Shot sometime in 1998 at the Viper Room, featuring the late great Bianca Halstead. The color images were shot on Kodak E200, a chrome film I was trying out at the time.
Photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place. I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
Before Elvis there was nothing.
I was a compulsive shooter back then. I was very shy, and it was a lot easier for me to communicate if I had a camera between me and other people.
I had been taking photographs because I hoped to be able to direct movies. That’s why I never cropped any of the photographs; they are all full-frame.
Like all artists I want to cheat death a little and contribute something to the next generation.
… but I was trying to go another way from the movie business. And I was taking pictures in black-and-white. Everyone else was using color. I was using Tri-X because I could shoot at night, and get shots by holding it real still, with just streetlights and so on. So these were things that I was playing with. But at the same time, a lot of my ideas were glamour ideas, because I wanted people to look good. So my portraits were about them in natural light, looking good, and looking in some way that had something to do with the reality of their world.
There are moments that I`ve had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough. I never felt I played the great part. I never felt that I directed the great movie. And I can`t say that it`s anybody`s fault but my own.
You know, the history of California art doesn’t start until about 1961, and that’s when these photographs start. I mean, we have no history out here.
Most of the guys who were heavy on drugs and stuff — the rockers, and all that — we’re all out playing golf and we’re all sober. It is weird.
The high points have not been that many, but I’m a compulsive creator so I don’t think of the children first, I think of the work. Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of and yet they ’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.
Then I had Easy Rider, and I couldn’t get another movie, so I lived in Mexico City for a couple of years. I lived in Paris for a couple of years. I didn’t take any photographs, and then I went to Japan and saw a Nikon used. I bought it, and I just started, like an alcoholic. I shot 300 rolls of film. That was the beginning of me starting again, and then I went digital.
I’d love to be in a Coen Brothers film, or something by Curtis Hanson — did you see 8 Mile? a terrific little movie — but I’ve never worked for Lucas or Spielberg. You could name most of the directors in Hollywood I’ve never worked for. I am not offered any of the roles that Jack Nicholson gets or Warren Beatty gets, or any of these people get, and never have been and never will. So when you ask me about playing villains and would I like to play other things, I think, God, I’m just lucky if I get a villain part every once in a while.
I think of that with my photographs. I think of them as ‘found’ paintings because I don’t crop them, I don’t manipulate them or anything. So they’re like ‘found’ objects to me.
When it first started, it was inferior and the inks weren’t archival. As soon as the inks became archival, I went digital. To me, it’s like the difference between developing something in chemical or being able to spray the light. It’s like painting with light, and the computer is reading the light. When a digital photograph looks right, it looks like it was painted.
I started out shooting flat, on walls, so that it had no depth of field, because I was being photographed all the time as an actor. And if you notice, there aren’t a lot of photographs [in the show] of actors — Dean Stockwell, Paul Newman. I thought I was an imposition to the actors who were being photographed all the time. I really wanted the flat-on-painter kind of surface. I did that for a long time. Then the artists. I really started taking photographs of artists. They wanted me to take photographs. They wanted posters and things. I was hanging out with them. I photographed the ones I thought were going to make it. I wasn’t really working as an actor during this period, and I thought, Well, if I’m not going to be able to work as an actor, I might as well be able make something that’s going to be credible. So I took photographs of Martin Luther King and Selma, Montgomery, as history, and selecting artists that I thought would make it. I met most of the Pop artists before they ever had shows.
I didn’t use a light meter; I just read the light off my hands. So the light varies, and there are some dark images. Also, I’m sort of a nervous person with the camera, so I will just shoot arbitrarily until I can focus and compose something, and then I make a shot. So generally, in those proof sheets, there are only three or four really concentrated efforts to take a photograph. It’s not like a professional kind of person who sets it up so every photograph looks really cool.
Well, I was a compulsive creator, so it became my creative outlet. I was using Tri-X film — which nobody else was using at the time — because I wanted to get as much natural light as possible and be able to shoot everything in natural light without flashes. I was a product of the movie business …
I was doing something that I thought could have some impact someday. In many ways, it’s really these photographs that kept me going creatively.
I am just a middle-class farm boy from Dodge City and my grandparents were wheat farmers. I thought painting, acting, directing and photography were all part of being an artist. I have made my money that way. And I have had some fun. It’s not been a bad life.
I had the pleasure of hanging out with Ed Colver at a party in The Brewery in Los Angeles a few years ago. He is a cool old timer with tons of stories. At the time, he was driving a great hearse with a Dodge 400 in it and his business cards were blank bereavement cards for funeral homes.
I asked him about this iconic photo which has always been one of the great hardcore album covers and posters. He said he took this shot handheld at night outside of a show in LA, using only the light from a hot dog vendor cart. He never uses a light meter, has never used one and has such a refined eye that he can judge the light and get the exposure right every time. Even in the studio.
I was hired by a record company to shoot the album cover for Jon T. Howard in Los Angeles and we started the day off with some portraits in a friend’s house in Reseda. Never one for the studio or set up shots even though that’s where you earn bigger money, the shots with the strobes and my assistant were flat and dead and lifeless.
It was only at the end of the day when we moved to the street and I shot on the street with natural light that things began to groove. Being on my feet, moving fast with little gear is my comfort zone. It was a good time and shooting that luscious Fuji NPZ 800 pulled a stop and a half is always a joy.
That alley is the last great urban alley in downtown Los Angeles and it has been featured in hundreds of shows and films. I’ve shot there numerous times but this day, there was literally shit on the brick walls. Who takes time to smear their shit on a wall? The stench was powerful. Jon T. was a trooper for taking it as my assistant refused to even step off the sidewalk to enter the alley.
The blind musician. Look at the expression on his face. It was absolutely fantastic. If he had been born in Berlin, London or Paris, he might have become a first-rate musician.
-André Kertész, Kertész on Kertész
Nikon D300, 35-70mm Nikkor, SB-800 Speedlight.
Brassed and beautiful. One of the great things about Leicas is that when they are used well over the years, brassing takes over the body. The black paint slowly disappears to reveal the warmth of the soft metal below. All of the Leicas that I have continually bought and sold over the years have been production M6 bodies and the top plates are made of a zinc alloy.
No brassing for me unless I buy an MP or an M4 or earlier.
Jim Marshall’s Leica M4:
It’s a very fine line to draw about taking pictures, you know, not invading someone’s privacy.
Elliott Erwitt’s Leica M3:
All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.
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