Gered Mankowitz: “Kate Bush could just look at the camera you would melt”

"That’s how Kate Bush came out of the dressing room. There was no attempt by anybody to make her look like that"

Gered Mankowitz, the photographer with Kate Bush in his eyes, who shot the iconic the Wuthering Heights image and captured Kate in several photo shoots between 1978-79, discusses ‘that’ famous leotard shot, and why Kate was always in control of her sexy image…

I was brought in to create the launch image for Wuthering Heights and I think what makes Kate brilliant is her unique talent, her extraordinary energy, her vision – everything she does has a tremendous vision.

I remember her to be somebody who worked very hard. She was very young, 19, when it came out and she was wonderful to work with. Very energetic, very frenetic, quite difficult to tie down sometimes, to get her to focus on making an idea work, she wasn’t very experienced in having her photograph taken at that time, which was part of the challenge. But her individuality shone through.

I don’t think I had to draw it out of her, it was there, it was bubbling out of her. When I first went to the record company to discuss the session she wasn’t there but they played the video of Wuthering Heights that they’d made. It was quite obvious that she was a unique and special talent, not just because the music was so extraordinary but because of her individual look, her beauty and movement and style.

She had a really special quality, which stood out instantly on record and visually. I knew that I had to be at the top of my game to produce an image that was going to complement and support this extraordinary talent, and that’s what I tried to do. I always try to break these things down so that they are as simple as possible.

I had to be at the top of my game to produce an image that was going to complement and support this extraordinary talent

I only had a very loose connection with the record company. They already had a cover for the album The Kick Inside, but they didn’t have an image of Kate, it was quite obscure and it wasn’t as up-front of Kate as they wanted it to be. But I sense that they weren’t quite sure where they were going with her.

What they seemed very certain of was here was a unique and special talent and that they had somebody who was pure gold, but they were being led by her and I think that they weren’t sure who they were getting.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that she was in control of our session, but she was very much in control of the way she looked when she stepped out of the dressing room and I saw her for the first time ready for the camera I was blown away and knew it was going to be something special.

We did the very famous leotard pictures. I chose the leotards to make visual link with dance, that was the point of choosing and selecting them, I wanted to keep it extremely simple, I hope that in the portrait there would be a visual connection with dance which was clearly very important to her.

During the same session we reproduced the image of Wuthering Heights that she’d recorded for the video because everybody wanted stills of that but in those days they just couldn’t take them from the film. She did the whole dance for me. [Big Issue: “Wow!” Gered: “Wow indeed!”]. The only thing I didn’t have was the dry ice she had in the video, but it was spectacular.

We did four big photo sessions together between January 1978 and March or April 1979 and dance was always very high up on the list and a lot of the pictures we did are her moving, her different leotards, leaping, spinning, dancing and expressing herself like that and that was so important and trying to capture that in a very graphic way.

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She could just look at the camera you would melt. You sense that she was really special and felt Wuthering Heights was going to be a big hit and I know that EMI was going to really get behind it. What nobody knew was how huge she would be and how important.

I had worked with a lot of people who had become incredibly successful for one reason or another – The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, who had that same charisma and presence as Kate, as did Annie Lennox and Suzi Quattro. What you recognise is talent and charisma but that doesn’t necessarily turn into longevity.

We know you’re going to move from one single, one album to the next and hope that the artist and everything in their support structure around them is going to remain intact and supportive, and that the artist will build a fan base that is solid enough to support them.

The one thing that was very clear was here was a very individual and unique special artist. There’s always terrible pressure on people especially if your first record is a huge hit. I don’t think that any of her records have been as big as Wuthering Heights but she’s big enough, talented enough and clever enough not to be overwhelmed by the success.

She would appear to be completely in control of her career, and she’s managed to maintain her privacy. When she makes an appearance [in public] she’s thought about it, and considered it, and the response to it is always huge.

The one picture that in a way is inescapable is the pink leotard Wuthering Heights picture. It’s one of those pictures that become iconic and represents so much, and that doesn’t happen very often. It has a life of its own and it has energy. I think it’s a beautiful portrait of a very beautiful young woman.

The Big Issue: There has been discussion over the years whether her sexuality was being exploited – depending how it’s cropped, it’s quite graphic…

Gered: It didn’t occur to me at that time that [the nipples visible in the full-length shot] would be a problem. I know that it was pretty edgy for the late ’70s but it wasn’t sort of discussed or thought about a great deal. That was how she looked and I wasn’t going to say to her “I think you should cover up”.

She looked absolutely gorgeous. I’m looking at a cropped version of it now and it still has all the power that it did then. Her breasts might have been titillating to a few young boys but her beauty and her serenity, her stillness are what really make this a special photograph.

She used her sexuality throughout her performance

She certainly knew what she was doing, that’s how she came out of the dressing room, looking like that, and there was no attempt by anybody to make her look like that. That’s what she looked like and I don’t think it’s exploitative at all. I think it’s very, very beautiful.

I’m the photographer and I took that picture, and I don’t see how I could have exploited Kate Bush. She was in control of it.

But she used her sexuality throughout her performance – look at the Babooshka video or any of the records and promotional videos and stills, certainly in those first three or four years of her career she was a very sexual person and I think that came across in the way she moved, looked and the way she sang.

For me that makes any discussion or debate about whether the picture was ‘exploitative’ redundant. She wasn’t like Miley Cyrus trying to draw attention to herself through her sexuality. She’s a very strong woman and as a strong woman you know that she’s aware of everything that’s around her and I completely reject any possibility that the pictures were exploitative, it reflects her beauty and her power and serenity, and her comfortableness with it.

The Big Issue: It’s such a direct portrait, you feel like you know her, her face looks so open but she’s not giving anything away, it gives you chills still to look at it now.

Gered: It often is the case that in the beginning when an artist makes a really profound impact it’s often their first moments that are sort of welded into the public consciousness and that’s one of the most gratifying things. Going back to my favourite image, I’m incredibly proud and thrilled to have been associated with Kate Bush at this early stage. It’s fantastic to hear you say that [above] about it.