> Clive Barda – working photographer.

Bill Knight / Clive Barda – working photographer.

March 2018


I much respect the working photographer. I think of Richard Avedon or Irving Penn on a cold rainy Monday morning in New York, with a client waiting in the studio, preparing to immortalise someone because it’s their job. You have to admire that.

Clive Barda is a working photographer. He is the doyen of British music photography. Since 1969, when he first summoned up the courage to ask Daniel Barenboim if he could take his picture, Clive has photographed all the great musicians, in portrait and performance.

When the Royal Opera House asked Clive to photograph his first opera there were no instruction manuals. He quickly worked out that the key was not to overexpose the faces, which tend to be brightly lit. When you photograph an opera you have to shoot what they give you. You can’t alter the lighting, or the staging or ask them to do it again. This means that the capacity of your equipment is vital. Today you need fast long lenses. This was even more true when Clive was starting out because of the speed limitations of film, and then early digital. Clive remembers with pleasure the day Nikon found him an early 200mm f2 lens. Photographs of the stars in action became possible in a way they simply had not been before. It gave him a major jump on the opposition because similar lenses were not available in Britain for quite some time afterwards.

But it isn’t really about equipment. Photographers are not particularly nice to one another, but Clive is the exception. When he saw me photographing my first opera he came and had a chat and he gave me some fatherly advice. ‘Take lots.’ He said. I still do. I am wondering whether the fact that he is a nice chap has helped his career. When I ask him about the role personality plays in getting good portraits he tells me you have to be flexible, you have to wing it. He has photographed conductors ten minutes before their entry onto stage, which he found more nerve-wracking than they did, and conductors who refused to be photographed on the day before a concert – presumably because the time would be better spent in prayer and meditation. Some musicians are willing to assume any pose, which Clive doesn’t like because he is looking for truth, and others are so withdrawn in a musical world of their own that it is almost impossible to make them react in any way. One sitter brought his wife and three children, another fell asleep, and when he woke with a start asked Clive not to take it personally. Sometimes, Clive says, the conversation with the sitter is so engaging and animated that it is difficult to take the photograph. I suspect, indeed I know, that one secret of Clive’s success is his love of music and his deep respect for musicians, many of whom he regards as ordinary people possessed of an extraordinary obsessive gift – but, he says, in every generation there are a few exceptions who are touched by genius.

We have a mild debate about modern photography. Clive says that with the best will in the world he cannot understand the attraction of the work appearing in the journals. For a start he doesn’t think much of photographs which depend on context and explanatory captions. A caption can deepen your understanding of a photograph, but the image has to stand on its own. He gives the example of the work of August Sander – ‘straightforward images but they really hit you.’ Clive says that the worrying thing is that he is made to feel that the qualities which he has spent his career trying to perfect – colour, light, composition, focus, impact – are now old fashioned in some way. I am sympathetic, but I am prepared to accept that there may be something here which I am not understanding, and I tell him that I went to see the Eggleston portraits at the National Portrait Gallery more than once and eventually I began to get it. ‘A picture of a boring person doesn’t have to be boring,’ says Clive, and we leave it at that.

We agree that our work is not always fully appreciated or indeed understood by some of the people who commission us (I suppose there must be very few professionals who do not feel that). You can send in a set of terrific images and all you get is an acknowledgment. ‘Mark you,’ says Clive with a smile, ‘it’s not all bad. We can do without too much criticism – however constructive!’

We also commiserate about the lack of money. Magazines and newspapers simply will not pay very much. Clive suggests that is the principal reason why there are not many new faces in the world of theatre and opera photography.

Clive is self-taught. ‘An autodidact.’ He learned his trade by talking to other photographers, by reading books and by trial and error. Until he found his niche he would do anything. He once told a client he could photograph silver when he had no idea how to. He then spent a week in the studio to make it work. He has played his part in teaching. He tells me that he used to take students as assistants, and here I get the clue to what has made the difference in Clive’s career. He says that often he could not work out what they wanted. And then his eyes light up, and he says, with real bite and passion. ‘Didn’t they understand that we need to capture the moment – to get the thing!’

 – essay by Bill Knight


With thanks to the contributors:

Born in 1945, Clive Barda is one of Britain’s most distinguished photographers of classical music and the performing arts.    While reading modern languages at London University he developed a passion for music and photography which remains undimmed.   His work has been widely exhibited in the UK and internationally, including a major retrospective – “EXPOSURE!” in China and the UK in 2012 and a permanent exhibition at London’s Wigmore Hall.  Numerous books of his work have been published – most recently “The Power of the Ring” to coincide with the Royal Opera House’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.   His work is in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Media Museum. He was awarded the OBE in the New Year Honours 2016.

Bill Knight started in professional photography when he was 18, as a beach photographer at Margate. After a 35 year career break in the law he started again some 17 years ago. Bill photographs people – portraits, theatre, opera, events and the occasional wedding. His work is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery and has been shown throughout the country in Portrait of Britain. In a former life Bill was senior partner at international law firm Simmons & Simmons, President of the City of London Law Society, Deputy Chairman of Council at Lloyd’s of London and Chairman of the Financial Reporting Review Panel. He was awarded the OBE in 2012 for services to financial regulation. His photographs can be seen at


Full credits for images at right:

Riccardo Muti rehearsing with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition Radu Lupu Schumann Piano Concerto Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

DIE MEISTERSINGER von NURNBERG by Wagner; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden, London, UK; 16 December 2011; Riot scene Act 2; ANTONIO PAPPANO – Conductor; ELAINE KIDD – Revival Director; GRAHAM VICK – Director; RICHARD HUDSON – Designer; WOLFGANG GOEBBEL – Lighting Designer; RON HOWELL – Movement; Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

PELLEAS ET MELISANDE by Debussy; Welsh National Opera; Wales Millennium Centre; Cardiff, UK; Mélisande – Jurgita Adomonyté; Golaud – Christopher Purves; Conductor – Lothar Koenigs; Director – David Pountney; Set Designer – Johan Engels; Costume Designer – Marie-Jeanne Lecca; Lighting Designer – Mark Jonathan; Credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ ArenaPAL

Phantom of the Opera; Original production; Her Majesty’s Theatre; London, UK; October 1986; Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford; Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

Placido Domingo as Otello; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 4 January 1990; Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL

Requiem – Royal Ballet Royal Opera House 21.10.04 x – Leanne Benjamin ** x – Carlos Acosta ** Choreography – Kenneth Macmillan Conductor – Barry Wordsworth Photo credit: © CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL