Born 2nd May 1946 in Sydney Australia, John was not a great student. As he says “I was in Class F for f***ing 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”. Class F did have advantages, for here John studied Technical Drawing where he received top results and learnt about drawing perspectives and exploded views, a talent he was to use later in his images.
John got a job delivering photographs at Bruce Minnett’s Studio, soon graduating to studio assistant. It was here that Stuart Emery said to him “You must have the eye and you have one of the greatest eyes I have ever seen”. He spent as much time as possible in book shops, browsing the photographic books and became captivated by the 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 were to be inspired by these photographs.
With the advent of the Vietnam War and conscription, where he would have ended up spending his 21st birthday ducking bullets, he ran away and boarded the ship Southern Cross bound for Durban, joining other surfers at Cape St Francis on a quest to find the perfect wave shown in Bruce Brown’s film The Endless Summer. He survived by taking surfing photographs on his beaten up Pentax, and writing articles about his surfing trips from Durban to Cape Town, and then up the west coast into what was then South West Africa, now Namibia.
Joining Martin Gibbs studio in Cape Town and becoming a partner, he changed the name to Studio 5, shooting fashion and advertising. It was an ideal life, living in a cottage metres from the sea in Bakoven, next to Camps Bay. He soon started on his own distinctive images. Deploring apartheid in South Africa, and having “A Cape Coloured” girlfriend Zelma, who was his first love, he produced an arresting anti-apartheid image titled “The White Cop and Pretty Black Ida”, depicting a newspaper placard on the floor and his housemate Len White and his black girlfriend Toy, both naked. Len wore only a police hat, with gun belt strung around his waist. They were handcuffed together and John stencilled in white on Toy’s black back the word CENSORED and the same but in black on Len’s back. People commented if the authorities where to see it, he would end up on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. So, on a shoot for a South African fashion magazine in Portugal, he decided to go to London, and was never to return to Cape Town, his car rusted by the sea.
When he came to London, John ended up sleeping on Richard Winslade’s floor in his Blenheim Crescent flat in Notting Hill Gate for 3 months with them processing and printing their photographs in the bathroom, adapted so it would be a darkroom. After shooting a portfolio, some people loved it and one person loved it so much he was thrown out of the advertising agency, with the art buyer calling his images ‘Weird’. Nevertheless, he became highly sought after by many blue chip advertising clients and his photographs won a myriad of awards, including the coveted New York Art Directors Club Gold Award, some 24 Awards of Excellence from CA in Los Angeles, D&AD London Silver Awards and many annual inclusions, Cannes Lion de Bronze, to mention but a few.
It was during shooting these advertising images that John craved creative freedom. He was drawn to surrealism and inspired by Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Giorgo de Chirco, Luis Brunel, Guy Bordain, Bill Silano, Jeanloup Sieff, Art Kane and Duanne Michals. He embarked on producing his distinctive “Surreal Erotic Images” gaining inspiration from all areas, be it visual, the written word or something he had seen, first making drawings before taking the photographs. These images were shown at his exhibitions in Paris, Tokyo, Geneva, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Zurich, Antwerp, Bologna, Milan, London and Cadaques in Spain where Salvador Dali, John’s deity lived. Visiting his exhibition, Dali commented about his photographs ‘Magnifico…fantastico’.
All this being said, there is a completely different account of his background. Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence and numerous other books, wrote in the preface to John’s book, Pipedreams, “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”.
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 are that his images are truly unique.