Luke Goss of Bros in the bath – Neil MacKenzie Matthews' best photograph

‘He had no problem getting completely naked. The makeup artist had to strategically apply the bubbles’

People think of the Bros brothers as very serious and into themselves, but I’ve known them from the start and they’ve always been up for a bit of a laugh. This picture of Luke was taken for Cosmopolitan towards the end of the 1990s. The magazine had done a famous portrait of Burt Reynolds on a bearskin rug in 1972 and I wanted this shoot with Luke to resurrect the idea of the male pin-up. It was something I’d already had experience of because I’d done a couple of calendars called the Blues Boys in the mid-80s – it was a company run by women who were sick of all the male-orientated pin-up calendars that were on the walls of garages.

I initially shot Luke smoking a cigar, with just a towel hiding the crown jewels, and that shot was what ended up going in the magazine. But I wanted to try out something more jokey too, so I hired a roll-top bath and got Luke in it. We tried filling it with water but the plug didn’t work properly. The studio was on the top floor of a block in Islington and the water dripped through into the office below – they came up to complain only to find a naked pop star in a bath.

I always like photos that make you smile. I used to carry a bag of props around with me just to make photos more interesting – I’ve shot Toyah wearing rabbit ears, Ian McCulloch with a bunch of carrots and Robert Smith up a tree.

The band had broken up by the time of this picture and Luke was embarking on his acting career. He had no problem getting completely naked – although his missus was there, keeping an eye on him. The makeup artist had to strategically apply the bubbles. She didn’t mind. In fact, I think she quite enjoyed her day!

One of my biggest inspirations is the Hollywood portrait photographers of the 40s and 50s, who took those lovely pictures with little dapples of light. That’s what I was going for here. I’m self-taught and learned all about lighting from a book by Walter Nurnberg [Lighting for Photography: Means and Methods]. I use tungsten lights rather than flash lights so you can control where it lands better. You’re trying to sculpt a 3D image within a 2D format. On this shot there’s just a slit of light going across Luke’s torso, which gets the shadows on the muscles. The lighting is what stops it looking too porny – if I’d shot it with a full-on front flash it would have been a different story.

I remember taking some Polaroids to show Luke and he said: “Oh my God, I look like I’ve got a body.” He actually had a good upper body but very skinny legs. That’s why I turned him sideways and hid them in the bath.

I had a good relationship with both Matt and Luke. They were ordinary teenage kids when I first met them, although as they got bigger they became a bit more precious and their timekeeping definitely got worse. They’d turn up four hours late and we’d have to then work until 3am. I watched the recent Bros documentary, which shocked me. At the beginning, when Matt was in his Las Vegas apartment talking about crystals, I thought: “My God, what’s happened to him?” But by the end I recognised them as the same people – especially their need to always break off and discuss things intensely.

I didn’t set out to be a photographer. My degree was in economics and I’d envisaged maybe getting a job at the BBC, but a friend of mine was managing what was then the “school band”, who turned out to be Spandau Ballet. I ended up shooting them and it all went from there. [The early 80s] was a great time for music, especially visually.

I’d actually forgotten about taking this picture. I only printed it recently when I was looking for pop-star images for a new book. It makes me smile because he’s really going for it. I guess he had to – otherwise the whole thing might have looked a bit pathetic!


Born: Hampstead, London, 1957

Training: None. I taught myself to take pictures, develop film and print as a hobby while looking for work after university. Luckily, my hobby became my job.

Influences: When I first started it was the work of the Hollywood portrait photographers, such as George Hurrell and Angus McBean, as I loved their lighting. But now it can be anything from films to paintings to nature or everyday life.

High point: When I had a portrait of Hugh Grant hanging in the John Kobal exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery.

Low point: The slow demise of film and the rise of all things digital.

Top tip: Try to be spontaneous. Many of my best shots are spur-of-the-moment ideas.

• Snap! Music Photography, Vol 1, by Neil MacKenzie Matthews is published by Red Planet on 27 June.


Interview by Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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