He took the first test shots of Twiggy, captured the enduring image of Frank Zappa perched on the toilet and became the official photographer for bands such as The Moody Blues – but Robert Davidson holds a dream that only Dundee can fulfil.
The 77-year-old, who was born in the city’s Salvation Army Hospital in October 1942, has spoken of his ambition to see his work brought to life in a retrospective exhibition at the V&A Dundee.
Life has been something of an uphill struggle for Robert who spent years battling to have his name attributed to the iconic image of Zappa after being forced to give up the original negatives by the musician’s management.
“I’m a photographer and I took the Zappa picture,” Robert, who now lives in Totnes, said.
“The negatives got taken under force by Zappa management. For 50 years I couldn’t prove that I had taken that picture.
“Almost 10 years ago, when I was homeless in London, they had an exhibition at the V&A there and it was a whole exhibition on ’60s posters. My Zappa poster was there and underneath it said ‘photographer unknown’.”
Robert says he approached the exhibition’s curator and advised him that he was the one who had taken the photograph, But with no negatives in his possession, he was unable to prove his claim.
Around two years later, Robert received an email telling him that his negatives were being sold on eBay by a Los Angeles-based memorabilia company who had purchased them from the estate of Zappa’s manager, Herb Cohen.
After contacting the seller he was able to purchase them back at cost price – $99 at that time.
“I got them all back and then, suddenly, I was able to validate myself,” he said.
“There’s that vindication of the truth coming out that, yes, I did take the pictures. Even my daughters were saying ‘dad, did you really take those pictures?’ That’s the thing – it’s only your word.”
In the 50 years between capturing the famous image and reclaiming the negatives, Robert regularly moved between homes, experienced a period living on the streets – he became homeless on his 65th birthday for around three months – and fought hard to have his name and talent rightfully recognised.
In fact, his career is really only just beginning.
“You’ve now got a V&A in Dundee. My dream would be to have a retrospective exhibition there of all my photographs,” he said.
“I’ve lost a lot over the years but I’ve got pictures from the Queen to Prince Charles, to quite a lot of famous people and lots of rock ‘n’ roll including Mick Jagger.
“As I was born in Dundee, I really feel that the V&A would love to have me there and it also feels like it would be retribution for what’s happened in London.
“If I could have the V&A that would be staggering, because then I’ve got a voice.”
Where the V&A might give him a voice, photography gave him the freedom to watch.
Robert, who began his career while still in his late teens after meeting legendary photographer Emil Cadoo in Paris, said: “I’m an observer. I don’t like being a member of a group or a committee or anything. So photography gave me that ability to be able to watch and to be able to move in and out of situations.
“And also I just seem to be in the right place at the right time. I mean, I’ve got pictures of Boris Johnson from 10 years ago, when I was first homeless.
“He came and saw my first exhibition and I got a picture of the back of him with a bicycle. He’s one of the few people you can photograph from behind and you know it’s him.”
But does he have a picture that he thinks is the highlight of his career?
“It’s very difficult to highlight one. I think Zappa is it. Zappa did it all, it’s a poisoned chalice.
“It’s my entry into everywhere now, everybody knows that picture and to reclaim that, 50 years later, out of photographer unknown into a known photographer.
“When I took the picture, I knew that it was staggering. He was such an amazing man, allowing me to take that picture. I think a photographer is defined by their one picture. You think of any photographer and you could tie them up to one picture, that’s the one.”
As for what’s next for Robert, he’s got a couple of ideas that he’d like to pursue.
“I was thinking of doing a whole thing on all the world leaders, meet them and ask them what they’ve had for breakfast, as an introduction into how we can have world peace,” he said.
“I’d also love to photograph the Dalai Lama, somebody who has just got the right take on everything. I think the Dalai Lama is one of the few people I have got respect for.”
A spokesman for V&A Dundee said that Robert’s exhibition idea would be passed to its curators.
To see some of Robert’s work click here.