When we were kings

David King’s hard-hitting style has made a huge impact on graphic design and the political causes he supports, argues Mike Dempsey

Just a few days before this interview took place was slumped in front of my TV set, idly switching channels, when hit what appeared to be a scene from a medieval battle film. My vision sharpened with the aid of my glasses and it became clear that this was no re-enactment, but the present day streets of Bradford.

Under a torrent of bricks and petrol bombs, an army of riot police was in retreat. Amidst this onslaught, flashes of yellow, red and black could be seen. They made up the familiar logo of the Anti-Nazi League. Against this dramatic backdrop I’d like to introduce my next hero, whose life, politics and profession are inextricably linked. He is David King.

If you mention Islington these days, Tony Blair comes to mind, along with wine bars, the Almeida Theatre and the buzz of trendy north London. So I was surprised to learn that King lives in this pocket of affluence. In fact, he has lived here for 35 years, long before the Volvo set moved in. But King stayed, and here was standing outside his Victorian terraced house, amused by its red painted front door, which, as you will discover, is highly appropriate.

King was born in Isleworth in 1943 into a middle class family. His father worked in banking and they lived a pleasant, quiet and uneventful life. As a young boy, King spent a lot of his time with a maiden aunt, who had a more creative outlook to life than he was used to. An avid collector of china and porcelain, she would often take her nephew on outings to museums and art galleries. There was also an uncle who was a committed socialist. King was drawn to this and fascinated by the stories his uncle would tell of Russia and the iron curtain, which sounded ominous but exciting.

At 17 his Soviet and creative interests had matured. He was torn between pursuing Russian Studies or opting for a more artistic pursuit. He chose the latter and took a place at the London College of Printing. King remembers the first two years as a hopeless mess. He couldn’t find a direction and was faltering. Three very sympathetic tutors came to the rescue, Robin Fior, Richard Hollis and Keith Cunningham. They helped him find a voice in his final year. In particular, he remembers Cunningham suggesting that he look at the films of the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. King followed up on this and was overwhelmed by what he saw. Eisenstein’s unique use of montage and dramatic framing was to stay with King and have a direct influence on his work.

He left LCP and joined Queen magazine as an assistant to the great editorial designer Tom Wolsey – responsible for the now legendary Town magazine. Wolsey left Queen to start his own advertising agency and invited King to join him. This was a short-lived excursion as King found the work dull in comparison to the glamour and buzz of the magazine world. He briefly took up a design post with The Observer, working alongside Raymond Hawkey and Roger Law – the man who later went on to create Spitting Image.

Then, in 1965, he was approached by Michael Rand to join The Sunday Times Magazine. This was to be the making of King. He enjoyed the collaboration with highly talented photographers and writers, becoming great friends with Bruce Chatwin and the photojournalist Don McCullin. He quickly graduated to art editor and, as well as commissioning illustration and photography, he began to generate ideas for features. He recalls wanting to be self-sufficient when going on an assignment. He asked McCullin to give him some pointers on using a camera and McCullin went one better. He not only told him what camera, lenses and film stock to use, but also took him out and gave him a three-hour crash-course in taking pictures. At the end of this, McCullin said, ‘That’s all you’ll ever need to know, David.’

King still uses the same camera – a manual Nikon F3. During his ten-year period at the magazine he, along with Rand, clocked up a staggering rate of D&AD Gold and Silver awards. It was a rich period in 20th century history with the Vietnam war, manned space flight, the first heart transplant, the Six day war, Watergate and many high-profile assassinations, providing dramatic stories and images for King’s design talent.

At that time the magazine was highly influential in the creative field and employed the best writers, illustrators, photographers and designers. King recalls the adrenaline rush he got from the environment, with its tobacco-laden air and the manic noise generated by journalists hammering away at their typewriters. This is in stark contrast to a visit King made to the magazine’s offices recently, where staff were peering at PC screens, typing in an eerie silence and breathing in a smoke-free zone.

It was at The Sunday Times Magazine that King was given his first opportunity to visit Russia for a pictorial feature on the October Revolution. He found out that the authorities had manipulated history by eradicating major political figures from official photographs. The absence of Trotsky particularly fascinated King, prompting him to go in search of original, uncensored material. This was to be the beginning of a lifelong passion.

During his time at The Sunday Times Magazine King would take on the occasional outside job. One notorious project came about in 1968 when Chris Stamp – brother of Terence – asked him to design some album covers for his label, Track Records. King was given 36 hours to come up with a concept and finished artwork for the new Jimi Hendrix album Electric Ladyland. For reasons that he cannot now quite recall, he decided to have David Montgomery photograph 20 naked women for its double cover. What King does recall is that he wanted to create an image that was an antidote to the glamourised Playboy fantasy of women. He wanted these women to look real. They did, and many a spotty teenage boy spent an unhealthy amount of time ogling over the anatomical differences. The American market found the image too startling and promptly banned it.

Back at the magazine, King achieved a major coup in 1974. He was given six weeks’ access to Muhammad Ali during his preparation for the Joe Frazier fight. Using the trusty Nikon F3 he photographed him during his intense training regime. King c

ontrasted this with Ali’s more intimate family moments. The result was a unique photo feature and an approach by Penguin Books. This led to the publication of I am King, a large format pictorial biography on Ali, which went on to sell 150 000 copies. Many more opportunities and awards would come King’s way.

By 1975 The Sunday Times Magazine had undergone several changes of editor. King had reduced his working week to three days, allowing him time to pursue other interests. When Hunter Davies arrived to take up the editorship, King decided it was time to quit and move on. He was keen to devote more of his time to political causes. But there was to be a more dramatic fate waiting to befall him.

While he was out driving, just a short distance from his home, he was hit broadside by a car. The force of the blow fractured his skull and he was hospitalised and out of circulation for almost a year. The effect of his injury disoriented him so much that he was unable to deal with more than one person at a time. Eventually he recovered, started picking up the pieces and began looking for work. Interest came from David Pelham at Penguin Booksí art director during the 1970s. Pelham tapped into King’s historical and political interests and gave him a constant flow of book covers to design. This was the ideal opportunity for King to draw from his now substantial photographic archive.

Settling into a freelance rhythm, he rented a studio in London’s Clerkenwell, again long before the location was on the estate agent’s hit list. He fulfilled his wish to become a political designer by donating his creative energies to the ANL, the Anti-Apartheid movement, a leftist Trotskyite faction and many other political activists that he found sympathy with. King was very much out on a limb in donating so much of his time to these causes. He told me that he couldn’t bear to see so much amateurishly designed print material being pushed out by these small political groups. He wanted to demonstrate that through well thought out and effectively designed material, their messages would stand a far better chance of getting through. He was amused when he heard that the police had questioned some members of the ANL, asking which advertising agency had been responsible for its print material.

His work is uncompromisingly direct, often employing wood block type, primary colours and a dynamic juxtaposition of type to image. It hits you like a ‘Wanted’ poster. He makes no secret of his love of the work of the Russian Revolutionary designer Gustav Klutsis and the German Dadaist and political collagist John Heartfield. He met Heartfield before his death in 1968 and subsequently became great friends with his widow, who often stayed with King when she was visiting London. Eisenstein also had a profound effect on him thanks to Cunningham; King uses cinematic terms (close upí wide shot)í to describe his own work.

A re-entry into magazines came in 1983. Around this time, there was a lot of unrest in the journalistic world. There had been problems at the London listings magazine Time Out, culminating in a breakaway group which set up in direct competition with its former employer. City Limits was the result of this new collective. King was called in to design the covers, which he did for over a year. The title eventually failed, along with another similar listings magazine, Event, funded by Richard Branson, leaving Time Out as the victor.

King took over the art directorship of Crafts in 1985. His strong graphic presence often overwhelmed the more delicate items featured in the magazine. King remembers the excursion as simply a vehicle to fund other activities.

The most significant turning point for King and his unique collection came in 1985, with the arrival of Gorbachev on the Russian political stage. With him came a new mantra of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). This newfound freedom unleashed an immediate world interest in all things Russian. The country’s chequered political history became a central theme for magazine features, books and television documentaries. They all needed authentic, uncensored visual material. All those years King spent unearthing Stalinist suppressed material, plus posters, books and graphics collected from all over the Soviet Union and many other parts of the world, had finally paid off. This renewed interest enabled him to produce the books, such as Trotsky, and The Great Purges. His latest is The Commissar Vanishes – a book of photographic falsifications which features censored photographs adjacent to their untampered originals.

This year saw a revival of King’s powerful 1974 black-and-white photographs of Muhammad Ali in an exhibition at Fior Photo – run by the son of Fior, one of the trio of LCP tutors who helped guide King over 40 years earlier. Later this year there will be an exhibition of revolutionary posters from King’s collection at Tate Modern at Bankside. He also has three new books on the go.

As a graphic designer, King has always been an outsider, shunning the security of a design consultancy or the world of advertising, opting instead to follow his heart and mind. He learned from the many friendships made at The Sunday Times Magazine that it was possible to keep beavering away to uncover a truth. Through his painstakingly pieced together, self-funded collection he can now share this truth with the world. As a graphic designer he has been exceptionally generous in donating his time to enable many small political organisations to have a powerful visual voice.

Towards the end of our meeting King showed me some of his favourite pieces from his archive. He spoke of these with an infectious enthusiasm, pointing out particular areas of typography and image that he admired. As watched him, imagined that elderly aunt back in the 1950s, pointing into a dusty museum cabinet, with the young King in tow, saying, ‘Look at that David, it’s history.’

David King’s Muhammad Ali photographs are exhibited at Fior Photo, 53 Exmouth Market, London EC1 until 14 September

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