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Steve Hiett, influential fashion photographer who gave up an early career in pop music after being electrocuted during a gig – obituary

Steve Hiett
Steve Hiett Credit:  Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/REX

Steve Hiett, the photographer, who has died aged 79, began his career studying graphic design at the Royal College of Art, then became a lead guitarist and vocalist of the Pyramid, a “surf music” band he formed with Ian Matthews and Al Jackson; they had a hit record, Summer of Last Year, in 1967, and were tipped for fame by the critics.

But then Hiett grabbed an unearthed microphone stand during a concert and the resulting electric shock blew him off stage into the audience, breaking his back. He spent three weeks in intensive care, and although his wounds healed he developed a phobia of electric guitars and was too traumatised to go back on stage.

Instead, to keep himself involved in the music industry, he took up his camera and talked his way into taking photographs backstage of early Jimi Hendrix concerts and went on to capture everyone from the Beach Boys, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and Miles Davis to Uma Thurman and Sophia Loren.

His strikingly original use of flash caught the eye of fashion magazines and he went on to become one of the world’s leading fashion photographers, working for magazines such as British Vogue, Vogue Paris, Harper’s Bazaar, French Elle and Marie Claire.

Steve Hiett photo for L'Uomo Vogue, 1992 Credit: Natalie Doran 

Hiett’s name was not as well-known as, say, Steven Meisel or Peter Lindbergh, but his work was hugely influential. His dazzling flash work, unconventional framing, off-kilter composition and bold use of saturated colours, one critic observed, “belong to Hiett in the same way that the 8 x 10 Polaroid format belongs to Paolo Roversi”, and his style was much imitated.

But Hiett was always loath to “play the game” and insisted that there was no secret to his technique. Asked what made a Steve Hiett photo, he replied: “Beautiful girls and beautiful light”.     

Steve Hiett was born on Boxing Day 1940 to parents who had moved away from the East End of London to Lancing, near Brighton. The young Hiett bore a slight resemblance to James Dean, rode a motorcycle and took up the guitar.

Steve Hiett photograph for Vogue Paris, 1977 Credit: Natalie Doran 

Aged 16 he won a place at Worthing Art College, progressing to Brighton College of Art and then to the Royal College of Art, where he studied graphic design under Anthony Froshaug. His training as a graphic artist was evident in his photographs, though he claimed to find more inspiration in the “poetry” of painting. “I hate graphic photography,” he told an interviewer. “I like construction as a painter; graphic means those clever lines … I don’t like that. If my pictures are graphic, it’s purely unintentional.”

He continued to play the guitar at college, entertaining fellow students with Chuck Berry riffs on a Les Paul Telecaster. When the lead guitarist of the Pretty Things, an up-and-coming band in the early 1960s, failed to show up for a gig, he was asked to stand in: “After that, I just decided I didn’t want to be a graphic designer, I wanted to be a guitar player, and that’s what happened.”

After the incident with the unearthed mic, some friends suggested that Hiett try photography, and he broke into fashion in a collaboration with the designer Zandra Rhodes on a shoot that was published in Nova. Unable, however, to shake off the ex-pop singer tag, he moved to Paris in 1972 and, after a fallow period, was picked up by Marie Claire. He also started to work for Vogue Paris, sometimes returning to London for Vogue UK.

Hiett always avoided well-known settings for his shots, preferring the “beauty” of banality. He described his favourite environment as “a hot empty street” in the suburbs – the theme of Pleasure Places (1975), the first of several books.

Steve Hiett photograph for Vogue Paris, 1998 Credit: Natalie Doran 

He claimed to have developed his style of colourful and sometimes eerie images of fashion models by mistake when it started raining during a shoot.

“I always had [a] Norman flash with me in case of rain,” he recalled. “I had to use this bloody Norman flash and just as I’d set it up, the sun came out. I thought it was just a waste of time but just before I put it away, I said, ‘I’m going to see how it mixes up with sunshine’.

“So I did, and I looked at the Polaroid, and I thought that’s it! That’s how my technique happened.”

In the early 1980s, during a period working in Japan, Hiett revived his musical career and recorded a debut solo album, Down on the Road by the Beach, which was accompanied on its release in 1983 by a catalogue of Hiett’s photographs.

The 13-track album was described by one critic as featuring “duelling bluesy, minimalist guitars drenched in reverb and tremolo, electronic synthesisers toying with environmental music, and Steve’s weightless, cirrus-like vocals floating above heavily meditative, windswept nostalgia”.

Though not available outside Japan, it became something of a cult phenomenon among record collectors and will be re-released this month along with Girls in the Grass, an album of previously unheard recordings made by Hiett between 1986 and 1997.

Hiett was once described as the “Comeback Man”, and as a photographer his career had downs as well as ups. As the 1990s grunge era dawned he found himself suddenly out of fashion and, moving to New York, fell back on work as a graphic designer and typographer. Several years later, however, he met Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, who invited him to return to Europe to work for the magazine – and his career as a fashion photographer took off again.

In 2014 he chaired the judging of the photography category at the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival in France, which hosted a retrospective exhibition of his work. Beyond Blonde, a collection of his photographic work, was published in 2015.

Steve Hiett, born December 26 1940, died August 28 2019