About the book

This is a story about love, suicide, genius, photography, beautiful women and corrosive artistic despair, but it didn’t start out that way. The original plan was to tell a story about a showbusiness agent, and the intention was to make it commercial and glossy and provide a backstage glimpse at celebrity, but then something happened to make it darker, or at least weirder. The biggest thing that happened was that people started to talk about things they had seldom talked about before.

Everyone interviewed for this book told their version of events to the best of their recollection, but inevitably there were some discrepancies, as well as jealousies and uncertain interpretations of incidents.

On 25 March 2006, the photographer Bob Carlos Clarke checked himself out of the Priory Hospital in Barnes, walked a short distance to a railway track, and jumped in front of a train. He was 55, and it was a terrible end to a complex life. But as endings go, it was not an entirely surprising one.

Carlos Clarke was best known as a photographer of women in a state of undress, a subject that obsessed him long before he took up a camera. But his reputation – as ‘Britain’s answer to Helmut Newton’ – hints at only a fraction of his talent (or his potential talent), and suggests none of the turmoil that governed his career. How else to describe him? He was fastidious about control of his professional life but reckless in his private one. He wrestled continuously between commerce and art. He was a painstaking printer. He was terrifically explosive company. He was his own worst enemy.

Why did he kill himself? There are several answers. He was depressed to be growing old while all his models always seemed to stay 21, not least because he felt he no longer had a chance with them. He detested the emergence of digital photography, which gave everyone the impression they were the next Cartier-Bresson. And he doubted the power of his own talents: the National Portrait Gallery failed to recognise him, but would hang a portrait by his 14-year-old daughter Scarlett as soon as he was dead.

And yet by popular standards less rigid than his own, Carlos Clarke was a success. He featured regularly in the photography magazines, where he offered provocative insights and was regarded as an innovator. He was a big star at the annual national photo expos, young photographers packing the lecture halls and queuing for his autograph. He was in demand for calendars and advertising shoots, on which assignments he would be rude to the creative account directors and they would be pathetically grateful that he even noticed them.

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Simon Garfield will be speaking about To The Letter at the following venues
(Click on the venue for more information):


5 October
Wigtown Book Festival
(also speaking about On The Map the following day)

14 October
5X15 London

23 October
Waterstones Piccadilly (Public book launch with Shaun Usher and Letters of Note)

29 October
Bristol Festival of Ideas (With Shaun Usher)

3 November
Richmond upon Thames Literature Festival

18 November
Toppings Bookshop, Bath (with Shaun Usher)

28 November
The School of Life, London

6 December
TEDx London (on the Future of Cities)
Details to follow

12 December
Summerhall, Edinburgh
Details to follow