahead of the unveiling of an exhibition of unseen images featuring David Bowie shot by Markus Klinko for the 2002 album Heathen, I had a chance to talk to the fashion photographer for an up-coming preview piece in the Miami New Times’ Arts and Culture blog (it’s live now, read it here). I was given a preview of many of the images (some of which illustrate this post) at the Miami Design District art gallery Markowicz Fine Art by gallery owner Bernard Markowicz. He also put Klinko on the phone with me, and we spoke for quite some time. After submitting my article to the Miami New Times, there was plenty of material left over, including some details Klinko knew the fans would appreciate. This is what this article is about.
When Bowie’s death from cancer was announced in the early morning hours of January 11, Klinko admits he was not completely surprised by it. Because he often worked with Bowie’s wife, the supermodel Iman, Klinko was one of the few Bowie collaborators who knew of Bowie’s illness. “I can’t say that I didn’t expect it,” he says speaking via phone from New York City. “Even though I didn’t know and nobody called me to say that he was about to die, I had a feeling that this was happening. I knew he was very sick. It was mentioned to me, and I saw the video a few days before he died for ‘Blackstar.’ I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect it, but I wasn’t surprised.”
He found out about Bowie’s passing at 69 the same way many others did, via social media. “I woke up and saw so many Bowie mentions on Instagram,” he recalls. “I was tagged on some of them. One of my images was used on the cover of ‘Le Monde.’ There were a bunch of emails from people asking to publish images. It was waking up to an avalanche of Instagram tags, missed calls. It was definitely a busy morning.”
The idea for the upcoming exhibition came when he and Markowicz, who has represented Klinko for the past 15 months, discussed revealing some outtakes from the Heathen photo session for a touring exhibit. Klinko added the cancer benefit component (proceeds will go to Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research).
The photos were all taken after Bowie had recorded Heathen, during a day-long session at Klinko’s Soho studio in New York City. As with many of Klinko’s images, he collaborated with Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri who added effects in post-production, for instance erasing Bowie’s corneas for the album’s striking cover. Many of the images were never used and some later appeared on the pages of GQ. Still others never saw the light of day. “You can imagine how rich that session was,” says Klinko. “We got so much done in such a short time.”
Some of the images might bring to mind Bowie looks from past eras. Klinko points to things as subtle as a look in Bowie’s face to what he wears. “There’s an image in the press release where he leans on a brick wall, I feel like there’s a bit of Ziggy Stardust in his expression there, different from all the other images from this set,” he notes. “Then there’s some of the Thin White Duke in the white shirt and the black vest … There are some reference points throughout his career, with all the transformations that he went through that still come back all the time.”
Though they would not work for a long time after, they stayed in touch because Klinko worked so often with Iman. He remembers when Bowie suffered a heart attack on stage in 2004 and needed emergency surgery. Bowie would then enter a decade-long phase away from the limelight. Like many others, Klinko thought Bowie had simply quietly retired after the health scare, though the photographer never stopped trying to get him involved with his shoots with Iman. “That’s exactly what I thought,” Klinko confirms, “that he’s not going to do anything, and I did ask Iman several times, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a shoot with you and David, and she said, ‘No, no.’”
But, one day, in the spring of 2013, Klinko was surprised to receive a call from Bowie to ask him to direct a music video for one of the songs off of his recently released album The Next Day. It was Bowie’s first album in 10 years,which had been recorded in secrecy, and it was an album that I declared in a Miami New Times review as Bowie’s great reboot. Indeed, says Klinko, when he spoke to Bowie after the album’s release, the pop star sounded rejuvenated and surprised by the album’s success. “It was obvious in his voice that he was absolutely shocked by the commercial success of that album,” says Klinko. “It made number one on a bunch of charts in the U.K. — not in the U.S. chart — but it did well in the U.S. chart, and he was very, very excited about that.”
It seems, according to Klinko, Bowie had doubts of his relevance in the world of popular music. “He would have never expected it because that was another conversation I also remember having,” Klinko continues. “Back in the time of the Heathen album shoot, I had asked him if he was going to do a video and he said, ‘Why should I? MTV won’t play it.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about? You’re David Bowie.’ He said, ‘They’re not gonna play it. They’re not gonna play it. Maybe they’ll play it one time at 2 a.m. I’m not gonna do it.’ And, you know, I wasn’t at that time interested in directing videos, so I didn’t make much of it, but I remember him saying it in conversation, that MTV won’t play it, and so 12 years later, when he called, and he asked me to direct the video, I felt an almost child-like enthusiasm in his voice that ‘Oh, my God, it’s a huge success. I’m actually going to do this next video now,’ and he had already done [three] other ones.”
During the release of Heathen, music videos were not seeing routine release on YouTube and MTV became more obsessed with reality shows than playing music videos. But, in 2013, the music video world had become something else, easing into spaces on the Internet via artists, record labels and even fan produced works. On Bowie’s birthday, in 2013, he released a lyric video for “Where Are We Now” (David Bowie returns to music with new song on his 66th birthday). A month later, he released a second video, co-starring Tilda Swinton, for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (Finally, David Bowie and Tilda Swinton join forces: Watch DB’s new video). Then, after the album’s release in March, Bowie released a video for the title track where the singer played a Christ-like figure. Klinko worked with Bowie on the album’s final single, “Valentine’s Day.” By then, Bowie was on a roll, and Klinko cannot help but compare The Next Day Bowie to the Bowie he met during Heathen. “When he said, ‘MTV won’t play it,’ it was definitely with some kind of disappointment,” he says. “He was definitely feeling that the genre of music that he wanted to do did not get the support of this type of mainstream channels, and it was something that he was trying to deal with at the time.”
After not having heard from Bowie for a few years besides casual conversations with Iman, in the spring of 2013, Klinko received the phone call from Bowie’s manager that the singer wanted to do something him. “I was actually in L.A. at the gym, and his longtime manager Elaine called me and said, ‘David wants to speak to you right away. Can you talk to him?’ And I remember stepping out of the gym, running home to get his call, and he had this idea for this video.”
In the video for “Valentine’s Day” that we know, which was also co-directed by Indrani, Bowie inhabits an abandoned building, posing rather menacingly at times with a small guitar that he sometimes handles as if it were a rifle. But it would have been something quite different had Bowie had his way. “He wanted to reverse age, like in that Brad Pitt movie [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button]. He basically wanted to start out as an old man, like 80, and reverse in special effects and be like 19 at the end of the video.”
It wasn’t a concept entirely new for a later-period Bowie music video. The 1997 music video “Little Wonder” featured a young visage of Ziggy Stardust and Bowie had a young doppelgänger in the 1999 video for “Thursday’s Child.” It was also an idea Klinko, however, did not feel too keen about. Having already worked collaboratively with Bowie for the Heathen photo shoot, the photographer had no trouble disagreeing with Bowie, though it wasn’t necessarily an easy task to sway him away from the idea. “It was kind of tough to talk him out of it,” admits Klinko. “He really wanted it that way. We cast a young version of him, a lookalike, a model that was really talented that was used for some of the shots, like the scene from the back, when he’s looking through the window. That’s actually his younger body double. We decided not to do that with him. I felt it was a little cheesy to do it … It was the only time I ever really talked him out of something. Many of the other ideas for the record packaging and all that, a lot of it was his ideas.”
What finally changed Bowie’s mind, says Klinko, was the photographer’s stark concept for the music video. “He fell in love with the simplicity because the ‘Valentine’s Day’ was shot right after this very crazy that he did with being Jesus Christ, the priest … It was really a lot, very intense, very theatrical, so coming out with a video that was very simple, basically an animated portrait performance.”
But it was also more than that. The song is about a mass shooting and the video contains subtle references to guns. Klinko says of the song, “He did that about the time where the school shootings were very intense, around 2013. I mean, they still are, for the last few years in America. We thought about that, and so he made the song about that.”
The references are indeed quite subtle. In one instance, Bowie strikes a pose holding the guitar overhead in imitation of a famous photo of Charlton Heston holding a rifle similarly during an address to the NRA. In another, Klinko inserted a bullet that most viewers might miss. “There’s a close up of the vibrating guitar strings, very close, and out of the coiled guitar string you see a flying bullet. It’s almost subliminal because it’s so fast. Most people won’t realize it, but it’s there.” Cue the video above to the 2:28 mark to see it.
“With the tiny little hint of the gunshot,” continues Klinko, “I’m happy you picked up on that because it was a very subtle thing that was very important for me to have in there … I wanted to do more gun references and shadows of guns and things like that. There’s a little bit of that, like a machine gun shadow at some point.”
Klinko and I also spoke about how he met Bowie, his experience listening to a rough mix of Heathen and shooting and conceptualizing the artwork with Bowie. Jump through the logo below for the Miami New Times Arts and Culture blog to read all about that:
The photos will be on display for the public at Markowicz Fine Art in Miami’s Design District from Feb. 26 though mid-March. It begins with a private Media & VIP Reveal Party on Thursday, Feb. 25, from 7-9 p.m.