This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
You can still find occasional copies of Mike Lear’s photography books in second-hand shops. Stout and once expensive hardbacks, issued by highly respectable publishers, they have titles like Spring Buds and Nymphs at Play.
Shot in misty soft-focus on rolling lawns and shimmering, flower-strewn meadows, their backdrops are by no means identikit — French chateaux, English stately homes and Hollywood pool-sides have all at one time or another been pressed into service. The cast, on the other hand, are always the same, which is to say pubescent or sometimes pre-pubescent girls in varying states of undress.
Even in the mid-1970s, which might be regarded as his professional heyday, there were enough militant feminists around for Mike to have to issue frequent justifications of his oeuvre. His subject, he maintained, was “innocence”, or rather the “sensuality that is not yet aware it is sensual”, and had not some of the pre-Raphaelites ventured exactly the same way a century before?
Whether or not anybody believed these apologiae, there was a ready market for this sort of thing in the Age of Aquarius. The Girls of Summer sold 120,000 copies in the year that Mr Heath went down against the miners and a New Statesman columnist who described Mike as “a smut-peddler for the dirty raincoat brigade” was successfully sued for libel.
If, four-and-a-half decades later, Mike — now a hale and vigorous 80-year-old — is in any way conspicuous it is by virtue of his sheer inconspicuousness. There is still a website selling prints of his work — AriadnesDaughters.com — which assures purchasers that all portraits were taken with the full consent of the subjects and, where appropriate, their parents or guardian.
But the correspondence address is a firm of lawyers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the last post on the hitherto garrulous “Lensman Lear” blog dates from the early 2000s.
Meanwhile the “Mike Lear Bursaries”, intended for promising “artistic photographers” and launched with great fanfare in the late 1990s have long since lapsed.
So what has Mike been doing with himself for the past 20 years? He has been living quietly, exceedingly quietly, with Mrs Lear in a small village in south-west France, where he is a pillar of the expatriate English community, enjoys a daily game of petanque and will say only of his past life that he “used to take pictures”.
There is not much else to report, other than that the sight of a lawyer’s letter from London fills him with terror and that a curious friend in the village who dared put his name into a search engine was sternly rebuked. It is all rather a come-down for a man who once had lunch with the Rolling Stones on a yacht in Cannes harbour.
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