When was the last time you saw your favorite celebrity having a raw, honest human moment in front of a camera? I’m not talking about somebody picking their nose or taking their dog for a walk. When was the last time you saw a famous person and thought, “Wow, he/she looks like my neighbor?” Or better yet, “I can see myself in that person?”
The truth is that the American fascination with celebrity is nothing new. As spectators in the pop cultural sphere, we are all voyeurs. We see stars on the big screen and we project our own desires and fantasies onto them. In that way, celebrities are the 21st century American equivalent of popular mythology. And yet, when you strip the mystique from these faces, the question remains: what’s left?
This sense of unpredictable humanity was what I found myself chasing during my peak years as a paparazzo and photojournalist living in New York City. Back in the early days, I couldn’t afford much in the way of equipment – I didn’t even have access to a darkroom.
It was then that the modern American city became my studio. In a way, the entire world was my studio.
Above all, I was after honesty in my work. Polish never interested me. Ditto for smiles. I was always fascinated by the mistakes that occurred in between so-called “action shots.” After all the years of running around the mad city, getting knocked down and thrown out of places, that’s all that I was ever chasing. Truth, or at least my own version of it.
At this point in the story, I’m going to have to turn back the clock a bit. I first started taking photos in the Air Force around the time of the Vietnam War. After my service, I found myself in Los Angeles, which, at the time, was a star-kissed cornucopia of budding starlets and showbiz hopefuls. To me, Hollywood seemed mythical – even though I was technically stationed nearby at ArtCenter College of Design.
More than anything, ArtCenter taught me one simple truth that has continued to inform and enhance my creative process throughout the long course of my life, and it’s this: don’t think in a vacuum. Think on your feet. If something’s not working, use what you have at your disposal and turn your losing situation into a winning one.
Time with my professors instilled in me the value of observation and letting the art that is happening all around you – all those seemingly ordinary moments – inform the fabric of everything that you do. It may seem like just noise, but it’s actually the music of ordinary human interaction. That alone can provide you with a never-ending degree of inspiration if you take some time to stop and just listen.
Since I love movies and movie stars, I always thought of my own artistic process in roughly the same terms as a great motion picture. You start with a bang – something big and explosive to get the audience hooked. Then, you can only hope, your audience will take the time to wade through the noise and find the little bits and pieces of your art that speak directly to the soul. If you can accomplish this, then your work will be truly authentic.
BFA 1957 Photography