Johnny Thornton Biography

Johnny Thornton, a renowned photographer, was born in Sydney, Australia on the 2nd of May 1946.

He may have not been the usual academic achiever, but he truly excelled in his craft.

As a student, Thornton says, “I was in Class F for fucking useless, they would not let me study art, that was for the brainy ones in Class A. Frankly I wanted to be in Class G for Good for Nothing because they did basket weaving.”

Nonetheless, he later found being part of Class F advantageous because from that class he learned and mastered Technical drawing.

In his quest to know the intricacies of Technical drawing, he obtained top-notched outcomes and became knowledgeable on the different perspectives of drawing as well as exploded views. Such were the skills he later used in his photography works.

Prior to his introduction to photography, Thornton worked at a Dockyard, fancying the idea of becoming a Naval Architect. He also sailed yachts on Sydney Harbour, not 500 metres from where he lived in Woolwich. And he worked in a wholesale book company, the boss fired him explaining “You’re bright, I don’t want you to end up in a dead end job.”

Getting a job delivering photographs at Bruce Minnett’s Studio was his introduction to photography.

While on deliveries he took as much time as possible in book shops, browsing the photographic books captivated by photographs of Brassai, Weegee, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Karsh of Ottawa, and Wynne Bullock. Also he found himself drawn to the photographs of girls wearing stockings and suspenders in Spick & Span magazine, his images produced many years later where to be inspired by these photographs.

By then a friend Stan Dyson had given him a Yashica Twin Lens Reflex Camera. He and his father converted a corrugated iron shed in the garden of their house in Woolwich into a darkroom, with a 6 foot head high this became a furnace during the Sydney summers.

His first images where of peeling old gum trees by the Lane Cove River, very much inspired by Wynne Bullock.

Now involved with surfing he started taking surfing photographs, selling them to surfing magazines.

He then was promoted from photo delivery boy at Bruce Minnet’s Studio, to darkroom assistant and finally to studio assistant.

It was here that he assisted Bruce Minnet, Howard Jones, Tom Tomney and Stuart Emery, who wrote to him when he left Sydney, “You must get to a point when taking photographs it must become instinctive, picking up maybe a 35mm, 4/4cm, 5″x4″ camera, knowing that the camera and lens you have chosen will capture the image that you have seen”.

Emery went on to say “You must not get caught up in the technical stuff of the camera, otherwise you will lose the original vision that you have seen.”

“However first you must have the eye and you have one of the greatest eyes I have ever seen.”

Written by Stuart Emery in a letter to Johnny Thornton at the start of his photography career.

When the Vietnam War broke out, young men were recruited to join the battle. But Thornton, who was 21 years old at that time, decided to escape (”Fuck that for a game of soldiers,”) and boarded the ship heading to Durban.

Together with him were other surfers who were on a mission to find the ideal wave illustrated in a movie by Bruce Brown titled The Endless Summer.

Being a skilled surfer, Thornton survived by taking photographs of surfing on his beaten up old Pentax, and composing articles related to his surfing adventures in places such as Durban, Cape Town, and South West Africa.

In Cape Town, Thornton partnered up with Martin Gibbs. They worked in the latter’s Studio 5 business, taking photos for advertising and fashion magazines. Such was considered by Thornton as a perfect life. He stayed in a cottage, which was a short distance from the sea located in Bakoven.

Soon, he began to capture distinct pictures alone, and with his distinctive style for surrealism, his first project was a four picture series entitled “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

An Apple A Day Keeps The Doctor Away

The politically-sanctioned racial segregation in South Africa was taking its toll on Thornton, who deplored apartheid. At the time, in a relationship with his first love. A “Cape coloured” girl, Zelma.

He created a hostile, anti-apartheid image titled “The White Cop and Pretty Black Ida.”

White Cop and Pretty Black Ida

Highly controversial, the photo garnered different remarks from people. Some said that if the authorities were to see the photo, Thornton would likely be in Robben Island together with Nelson Mandela. So from Portugal where he was doing a shoot for a fashion magazine, he decided to proceed to London.

As he stepped off the boat in Southampton, in a freezing English winter, with trainers sinking into snow, he thought ‘What the fuck am I doing here”‘

In London, Thornton stayed for three months on the living room floor of a flat owned by Richard Winslade in Blenheim Crescent in Notting Hill Gate.

Together, they processed and printed photos in the bathroom, adjusted to operate as a darkroom.

Through connections of Winsdale, Thornton got the opportunity to meet numerous London photographers.

After completing the shoot for a portfolio, it received admiration from a number of people.

One person who expressed great appreciation for the portfolio was driven out of the ad agency, with another art buyer describing Thornton’s photos as bizarre.

Nonetheless, amidst all negative criticisms, Thornton was greatly sought after by big advertising customers and his photos were recognized and received lots of awards, such as the widely sought-after New York Art Directors Club Gold Award, D&AD London Silver Awards, Cannes Lion de Bronze, and 24 Awards of Excellence from CA in Los Angeles.

While taking photos for advertising, Thornton longed for innovative flexibility.

As his popularity rose, Thornton moved to Edith Grove in Chelsea and established his own studio.

He became attracted to surrealism and took his inspirations from Giorgo de Chirco, Salvador Dali, Guy Bordain, Rene Magritte, Jeanloup Sieff, Bill Silano, Duanne Michals, and Art Kane.

He also engaged in creating dreamlike erotic images, taking inspiration from various areas, including the written word, visual, or something that Thornton had seen.

These pictures appeared in his exhibitions in Geneva, Amsterdam, Paris, Tokyo, Barcelona, Zurich, Bologna, Milan, Antwerp, London, as well as Cadaques in Spain.

After his courageous battle with bone cancer, Johnny Thornton died in March 2016.

However, prior to his death, he made sure that all his masterpieces are securely protected and preserved. So, he founded the IMAGE THORNTON FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHY ARCHIVE TRUST.

His work is essential from a workmanship history point of view as a large part of Thornton’s pictures were taken in the 70’s and 80’s, the period before Photoshop and computers emerged.

Through the use of his imagination, Thornton recreates the image using models, lights, and props.

All the photographic works of Thornton today are original.

There is an entirely unique record of Thornton’s experience. In Thornton’s book titled Pipedreams, Peter Mayle, a renowned author of the book A Year in Provence, wrote in the preface section:

“John Thornton (if indeed that is his real name) was expelled from his native Australia many years ago for committing a smash and grab raid on a lingerie store in Sydney. He was apprehended while cramming one last suspender belt into his pocket and deported to South Africa. There he found himself under constant scrutiny from the authorities for taking coloured people’s photographs. Eventually, seeking greater artistic freedom, he decided to invade Europe”.

After going into the artistic merits of John, Peter went on to say “John Thornton has exhibited in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Bologna, Geneva, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Zurich and London. His work has also been shown in these cities. He is blonde, blue-eyed and his inside leg measurement is 34 inches. Nobody has ever mistaken him for John Travolta”.

The Trust continues to demonstrate the works of this incredibly innovative craftsman. All profits gained from the sales of his photos will eventually be used to subsidize the JOHNNY THORNTON PHOTOGRAPHIC AWARD, a yearly award that Thornton wished to establish to help three young photographers at the beginning of their professions. To quote Thornton:

“The Johnny Thornton Award is a fund to be set up and administered by my Trustees for the purpose of helping three up and coming young photographers in any way the Trustees may choose”.

There are numerous other stories about John Thornton, and where he came from, some claim he was found as a baby floating on a bamboo raft off Australia, and was brought up by aborigines, and they taught him photography, all we know is that his images are truly unique.

We hope you enjoy them here, and on your wall.

View Johnny Thornton pieces currently for sale at ONGallery.