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Madame Tussaud’s, London 1983. Image by Denis O'Regan

Chronicling Bowie: Denis O’Regan on memories and memorabilia

The year is 1983. The glitter and excess of the 70s are gone, and David Bowie has a newfound confidence, peroxide bouffant, cream suits, braces and peg trousers. Let’s Dance dominates the airwaves and the charismatic chameleon is in his prime, with commercial success and looming world tour; his first in five years and largest to date, with 96 performances, traveling from Brussels to Hong Kong.

The reason I started taking pictures came from seeing Jimmy Page using a violin bow on his guitar. I thought, I want to take that image home! That’s how it began. It’s about collecting memories. Then I saw Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and I was just amazed by it. It made me want to go on capturing these kinds of things. Keeping memorabilia is the same thing, it’s just keeping something physical.

Image by Denis O’Regan

“I can’t say I was the chosen one because I wasn’t chosen!” explains Denis O’Regan, who became Bowie’s official photographer through a mix of cheek and chance. “Let’s say I was the ‘volunteered one’! I did that for every tour I covered. Thin Lizzy, The Rolling Stones. I had heard through the tour accountant from the Stones tour – a good friend – that he was starting this huge Bowie tour. I said ‘I want to do it’, and he said, ‘you better make a business plan.’” O’Regan’s plan, in the form of a book, intrigued Bowie, and the rest, including the resulting 1984 photobook Serious Moonlight, is history.

“I got invited out to rehearsals. I went with David to boxing training each day and he got to know me. I didn’t realise that was my audition. Being on tour, you’ve got to be able to get along with people or you won’t last. Some people can say I went on tour with The Stones for two weeks. Yeah. Well, guess what? It could have been two years, but you got slung off after two weeks. I stayed with David for eight months’, the whole world tour.”

Bowie in Auckland taken from helicopter. Image by Denis O’Regan

Few artists and photographers have had such a close touring relationship as O’Regan and Bowie. “I wanted to do other books for David,” he says, “but because that was his biggest tour, after that, publishers weren’t interested. I waited until technology moved my way and allowed me to self-publish.”

The resulting book, Ricochet, published nearly 40 years after the original tour, bursts with never-before-seen moments of Bowie, from his most unguarded to the theatrics of his performance. “I take pictures for them to be seen by people – that’s the whole idea for me. The only way for me to ensure they were seen was to do books,” says O’Regan. “With Ricochet, I had 100% control.”

The definitive collectible, presented in five, beautifully bound books with cloth covers featuring a graphic representation of Bowie’s Serious Moonlight stage costumes, includes O’Regan’s extensive collection of personal memorabilia from the tour. “All of the memorabilia in Ricochet is mine – I collected because that’s what I did! If you are a photographer, you are a collector: you’re trying to collect things,” O’Regan explains.

Containing backstage passes, lighting plans and newsletters, to set lists, blueprints, tickets and anecdotes, Ricochet charts O’Regan’s intimate experience inside the Bowie machine.

Ricochet comes with a certificate from Bowie’s estate (above right), designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, designer of the Black Star album, based on an ex libris stamp that David put on his own books to prove they were his. There are also limited-edition prints 1/25, and a certificate of authenticity with the estate stamp included in the folder with the prints. “It’s in such a big format that it can’t easily be scanned and so can’t be copied. Embedded in the certificate is some manufactured DNA like a special watermark that can be scanned. It’s like a DNA signature, they can’t be faked!” confirms Denis.

Scroll through below to read some of Denis’ stories behind the memorabilia and images that make up Ricochet’s special collection.

  1. “I had a framed circle of tickets from each city of the tour. Dismantling them wasn’t easy as they were all stuck together. I was introduced to the best paper craftswoman in England to help unpick them. Each one’s a little work of art and is almost that kind of life cycle. I think fans love that because they can read everything. Today there are no tickets! Just bar codes on your phone –so I feel this is really special.”

    Collection of Denis O’Regan

  2. “I remember this one – it was shoved under my hotel door.  We’d often have outings. We went to mission control at NASA, we went to an FBI shooting range. David even rented the presidential yacht Sequoia for a day out which was really nice, but it was just us, so it wasn’t really a day off.  We saw each other all day every day anyway!”

    Collection of Denis O’Regan

  3. “On tour David would come to my room and we would select images. He’d say if he wanted to save some for the book, or which to send to the press. I’d have a slideshow in my room with a screen; it was easier for that way. Magazines often asked for a set of exclusive images, so I often did portraits on tour of David.  In Berlin Bowie did a shoot with Helmut Newton in the hotel room. This is a contact sheet from the session.”

    Bowie and Helmut Newton in a Berlin Hotel Room. Image by Denis O’Regan

  4. “Ricochet contains the backstage passes, lighting plans and of course newsletters – we used to get one every night under our doors. It would tell you where we were off to, the time we had to be in the lobby and any all important notes such as warnings about any stringent customs checks to be aware of!  I love all the hand-written receipts, hotels, expenses, even cab fares. People were always trying to grab them at the end of the show. They’re beautiful.”

    Collection of Denis O’Regan

  5. Set list change from ‘The Boss’.

    Collection of Denis O’Regan

  6. “Before we got on the plane to the next stop of the tour, we were given an envelope with our room key in and our rooming list, so you knew who was staying in each room and how to contact people. “

    Collection of Denis O’Regan

  7. “At the end of the tour, we had a vote on the best city of the tour and the worst. The best was in Edinburgh when it poured with rain before the show but then David came on and the fans went nuts. It was Ainslie Park football stadium. A giant cloud of steam was coming off the audience – the happiness was incredible. We had 98 other shows in amazing places, and yet that one was the one! Lyon was the worst as for some reason, we found the place was pretty awful, even the hotel. I think we didn’t even stay the night!”

    Collection of Denis O’Regan

  8. “There are so many memories attached to the photographs. I love this image because the city, as in Bankok, was just flooded so there’s David with his trousers rolled up paddling through, waiting for me. ‘Come on Denis!’

    I stapled my contact sheets to the negatives, so I always have the contact sheets and the negatives; they’re worth a fortune! They are worth more than the print because they tell the story – put it in context.  In Ricochet I’ve put all the contact sheets in one book to make them exclusive to the people who buy the box-set. The fact that I’ve got these is a big deal, because lots of people chucked them away.”

    Images by Denis O’Regan

  9. “I also was able to get access to the lyrics for Ricochet. I asked the estate, and when they told me they had some originals I said ‘I’ll ‘ave that!’. The writing on the box is actually David’s writing.”

    From the Ricochet book