Mike Oldfield – The Quiet Genius Behind Tubular Bells

Sometime in 1972 my agent called me to ask me to go and meet Richard Branson to talk about photographing a new artist he was working with called Mike Oldfield. I’d never heard of Mike before but I knew Richard from being around town and hearing that he was a real ‘go getter’. I visited Richard at his house in Notting Hill, at that time he was still in record retail (boxes of records, lined the hall and all the way up the stairs) and just launching his label Virgin Records. I went into the living room of his house, and Richard introduced me to Alan White (then a well known session musician just prior to him joining the super group Yes).  I couldn’t stop myself from saying how much I loved his playing on John Lennon’s Instant Karma’as he stood there with his then girlfriend Rory Flynn (Hollywood legend Errol Flynn’s daughter). I was very surprised when Alan thanked me for the compliment. Richard was full of beans and really excited and started telling me how incredible Mike Oldfield was.

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Richard played me some music from the as yet unreleased album Tubular Bells and said that he would like me to go down to his studio (The Manor) where Mikes was working and photograph him. I was immediately struck by the unique sound and I realised this was a very special set of recordings that did not sound like anything I had ever heard before. I think that’s because this was the early days of the synthesiser and I’d never heard it used like that before. I arrived at The Manor and set up a spotlight in a side room in the old Victorian building, which was surrounded by out buildings. Mike came into the room and was amiable and very quiet and slightly bemused to be photographed. He said to me ‘what is it for?” I said “An album sleeve or publicity”.  Other than that he really didn’t say much and I just gently asked him to stand under the electronic flash focussing spot.  I was using a Hasselblad 500c with film and an early Balcar electronic spotlight flash. I really liked it because it made the shadows jet black and very sharp. I took about four rolls of film; he had the look of a Coptic Saint, just looking back at you with these wonderful eyes. I sent the transparencies to my agent and then Richard got back to me and thanked me (although I never got the images back for my own records). Richard sent me a few posters using the picture which I no longer have but I did find the image above online from the session.

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Later, I think it was around the launch of Tubular Bells III, I was asked to go and photograph Mike at his country home and studio for The Sunday Times Magazine. By this time Tubular Bells had been a global phenomenon and Mike was known to be reclusive and to not enjoy being in the public eye. I was very pleased to be asked to take his portrait again since I really respect the quality of his output and his commitment to excellence throughout his career. Clearly it has not been easy for him to deal with the magnitude of the success his music created, which was a phenomenon at the time and set the foundations for Virgin Records.  Mike is a shy and thoughtful man ill at ease in the public eye, but the work itself it totally iconic and he led the world in the use of electronic music as well as being an exceptional acoustic musician.

My assistants and myself started our journey into the British countryside all the time wondering what this reclusive genius would be like. We arrived at the agreed address in front of two huge electronic gates. My assistant jumped out of the SUV and shouted into the intercom “We’ve come from London to photograph Mike for The Sunday Times”. We were buzzed in and as we drove along the long drive towards the house, I noticed some beautiful horses in the paddock and I said to one of my assistants that it would be really great if Mike would agree to be photographed with his horses. Given that I knew how much he was averse to the camera I was very conscious that it might not be possible, as I needed to work in a very gentle and sensitive way. I didn’t know how he would respond to the request, so I trod carefully approaching everything with a request and never a demand.

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Mike emerged out of the house wearing an old denim coat with frayed sleeves, which was obviously his coat of comfort. From what I could gather there was no one else around unlike today’s superstars who travel with entourages. Mike was still as quiet as he’d always been so I asked if I could start by photographing him in his studio, but then I noticed the weather was starting to cloud over and I thought lets get these pictures with the horses done. “Mike” I said ” Can I do some shots of you with the horses before it rains and the light goes”. To my absolute delight he said “Yeah okay, just a moment” and he then disappeared and my assistants looked at me non-plused. Then we heard a crunching sound and Mike reappeared much to our collective relief with a large red ladle full of horse treats.

As we walked down to the paddock Mike rattled the ladle and the two horses pricked up their ears and ambled over to him, affectionately. My assistants stood behind me with a portable battery flash pack and flash head on a boom with a soft box. I checked the light with the meter and we were off, by then I new instinctively that the lamp to subject distance was f11. I’d heard that Richard Avedon used a rope from the flash head to the subject with different knots on it to quickly get the f-stop without using a meter when the flashback was sent at a certain output. My assistants new that to work with horses you must be absolutely silent and not make any sudden gestures or movements. Fortunately for us all, as I shot with my Hasselblad 500C camera on a tripod the horses did not respond negatively to the flash pack going off. This resulted in some serene images of Mike with the horses.

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By now the light was fading and the sky looked very dramatic. I stood on the lawn as the assistants set up the lights and I wanted to capture the silhouette of the house against the darkening sky with Mike in the foreground. It only took about 10 minutes; using a tripod I could balance the daylight with the flash to get the result I wanted. Fortunately for us, shooting the horses seems to have relaxed Mike and I really like how calm he looks on his front lawn.

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As the light was fading it was now the time to shoot inside Mike’s recording studio. I said to my assistants bring me the rest of the lights and I asked Mike which door led to the studio and we all made our way there. I was instantly struck by how homely it was and how worn his studio chair was but also could not help noticing the beautiful collection of guitars. When Mike played us some music the audio quality was something else.  I could see that for him, the work itself was and is what matters. He clearly was not someone who came into the industry to be famous or a celebrity but a creative genius whose attention is totally directed towards the work itself. That is something I respect hugely. I’ve never been one for the side effects of the work; I’ve been given awards I’ve never turned up to collect. Not because I don’t appreciate being acknowledged but because at some level I feel as it the hubris of it all can blind you to the real nature of the work itself.

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Mike Oldfield’s new album – Return to Ommadawn is available here 

  • Clive Arrowsmith is shooting stunning images, staging exhibitions and is as passionate about photography as he was when he first pressed the shutter at The Paris Collections. He is available for global media opportunities related to his work and photography generally. Bespoke prints from Clive’s archive are also available by special request, for any enquiries  (email Eugenie here). Clive’s book Arrowsmith: Fashion, Beauty & Portraits is available hereand Lowry at Home: Salford 1966 is available here

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