History Of Photographer John Thornton
Born 2nd May 1946 in Sydney Australia going to Woolwich Primary School and then Hunters Hill High School. As he says “I was in Class F for fucking useless, they would not let me study art that was for the brainy ones in Class A. Frankly I wanted to be in Class G for Good for Nothing because they did basket weaving”. Class F did have advantages for here John studied Technical Drawing where he received top results and learnt about drawing perspectives and exploded views, a talent he was to use later in his images.
His first job was working at Cockatoo Island Dockyard as had thoughts of being a Naval Architect. Having a love for yachting he sailed on Sydney Harbour, which was some 500 metres from where he lived in Woolwich. Then he worked in a wholesale book company, the boss fired him explaining ‘You’re bright, I don’t want you to end up in a dead end job’. Getting a job delivering photographs at Bruce Minnett’s Studio was his introduction to photography. While on deliveries he took as much time as possible in book shops, browsing the photographic books captivated by photographs of Brassai, Weegee, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Karsh of Ottawa, and Wynne Bullock. Also he found himself drawn to the photographs of girls wearing stockings and suspenders in Spick & Span magazine, his images produced many years later where to be inspired by these photographs.
By then a friend Stan Dyson had given him a Yashica Twin Lens Reflex Camera. He and his father converted a corrugated iron shed in the garden of their house in Woolwich into a darkroom, with a 6 foot head high this became a furnace during the Sydney summers. His first images where of peeling old gum trees by the Lane Cove River, very much inspired by Wynne Bullock. Now involved with surfing he started taking surfing photographs, selling them to surfing magazines. He then was promoted from photo delivery boy at Bruce Minnet’s Studio, to darkroom assistant and finally to studio assistant. It was here that he assisted Bruce Minnet, Howard Jones, Tom Tomney and Stuart Emery, who wrote to him when he left Sydney,“You must get to a point when taking photographs it must become instinctive, picking up maybe a 35mm, 4/4cm, 5”x4” camera, knowing that the camera and lens you have chosen will capture the image that you have seen”. He went on to say ‘You must not get caught up I the technical stuff of the camera, otherwise you will lose the original vision that you have seen’ finally adding ‘However first you must have the eye and you have one of the greatest eyes I have ever seen’.
With the advent of the Vietnam War and conscription, where he would have ended up spending his 21st birthday ducking bullets, he ran away, as he says ‘Fuck that for a game of soldiers’ and he boarded the ship Southern Cross bound for Durban, joining other surfers on a quest to find the perfect wave shown in Bruce Brown’s film The Endless Summer at Cape St Francis in South Africa. He survived by taking surfing photographs on his beaten up Pentax, and writing articles about his surfing trips from Durban to Cape Town, and then up the west coast into what was then South West Africa, which is now Namibia.
Joining Martin Gibbs studio in Cape Town and becoming a partner he changed the name to Studio 5 shooting fashion and advertising, somewhat better than shooting a chicken processing plant and even passport photographs that he had undertaken when it was Martin Gibbs. It was an ideal life, living in a cottage metres from the sea in Bakoven next to Camps Bay, he then started on his own distinctive images, one being ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ a sequence of 4 surreal images with a snail climbing up an apple, finally ending up in the open mouth of another apple floating with teeth above the other apple. Being deplored by apartheid in South Africa, and having as they said “A Cape Coloured” girlfriend Zelma, who was his first love, he produced an arresting anti apartheid image titled “The White Cop and Pretty Black Ida”, showing a newspaper placard on the floor with that title and his house mate Len White and his black girlfriend Toy, who worked in the fish factory in Hout Bay both naked. Len wore only a police hat, with gun belt strung around his waist, they where handcuffed together and John stencilled in white on Toy’s black back the word CENSORED and the same but in black on Len’s back. People did comment if the authorities where to see it he would end up on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. This never happened and going on shoot for a South African fashion magazine in Portugal, he decided to go to London, and was never to return to Cape Town, his car rusted by the sea, as he stepped off the boat in Southampton, in a freezing English winter, with trainers sinking into snow, he thought ‘What the fuck am I doing here”’
Having met Richard Winslade in a darkroom in Cape Town who had invited him to look him up when he came to London, John did take up his invitation and ended up sleeping on Richard’s floor in his Blenheim Crescent flat in Notting Hill Gate for 3 months with them processing and printing their photographs in the bathroom, adapted so it would be a darkroom. Richard was working at Michelle Molinere’s studio in Stratford Place off Oxford Street and it gave John the opportunity to meet numerous London photographers. He then moved to a flat in Lancaster Gate with a moving population of 10 to 15 people ,he spent his time recording the street markets and parks of London. After shooting a portfolio, some people loved it and one person loved it so much he was thrown out of the advertising agency, with the art buyer calling his images ‘Weird’…..Now that’s true, love !!!
He then rented Michael Legge’s studio in Turnmill Street near Smithfield Meat Market and then moved to his own studio at Edith Grove in Chelsea. His client list was extremely impressive, working for many blue- chip companies, his photographs won a myriad of advertising awards, including the coveted New York Art Directors Club Gold Award, some 24 Awards of Excellence from CA in Los Angeles, D&AD London Silver Awards and many annual inclusions, Cannes Lion de Bronze, to mention but a few.
It was during shooting these advertising images that John craved creative freedom, he was drawn to surrealism and inspired by Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Giorgo de Chirco, Luis Brunel, Guy Bordain, Bill Silano, Jeanloup Sieff, Art Kane and Duanne Michals he then embarked on producing his distinctive “Surreal Erotic Images” gaining inspiration from all areas, be it visual, the written word or something he had seen, first making drawings before taking the photographs. These images where shown at his exhibitions in Paris, Tokyo, Geneva, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Zurich, Antwerp, Bologna, Milan, London and Cadaques in Spain where Salvador Dali, John’s deity lived, visiting his exhibition Dali commented about his photographs ‘Superb…..Fantastic’
All this being said, there is a completely different account of his background. in John’s book Pipedreams, Peter Mayle the author of A Year in Provence and numerous other books wrote in the preface, “John Thornton (if indeed that is his real name) was expelled from his native Australia many years ago for committing a smash and grab raid on a lingerie store in Sydney. He was apprehended while cramming one last suspender belt into his pocket and deported to South Africa. There he found himself under constant scrutiny from the authorities for taking coloured peoples’ photographs. Eventually, seeking greater artistic freedom, he decided to invade Europe”. After going into the artistic merits of John, Peter went on to say “John Thornton has exhibited in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Bologna, Geneva, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Zurich and London. His work has also been shown in these cities. He is blonde, blue-eyed and his inside leg measurement is 34 inches. Nobody has ever mistaken him for John Travolta”.
There are numerous other stories about John Thornton, and where he came from, some claim he was found as a baby floating on a bamboo raft off Australia, and was brought up by aborigines, and they taught him photography, all we know that his images are truly unique. Don’t miss them at his retrospective in Soho, London in June.