Look at these 1990s celebrity photographs captured in King’s Cross

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A new show at Casa Tua on Cromer Street documents key portraits of the era by pioneering photographer Mike Owen. We hear his story


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Photographed after the seminal 1992 film Orlando, and before her ground-breaking performance art installation at the Serpentine Gallery, the shoot was one of many that took place in Owen’s converted church studio. “It was Tilda’s idea to lie like that and go topless,” he says. “I’ve always been quite shy, but I think I asked her to pull the top down a bit, and she said, ‘Shall I just take it off?”
Tilda Swinton: ‘It was her idea to lie like that and go topless,” Mike Owen says of this 1996 portrait. “I’ve always been quite shy, but I think I asked her to pull the top down a bit, and she said, ‘Shall I just take it off?” All photos © Mike Owen
The epicentre of it all was a Grade-II listed derelict Gothic church off Great Percy Street.

Back in the mid-1990s, this unlikely spot saw more than its fair share of actors, pop stars and artists pull up in discreet limos. Why? Because it was the sought-after studio of celebrity photographer Mike Owen.

“I wanted a beautiful space,” says Mike Owen, “and we found it: a chapel, part of a convent, built in 1884 by the architect Ernest Newton. You walked down a narrow mews off the main road and into the entrance, and there were stained glass windows and at one end a 20ft high cross. It was called the Sisters of Mercy suitably enough, although”, he adds, with a smile, “they were the one band I didn’t shoot.”

Mike inside the church, c1990.
‘We installed a vintage chandeliers and old-fashioned salvaged doors’: Mike Owen inside the church, c.1990.

Mike and his team spent £80k – no small amount in 1990 – refurbishing it into a fully equipped studio, with important selling points du jour like a darkroom, make-up room and total blackout facilities. “And we installed a vintage chandeliers and old-fashioned salvaged doors; in fact most of it was all reclaimed, with a few religious pictures.”

He laughs. “In fact, buying such an extravagant space was a stupid thing to do, as it was just the time when personal photographers’ studios were becoming irrelevant, and hire places started to take off. But I was of the generation who didn’t work unless we had our own place; there simply weren’t as many photographers then.”

Mike outside the church in 2016. Photo: SE
Mike Owen outside the church in 2016. Photo: Stephen Emms
Born in Bristol, Owen had a nomadic childhood: his family moved to Leicestershire, where his father started working for the Americans in the nuclear power industry, and then Geneva until, as a teen, “they got posted to Brussels and I got shoved into Dover College.”

This began the long affair he has enjoyed with the Kent Coast, where he now lives with his family in Deal.

Rewind forty years and Mike was busy enrolling at Maidstone College of Art, ending up specialising in what was to shape his career. “I was the first student to do it,” he says. “Initially I studied sculpture and then graphics before settling on photography, doing a post-grad at London College of Printing.” Offered a job assisting for £35 a week, he bought a Cecil Beaton print at auction with his first cheque – which, happily, he says he still has.

Howard Tong One of my favourite pictures of all time, from the late 70s. He was a performance artist friend of mine, and this was just taken on the spur of the moment, near where he lived. Howard was brilliant; always up for having his picture taken.
Howard Tong: ‘One of my favourite pictures of all time, from the late 70s. He was a performance artist friend of mine, and this was just taken on the spur of the moment, near where he lived. Howard was brilliant; always up for having his picture taken.’ Photo © Mike Owen
It was now the 1980s, and Owen’s star soared along with those of the hit bands of the day, often shooting on a 5×4 camera and employing flattering lighting and a top hair and make-up team. Working from his first studio in Clink Street, SE1 – “you couldn’t get a cab anywhere near there” – he was soon shooting enormo names like Duran Duran, FYC, and Spandau Ballet. “They were probably my best days,” he says. “We rarely even needed to retouch.”

He even had a hand in who Duran singer Simon Le Bon went on to marry. “I used to go on tour with them and one day they saw pictures I’d done of Yasmin and Simon said, ‘Who’s this?’ And I said, ‘Oooh she’ll never go for you’ – and yet, of course she did.”

The old Goods Yard: We used the area that’s now Granary Square in lots of shoots. This was for the long defunct Sky Magazine: you could do anything for them; they had a top art director and fashion ed.
The old Goods Yard: ‘We used the area that’s now Granary Square in lots of shoots. This was for the long defunct Sky Magazine: you could do anything for them; they had a top art director and fashion ed.’

After shooting at Clink Street for nine years, by the early ’90s Mike was keen to find a unique space north of the river – and it was here that a roll call of stars, from Kate Moss to Joan Collins (see pics below) rocked up to be photographed for publicity shots and glossy magazines.

What was King’s Cross like then? “Pretty run-down. I was always attracted to the slightly seedier parts of London as they’re cheaper and more interesting. I remember seeing a guy in a three piece suit jacking up, and prostitutes everywhere. There were parts you simply didn’t go to.”

 Joe Cocker An iconic shot of the old King’s Cross gas holders, part of a press shoot for the record company, who would often need about five images across different locations. Even then Cocker was an older gent, so the background was important to make the shot interesting.
Joe Cocker: ‘An iconic shot of the old King’s Cross gas holders, part of a press shoot for the record company, who would often need about five images across different locations. Even then Cocker was an older gent, so the background was important to make the shot interesting.’All photos © Mike Owen
But despite the socio-economic problems of the time Mike fell for the area, even buying a flat for his wife and young family in Ice Wharf on the Regent’s Canal. “We managed to get one in the late ‘90s off plan,” he says. “There were lots of cool people living there like the DJ Jeremy Healy, and arty types in our building and on the canal boats in the basin below. I always remember the light was amazing, too.”

Vanessa Paradis: 'She came in all grungy and dirty and then transformed; she was with Johnny Depp.'
Vanessa Paradis: ‘She came in all grungy and dirty and then transformed; she was with Johnny Depp.’All photos © Mike Owen
Ute Lemper She was famous in her time, starring in the main role in Chicago in the West End. We shot these images in three exposures, something that now would take five seconds.
Ute Lemper: ‘She was famous in her time, starring in the main role in Chicago in the West End. We shot these images in three exposures, something that now would take five seconds.’Photo © Mike Owen
Joan Collins: she was made guest editor of Marie Claire and this picture was for that: an interesting character in a funny sort of way.
Joan Collins: ‘She was made guest editor of Marie Claire and this picture was for that: an interesting character in a funny sort of way.’Photo © Mike Owen
Kate Moss: Just a great south London girl, probably 18 in this shot.
Kate Moss: ‘Just a great south London girl, probably 18 in this shot.’ All photos © Mike Owen
What does he make of the area now? “It’s great what’s happened, that people have put so much faith into the area. King’s Cross has changed and developed, and it has to be for the better. Back then it was pretty decrepit, and even though places like the German Gymnasium were nice enough studio and offices, it’s nothing like it is now.”

As for Mike? He went on to direct music videos for the likes of Annie Lennox, and photograph a whole host more stars from David Beckham to Keira Knightly, as well as appearing on TV series including Channel 4’s How to Look Good Naked.

Not a bad find then, that derelict chapel in a backstreet of King’s Cross.

This is box title
Catch Mike Owen’s retrospective exhibition at Casa Tua, 106 Cromer Street WC1, from 18th April to 13th May. Private view on 21st April, 6pm. Find out more here

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