Fashion and fame through the lens

He worked with some of the biggest names of the era — on both sides of the camera — and was renowned for his fashion photography. As an exhibition of his work gets underway in Norwich, Peter Akehurst gives ABIGAIL SALTMARSH a snapshot of his career.

Estee Lauder, Revlon, Mary Quant – the list just goes on and on.

Photographer Peter Akehurst has worked with some of the best-known brands in the world of fashion and beauty, and has shot some of the most celebrated faces.

But, almost unbelievably, until now he has never exhibited any of the cutting-edge images that he made his name from.

For some 40 years, he believed he did not have enough material – after suffering the devastating blow of a studio break-in in the 1970s.

'It was a major break-in – the place got wrecked and I lost a lot of stuff from between the late 1950s and early 1960s,' says Peter, who now lives near Swaffham.

'But about six months ago my son suggested I should think about doing an exhibition, and I managed to find and repair some of the photographs and negatives, and to reprint others. They are mostly fashion and beauty photographs – and a few celebrities.'

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It was an era of high style and exciting outfits, of daring new art and of fast-living – and he relished being part of it all.

'I was David Bailey's first-ever assistant – they were great days,' he says.

Peter's passion for photography began at an early age. He started his career at a London press agency near Fleet Street, working with the great photographers of the time, learning the basics as well as photo-journalism.

However, after seeing the work of Avedon and Parkinson, it was fashion photography that turned his head. He then moved to the famous John French studio and joined David Bailey, before acquiring many of his own fashion clients.

'I shot my first ever fashion spread for Vanity Fair when I was 19 and was also commissioned to cover the Paris Collections,' he recalls. 'I also built three of my own studios from scratch.'

As his reputation grew, he began to branch out. He was approached by David Puttnam to work on a new publishing venture, where he shared the famous Sunday Times studio with Lord Snowdon.

This created the opportunity to work with actors such as John Gielgud, Rod Steiger, James Stewart, David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. This same period also saw him work with stars such as Harry Secombe, Anita Harris, Shirley Bassey, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jnr.

'Then someone asked me if I would art direct something. I did, and I enjoyed it, and I began to consider moving into videos, commercials and television. I decided to stop being a full-time photographer in about 1981.'

As a producer and director, he built up an impressive client list, making commercials for the likes of British Airways, Proctor & Gamble and Saatchi and Saatchi. He also moved into the creation of television series.

'I had this idea for a programme called John Wilson's Go Fishing. It was very successful – we ended up making four series,' he says.

Made by Anglia Television, the programme was also what brought him out east. Spending more time away from the bright lights of London, Peter began to realise he enjoyed the pace of life in Norfolk.

'I had thought I would eventually move to Hampshire or Dorset as I'd spent a lot of time there as a child but I loved it in Norfolk – I loved the peace and quiet.'

Since then, the television work has continued, with Peter making a range of programmes. He has just completed a two-part drama, is writing a trilogy and has a documentary series on fashion and culture, from Edwardian times to the present day, in development.

The television industry has taken a pounding in recent times, and, Peter admits, that with fewer programmes being commissioned, it is not always easy.

But he still throws himself into his work and is enjoying spending more time on his photography again.

'I can still smile,' he says. 'I am totally under pressure a lot of the time but I am happy working like that.

'I have been doing some landscape photography recently. People can't understand how I do that in Norfolk as they think of it as being so flat but it is actually quite undulating where I am.'

And he adds: 'I do still shoot on film – I will never shoot digitally. I also develop all my prints by hand.'

He has also recently finished his autobiography (for his children and grandchildren only to read, he stresses), and has taken great pleasure in putting together the exhibition for Norwich Arts Centre – so much so, in fact, that he may exhibit again elsewhere.

'It has been fun. I have enjoyed seeing the pictures again – the ones I took and the one of me with the girls of London Life Magazine, taken by Terence Donovan,' he says.

And he adds: 'When I was in Paris, shooting the collections in 1960, I was having lunch with the great fashion photographer John French, and he said: 'Fashion and photography are totally linked and affected by their own history – at this time right now we are just the witnesses and recorders of it.'

'I have never forgotten that quote. I still think it says it all about the profession we worked in,' he adds.

n Peter Akehurst: Some Moments in Time is at Norwich Arts Centre until December 23, free admission, 01603 660352,