Thursday, May 24, 2012

Sid Avery: Transforming the Hollywood Icon
Screen stars during Hollywood’s first several decades were typically packaged and sold to the public in images that emphasized glamour, elegance and sex appeal. But it wasn’t enough to elevate them to mere star status. With an instinctive grasp of the power of hype, the studios’ publicity machines decreed that the industry’s most high-profile assets assume mythic proportions. And so photographers like George Hurrell, Robert Coburn and Laszlo Willinger transformed flesh-and-blood creatures into the grandiose gods and goddesses of the New Babylon. The postwar era brought things down to earth a bit. No longer depicted as lofty inhabitants of a celluloid Olympus, the stars were cast in a lower-key, more casual mode. Perhaps the most gifted practitioner of this candid style was Sid Avery (1918-2002), whose work balanced on a fine line between irony and admiration. Avery had a knack for getting close to stars and earning their trust, yet his photographs retain a cool detachment that attests to his artistry and integrity. His peak years were 1946-1961, during which he photographed virtually everyone who was anyone in the world’s film capital. Many of his best images were published in the book Hollywood at Home: A Family Album 1950-1965 (1990). I spoke with him for a 1994 Camera & Darkroom feature, but this is the first time our complete conversation has seen the light of day.

You were born in Akron, Ohio, but almost qualify as a native Angeleno, as your family moved there when you were nine months old. You were unusual in that you learned what you wanted to do with your life while still a child.
I vividly recall my childhood introduction to the medium, courtesy of my uncle Max Tatch, who was a professional photographer. He invited me into the darkroom to watch him print. I stood on a little box so I could see into the tray. I saw him put a piece of paper in what I thought was water, and all of a sudden this magic thing happened — a beautiful image appeared. That experience stuck with me for a long time.

I subsequently took a photography course at Roosevelt High School and occasionally accompanied my uncle on assignments. Meanwhile, I produced the majority of the photos for my high school yearbook. After I graduated, I went to work at Morgan’s Camera Shop on Sunset Boulevard as a darkroom technician processing celebrity portraits for Life photographers. Every spare moment I had I took pictures on my own and attended night classes at the Los Angeles Art Center, where I studied portraiture under Fred Archer.

From Morgan’s, you went to work with Hollywood photographer Gene Lester, right?
Yes. Lester hired me to work in his darkroom and to photograph the Hollywood scene by night. I soon found myself covering nightclubs, parties and other social events, and my pictures started appearing in magazines like Photoplay and The Saturday Evening Post. The industry was literally at my fingertips, which was quite a heady experience for a 20-year-old. I subsequently opened my own studio on Hollywood Boulevard. Besides photographing the usual film-industry related activities, I also took pictures for lobby cards and posters.

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and son Steven at home in Los Angeles, 1952.


Things were looking good, but about this time, I got a letter from Uncle Sam. And he said he would like very much for me to join his company. It was 1941. Luckily, I got a posting to a photography unit and ended up in London, where I headed up the laboratory for the army’s pictorial service. Under strict security, I worked on plans for the Normandy invasion, and photographed maps and books so that Allied soldiers would be able to find their way around France.

It must have been gratifying to serve your country, but I imagine a little frustrating not to be able to do personal work. After your discharge, you formed Avery and Associates and got back into the Hollywood scene at a time when celebrity portraiture was undergoing a transformation.
When I compare portraits I did with portraits by Hurrell, mine were much less of a production. I just focused on working with people. Consequently, many celebrities liked to work with me, because they recognized that I reflected their image instead of trying to create a work of art. I never considered myself an artist. I considered myself someone who brought forth people’s character for reproduction.

When I went to celebrities’ homes, rather than using direct camera flash and having people sitting down stiffly, my approach was always, “What are you doing?” They would answer, “Well, I’m unpacking” or “I was just changing my baby.” And I would tell them to just go ahead and do whatever it was they were doing. Little by little, I managed pictures, directed pictures, but very subtly. My attitude was always to do things with people running their lives the way they normally did as much as possible. Sure, there were times when you compose, direct and build a picture, but I was most conscious of trying to reflect the other side of someone’s personality.

Joan Collins, ca. 1950s.

You had a knack of revealing unfamiliar facets of familiar personalities. Your subjects seemed much more natural and off guard than in images taken by other Hollywood photographers.  
What I came to realize is that a good actor, when he’s working on a film, is very successful and comfortable when he’s given an interaction and a line to read and a concept for a scene But if you take the script and the context of a scene away, and say that you want to take his picture, he really doesn’t know who he is in that context. It then becomes a question of how to make this man or woman comfortable. What do you do to get them to react to you to really put out? That’s why I let them do things in the house that were very normal and natural for them.

Yet you also captured the intangible qualities that propelled these individuals to screen stardom.
Actors have a certain amount of personality. That’s why they’re actors. You can’t help but be with someone on occasion that you don’t feel something they do or say comes out of a film. They can’t build a personality for every film and not have some of that personality left for their normal course of events. There’s always a little bit of celebrity in what they do.

Marlon Brando taking out the trash at his home, 1955.

Many of your images have a collaborative air to them. You were able to elicit a level of cooperation that’s hard to imagine today. I can’t picture someone like, say, Tom Cruise allowing himself to be photographed taking out the garbage. Yet that’s exactly what you got Marlon Brando to do in 1955.
Understand, I didn’t stage that situation. I didn’t say to him, “Hey, will you take the trash out?” I was at his house taking pictures when I happened to wander into the kitchen, which was a goddamn mess. It was waist-high in crap — paper, cartons bottles, ants, roaches, you name it. I didn’t say anything, just kept working with him in other areas of the house. And then I casually said, “You know, I’d love to get some shots of you in the kitchen, but it’s such a goddamn mess, I can’t get in there. Would you do me a favor and clean it up?” So he and a friend he was playing chess with worked for a half hour cleaning up that kitchen. And every time they took a box of trash out to the incinerator, I took pictures. But they were really doing something. It wasn’t a fabricated situation.

Although most stars were cooperative, I imagine you occasionally ran into problems with some of them.
At first, Bogart and Brando wouldn’t even let me into their houses. I pleaded for weeks to get five minutes of their time. But that five minutes was usually extended into hours or days once people perceived that I didn’t pose a threat. Bogart even took me out sailing, out to dinner and to recording sessions. I also found Danny Kaye to be a very moody individual. On and off, you never knew where you stood with him. I rarely felt comfortable with Danny Kaye, even though he was a member of the Hillcrest Country Club, and I used to be a caddie there, which gave us something in common. I did a lot of photography with him at the club, so there were moments when it was easy. But most of the moments were rather difficult. He was supersensitive, tense on occasion and a little bit abrasive to some people. Tough guy.

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward at home in Beverly Hills, 1958.

I understand that Ed Wynn was another favorite subject of yours.
Ed Wynn was the most underrated actor I’ve ever worked with and a very sweet, thoughtful, intelligent man. He was a comedian, but after he broke the dramatic barrier, he became an incredible actor. One of my favorite pictures is of Ed Wynn eating a sandwich out of a plastic bag. He’s so elegant and dignified, and he’s so human that you don’t feel like he’s putting you on at any time.

Your pictures were made with a minimum of equipment. You liked to keep things simple and natural.
My favorite film remains 35mm, which allows me to be less obtrusive, putting as little distance between myself and my subject as possible. It makes it easier to look, to see, to shoot and not to impose. Also, I rarely used a light meter. You can over-dependent on them and forget how to read light. I used to be able to walk into a room and know what the exposure was. Same thing outdoors, because you were doing it all the time. I once tried using a Weston meter, but I could never figure out the Zone System. For Christ’s sake, who’s got time to sit there and figure out a Zone System? You’ve got to shoot a celebrity in five minutes. I mean, come on.

How did the demise of the picture magazines affect you?
When the picture magazines went broke in the 1960s, I was so busy shooting that I never thought to ask them for my negatives back, and when I did start to think about it, the people who were there when the magazines went under were gone. Nobody knew where the stuff was. I spent thousands of dollars with attorneys and investigative people trying to track down where it all went. Someday I’ll find all the original James Dean and Marilyn Monroe stuff I shot — maybe. It might be buried someplace, or they could have tossed it.

James Dean on the set of Giant, 1955.

It was around this time that you got into advertising photography, correct?
Yes, although it was tough some months before I started getting assignments. But once I got my foot in the door, I never looked back.

And from there to television commercials, including the famous Chrysler Cordoba ads featuring Ricardo Montalban.
That’s right. But by the early 1980s I no longer liked the working environment, which placed more emphasis on the bottom line than on quality. I began looking for new challenges, and in 1982 I founded the Hollywood Photographers’ Archive, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the work of great Hollywood photographers of the past. I could identify with others whose film industry images had vanished. I wanted to accumulate, record, exhibit and publish these photographers’ work. A lot of them had fallen through the cracks, great photographers who just disappeared.

It’s been quite successful. Photographers are bringing their stuff in here now, because we’re very concerned about archival storage and keeping everything organized. I tell them, “For Christ’s sake, take care of your stuff, it’s going to be important historically one of these days.” So I’m trying to educate the photographers. I send them notes, give talks, get them on the phone, tell them how important it is to get their negatives and prints out of their garages, and let me get it collated and organized for them. I can put it in archival storage, or donate it to a museum. In the meantime, it’s just sitting there. Not only is it decaying, but it isn’t earning anything for the photographers who shot it.

Bob Newhart at the Beverly Hills Hotel, 1961.

(Avery’s Hollywood Photographers Archive is now known as MPTV, and represents many leading Hollywood photographers.)