In 1973, David Bowie was already on his path to stardom, but photographer Justin de Villeneuve had never heard of him until that year, when he was introduced to the artist’s sixth album, “Aladin Sane.” De Villeneuve was staying in the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles at the time with Twiggy, the supermodel whose career he managed, and after listening to the album they both immediately became fans of the young artist. When they heard the lyric “Twig the Wonder Kid,” from Bowie’s song, “Drive-In Saturday,” it seemed clear Twiggy had an admirer in Bowie as well. Soon after, de Villeneuve called Bowie’s manager and arranged to meet the star for dinner in London.
“When I met him for the first time,” de Villeneuve said recently via email, “I was seriously impressed with his appearance and realized he was someone special.”
During their meeting, Bowie mentioned that he would like to appear on the cover of Vogue. De Villeneuve knew that no man had ever done so, but he was determined to make it happen. He spoke with Beatrix Miller, the editor of British Vogue, and after a few weeks, she agreed to feature Twiggy and Bowie on the front of the magazine. De Villeneuve would take the portrait himself.
De Villeneuve and Twiggy flew to Paris where Bowie was recording his new album, “Pin Ups,” and booked a studio nearby for the photo session. To create an ethereal and otherworldly ambience, De Villeneuve decided he wanted Bowie and Twiggy to appear shirtless in the image, but when they stripped down and sat before his Hasselblad camera, it didn’t look quite right.
“I realized we had a problem,” de Villeneuve said. “Twiggy and I had just returned from the Bahamas and she had a dark tan. Bowie was as white as a ghost. They looked weird next to each other.”
With the help of make-up artist Pierre LaRoche, who created the iconic red-and-blue lightning bolt on Bowie’s face for the cover of “Aladin Sane,” de Villeneuve came up with a solution that elevated that strangeness to something intentional and, indeed, beautiful. LaRoche painted masks for the pair, giving Twiggy’s face the same ghostly hue as Bowie’s torso, and giving Bowie’s face a bronze that matched Twiggy’s tan. Twiggy leaned her head gracefully against Bowie’s shoulder, and as they stared robotically into the lens, de Villeneuve released the shutter.
“I knew I had ‘the shot’ with the first click,” de Villeneuve said.
The results were brilliant. It was such a success, that upon seeing a Polaroid of the shot, Bowie asked if he could use the image as the cover for “Pin Ups.” De Villeneuve was hesitant at first, but Bowie informed him that he expected the album to sell a million copies, far more than the tens of thousands of issues that Vogue would likely sell. Despite knowing it would damage his relationship with Vogue, de Villeneuve knew what he had to do and agreed to let Bowie use the image. The rest, is rock ’n roll history.
Explore more images from the moments that defined 2016 at Getty Images’ 2016 in Focus digital experience.