Joe Stevens’ best photograph: David Bowie chats to a Paris station porter

‘He arrived in Paris as jeans-wearing David Jones – but after an outfit change stepped off the train as David Bowie’

Joe Stevens’ shot of David Bowie in Paris. Click here to enlarge image. Photograph: Joe Stevens

It was 1973, and David Bowie was terrified of dying in a plane crash, so he refused to fly anywhere. He’d gone by boat to Japan to tour, but he was now becoming a major star in the UK, following the release of Ziggy Stardust, so his manager called him up and told him he’d better get back quick – to make another album and do some big shows. By the time he got to Paris, which is where this was taken, he looked awful. Grey. It had taken him two weeks to get there by train: he’d seen a lot of snow, a lot of misery, and eaten a lot of bad food.

When he got off the train, he was just David Jones the folk singer: a rough-looking guy in jeans. And suddenly he was met by this whole entourage: his wife Angie and people with costumes and makeup. You could see he was surprised – he hadn’t had that out in Japan. He got back on the train, put this outfit on, and morphed into David Bowie. In those minutes, you could see he really was about to become a major pop star.

The whole scene was being watched by a station porter, who’d come over to see what the fuss was about – all these people in colourful jackets making a scene. David started chatting to him in French. Later, I asked him what they had talked about. “He wanted to know who I was,” he said. “I told him I was David Bowie. He had no idea who that was.”

I went with them all to London – in a hovercraft. David didn’t know it yet, but his management had been getting ready to really launch his career. He had 15 people waiting for him: limousine-drivers, costume-designers, security guards. A whole stream of gigs in Britain were planned. It worked. He took off.

I’d shot him about 20 times over the years, but this was the first time I’d ever met him. I was there to do a cover shoot for NME. The afro on the left belongs to the writer Charles Shaar Murray. The moment we met, David started imitating my New York accent. He said he’d been studying how people speak and was hoping to get some movie roles: he hoped to play a “yank”. Later he would – in The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hunger.

Bowie had strange tastes and habits. One day I was walking through Soho, and he pulled up in his limo, shouting out of the window for me to get in. We drove to a cafe on Carnaby Street to pick up some egg sandwiches. It was 11 in the morning, but he said: “We’re going to see a band.” So we went to this empty nightclub to watch a band called Carmen rehearsing. They were the weirdest people – they danced flamenco on stage – and David treated them like pop stars. NBC, the US TV network, had asked him to do some midnight rock’n’roll show. They said he could do anything he liked – so he got Carmen to play, and had Marianne Faithfull on stage dressed up as a nun. It was the last time The Spiders from Mars played with him.

I was born and raised in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, in the heart of the folk scene, so I got to know a lot of musicians growing up. I started out as a road manager for the Byrds and always took a camera along with me, but not with any intention of being a photographer. Then when I started getting films developed, I realised I had an eye, so I gave it a go. I had an advantage because I knew all the artists and began getting published very quickly.

David is a photographer’s dream. In most cases when you’re shooting someone really wonderful on stage, they’ll come out, do the show and say goodbye. But David would appear in full drag for the opening songs and then go through four costume changes. Even when he was off-duty and tired, he still looked great. He was special, a true artist. And this is the moment he fully became that artist – while talking to a station porter.


Born: New York, 25 July 1938

Studied: No formal training

High point: ”Woodstock festival. Talking my way in there was what really got my career started.”

Low point: “Falling out with the B52s manager after I took a picture of them without their beehive wigs on. I knew them really well – I was in love with one of them, but I became persona non grata after that. This guy managed the Ramones and Talking Heads and wouldn’t let me near them either. That really hurt.”

Top tip: “Get right in there. Get right up in people’s faces.”

Part of the Guardian’s ‘best photograph’ series

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