Homa Taj In Conversation with Filmmaker & Photographer Jerry Schatzberg (part i)

Jerry Schatzberg, Catherine Deneuve, 1962

Late last month, I had the opportunity to interview New York-based photographer and filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg. Prior to that, I had met Schatzberg at the inaugural Art Miami New York where his photograph of Edie Sedwick was used as a promotional image for the art fair.

I have been familiar with Schatzberg’s work as a photographer circa 1950’s-’70’s and have seen several of his films, including Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) starring Faye Dunaway.

Schatzberg is the man who has discovered Al Pacino, directed Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Alan Alda … and photographed Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles among numerous other iconic performers.

For many in the film and the art world(s), Schatzberg needs no introduction. The remarkably youthful 87 year-old artist has been creating memorable images since circa the early 1950’s. Even those who may not know his name are well familiar with his images – especially, those of fashion photography in the 1950’s, musicians in the 1960’s and movie stars and movie makers through the 1970’s.

Homa Taj – You have been taking photographs and making films for more than half a century. And, you are still going as strong as ever. What are you working on at the moment?

Jerry Schatzberg – We have been working on a show for the Cinémathèque française, in Paris. Matthieu Orléan is in charge of the project…

HT – I have also thought Maison Européenne de la Photographie would be a great place to show your work. I recently interviewed  François Hebel – the former Director at Les Rencontres d’Arles – whom I understand you know.

JS – Yes, I know him from Arles. Back in the early 1980’s someone I knew invited me to present my work as “a new discovery.” I thought, “You’re kidding?” But, it worked out well. And, that is how I had my major exhibition at Rencontre d’Arles.

HT – It was a solo show at the festival in 1982.

JS – That’s right. But, of course, it is a big festival where photographs are shown everywhere – in the back of stores, etc. Anyway, we are just beginning to formally pursue (re-) presenting my photogaphy.

HT – It’s been a while since you have focused your energy on photography…

JS – Yes. I really stopped taking pictures quite a while ago because I was making films. As you know, so much goes into making a film – all the research – that I hadn’t had time to do photography or go out and sell my work.
However, over the years, many film festivals would ask me to exhibit my work so I started doing shows for them. At Lumière Film Festival in Lyon, they actually bought a gallery because they wanted to exhibit works by filmmakers who were presenting films at the festival and I was their first show there. That was at l’Institut Lumière, in 2009.

HT – So, France has been good to you…

JS – Oh, yes. In fact, they discovered me. It was Pierre Lucien … in San Francisco (1970). He saw the listing for Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970) and figured here’s another film by a bull sh*t fashion photogapher and didn’t want to see it. As it happened, he didn’t have anything to do so he figured he’d go and see the first ten minutes of it. But, he fell in love with it and became my champion.

HT – Some have defined Puzzle of a Downfall Child with Faye Dunaway as a semi-autobiographical film.

JS – Well, the story was based on my friend and favorite model, Anne St Marie. It was her story I wanted to tell. I had 3 1/2 hours of taped conversation based on which Carole Eastman wrote the screenplay brilliantly for the film. To this day, it is my favorite film. A very personal film. But it’s loosely based on me. Or even her. It’s more fiction within fiction.

HT – Who is representing your photography now?

JS – Nikola Rukaj Gallery in Canada represents my photography in Canada and we sell a lot of work. I was with Staley Wise Gallery for 35 years. But, for the last 15 years nothing happened. They considered me a filmmaker not a photographer. Now, I understand. I don’t think there are any photographers who have as extensive a portfolio of stills as they have films. So, they figure that I am just a filmmaker. And, frankly, I got tired of being pushed aside so I left there.
I am still looking for a gallery that I really like.

HT – I think it’s very challenging for artists to find a good dealer – just as it is for filmmakers to find a good producer. You are really looking for a partner with whom you will end up working for the next 2-5 years minimum (at least in case of film). And, it’s becoming even more challenging…

JS – Yes. It is also difficult for dealers to take on ‘new’ people, even if they are older. And, more experienced. Because, they have to start to sell them just as they would someone brand new – someone much younger. So, it’s difficult for everyone.
I’d love to have shows in NYC. Really looking forward to working with a good gallery.

HT – I personally find it astonishing that you are not represented in NY. When I go on any major social media – Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram … – I see your photos everywhere. Especially your fashion photos. Well, as well as, the celebrity ones… Of course, sometimes they are not credited because people don’t know. But, you do have a huge fan base. Though they may not know that they are fans (because they may not know your name, yet!)

JS – In a way, I have always been lucky because I have always gotten the publicity that I needed without going after it, for one reason or another. And, then, I went from film to film to film… After my last film (The Day the Ponies Come Back, 2000), I realized that my legacy is still going to be in photography. And, while I still have to earn a living, it is still photography that will pay my bills because the films that I do are low budget, as they were even at the beginning. Unless, of course, you get a big hit, and the films that I do are not immediate commercial mega-successes. They are not blockbuster types of films. But they do stay around for a long time.

HT – So, no super heroes jumping from building to building, for you?

JS – No. I am afraid not. But, now, I am finally making a little bit of effort to focus on my photographs.

HT – Who holds the copyright to your photographs?

JS – I do. I never signed a contract when I worked for Vogue – I worked for them for two and a half years. So, they are all my photographs, basically. I didn’t sign a contract with anybody. I did a lot of work for Atlantic Records because I was friendly with Ahmet Ertegün (the late founder and president of Atlantic Records) so they kept asking me to photograph this one and that one…

The Dylan photographs, I pursued. There were actually two people telling me about Dylan in ’63-64. Somebody called Sara Noznisky, a friend of mine. And, Nico from Velvet Underground. Though She wasn’t Velvet Underground then…

HT – That’s right. She was a rather conventional model at the beginning of her career. And, she looked very sweet, back then.

Jerry – Yes. Well, she was very sweet – before she got mixed up in drugs. And, when I would go to Paris, she’d come to my hotel room and say, “Jerry, have you seen or heard of Bob Dylan? The guy I have been telling you about?” And, then, I listened to Dylan and understood why everyone was so crazy about him.
Anyway, I don’t know whom I was photographing when I heard a journalist talk about Dylan. I went over and told them, “If you see Dylan, tell him I’d like to photograph him.” And, that was it. The next day, I got a call from Sara, who later became his wife.

So, she told me where the session was and I went over the next day and photographed him. They liked the photos that I took of him and wanted me to photograph him in the studio. The next thing they asked me to do was BLONDE ON BLONDE (cover). That is the only one for which I was ‘commissioned.’ But all the other photographs are mine.
You see over there [pointing to a wall in his apartment], Shepard Fairey saw that one in the Dylan book [Thin Wild Mercury: Touching Dylan’s Edge by Jerry Schatzberg, 2006] and asked me if he could paint it and I said, “Sure.”

But people know my photographs. For example, the image of Faye Dunaway’s Legs was used for official poster of the 64th Cannes Film Festival, 2011.
I have never thought that I had to go out and pursue selling my work. Or, my name.

HT – I am rather surprised that you haven’t had a proper museum show in the US. Given your body of work…

JS – Well, when Quentin Bajac came from Centre Pompidou to MoMA, in 2003, someone told me that he was organizing his first show. So, I emailed him to introduce myself and asked if I could go and see the exhibition. He wrote right back and said, “I know who you are…” which didn’t surprise me because the French know me. And, I did have a show (a retrospective) at the Pompidou in 1983. Bajac did say that it is not really an opening but told me that he’d love to give me a tour before his exhibition opened.

But then, I did not really pursue any conversations after that …

Homa – I don’t know Bajac, the only photography curator I know of at MoMA is Roxana Marcocci whom I interviewed several years ago …

JS – I used to know the film people at MoMA when Larry Kardish was there. And, Peter Galassi bought four of my pictures – Laverne Baker (1957); Edie Sedgwick (1964); Sandy Dennis (1964); and, one of Bob Dylan (1965).

HT – Tell me about your new project with Dylan…

JS – The new project with Dylan is a portfolio of photos that I took of him. It will include somewhere between 10-15 photographs that both he and I will sign. And, we are only going to make 50 (or so) of them.

HT – What about your fashion photography?

JS – WOMEN Then: Jerry Schatzberg (1954-1969) shows many of those. Then, there is the catalogue of the exhibition at the Pompidou – Jerry Schatzberg, de la photographie au cinéma, (20 Octobre 1982 – 29 Novembre 1982).

The Pompidou catalogue was the very begining of my archiving which is greatly time-consuming.

HT – You took several years off from photography to make films.

JS – I took 30 years off from photography. The last film I made was more than ten years ago. I figured I’ll take a year off and put my archives together. It’s been almost a decade already and we’re only half way through.

I have always wondered how I managed to take so may pictures in such a short period of time, c. 1954-1969.

HT – I think it’s because you were thinking cinematically. Like creating a storyboard… This is why some of your photographs are like series …

JS – Well, yes, I always thought cinematically. I always think of the story when I take photos.

HT – Speaking of cinema, I read in The Hollywood Reporter that you are now going back to making a sequel to Scarecrow (1973)?

… Tomorrow: Homa Taj In Conversation with Filmmaker & Photographer Jerry Schatzberg (part ii)