August 2022 10 Min Read

Interview: Dafydd Jones

By Daniel Penny

I met the photographer Dafydd Jones, 66, at his rambling compound on the end of a country road in Sussex. The amply proportioned rooms of the main house once belonged to an old chauffeur who drove around the lords and ladies of the manor next door. The former outbuildings have been turned into studios for Jones, his textile designer wife Linzi, and his artist daughter, Poppy.

Jones is best known as the society photographer of the new Bright Young Things, those wild undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge whose fashion tastes were moulded by the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and whose purses were unleashed by Margaret Thatcher’s tax cuts. It was a good time to be young, white, rich, and privileged in Britain, and Jones was there to capture the hedonism of it all – though not as a posh reveller himself, but an outsider on an artistic and scientific mission. Now, many of those young faces captured by Jones’ camera have risen to the highest places in the British establishment. Looking through his archive is like playing a game of Who’s Who.

Over the last 40 years, Dafydd Jones has been a pioneer in the area of social photography, capturing the peculiarities of upper-class English life.

After decades in the magazine and newspaper business, Jones retreated from London to Sussex in 2015 and began to revisit the pictures that got him started. A collection of his Oxford photographs, Oxford: The Last Hurrah, was published by ACC Art Books in 2020. Other pictures from this era can be found gracing the covers of Allan Hollinghurst’s novel A Line of Beauty and journalist Simon Kuper’s Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, which is set to be made into a TV documentary series later this year.

On a cool afternoon in July, I sat down with Jones in his airy studio, surrounded by boxes of old prints, magazines, and test strips. We talked about his long career, his (in)glorious days in Oxbridge, and what it means to be a society photographer with artistic ambitions.

ACM: I thought to start, we could discuss your big break, which was a photography contest for the Sunday Times in 1981.

DJ: Yeah, it was. I’d been to art school and studied painting, and I learned a bit about photography. At that time, it was economically impossible to consider being an artist and I saw I could maybe work in photography. I got a job at Butlins holiday camp taking pictures of working-class families on their summer holidays. I had to wear a uniform, too.

Anyway, in those days, The Sunday Times was a much better magazine than it is now and they ran this competition to find the young British photographers. About 1,000 people entered. I entered the pictures I’d taken at Butlins holiday camp and got shortlisted.

Jones got his start in the industry photographing balls, debutante dances, and weddings for Tatler magazine.

They gave us all projects to do – sort of a big deal, really, but we weren’t paid. We were given a choice of subjects and one of the subjects was “The Return of the Bright Young Things”. And several photographers turned up at Oxford, taking pictures – I was already living in Oxford with my family – and we were competing against each other to try and find “the bright young things”. There was some skullduggery going on and it was quite competitive. I’ve got the issue, actually, because someone else was asking me about it the other day: the photo that appeared on the cover is not not my picture. People now say, “Oh, you won that competition.” But I didn’t win. I was the runner up.

So it’s one of those apocryphal stories.

And I didn’t compromise. At the time they wanted colour photography, but I thought, “I’m not getting paid to do this. I’m gonna do what I want, so at least I’ll be proud of the pictures afterwards,” because I wasn’t expecting to win. And so I think my pictures look more distinctive from the pictures that won the competition.

OK, here we are (picking up a copy of the magazine): “The Return of the Bright Young Things”. The hair is really something. And here are your pictures. Is that someone in a tuxedo doing a Sieg Heil?

Yeah. He denied making a Nazi salute. And that was before the picture appeared. He stopped denying it after.

Jones’ work is rendered in black and white, initially to distinguish himself from the rest, but it has now become his signature.

I can imagine these causing quite a stir. So you were living in Oxford already, and then the pictures came out. And you got a call from publishing legend Tina Brown.

Yeah. She called me and said, “Come up to London.” She was editing Tatler at the time and she was looking for a photographer to work just exclusively for her, but it wasn’t that much money, and we couldn’t get into lots of things because Tatler wasn’t that well known and, in the very early ones, the party section was very small. I was amazed that she kept me on because sometimes she’d only run a few pictures, but she would never miss a good one. And when I did that picture, it caused them to get noticed.

This is the infamous boy pushing a girl into a pool – quite a large print you’ve got here on the wall.

This was a debutante party, and what was interesting is that was the only picture Tina ran, and she ran it quite small, but the reverberations carried on for quite a long time.

It made a big splash? Sorry, I couldn’t help it.

It’s funny because that lily in the pool almost looks like a splash as well.

Jones standing in front of his infamous photograph of a boy pushing a girl into the water at a debutante ball.

When you would go to a party, what is it that you were looking to capture?

Basically, my modus operandi was just to photograph things that happened. I wouldn’t really set up pictures. I would photograph whoever the party was for out of politeness, and then I had a hit list. I used a flash because the light in these places was terrible. My editor Mark Boxer used to joke about the “knob count”. He said, “It’s Tatler, we’ve got to have a certain number of titles per page.”

But my way of photographing a party would be to walk around constantly just looking for something interesting … you know, if a girl looked particularly beautiful, or if a guy was doing something outrageous, or if it was just an interesting composition.

The funny thing was, looking back, it was almost like a talent-spotting thing – the people that stood out in the pictures or that my camera would be attracted to, very often they would go on to do other things. Like Hugh Grant – I always wanted to photograph him. And I remember taking pictures of him at some party and going into the office saying, “He’s a young actor – you know, you ought to run a picture of him.” And there was a girl in the office that had known him and she said, “Oh, yes – Hughy. You must put him in.”

But actually, I don’t think we did. It didn’t go in until he became famous, and then the pictures got published afterwards.

Can you talk a little bit about breaking into high society, so to speak? A lot of these dining clubs and unofficial college societies were quite closed off to outsiders. How did you manage that? And then what did they see in you that they let you stick around?

In England, there is this sort of establishment, and I sometimes think how strange it must be for them. If you go to Eton, and then go to Oxford, and then you’re in government, you’re still surrounded by the same people. Also, while spending time with members of the dining clubs, I learnt that there was a lot of snobbery between the schools – major and minor public schools; Eton, Winchester, Westminster versus the rest.

Having come from state school and art college, I was maybe more of a novelty so escaped a bit of that. I was quite unassuming. People moaned about me behind my back; I heard that I was too persistent. I do remember someone repeating some mean comments about me being like a ferret they couldn’t get rid of.

Was it hard to get these sorts of people to trust you?

It wasn’t always easy getting access to these people. At Oxford, somebody suggested I talk to Philip Astor – he’d met me already and he was involved with all the clubs. I went to his rooms and he said, “Oh, come and have a cup of tea. What is that? What do you want?” And I said, “Well, I heard you’re the guy to speak to about the Bullingdon Club”, which is an infamous [Oxford University] dining society known for drunken behaviour and vandalism and that sort of thing. He said, “Oh, well, there’s not much of a club. We don’t do very much – we only meet occasionally, you know, so not very interesting.” And I said, “Well, I’d love to take pictures [and] in some way record your events – dinner?”

I don’t think that they really want any publicity. I’m not sure if we want to be photographed. The Bullingdon Club members would wear their kit to other events, so you could … spot them. It was almost like a gang colours thing.

“My way of photographing a party would be to walk around constantly just looking for something interesting … you know, if a girl looked particularly beautiful, or if a guy was doing something outrageous, or if it was just an interesting composition.”

About eight years ago, I got sent to photograph a polo ball in Oxford, and there was a Bullingdon Club member, so I made a beeline to him. He was wearing the kit, so I knew. He didn’t want to be photographed. It was one of the Rothermeres – the Daily Mail family. He had already been trained not to be photographed.

But basically, people just got to know me. And I was better looking than I am now. I got to know about events and [got] invited to other things – I’d have to pester to try and get in, but after a while, as Tatler became more successful, I was getting invited to things and became a fixture.

However, becoming a permanent fixture was something I didn’t really want, which is probably why I left – because things change. I didn’t want to be endlessly photographing Royal Ascot debutante parties.

So it was time for you to move on. You worked at Vanity Fair under Tina Brown, too. Can you talk about those years?

Until that point, I was happy in England, and I stayed in England. But then, when Mark Boxer died [in 1988] and things started going downhill at Tatler, I thought, “Well, I’ve been doing this for eight or nine years now. It’s getting embarrassing being the party guy”, so I went to see Tina Brown again. She tried me out for a month in New York, which I loved because it was totally different.

Gaining access to the upper echelons of society may not have been easy at first, but once he got there, Jones was determined to evolve, rather than become a fixture.

What they did was basically send me to loads of things every night. They didn’t have a party section as such. It was partly up to the picture editor to find things for me to photograph and just keep me busy, but it was just a scattergun approach: fashion parties; Upper East Side parties. Actually, it was quite a while later that I realised that it was too New York-centric; they should have thought about sticking me in Los Angeles. And I wish I’d spent more time downtown.

You worked in New York for many years, came back to London, shot a column for The Telegraph and you were freelancing for many other newspapers and magazines. Then it seems like you took a step back, left London, came to Sussex, and started revisiting these old photographs. Can you talk about that?

I had a health crisis and work crisis around 2015. Work dried up and I retreated into the darkroom. I joined the community darkroom actually, and began printing up my favourite pictures and looking through the old ones. I find it’s a good way of editing the pictures, because when I’m in the darkroom sometimes I change my mind. I think, do I really want to print this? It’s a way of curating my own exhibitions.

I made a limited-edition box of prints, [of] which I gave three to members of my family. Then I showed one to a dealer, who sold it straightaway to someone in New York. Then I put this box of prints on my website, and the photographer Martin Parr sent a message: “Could I buy one?” Then the dealer asked me, “Can’t you make more of these boxes?” And so that was the beginning.

These boxed sets were a way for Jones to revisit this period of time, and they also revived interest in his work.

That book [Oxford: The Last Hurrah] was made from a box of prints I [had] made in Oxford, because Martin [had] also introduced me to the librarian at the Bodleian library [at Oxford University], who was interested in buying a box. He [had] commissioned me to make an Oxford box, which I spent three months or so doing.

Were you surprised at how much interest you’ve received?

I wasn’t surprised because I thought it was good stuff. I said to my family, “You know, if anything happens to me, you have this box of prints and you can sell it and maybe use it as a deposit to buy a flat or a house or something.” Because I was pretty sure that box would be valuable at some point.

Speaking of value, you mentioned earlier that you get contacted by people asking you to take down their photos from your website. There’s obviously also interest in a lot of the pictures from this Oxford period because of Boris Johnson’s circle and their political rise. Can you talk about this body of work not as art, but as history?

No one from the Oxford period has ever asked me to take down pictures, surprisingly. But it’s something that happens more and more often with recent pictures that are perfectly innocuous. And I worry quite a lot about it because there’s a value in images just as history. If everyone is spending their time looking into finding pictures of themselves that they don’t like and then trying to get pictures taken down, it’s a kind of problem for archivists. Sometimes there might be a very good reason why someone doesn’t want pictures of themselves published, but also they might change their minds. And now, everyone has the right to be forgotten, don’t they? I’m not sure how I feel about it, because it might be history.

Despite the joyful scenes portrayed in his images, Jones acknowledges that they also represent a society in decline.

Today, if I were to photograph some young Boris-type at Oxford, he might be on to me three years later: “I don’t like these pictures. Could you get rid of them?” Because people are much more aware of this.

You know, I still worry about whether to publish pictures I took 40 years ago – about the ethics of it. I have a picture I took in 1981 of a guy coming [up] behind a girl and pulling her dress down. I still haven’t done a print of this picture because it’s quite a strange scene. And it shows us a sort of male chauvinism amongst the upper classes. But I worry about the woman [and] how she would feel. I’ve tried to contact her to talk to her about it, but I haven’t been able to reach her.

Lately, I’ve been working with quite a lot of documentaries who are wanting me to go through my archive more and more. There have been ones on fashion and the art world in the 1990s; Oxford in the 1980s; [and] also Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein. I photographed Ghislaine at Oxford, and then in London on the party scene, and then in New York. The last time I photographed her was in Miami.

It’s interesting you mention ethical conflicts. The famous New York Times society and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham used to talk about how he would never accept anything from the people that he was photographing – not even a glass of water. How did you maintain the level of closeness to be granted access to things and get people to drop their guard, but on the other hand, to maintain your journalistic objectivity?

It might have been something to do with my Welsh, slightly puritanical side I’m not sure. I was very conscious of class distinctions because I didn’t feel I was part of the same group. I realised that I had a serious purpose. I thought, well, I’m doing this kind of weird job: putting on a black tie and going out photographing people yelling and shouting and spraying champagne around. But it was a job. I tried to stay quite grounded – you could easily get carried away and think that you’re part of the party.

Everyone has the right to be forgotten, don’t they? I’m not sure how I feel about it, because it might be history.

At the same time, I also was looking at the pictures as I did them and I made prints as I went along each month – separate from whatever the magazine was after. And the tricky thing about what I was doing was I thought I was doing a fair and anthropological set of pictures. But some people would look at them and think I was glamorising this elite world, or they just hated the people in the pictures and what they represented, so therefore they hated the pictures.

I want to end by thinking about the mood of your work. I do think there’s a kind of elegiac quality to your pictures. On the one hand, there’s energy and the excitement of youth, but I also see a ‘lost-ness’ in these pictures. An era coming to a close. And with a name like The Last Hurrah, there’s definitely a sense of ending. Can you talk a little bit about that?

There was this feeling I had in England that it was a decadent time. There was this emptiness. Among some groups of people I was photographing, there was this feeling that things weren’t going anywhere, like a society in decline. Looking back now there were some very energetic people. Furthermore, the people that go to too many parties are in a sort of decline themselves. Some people couldn’t keep it up.

Our thanks to Dafydd Jones for sharing his work and history with us. Photography by Ollie Grove.