My boss the 6’4" lean, blond and extroverted 60’s London fashion photographer John Cowan was a great one for collecting guns. Although illegal in the UK, this did not stop him amassing a personal armoury consisting of .45’s, Smith and Wessons, a Luger, Berretta 7.65mm, and various other handguns totalling about 16 in all. He also possessed a .22 rifle. These firearms were displayed, regardless of the law, for all to see on a dresser in his flat which overlooked the studio. I remember one morning I heard a loud bang, followed by a louder scream. I rushed upstairs to find John in bed with Alexandra Bastedo. He was holding a smoking Berretta and said nonchalantly “there was one jammed in the spout” pointing to the radiator which now had a large hole in it at a 45 degree angle and was leaking oil. However, I digress…
It was one Saturday afternoon. No one particularly liked to work Saturdays but this was the only day we could fit this assignment in, so Saturday it was. We were shooting an ad for a rather expensive Parker Knoll executive chair. There was a male model, a rather imposing chap with a tanned shaved head and dark goatee beard, and an art director who was over excited about the hype of his own ad. My co-assistant Frank had opted for darkroom duties, leaving me to assist John in the studio. There was nothing fancy about the shot, just a chap sitting in this chair, trying to convey the impression of importance, intelligence and prestige. I think the ad was to be used in one of the up-market Sunday papers, and was in black and white.
The truth was that this was rather a boring assignment as far as John was concerned but paid well, and he had ordered a barrel of beer from our local pub to lighten what he anticipated might be a tedious afternoon.
Frank and I had earlier set up the studio with the required plain white background and lit the scene with a very large Strobe soft box and I was now charged with keeping the Hassleblad magazines freshly loaded with Tri-X. The picture shouldn’t have taken more than an hour, but to justify his salary the art director decided it needed three and I guess John Cowan was also thinking along the same lines, so as to give the client his money’s worth. After an hour and a half of shooting and about 12 rolls of Tri-X, creativity was wearing thin along with the depleting beer barrel. There is only so much you can do with one guy and a chair. Even John’s usually unbound energy was expiring and the art director now slightly the worse for wear due to the effects of the beer, was the only one still hyped up about the importance of the shoot. He moved to the camera position, “Imagine I’m a woman!” he suddenly exuberated much to the surprise of the male model who by this time was the only one in the studio entirely sober.
“Imagine I’m a beautiful woman and you love me!” he shouted, believing he was now transposed into some sort of great photographer.
This was a BIG mistake! Trying to steal the scene away from one such as John Cowan was NOT wise, and frankly this behaviour was embarrassing. John would now assert his authority using a bit of psychology and some gun play.
“Fetch my rifle!” he boomed much to the alarm of the art director who now feared he might be shot. I went up the stairs to John’s flat, picked up the .22 rifle just as I saw the curvaceous Jacqueline Bisset who had been John’s frequent overnight guest lately. “Better come downstairs” I said to Jacqui. “There might be some stray lead flying around.” Jacqueline looked at me bemused and coolly followed me downstairs stopping halfway as I handed the rifle to John.
John slid back the bolt of the .22 and looked around for a target as the art director grinned sheepishly. He spied a light bulb in his flat and fired through the diffusing plastic. There was a loud crack and the bulb was immediately extinguished. I thought it was quite a good shot as it was difficult to pick out the bulb through the diffusion. I knew that I would be the one who had to clear up all the broken glass in John’s flat and didn’t care for the other five bulbs to increase my workload, so grabbing a spare print of an image that I knew John wouldn’t care for, I ventured “How about this?” “Good idea!” said John. “Put it somewhere safe; in fact stick it to the safe. Let’s see if the doors are as bullet proof as claimed.”
I taped the picture to the thick sliding steel doors of the safe where we kept all the cameras locked away overnight. John walked down the length of the studio, turned round, aimed and fired. He fired a few more rounds, stopped and I walked up to the now shredded photo and took it down for examination. One might expect bullets to bounce off steel, but the safe was only marked by grey splatter marks, and the back of the picture was marked as if with heavy pencil by tiny lead streaks, similar the effect of iron filings under the influence of a magnet. The lead had disintegrated like drops of water against the hardness of the steel. “What else can I shoot at?” said John menacingly in a studio that was now filled with silence and wisps of smoke. I did what any good assistant worth his salt would do, picked up an empty beer mug, strolled down to the end of the studio and holding it up said “how about this?”
I knew John was a pretty good shot so I did not expect him to miss a beer mug at twenty paces. I had every faith that he would hit it. I held it out at arms length. “Turn your face away!” said John, guessing rightly there was going to be some flying glass. I gripped the mug by the handle, turned my head, and waited for the shot.
Crack! I heard breaking glass and was spun round with what felt like a sledge hammer blow on my wrist. I still had the handle in my hand and the glass had disappeared. I noticed that my hand was for some reason shaking uncontrollably and much to my horror; it was now covered in blood! I immediately withdrew the hand for closer inspection. Surely I hadn’t been hit? The glass had broken! Had I been cut? I still had all my digits, there appeared to be no major holes so I guessed the bullet had missed me; however my hand was now turning a shade of bruised blue under the blood, and was covered in scores of pock marks of lead.
The English beer mug although glass, is a pretty tough customer. It had the same effect on the soft high velocity bullet as the safe had. The small .22 lead missile had virtually ‘liquidised’ before the glass had broken, and much of the contents were now in my hand as tiny lead fragments the size of grains of sand.
“Christ!” said John thinking he had taken my thumb off “are you alright?” “I think so.” I muttered. “You had better go upstairs and get Jacqui to have a look at that,” said John with a rare trace of anxiety in his voice. Things were looking up!
It was well known that Jacqueline Bisset’s father was a doctor, so naturally it was assumed that she would be the best qualified and least squeamish person to look at my wounds. Besides, in a situation like this it wouldn’t have been wise to alert the official medical authorities. John’s first assistant Frank Buck had come out of the darkroom and wrapped a towel round my hand with a big grin on his face.
Game over as if it had never happened, John Cowan had returned to the Hasselblad and Frank had taken my place. John was back in control, and was directing the male model in his booming theatrical gravelled tones as I was left alone with Jacqui. She softly took my hand from the hot soaking water, smiled at me with those beautiful blue eyes melting this drooling junior, and said in a mildly mocking voice, “I suppose, boys will be boys.” ‘Too true!’ I thought as she began to extract the tiny slivers of lead using a needle that had been sterilised in a flame. ‘Umm…’ I mused to myself, ‘hopefully this was going to take at least two hours…’ My heart was beating furiously and it wasn’t just the shock that was the culprit.
Two and a half hours later Jacqui had extracted most of the lead. There were a few bits that had gone deep, (and are still there to this day) but most of them formed a small pile on the table. I thanked Jacqueline and reluctantly went downstairs still wrapped in the warmth of her gentle presence.
The client had now gone and I went into the darkroom to find Frank. “Was it worth it?” he quipped, undoubtedly referring to the attentions I had received from Jacqui. “I’ll say!” I said, “You should have held the glass yourself!”
“Not bl**dy likely!” said Frank and we both burst into helpless laughter.
A memorable event that occurred when I had some of the best times of my life working as an assistant for John Cowan, one of the top London photographers of the sixties.