Goodbye Doctor Brownby Sean O'Toole / 19.06.2009
Crispian Plunkett, the wildly experimental fashion photographer who unexpectedly passed away last week from diabetes complications, was a sexy dancer. At least this is how he told the story when we met up shortly after he returned from an extended tour of Europe in mid-2002. We were sitting at some or other coffee shop, Plunkett a serial espresso and cigarette man.
After relating his ordeal at German immigration – they believed the tall, lanky Bulawayo-born photographer (b. 1969) was an Arab, and it being less than a year after 9/11 made him unpack and then dismantle his photographic equipment – he got to the real story he wanted to tell. True to form it involved loud electronic music – he was an amateur composer, although tinkerer is perhaps closer the truth – and dancing.
“If you fuck as good as you dance, come home with me,” declared a Berlin babe in a matter of fact voice after spotting Crispian busting some moves in his bondage-style pants. Needless to say, the Durban Technikon graduate was equal to the offer.
I first met Crispian sometime in the mid-1990s. Resident in Linden at the time, he was friends with the artist Christian Nerf and boyfriend of former Elle and SL stylist Sara Callow. It was working with Callow that Plunkett started to garner national attention; it would later turn into acclaim. One memorable early black and white shoot turned out by the pair involved pretty young white girls styled in pioneer getup that would make even the AWB sweaty.
A skilled shooter who liked to amp up the black in his monochromatic compositions, Crispian soon tired of the constraints that define straight photography. I once wrote that his work eschews the formalism typical of much local fashion photography, which pretty much sums up his legacy. Similar to South African-born London-based fashion photographer Warren du Preez, also an early adopter of digital technology in fashion photography, Crispian loved what colour and blur could add to a composition. He was an odd fish, an adamantly expressionist photographer in a country that venerates boring social-realist lensmen.
In 2006, to coincide with his talk at Design Indaba, I interviewed Crispian for the Sunday Times. The format of these articles was, at the time, pretty simple: ask a photographer to choose a favourite photo and talk about it. Crispian opted to speak about a work he’d produced in 2003, Spark man; it depicted a bondage-clad figure floating against a nocturnal landscape. A digital composite made up of four distinct layers, the work prefigured his ongoing interest in illustrating beautiful Titans dominating over Eskom-lit urban settings.
The effort Crispian put into that one photo is revealing. He started by photographing the stinky Caltex refinery out in Tableview. “I drove past the refinery about ten times, until we filled a roll of film,” he explained of his clandestine ploy to photograph this “no photography allowed” venue. This little detour up the N1 was followed by an elevated long exposure night shot of the City Bowl, to record the arcing effect of the stars.
The portrait of the seemingly floating model was made at a gymnasium in Liesbeek Parkway: “It had a trampoline.” Crispian was insistent about the model’s outfit: zip ties, S&M gear and spandex. “I didn’t want to source commercial fashion items,” he stated. “My photographs are about strange and off-the-wall ideas rather than simply hanging clothes on a sexy girl.”
After digitally combining these three elements – the Caltex refinery, the long exposure shot and pervy portrait – he made a large-format print and started scratching away at it with a #11 scalpel blade. “It is a way of adding detail that wasn’t already there, of adding further information in another technique.”
Crispian’s attraction to experimentation, to investigation and continued testing, extended well beyond photography. I once took his modified gunmetal grey Vespa for a ride to Rhodes Memorial. It was dangerously fast, largely because Crispian had tinkered with its mechanical innards. That damn bike.
The last time I met with Crispian, again for a coffee, we chatted about his near fatal motorcycle accident last year. He showed me some of the scars, talked curiously about the metal parts inside him, laughed about his missing toe, mourned the pair of expensive jeans that paramedics had cut from his mangled body, and then, tiring of the subject, showed me some his latest experiments with a continuous motion camera he’d been working on.
Like Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, albeit with far less hair, Crispian was an indefatigable personality, always curious, always experimenting, an inventor with light whose untimely death has robbed South African photography of one its most playful tinkerers.