Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles
Introductory Essay 1 of 3:
Matthew Rolston: Warhol’s Post-Modern Glamour Photographer
By Pat Hackett
WHEN I FIRST MET ANDY WARHOL IN 1968, NOSTALGIA FOR THE GOLDEN age of the silver screen was in full swing at his 33 Union Square West Factory. In addition to the hip new breed of Hollywood stars who came by to check out the scene, genuine screen legends from earlier eras would, on occasion, turn up. I once stepped into the bathroom and a woman intoned, “One moment, please,” as she emerged from the stall. I backed out and told Andy that I’d just walked in on “some lady wearing scarves.” He said, “Oh, Pat. That’s Hedy Lamarr!!” Paul Morrissey, Andy’s frequent filmmaking collaborator, chimed in, “Yes, and she’s very intelligent, you know. She invented radar.”
Vintage Hollywood glamour was also prominently represented on the Factory walls. The front of the loft may have displayed industrial-size color photos of Warhol superstars like Joe Dallesandro and Viva, but on the white walls above the Moviola editing table, hung in gallery layout, were beautifully framed and matted color photos of such screendom royals as Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, and Kay Francis. Shirley Temple (whose autograph Andy had sent away for when he and Shirley were both thirteen years old) was part of the line-up, and although she necessarily lacked the sophistication of her older movie star contemporaries, her dimpled image conveyed the perfect artifice central to the concept of glamour in Hollywood’s heady heyday.
Why in the world would these Hollywood Glamour Girls have been placed above the Factory editing table, where images of male hustlers on Third Avenue, drag queens on a shoestring, or fashion models on Thorazine were daily cut and spliced together in Andy’s ongoing campaign (almost a crusade, really) to deconstruct the Hollywood movie and replace it with a new, raw, improvised—i.e., a more “real”—New York City-based cinematic language? There were always two sides to the Andy coin: Heads, he loved things that were really Real; Tails, things that were really Fake. “Glamour” is completely fake. It’s the promise of everything you can never really have because it doesn't really exist. But a glamorous photograph or film can make you believe that it does.
Andy modernized the concepts of both glamour and fame. Has any prediction in the modern era been more quoted or more prescient than, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”? And while his canvases of Marilyns, Elvises, and Lizes may have exalted classic celebrity glamour, on the other side of the fame coin were his darker themed canvases of outright tragedy and notoriety: the Car Crashes, Electric Chairs, Suicides and the F.B.I.’s 13 Most Wanted Men. Andy understood that you could also be famous for one moment—the time it might take to jump out a window or smash a car into a telephone pole or rob a bank—when that moment is luridly captured for the front page of a tabloid.
In the mid-1970s Andy met Paulette Goddard, the movie star who was as famous for the husbands she landed—Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith, and the novelist Erich Maria Remarque—as for the part she didn’t, Scarlett O’Hara. Her life seemed so glamorous to Andy that he suggested they collaborate on a book that would be a series of taped interviews of her by him. The undertaking of this project launched an exciting routine of Andy and Paulette going to openings together and having four-star restaurant dinner dates as he tried to get her to spill her life story (“her beans,” as he always put it) to his tape recorder. But Paulette was never willing to divulge anything “real.” She understood glamour far too well to get caught up in any facts. “Andy, you’re an artist,” she’d tell him, implying that he should just go off and create something. In the end, he couldn’t even squeeze enough out of Paulette for an article in Interview, the ground-breaking monthly magazine he had created in 1969.
Interview had fairly quickly established itself as a culture-changer and a career-changer. Being featured in it came to be regarded by celebrities as an image-enhancing rite of passage because its pages had so much to offer that wasn’t found anyplace else: large format marquee photography and “retouching for everyone over twenty,” as its most high-profile editor, Bob Colacello, once assured a reluctant subject of a certain age.
In the February 1977 Interview, a much-remarked upon photograph appeared, in which the oil-and-water worlds of flawlessly rendered 1930s Hollywood movie star portraits and Andy’s anything-but-flawless Factory films were stunningly mixed. John Kobal, the film historian and renowned collector/curator of Hollywood glamour photography, whose insight and wit on film-related matters was boundless (Andy and I interviewed him once about “party scenes” in films for our Party Book collaboration), in partnership with Paul Morrissey, was encouraging George Hurrell, the nonpareil photographer of Hollywood’s glory days, to collaborate with them in producing limited-edition portfolios of prints from Hurrell’s vintage negatives. Paul somehow persuaded Hurrell to haul out his big original camera for the purpose of shooting an LA-based fashion designer, Tere Tereba, who was fresh off a supporting role in Andy Warhol’s BAD(a film I had co-written), which was scheduled to open at LA’s FILMEX ’77 the next month. Paul, with his connoisseur’s eye for film-worthy faces, recognized that Tere’s classic contoured features would lend themselves perfectly to such an occasion.
Hurrell’s resulting portrait was every bit as glamorous as any he’d produced back in the day of Joan Crawford or Jean Harlow; it was just as legibly, and indelibly, a Hurrell. The image was dramatically yet subtly lit, and he printed it, in his unique customary fashion, from a negative that he had rigorously retouched with razor blades. This stylistic reboot demonstrated that Hollywood glamour photography was not some irrelevant, outmoded art form, but that with the right eye, the right camera, and the right retouching and printing, a “starlet” of 1977 could embody all the unreachable promise of a bona fide 1930s Hollywood star. That portrait in and of itself threw down a gauntlet for a new crop of bold young photographers.
One of those young guns, Matthew Rolston, began shooting portraits for Interview a few months later, but it wasn’t until early 1980, when he photographed Martha Davis, the lead singer of the New Wave group The Motels, that he executed his first real Hollywood glamour portrait. Upon delivering his prints to Interview, Rolston explained that Davis’ song lyrics about unhappiness and romantic betrayal had inspired him to recreate the scene from Sunset Boulevard where Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond, having attempted suicide in a bid for sympathy from William Holden, is lying in bed with bandages on her wrists. (When Rolston, years later, asked George Hurrell how he would define glamour, Hurrell pricelessly told him, “Oh I don’t know, kid—I think it’s kind of a suffering look.”)
From this point on, Rolston was often inspired to present his subjects (Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Cybill Shepherd, Kelly LeBrock, etc.) as vintage characters in classic cinematic tableaux. He sometimes operated as his own stylist, providing outfits and accessories from his personal wardrobe or rented from the Western Costume Company, the final resting place for all of the vintage inventory from Paramount Studios. In 1985, when Andy had just seen an Interview photo spread of new young Hollywood actors—Rolston’s The Bad and the Beautiful—he told his diary: “Matthew is our best photographer now . . . . He made these kids look stunning—like stars—he gave them all class.”
That spring Andy agreed to be on an episode of The Love Boat on the condition that the producer, Doug Cramer, who was a major art collector, commission him to do a portrait of the 1000th guest star, Lana Turner. Of the day he photographed her at the Bel Air Hotel, Andy told his diary, “I closed my eyes and it was like being with Paulette, that kind of attitude. [Lana] said, ‘Give me a kiss.’” There had been an even bigger dose of that Old Star vibe going around at the huge Boat gala that I went to with him the night before in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. If you stood in one spot, just about every old movie star who was still alive and who had been in an episode—which was almost one and the same thing—would walk by. Andy got to gab with Ginger Rogers, Mary Martin, Alexis Smith, June Allyson, et al. Then at dinner we were seated at a table with Cesar Romero, Stewart Granger, and Troy Donahue. Afterward, Andy reflected upon how great it was, on the one hand, that they were all still working, but on the other hand, how sad it was that these once-gorgeous stars, whose faces had been immortalized by the old masters of light and shadow, had all wound up under the brutal lights of a television show.
In 1986, when the whole TV-watching world was in the grip of Miami Vice mania, I went to Florida to write Interview’s September cover story on Don Johnson. The show had influenced fashion even more than it had television, and Don, with his pastel jackets, no-socks loafers, and five o’clock stubble, was the style icon of the hour. When Interview’s editor, Gael Love, had informed Andy that the photographer was going to be Rolston, his response was definitive: “Good. He’ll do something different.”
Another photographer might have dragged Don down to the beach, or thrown him under a neon sign and shot a literal “concrete under your feet/you’re a man of the street” theme (as the moody Glen Frey Vice song went). But Rolston whisked him off to Vizcaya (the Italian Renaissance villa built on Biscayne Bay in the early 1900s for International Harvester heir James Deering). There he dressed Don in polo garb and accessorized him with all the paraphernalia of the sport, slicked back his hair, and, against those baroque interiors, transformed Sonny Crockett into Douglas Fairbanks. (Willie Nelson was the guest star for the episode filming that week, and I couldn’t help wondering what Rolston might have turned Willie into, if only he’d had the chance... Trevor Howard?)
The following week, back in New York, I watched Andy go slowly through each finished Rolston print, one by one, taking in the face, clothes, stance, and the opulent setting: “This is so glamorous. Wow . . . wow . . . wow . . .”
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Copyright © Matthew Rolston Photographer, Inc. All rights reserved.
Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles
Introductory Essay 2 of 3:
Art and Commerce: The Photography of Matthew Rolston
By Colin Westerbeck
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS PUBLISHING THEIR WORK IN MAGAZINES THE challenge is to create an image that will have an immediate impact on viewers who spend only a few seconds with each picture. The demand on your image is greater still if you’re a portraitist making studies of celebrities whom the public often feels they know already. Only the rare photographer capable of appreciating the paradox inherent in making such portraits succeeds in creating a photograph that’s truly significant. The paradox is that for images appreciated only momentarily to become truly durable, the insightful photographer has to be capable of spending a lot of time in making them. The more thoughtful the process, the more immediate the impact. The result is an image that can be grasped in an instant and then pondered in perspective—one that, though initiated as commerce, is ultimately appreciated as art. The gift of being able to achieve this requires not only a unique amount of both imagination and ambition, but an intuitive ability to be in sync with the times in which you are living and working.
That Matthew Rolston is the rare photographer who has this sort of talent became apparent as soon as he established his signature vision with a 1980 image of Motels pop star Martha Davis. He had Davis recreate the scene from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in which Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, lies in bed with bandaged wrists after her suicide attempt. Just five years later, in 1985, Rolston’s preeminence as a celebrity portraitist was acknowledged when a single issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview featured his allusions to classic Hollywood fare in 24 double-page spreads. The magazine used Rolston’s title, The Bad and the Beautiful, because all his studies of emerging stars evoked the 1952 Kirk Douglas-Lana Turner movie about Hollywood that had had that title.
Rolston’s work may have appealed to Warhol because they shared a nostalgia for the leading men and women of an earlier era. Instead of photographing movie personalities at home, out of character, or letting their hair down, Rolston went to great lengths to represent the emerging talents he photographed as heirs and, especially, heiresses, to the star culture of the ’20s and ’30s. He ransacked historic warehouses full of pre-war props, furnishing and costumes, particularly the Western Costume Company. He also reassembled sets from the heyday of studios like Paramount and Metro (aka MGM). If a period prop or set he’d wanted couldn’t be found in a studio warehouse, he’d have it fabricated anew.
In that 1985 spread in Interview, Jennifer Jason Leigh appeared in a stunning ’40s-inspired dress with big shoulder pads and was coiffed exactly as Lana Turner had been in a 1940s production still. Leigh and another young actress dressed as if in a ’40s weeper, Nicole Fosse, were just beginning to attract attention, as was one of the male stars, Robert Downey, Jr. A figure straight out of a Dashiell Hammett whodunit, Downey is holding an antique Mont Blanc pen and wearing a tie so loud it could only have been from the ’40s. Behind Downey stenciled on the pucker-pattern glass door to the office, just legible in reverse type, is the word “PRIVATE.” Downey’s own homage to the pre-war era would be the 1992 biopicChaplin.
Maybe the most outlandish portrait Rolston made in the ’80s was one of Cyndi Lauper that was on the cover of a music-themed issue of Interview, trans-formed (as all covers were) into a painting by Richard Bernstein. The full composition of Rolston’s photograph shows Lauper vamping in a 1920s headdress as big as a chandelier, a contraption very like (and inspired by) one that ’20s silent-screen star Mae Murray had worn in one of her films. Why Rolston has become famous for his lighting effects is also apparent in this study where the backlighting of Lauper in her headdress is so distinctive that it’s as crucial to the overall effect as a key light would usually be. It too, perhaps, takes its cue from the ’20s shot of Mae Murray.
Rolston’s susceptibility to the influence that glamor in pre-war movies had on post-war style was also an aspect of gay culture, which was only openly acknowledged in a couple of magazines, Interview and After Dark, when Rolston was young. He had first realized he was attracted to gay culture in the 1970s. He was, he says, “slightly obsessed” with David Bowie in Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust period.” The 1975 cover for Bowie’s Young Americans album had a portrait of the singer in harsh backlighting countered by softer effects on his face. This became something of a prototype for Rolston’s own signature lighting. “As a young art student and a person dealing with his own gender imaging issues,” Rolston says, “David Bowie’s persona gave me ‘permission’ to explore alternatives to gender normative, white-hetero-male imaging.”
Rolston began to understand that his attraction to “Old Hollywood” was not just a question of fashion, fads or gender, but of who he was in the most basic sense. One song on Bowie’s album also proved to be prophetic where it’s title “Fame” was concerned:
“Fame, it's not your brain, it's just the flame
That burns your change to keep you insane.”
Today Rolston takes the long view of the obsessions that have fueled his success as a photographer. He admits that “it is impossible to separate my creative development from the history of gay culture and its intersection with pop culture. . . It’s worth noting that the cultural trend of the ’80s known as ‘gender bending’ (think Boy George, Annie Lennox, Prince, Grace Jones, of course David Bowie, et al.) began as a pop-culture response to gay oppression. My fascination with powerful female figures was part of a larger gay fascination. Yes, it’s camp. But it was also a response to white-hetero-male cultural domination and gay oppression.”
Rolston might never have heard of “camp” when he was establishing his career in the ’70s. Yet his interest in reviving the past, and most of all that part of the past once dismissed as kitsch, couldn’t have been better timed. In her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag set the stage for the new take on culture both high and low that would follow in the ’70s and ’80s. Camp is, she wrote, “seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon . . . not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Her essay anticipates not only the general program of Rolston’s photography but some of the particulars, as when she observed, “The most refined form of sexual attractiveness consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. . . . What is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” Then, a few pages later, she got down to specifics: “Camp is the outrageous aestheticism of von Sternberg’s six American movies with Dietrich.”
Even though he hadn’t read Sontag’s essay, Rolston couldn’t have agreed more, as a 1986 study of Madonna demonstrates. Madonna as Marlene shows her cross-dressed in a man’s jacket, shirt with French cuffs, and a necktie. The scene by von Sternberg evoked here is one Rolston knew well from Morocco(1930), a pre-Code melodrama that caused a sensation when Dietrich, in a high hat and tails, kisses another woman on the lips. The scene to which Rolston alluded with Madonna is a later one in which Dietrich sits ruefully before her make-up mirror on which her true love (Gary Cooper) has scrawled in lipstick the same message at which Madonna stares in Rolston’s version: “I changed my mind Good luck.” This tagline from the movie was a sly allusion to Madonna’s own reinventions of her persona. Rolston came closer to evoking the controversial von Sternberg scene, however, in another image included in Hollywood Royale – Wendy and Lisa, Top Hat and Tails, 1985.
Because of its validation of kitsch as a legitimate (or, anyway, significant) part of the history of culture, Sontag’s essay paved the way for postmodernism in the following decades. In the visual arts, postmodernism led to the conviction that all the original images possible had already been created, so all artists could do now was to “recycle” the imagery already out there.
The most theoretically orthodox were the most literal-minded practitioners of postmodernism like Richard Prince, who copied Marlboro ads from magazines, and Sherrie Levine, who photographed reproductions of Walker Evans’ work from a Museum of Modern Art catalogue and presented the copied reproductions as her own work. The fact that this was a very degraded version of Evans’ prints was, in part, the point she was making.
Other photographers celebrated as postmodernists—Cindy Sherman, for instance—actually hazarded a certain originality in their work. (More on Sherman’s career later.) But the pioneer of recycling avant le lettre who unwittingly encouraged such postmodernist practice was of course Rolston’s patron and mentor, Andy Warhol, when he lifted photographs of celebrities from mass media and reproduced them as multiples. Like Warhol, Rolston was essentially oblivious to postmodernist precedents and influences. The only form of the movement to which he was drawn was its original one, as a theory of architecture, for he was a fan of the architect Michael Graves. Yet even with Graves, it wasn’t the theory that impressed Rolston but, he says, the way that Graves “was very tongue-in-cheek and playful” in his allusions to architecture’s past.
Rolston was put on the path to his mature work not by art-world trends like postmodernism, but by having been unhappy with the world as he found it as a child. Around when Rolston was born in Los Angeles, Robert Frank was making the bleak photographs of the city seen in his classic book The Americans. Those pictures (and ones by other photographers) show LA to have been the “smoggy, horrible” place young Rolston felt it was. Only when he visited the waiting room of a Beverly Hills physician, who happened to be his grandfather, did the boy get a glimpse of an alternative reality more attractive than the one he lived in. There he found framed portraits signed to the doctor by his patients, who were, Rolston learned, “almost exclusively Metro stars.”
Rolston later realized that “these were all from the Metro portrait studio, which means that they were Hurrell, Ted Allan, and Laszlo Willinger photographs.” Before he knew any of that, he was already fascinated with the world such images evoked: “the confection of the skin, that otherworldly realm of studios and lighting—all that velvety, shadowy mystery attracted me.”
This discovery led him to a gloriously misspent youth haunting all the little repertory movie theaters that were, before the era of video-rental stores like Blockbuster dawned in the mid-1980s, the only place where you could still see a decent print of classics like von Sternberg’s work. The other place where he could indulge his passion then was The Late Show, for which he would set his alarm clock at 3 a.m., if necessary, to catch a broadcast of a film he’d not seen before. Decades later, he was an innocent abroad when his ability to recreate in photographs the period movies that he’d loved landed him in the middle of a postmodernist era that was receptive to such flashbacks.
It should also be noted, though, that some of his best period portraits are less specific about their sources than the movie allusions discussed above. Having used in his title for this book the French term Royale (rather than plain old English royal), Rolston is purposely poking fun at himself; he’s acknowledging the high camp aspects of his book with that “e” on the end of his title. We see what he’s getting at when, in his function as haberdasher to the stars he photographed, he placed a crown on certain heads. Rolston’s 1984 portrait of film and television actress Joan Collins (which made the cover of Interview) is an example, and a more important one is his 1985 study of Michael Jackson.
The crown Jackson wore in 1985 wasn’t a specific reference to what Jackson was doing at the time or to a particular period source, but it did establish his image as The King of Pop years before Elizabeth Taylor bestowed the title on him in 1989. “With Michael, I was working in a collaborative way,” Rolston says. “I applied some of my Royale imagery to him, and he picked up on it from there and wanted to be shown fully as a king. . . . In this picture, the crown, the props—everything came from Paramount, from Western Costume.” In 2007, Rolston would do the last photo session Jackson ever had, shortly before the pop star died at age 50.
Jackson became a pivotal figure in Rolston’s career. In retrospect, Rolston feels that the collaboration with Jackson was “really the beginnings of what became a more established aesthetic of mine.” For the first shoot that Rolston did with him, Jackson borrowed some of the photographer’s clothes as well as rhinestone brooches and embroidered crests that can be seen in the resulting photograph, which was published in Interview in 1982. By the time he wore that crown in Rolston’s 1985 portrait of him, Jackson truly was The King of Pop, the most famous musical performer in the world. Looking back on those days, Rolston says (again with mock self-deprecation), “If you’re going to have a billboard for your ideas, make it a big one.”
In the end, it’s hard to know just where to put Rolston’s career. The generality of work like the Jackson portrait, its lack of a specific historical reference, reminds me of Cindy Sherman’s strategy in the Untitled Film Stills. Strange as the comparison may sound at first, I think one could describe Rolston’s career as a mirror image of hers. She started out to be an artist and has been much celebrated for her postmodernist tropes in the Film Stills that established her museum career. Yet like Rolston, she has always distanced herself from academic, art-world theories. “I wanted to make something which people could relate to without having to read a book about it first,” she says. In 1983, she traded in a failed project commissioned by the insider art-world journal Artforum for commissions fromParis Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and she has continued to do work for the fashion magazines ever since. She is that rare artist who has been able to move back and forth comfortably between art and commerce.
While Sherman has gone from art to commerce, Rolston has commuted in the opposite direction, going from commerce to art. When Warhol discovered him, Rolston was a student at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, an institution that gave him an Honorary Doctorate in 2006. But from the beginning he was fixed on a career as a commercial photographer. From Interview he went on to commissions from Rolling Stone, for which he’s shot over 100 covers, and to Vogue, W, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, et al. At the same time, he’s also maintained an art-world presence through his representation by the renowned Los Angeles gallery Fahey/Klein.
Like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, to whom Rolston was compared by Robert Sobieszek, the late Curator of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he has never made a distinction between commercial work and personal work.
Two recent, self-assigned projects of Rolston’s are Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits, which are studies of mummies in the Capuchin catacombs of Santa Maria della Pace in Palermo, and Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits, color photographs of ventriloquists’ dummies. These projects are more concerned with ars longa, vita brevis than with the “now” of commercial work, or with how he might fit into whatever the hot new fad is at the moment in the art world. Rolston is just going his own way, a course that has always served him well.
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Copyright © Matthew Rolston Photographer, Inc. All rights reserved.
Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles
Introductory Essay 3 of 3:
Glamour Reborn: Out of the School of Los Angeles
By Charles Churchward
HOLLYWOOD, September, 1985 — LA’s oven-like Santa Ana winds blew down from the nearby Mojave Desert on the dusty sidewalks of Melrose Avenue one unseasonably warm evening. The city’s nascent style elite were about to descend on the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery for an exhibition highlighting the work of three local, up-and-coming portrait photographers whose only mutual connection was that their work had been spotted in the pages of Andy Warhol’s proto-celebrity magazine, Interview. The winds of creative change were in the air.
Warhol began Interview in New York in 1969 as a clever way to receive invitations to screenings and meet celebrities in society and entertainment. More importantly, it was a new way for Warhol to express his ongoing obsession with the idea of fame. In its bare beginnings, the crudely-printed magazine was an exploration, primarily made up of verbatim interviews with individuals that fascinated Warhol, illustrated with his famous Polaroids, and occasionally, a gratuitous page or two dedicated to campy publicity stills from golden-age Hollywood films. But by the late-1970s, Interview had started to show some polish, becoming an important platform for magazine photography.
With virtually no budget and fueled by Warhol’s ever growing interest in the concept of Hollywood celebrity, Warhol and his magazine’s editors, Bob Colacello and later, Gael Love, sought out the next generation of young artists and photographers hungry to find a showcase for their work.
The three photographers included in the Melrose Avenue exhibition that September evening, organized by the then-Hawkins’ Gallery Director David Fahey, were Greg Gorman, Matthew Rolston, and Herb Ritts, and it was titled Working in L.A. Each of these young photographers happened to have emerged from a new generation of style-obsessed artists living in Los Angeles, and they had various social connections to many of the rising stars and agents in the entertainment industry.
In the 1970s and 1980s, from the perspective of the more traditional East Coast magazine publishers, Los Angeles wasn’t just desert-adjacent—it was a cultural desert; its photographic artists, if even recognized, were disdained.
When Vogue or the Bazaar decided to feature a Hollywood star in their pages, and couldn’t bring them to New York, they would send an entire team—photographer, editor, hair and makeup, etc. In their opinion, there were no worthy contributors of any kind on the West Coast.
This approach wasn’t an option for Warhol’s scrappy-yet-prescient publication. Interview needed to find contributors who lived in Hollywood with the necessary insider connections and a sympathetic taste level appropriate for Warhol’s vision. Greg Gorman, Matthew Rolston and Herb Ritts turned out to be the perfect additions to the magazine’s roster, and although they couldn’t have known it at the time, their rise marked a significant shift in the imaging of celebrity.
What these three had in common, above all, was their drive to idealize their subjects, often employing the techniques and artifice of the past. Greg Gorman had social access to the next generation of aspiring young actors and also documented the “outsiders” of the entertainment industry in his beautifully-crafted, retro-inspired photographs. Herb Ritts’ photography was resolutely modern, focusing on sculpted, sensual bodies cavorting in California’s abundant sunshine, yet it was also evocative of Hollywood’s glory years. Matthew Rolston was, according to Warhol in The Andy Warhol Diaries, “the magazine’s best photographer . . . and he made the new kids look stunning—like stars” with his somewhat ironic, even conceptual, take on Old Hollywood studio style.
Soon, other East Coast publications began to take notice of this cultural shift. Los Angeles began a slow ascendancy. Ritts started to shoot for American Vogue, Rolston for Harper’s Bazaar. Over the following decades, each completed major assignments and cover stories for these magazines. Other publications, such as Rolling Stone and later Vanity Fair, as well as numerous advertising clients came calling. This level of photography emerging from the West Coast was simply unprecedented.
The Working in L.A. exhibition was the first time that this group of commercial West Coast photographers—powerful new stars themselves, using the tools of Golden Age glamour—would be publicly recognized. The event also unconsciously marked a Los Angeles-based “school of photography” historically similar to past influential groups of artists and photographers in Europe and New York.
Perhaps this movement can be defined today as the School of Los Angeles. Its uniting factors and markers include, first and foremost, a highly romanticized vision of humanity. These photographers, along with their Los Angeles contemporaries (Paul Jasmin, Firooz Zahedi, Moshe Brakha, Albert Sanchez, and Raul Vega, to name just a few) took idealization nearly to the point of idolatry; they used references from the past to comment on the present; and being very much part of their own time, they often used the platform of their imagery to question traditional sexual and gender roles, a signifier of the pop culture gender-bending world of the 1980s. This group freely mixed focuses on dominant and powerful female figures—think of Rolston’s Cyndi Lauper, Headdress(1986)—with trailblazing homoerotic imagery—think of Ritts’ Fred with Tires(1984). They fetishized fashion and, above all else, rendered their subjects as glamorous and unforgettable objects of desire.
What exactly is glamour? It’s not easy to define, but it is a term that implies a certain kind of magic. The word “glamour” derives from the Scottish glamer, originally used to describe spells of bewitchment and enchantment.
And there most certainly was a kind of magic to the extraordinary appearance of Hollywood movie stars as depicted by the major studios of the Golden Age. These pre-WWII actors and actresses were portrayed as nearly god-like, with their velvety, flawless, glowing skin, encompassed in halos of luminous light. Although remote in their perfection, the stars exuded a powerful and mysterious sexuality—for in mystery, there is power.
From the earliest days of the Hollywood film industry, the studios under-stood the power of glamour and its spellbinding use. Audiences purchased tickets to see the magic of the silver screen, but what they were really buying was a subliminal relationship with the stars who appeared on that screen. 1930s film director Josef von Sternberg, one of Hollywood’s most influential pre-war purveyors of glamour, used these words to describe its effect:
“Glamour is the result of the play of light on the landscape of the
face, creating mysterious shadows in the eyes. It is the indecipherable
magic of the cinema, the substance of the dreams of a generation.”
One of the studios’ more powerful tools of promotion was still photography, and it is ironic that in the earliest days of moving pictures, it was the stills that held the most potent totemic power. There are certain studio portraits of stars—Marlene Dietrich comes to mind—that are more memorable, more iconic, than any one performance or film.
In “glamour,” the idealization of beauty was the key ingredient, never performed to greater perfection than by the legendary Hollywood photographer—and for a time, the master of the MGM photo gallery—George Hurrell.
No doubt influenced by the early 1930s films of Dietrich—as directed by von Sternberg at Paramount—Hurrell created a sophisticated lighting style that allowed his stars to radiate beauty as if they were the inhabitants of some kind of mystical “Mount Olympus.” Other gifted photographers followed in his footsteps at MGM—Ted Allan, Laszlo Willinger—but none of their imagery, as masterfully orchestrated as it was, could cast the enduring, unforgettable spell of the great George Hurrell.
After World War II, the public needed new dreams. Times were changing, and film audiences turned away from the darkness of mystery and enchantment, looking toward a brighter future. Those new dreams were shaped and sold to them through the entertainment and advertising industries. Television was in its infancy; photography still retained its primacy, and beginning in the late 1940s, a highly-staged “reportage style” of photography began to take hold in Hollywood. Photographers like John Florea and Peter Stackpole created portfolios of “stars at home,” urging the actors to pose as if at work or play. These images would run in the big postwar picture magazines, such as LIFE and LOOK.
In the succeeding decade, handheld cameras and faster film were introduced, pushing Hollywood photography towards a more spontaneous and “honest” style, and the old pre-war kind of glamour, although still an influence, slowly began to lose its power. By the 1960s, viewers wanted more realistic depictions of their stars. The illusion of perfection was on the way out, and the illusion of truth was taking its place.
This era’s most prominent Hollywood photographers, William Claxton, Bob Willoughby and Phil Stern, would spend time—“hang out”—with their celebrated subjects, shooting portraits and portfolios for the big picture magazines. It appeared as if these photographers—stand-ins for their readers—had actual relationships with subjects such as Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood, creating a fantasy version of life through the camera.
Fashions in photography turn in cycles, and whatever the current fashion, the next cycle will differ. There’s nothing more unfashionable than the immediate past, and by the late 1970s, the formerly fresh “fake-reportage” style was looking dated, and more standard Hollywood photography of the period had a stale and airless quality. Formal studio portraiture was over. What was left of ‘glamour’ was debased. Older stars of the original glamour period could be seen performing on mass-audience television programs such as The Love Boat.
Ironically, glamour was far from dead.
Like Warhol, Paris-based, German-born fashion and portrait photographer Helmut Newton was equally fascinated by the style of Old Hollywood. In a powerful reaction against the mediocrity of photographic idealization in the 1970s, Newton was drawn to the glamour of the past, but with an ironic and antic edge born of his upbringing in Germany’s Weimar Republic. Newton incorporated elements of 1920s and 1930s decadence within his intoxicating signature, a mixture of elegance, vulgarity, black humor, and seduction.
As the 1970s ended, Newton left Paris to live in Monte Carlo with his wife June, also a photographer, and beginning in 1980, they wintered in Los Angeles, holding court at the somewhat run-down Chateau Marmont hotel, and bringing with them portrait commissions from Paris Vogue and their many top-tier entertainment and editorial clients. The Newtons may have been attracted to the climate and the magical light of Los Angeles—some of the same things that attracted the Hollywood film pioneers in the first place—but perhaps they were equally attracted to the appealingly louche atmosphere of the place, taking full advantage of the freedom, visual decay, and the social and creative relationships they formed there. It was indeed the “wild west,” unencumbered by the traditions of Europe or the East Coast establishment. As the 1970s came to a close, Los Angeles was a sort of “free zone”—a place where one could make up any kind of existence, and importantly for the Newtons, a place still populated by alluring stars and the all-powerful entertainment industry.
Newton, connecting with the photography world of Hollywood, encountered gallerist David Fahey, who arranged an introduction between Newton and the great Hurrell, by then in semi-retirement. Newton wanted to acquire some of Hurrell’s work for his personal photography collection, and the two hit it off, even photographing each other in a show of mutual respect and admiration.
In the early 1980s, the worlds of literature, philosophy, art, architecture, design, fashion, and photography were highly influenced by a powerful new cultural movement called postmodernism, in which the modernist doctrine itself was questioned and countered by references—often ironic—appropriated from the past. A fine example would be architect Michael Graves’s Portland Building, completed in 1982, which combined sometimes whimsical quotations from classical Greek and Roman architecture into a modern municipal structure.
Everything old was new again, and appropriation was in the air.
Understanding the importance of George Hurrell’s contribution to photography and, moreover, being one of the first to understand the new cultural currency of the glamorous past, Newton took it upon himself to suggest to Francine Crescent, then the editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue, which at that time was the world leader in fashion and style photography, that she employ Hurrell to photograph the 1981 Paris couture collections. Hurrell dug out the old 8x10 view camera and movie lights and traveled to Paris to complete this assignment.
By 1987, David Fahey, the visionary gallerist of the Working in L.A. show, pushed this movement towards the past even further, co-curating (with Linda Rich) a landmark exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled Masters of Starlight, which validated Old Hollywood glamour portraiture by elevating it to museum status for the first time, helping to ensure its rightful place in the history of photography.
And so, glamour, reborn, took its place again at the forefront of pop culture.
Any art movement—including the School of Los Angeles—even if unconsciously formed, can only be measured by its influence on others, and after Greg Gorman, Matthew Rolston, and Herb Ritts began to get noticed by magazines and advertisers, the work itself telegraphed their new ideas to other photographers and artists. Once these three set in motion the appropriation of Hollywood’s past, glamour was in play again.It was these three image-makers and their use of vintage Hollywood iconography that began to point a new direction for the next generation of magazine portrait photographers. Steven Meisel, one of the world’s most prodigiously talented purveyors of portraiture and fashion, was equally caught up in the postmodern mood. Appropriation was in the air, and Meisel referenced photographic history with abandon. Hollywood glamour, used to ironic effect, was one the many ways in which he sampled the past. By the late 1980s, Meisel, although he still traveled the world, had moved his (more or less) permanent residence to Los Angeles.
Bruce Weber, first noticed in 1978 for a groundbreaking homoerotic underwear shoot of his discovery, Malibu water polo player Jeff Aquilon, which appeared in the SoHo Weekly News, reflected the new “urban-pioneering” lifestyle of artists living in New York lofts. But later, in the 1980s, Weber began a deep dive into Hollywood’s history, mining its Golden Age to produce unforgettable imagery that was unmistakably glamorous.
The brilliant Annie Leibovitz, known in the 1970s for a gritty reportage style—she was on the road with the Rolling Stones for a good part of that decade—in the 1980s, started, and later continued, to experiment with more-stylized work, utilizing a look inspired by the atmosphere of Old Hollywood, sometimes referencing works by the masters of Hollywood studio photography.
Mario Testino, a Vogue magazine superstar—one of its most sought-after celebrity and fashion photographers—was equally obsessed with Hollywood imagery of the past, often employing it in his exquisitely-produced shoots. Testino even went so far as to acquire a home in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.
Hedi Slimane, the sometimes-controversial photographer and, for a time, the creative director of Saint Laurent, was so enamored of L.A. that, in an unprecedented move in 2012, he chose to base Saint Laurent’s couture atelier in Los Angeles instead of Paris, and further, he used his own Beverly Hills home as a photography studio for his experiments in image making.
Once established, all of these photographers would evolve with books, exhibitions, advertising and video projects to complement their magazine work, garnering the respect and attention of other visionaries: art directors, editors, gallerists, and students of photography. Their influence affected not only portraiture, but fashion photography as well.
Glamour had returned with force, and this time, it was here to stay… at least, for a while.
In 2015, the New York Times declared that “Los Angeles is becoming a Paris amid the palms,” noting the preponderance of significant fashion events taking place there for international brands like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Burberry. Fashion star and, developing further, gifted filmmaker Tom Ford established a residence in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Fashion’s other outspoken fans of Los Angeles have included such diverse designers as Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Nicolas Ghesquière, and Jeremy Scott. The list goes on.
Back in 1977, film director Woody Allen, before the advent of the School of Los Angeles, speaking for many New Yorkers in his film Annie Hall, said, “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light.”
But clearly, in the new century, Los Angeles was a cultural desert no more.
Perhaps we have the School of Los Angeles to thank for what has become a kind of “glamour industrial complex.” What was once the purview of a handful of innovative photographers, who used their ability to look backwards in order to move forwards, has since become a very big business. Major fashion brands rule the look of Hollywood stars, grooming them as glamorous walking billboards for their wares. The influence of artists and photographers has been replaced by a cabal of marketing executives, agents, star-handlers, and professional celebrity stylists. None of this could have been possible without the recognition of Hollywood’s glorious past brought about by the School of Los Angeles.
This evolution has led to a kind of glamour photography without photographers, where the expressions of these independent artists—interpreting celebrity culture—may have become irrelevant. In a world where “selfie-culture” rules, and each star is in effect in control of their own brand, why should stars go to a Hollywood photographer to interpret their celebrity when they can simply do it for themselves?
Looking back now from our celebrity-obsessed, fast-moving culture we still think of the iconic images that have never left our mind’s eye. Herb Ritts’ image of Richard Gere at a desert gas station, or his numerous sessions with Madonna; Gorman’s adolescent Leonardo DiCaprio, or his portrait of John Waters; Matthew Rolston’s portraits of Cyndi Lauper crowned with a chandelier headdress, or Cybill Shepherd lounging luxuriously poolside in Bel-Air—these are but a few examples.
Thanks to these three extraordinary and ambitious young photographers, influenced by Warhol and Newton, followed by their West and East Coast counterparts and many others, together stretching, pushing and blending their successes, a new style of photography emerged, defining the School of Los Angeles and re-animating the eternal enchantment of glamour for a new generation.
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Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles
Pat Hackett is a journalist, author, and the editor of New York Times bestseller The Andy Warhol Diaries. Spanning the mid-1970s until Warhol’s death in 1987, the Diaries condense more than twenty thousand pages of entries that Warhol dictated daily. Hackett was one of Warhol’s closest confidantes and collaborators. Alongside Warhol, Hackett co-authored POPism: The Warhol Sixties and Andy Warhol’s Party Book, and co-wrote the screenplay for Bad, Warhol’s 1977 cult movie classic. Hackett, an expert on Warhol’s lasting cultural impact, was present in 1969 at the creation of Interview Magazine and, over the years, contributed many pieces, including interviews with Sylvester Stallone, Aretha Franklin, and Federico Fellini.
Colin Westerbeck is an author, journalist, and a former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he organized the first major survey of Irving Penn’s work, an influential exhibition which toured internationally. Irving Penn: A Life in Photography by Westerbeck is considered by many the definitive text on the legendary American artist. Westerbeck has also written extensively about artists Chuck Close and Joel Meyerowitz, among many others. A regular arts contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Westerbeck has lectured and spoken at UCLA, USC, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and is the former director of the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.
Charles Churchward is an author, historian, and served as the art and design directors of both Vogue and Vanity Fair, where he worked with legendary editors such as Alexander Liberman, Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, and Ruth Ansel. Over the years, Churchward has commissioned the works of many prominent photographers, including Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, and Matthew Rolston, among many others. Churchward authored Herb Ritts: The Golden Hour, an extensive biography of the renowned photographer, designed both Then: The Photographs of Alexander Liberman and Extreme Beauty in Vogue, and made substantial contributions to The American Century by Harold Evans.