life through a lense: jill kennington

Currently writing her autobiography, Ms Kennington, one of the leading models from the 60s turned photographer, recalls how she became one of the defining faces of a generation.

Before becoming a photographer, Jill Kennington, who just turned 74, was one of Britain’s most iconic models. She appeared on the cover of Vogue three times and was shot by the likes of David Bailey, John Cowan, Terence Donovan, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon. Her prolific modelling career, in particular her work with Cowan, led to a cameo in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, a murder mystery set in London during the swinging 60s. In the half century since its release, it has become widely regarded as one of the most influential fashion films of all time. 

Photo by Eilish McCormick
Photo by Eilish McCormick

Was Blowup a faithful representation of being a model in Swinging London?

No, not at all! For a start, I never stood still like a dumb mannequin, as they do in the film. The fact that we had to be very stupid was not a real representation. I also never saw any girls end up naked on a studio backdrop paper. But who knows, I worked with very above-a-certain-level photographers, maybe there were others who did all sorts of things. I wouldn't know. It was a film director's fantasy. It wasn’t a true representative of London, it was a mystery film.

Blowup was partly inspired by the life of David Bailey. How did you find working with him?

Bailey never got the best out of me. I would get asked to do these things with him, but not a huge amount. I didn't say yes very often because I found I worked better with other people. He always had his leading lady, there was always somebody else that would get the best spreads. So, I'm sorry, David, but there we go.

You shot a lot with Helmut Newton, who was renowned for his sensual imagery. What was he like to work with?

He was fantastic. He loved to work on storylines and was a terrific photographer. I did go off him a bit when he started doing the S&M looks. Standing in a leather coat at night under a streetlight with your coat open and you're not wearing any knickers, that kind of thing. I didn't particularly go for that. That's probably because of my decent, moral upbringing in rural Lincolnshire. There were certain things I wasn't able to make myself do. It didn’t particularly suit me, so we started to ease off after that. I worked with him over about 15 years, and created some wonderful spreads.

One of Blowup’s classic scenes was when Veruschka [von Lehndorff] was shot writhing around under a photographer. Were you both friends?

I had a big kinship with Veruschka, we got on like a house on fire. Before Blowup we went on an African trip together and spent a month together – lots of talking and laughing around a bonfire, as well as the work. I remember when I went to Africa thinking, 'Oh my god, Veruschka's 6' 1" and I’ll be completely dwarfed by her.’ But I carried it off, I don't know how – our differences were embraced.

Photo by John Cowan
Photo by John Cowan
I've been true to myself and honest about my work, so there's a truth there rather than pretending to be something else.
Photo by John Cowan
Photo by John Cowan

Were you always comfortable with being sensual in front of the camera?

It's lovely to maintain a sense of sensuality. I know I've got something which is interesting. I was often being told, or knew, if something was too risky or too sexy. It was much more controlled when I was doing it. Now you can do what you like, you can be as sensual as you feel – which can be gorgeous. Sensual is different from today’s hard celebrity stuff. Sensual is a nice word, I love it.

How did you stay grounded back then?

I'm not vain and I don't have an ego. I don't think about the façade – façades are dangerous.

Did you find it hard to accept that people wanted you for how you looked?

Yes, when I lived in Italy, in the late 70s, before I thought I needed to stop, I was beginning to feel like the piranha fish were at me – everybody wanted me and I was getting tired by it. Being wanted, wanted, wanted isn't a nice feeling.

Surely it's better than being unwanted?

[Laughs] Not being wanted is probably very good for people, including myself, because you learn about your true self and your inner strengths, and then you can come up for air with something else. I don't know what age people decide that they're going to put their feet up, but I can't comprehend retirement.

I don't think about the façade – façades are dangerous.

What was the riskiest shoot that you can remember?

Lying on creaking ice in the North Pole. That was quite scary because we had no control over the ice float that was creaking and groaning. If you fall in you’ve got, like, two minutes before you die of exposure. That was great. There've been some hairy, but nothing that has been too dangerous.

The 60s were a very hedonistic time – did you embrace that lifestyle?

No, I was clean, strange as it may sound. At the age I'm at now, if somebody said, 'Is there anything you regret never doing?', well, I was never a true hippy because I didn't have time. If you've got a spread in a magazine to do, that's what my focus was on – it was not about taking drugs. In fact, I didn't mix with people who took drugs.

So you didn't hang out with all the bad boys?

I didn't play that game. That probably means I'm a stuffy old girl, I don't know [laughs]. I'm happy the way my life's gone. I never used to think about it, but I've been true to myself and honest about my work, so there's a truth there rather than pretending to be something else. I think it probably adds huge pressure if you've always got to think, 'Oh my god I haven't been in the papers in the last week, I better do something'. Can you imagine that pressure? It's a road I don't want to be on. I know people who have died jumping out of a window on an acid trip in New York. It's ghastly, but luckily I've got to this age and I'm happy with that.

You’re currently preparing a new exhibition. Who are your favourite subjects to photograph?

Women. I love men, but I find women endlessly fascinating – how they manoeuvre their way around life. There are some fantastic women around, aren't there?

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