photography Jaka Vinsek //
interview Whitney Mercurio //
IN JUNE, 2013, I RENTED A PHOTO STUDIO ON 26TH STREET IN NEW YORK FOR A FASHION EDITORIAL SHOOT . IT WAS OWNED AND RUN BY A MAN WHO, MONTHS LATER , I DISCOVERED TO BE CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHER PETER STRONGWATER , WHO HAD SHOT THOSE ICONIC INTERVIEW MAGAZINE COVERS IN THE 80’S. ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL POP-ICON PHOTOGRAPHERS OF ALL-TIME.
Reserved: How were you able to catch the shiny ‘Crystal Ball of Pop,’ that is, Interview Magazine, or did it catch you? How did it happen?
Peter: It was years ago. I had a connection to Fred Hughes who was Andy’s manager at that time. I just mentioned casu-ally, “Gee, I like Interview. It would be fun to work for them.” I was a good friend of Linda Hutton.
He said, “Go do a picture,” they like society names and stuff. Linda Hutton came from a pretty substantial family. He said, “Go take a picture of Linda Hutton.” I took a picture and they said okay, we love it. Then they called me up about a week later and said, “How would you like to do a cover?”
I was speechless. I said that’s great, yeah, fabulous. I remem-ber, they said, “Well, we’re going to send you Isabella Ross-ellini.” That was my first cover in ‘80, ‘82, somewhere around there. I became very friendly with the managing editor, Rob-ert Hayes. It was very nice. I mean, I knew Andy, and at The Factory, most of the time when I was working, I would just come up, it was all very informal. Marc Balet was the creative director. Of course you never got paid. That was a minor problem. They wanted 16x20’s. Each shooting cost me like a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars, but it was great fun, and I got to shoot everyone.
I became pretty good friends with Bridget Berlin up there, who lives around the corner from me here, and it just worked.
I mean, for I don’t know, three, four years, I must have done sixteen covers, or something like that.
Reserved: Wow! Visually, who were your favorites--your fa-vorite subjects?
Peter: Who was my favorite?
Peter: I think Mick Jagger was great. I loved doing Mick. He was incredible. He just came here, and there was no entou-rage at that point. He just arrived. There weren’t a million PR people. He just rang the doorbell, said, “Hi, I’m Mick.” You know, literally. It was that cool!
He was really great. We had a really good time, and the pic-tures were amazing. I really liked him. Diana Ross was very interesting. She came with a huge entourage of people. That was fun. Then sometimes we would prepare a lunch outside on the terrace, and Andy would come over sometimes. He would do the Polaroids of them, and then get them suckered into do a portrait. That was one of the purposes of the inter-view. It was a marketing tool because he would say, “Well, I’ll get you on the cover of Interview. Oh, by the way, you can do a triptych, it’s really reasonable,” it’s only $30,000 a print at that time or something.
Just about everyone that I ever photographed, John McEn-roe or Diane von Furstenberg, they wound up eventually buying prints from Andy. Andy would come with his little camera and take photographs of them while I was shooting, or while they were getting dressed.
He never said much, but he would hang around for lunch and stuff. Sometimes we’d also have lunch down at The Fac-tory. That was another way to sucker them in. He would have sponsors—try to get a liquor company or a camera company to buy some pages.
The magazine—it was pretty primitive then as to what it is now. I mean, when it was being run by Peter Brant’s wife, the paper quality was not there. I mean, it had graduated a great deal from being a movie review magazine, which was how it started. Andy was too cheap to buy tickets to go to the film festival but he wanted to go, so he said, “I’ll start a film review magazine.”
Reserved: I love it. Wasn’t it Fran Lebowitz, one of the re-viewers?
Peter: yeah, that’s how Interview started: it was a film review magazine, so he could get into film festivals for free. I re-member seeing him walking up and down Madison Avenue, handing out copies of the magazine at different stores as a way to advertise.
Reserved: Paul Morrissey involved, wasn’t he?
Peter: Yes, he was. I mean, most of the people that were in the ‘painting’ department— art department— really didn’t have much to do with the way Interview was run. When I say a shoestring, it was really basically Mark and Robert, maybe two or three interns.
We had André Leon Talley who was the fashion writing con-sultant. We had all of these kinds of people that would come and go. Basically, the magazine was put out maybe by three people.
Richard Bernstein did the covers. Everyone thinks Andy did the covers. Andy did not do the covers. I would present a picture, and Richard Bernstein would paint over them, and it looked like they could be done by Andy, but it was real-ly all done by Richard. I don’t think he ever really got the credit he deserved for doing this, because everyone just as-sumed that it was Andy. It looked like something that Andy would do.
Reserved: Did you just hand over the photograph, and he would …
Peter: I would just hand over the black and white print and that was the last I’d see of it! The next time I would see it would be one the newsstand and it would be in color. I was shooting everything—we did no color at that time—I was shooting everything in black and white. We never did it in color, because that probably would’ve blown the budget to pieces!
Peter: Richard painted them all. I don’t even think Andy re-ally gave much advice. I think he let Richard do whatever he wanted to do. Mark would come to the shooting, and he did a really did a great job. I mean, he was a great art director at that, you know, photo magazine because they really let you do what you wanted to do.
I mean, once in a while we would come up with a theme or an idea or something like that. When we did Mick, Mark got the idea to hang records from the ceiling, and that became the background. We would use a striped wallpaper or some-thing like that.
Again, we were somewhat limited in what we could do be-cause we had no money almost.
Reserved: Did you find that liberating or constraining? Was it frustrating?
Peter: No, I felt it fun, because most of the stuff was done on white. Once in a while we would do some kind of set, but it was very, very, basic. It was unfortunate. We did one picture of Diana Ross on the street, where she was in a Jeep being driven.
Other than that, I really can’t remember that we ever did anything outside of the … no, no, excuse me ...We did a real-ly a great, great story of Phoebe Cates out in Southampton. The only reason we could do that is I was very good friends with Marty Raynes who had a large estate out there.
I asked Marty if we could use his house to do these pictures of Phoebe Cates, who was then very hot. She had just come off, what was her first...
Reserved: Fast Times at Ridgemont High?
Peter: yes! He said yeah “as long as I can meet her.” I said, “Don’t worry about it.” At the very worst, we’ll put a Polaroid under your pillow. He did like that!
Reserved: That’s great.
Peter: Yeah, that was a location shoot. I think John McEn-roe—we shot him in his in his apartment, because he was too lazy to get out of his studio.
I could kill myself, because I had stacks, you know, you start dealing with the only payment you could get is you could get as many copies of the magazine as you wanted. There’s a store now on 57th Street and Park Avenue that sells these vintage covers for over $100 a piece.
Reserved: Yeah. You’re being auctioned now, I see.
Peter: They are being auctioned now, at the Phillips du Pury in London and also here in New York. Of course it never got past official approvals. It was kind of complicated.
I also worked on a project for the USIA during that period, where I photographed a lot of… it was called Monuments, and it was basically a collection of photographs of people who have fundamentally changed your life. Whether good, or bad, or something.
It was everything from Oppenheimer, who made the hydro-gen bomb, to Hugh Hefner who revolutionized magazine publishing, to Mohammed Ali. It was just a weird collection of people. The man who designed the interstate highway system, people who really made major contributions to your life, but you really weren’t aware of what they did. Who did it? How did this highway system, you know, how did it come to pass?
Or Dr. Johnson from Masters and Johnson. It was an inter-esting collection of people. That was scheduled to tour the communist states. Of course they never got past the cycle; it was kind of complicated but I got to do the photographs.
Reserved: Did they ever see the light of day?
Peter: They’re in the Smithsonian Museum in Washing-ton, D.C. They did get to see the light of day. They didn’t go on tour. They were all gifted over to the Smithsonian.
Reserved: That’s fantastic. You have a wide breadth of ex-perience in your career.
Peter: It is. I mean, Interview opened up a lot of doors.
Reserved: What do you do now to nurture your creative spirit? Do you shoot still?
Peter: No, I actually got to want to live a life, and eat, and do things like that. I have a production company, and what we do is we organize difficult shoots for large com-panies, basically. Such as, one of our clients is the Ford Motor Company; Zip Cars; large pharmaceutical compa-nies; Budweiser, Anheuser Busch, Pepsi.
Reserved: So you’re full service production?
Peter: Yea, what we do is we organize these shoots, and we cast them. We have location scouting, we organize every-thing: we produce a book and just guide them through the shoot. Then, of course, we have a rental studio next door …
Having the knowledge of photography, it’s great. A lot of photographers trust me because I’ve been through. It’s not like I’m coming from an office experience. I have a pretty deep background in photography.
So that keeps us pretty busy. Also, managing the collec-tion of prints that I have from Interview. There’s an ex-hibit now that’s going to be done in Colette in Paris. I just got an email from them about it. They’re going to add more pictures up. Again, it’s a labor of love more than a labor of cash, by the time I get them framed and by the time I ship them and stuff like that. But it’s nice to know that people like them: they’re iconic and they really stand out.
Just managing that takes some time. Between all of the things, I’m relatively busy.
Reserved: Is there any one or anything that inspired you creatively?
Peter: Creatively? I don’t like to complain about what’s going on now.
Reserved: Oh, I do!
Peter: I just think, I don’t want to sound ancient but dig-ital has taken the soul, I think, out of photography. It has become almost a mechanical wall before, I was inspired by so many great photographers that I would see. I mean, Bill Solano was a great friend of mine, also Hans Fuhrer, all of these photographers. There was motion, they were great… you looked at Vogue, or even you looked at the New York Times, and they were great fucking pictures.
You look at the stuff today and it all looks like Glamour. Some kind of version of Glamour. There are specialized publications that try to do a nice job that are really bark-ing after advertising and willing to take new photogra-phers: new choices and stuff like that. The mainstream publications that everyone sees, they’re for the most part uninspiring. I mean, Conde Nast has cut their budgets back. There’s no longer a month trip to Tokyo. I remember working for Seventeen when we used to fly on a plane that was Walter Annenberg’s plane to fly to the locations. We used to call his pilot Mr. Lucky. That stuff isn’t done today. Today, it has unfortunately become more of a business than anything… even in the successful ‘art photographers,’ there’s just sighs, huge, gigantic sighs. We’ll sell it for a couple of hundred thou-sand dollars. It just changed a lot. Like everything else new, it’s be-come unfortunately money driven, where before people did it because they loved it.
Reserved: Yeah, and it’s had such a different aesthetic. My father shot for Playboy in the 70’s.
Peter: It was, it was inspiring, because they really, really, loved everything about it. At Playboy was Marilyn Gowansky, it was a great publication at that time, I used to work with her and also Joe Brooks at Penthouse. At that time Penthouse put out a “high class” women’s mag-azine called VIVA with none other than Anna Wintour as its fashion editor, today every time I see her around she tries not to remember that we worked together it is really very funny, it is a strange back story and I am not sure if many people know it.
Every time I see her she pretends—I see her weird-ly in certain situations. Obviously she knows me, I mean I worked with her, and it’s like she can’t really process the point that she worked with Elliott Erwitt. VIVA was a beautiful publication. It had a great art director, Roland Johnson, and it was really way ahead of its time.
Reserved: Photography has really changed. Thanks to computers, photos are too perfect… extremely over-re-touched.
Peter: Yeah, and Photoshopped to death. We worked with several photographers that will remain nameless, and the pictures don’t even look like a picture. Then a client stands over the monitor during a shoot.
One of the beautiful things about film is that you never really knew exactly what you were going to get, so there was always the surprise at the end. Sometimes disaster, but a lot of times, great. I’m a pretty good friend of Elliott Erwitt, and, you know, the unexpected result of photo-graphs at that point was so much better.
Today, they see it and it’s done—and if they don’t like it they’re redoing. You do it again until it looks exact. They beat the life out of it until there’s nothing left, and then that becomes the picture.
It’s unfortunate, because it has changed the direction and if they don’t like it they can Photoshop it, do whatever they feel like with it. They look almost cartoonish.
Reserved: Shots done with film, compared to the digital shots of today, what a difference! There’s something to really be said for the element of surprise, when you don’t know what you’re going to get and you can’t see what the photographer is seeing.
Peter: It really is true. I mean, you look at some of the old books of any of the photographers in the beginning, and they’re just very, very, different.
Reserved: Do you think that the shots were more thought out? you had to, when you were shooting with film, right?
Peter: yeah, because A. you didn’t have the flexibility of shooting these shots… It would’ve cost a fortune. You had maybe, at Interview, you were to get it in ten rolls. If you didn’t get it in ten rolls…you really had to get it pret-ty instantly. Generally, what I would do is I’d try to get as much information about the subject as I could before I shot. Especially the government shots, because there you’re on their time.
What they would do is they would clear out the office and set everything up. You’ve got ten minutes, and that was the deal. You’re interviewing you have a very good idea of what you wanted to do, and how the person would react to certain things. Because there wasn’t time, you didn’t have unlimited film to waste.
It was much more focused and much more direct, basi-cally.
Reserved: How do you feel about magazine covers now? How do you feel about what kind of thought is put into them, or the creativity?
Peter: For fashion they’ve changed. They got rid of the models, and they just put Kim Kardashian on the cover or something like that. I guess they sell more, because, really, I look at a fashion magazine as a better produced People.
Reserved: Do you think the pendulum will swing back, in your view?
Peter: That’s a difficult question. Everything eventual-ly changes, but you don’t really hear that much about, there are some ‘supermodels’ out there today, but they’re not like the Christy Turlingtons, they’re not like even the Giseles …
Peter: I couldn’t name any models. They’re younger, too. A lot of them are from the Slavic countries, Eastern Europe. They’re fifteen to sixteen, they’re giants. They hardly speak any English, and they really don’t have any personalities where before, you had the great Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Lisa Taylor, Patti Hansen, Iman, Janice Dickinson, etc. Great personalities those models had. Today they’re almost bred for the times, because they can just dress them up in whatever they want, take a kind of stand in… I mean, you look at the cover of Vogue, look at the cover of Bazaar, look at the cover of W: except for a different face, they’re basically the same concept.
They’ve picked some movie star, and they just put her on the cover. Because I guess people are celebrity-oriented today. They love gossip and they love celebrities, and any-thing in that category.
It sells more. They’d rather read more about some celeb-rity than some model that no one knows anything about. Then you know all these kids now who want to be de-signers. The designer is the new rock and roll star. These designers. I mean, when you think, years and years ago. I mean Fashion Week; no one knew about Fashion Week. Reserved: It was for the buyers.
Peter: Right. Buyers would come into the show room on Seventh Avenue, 1411 or one of those buildings, and they’d look at the line. That was that. There wasn’t any big extravaganza. Then you look at it today with the Mer-cedes-Benz things and the tents and the parties and the events. The fashion doesn’t even matter.
Reserved: That’s for the celebs in the front row, right?
Peter: Fashion in these fashion shows is totally obsolete, because they never produce the stuff. It’s now, like every-thing else. It’s become a huge media event; a media cir-cus. That’s what they say when the circus comes to town.
Reserved: Yeah, it’s arrived.
Peter: And it gets bigger and bigger, not smaller and smaller. The tents, the ones in Lincoln Center, they’re bigger. Then there are all the outside ones, like Marc Ja-cobs is always across the street with the armory. I go—I have a few friends still in the industry—I go see and stuff like that. Yeah, it’s a very, very different.
Reserved: Yeah, there doesn’t seem to be as much soul. It’s all very surface and abstract and commercial. People are so worried about the money. They don’t want to take a risk.
Peter: All the clothing they put out there on these shows is just for show, just to be photographed to be in the mag-azines. I know, it’s a fact, that half the stuff never hits production or it’s too expensive. They can’t really knock it off. Besides, no one really gets dressed anymore.
Who wears Versace? You really see all the wildness and stuff. I mean, it’s like a mystery. How many people are buying Valentino ball gowns? Most of them are given away to actresses for publicity.
Reserved: In the old days, when we would go out, people made an effort when they went out, because you were to be seen.
Peter: Right, yeah. But as I said you’ve got people today—even at formal events—they wear a suit. It’s less and less dressy which is fine with me, but I mean for the high end of fashion… there are how many people? I think in couture, if there are 100 buyers worldwide, that’s count-ing China, Russia, all those areas, buying couture at $30-$40,000 a pop or whatever it would cost, I think that’s about it. I wouldn’t say it’s more than one hundred. Ev-erything else is mass marketing.
Reserved: You have really shown us some amazing per-spective today!
Peter: Thank you so much. I hope you’ve got what you need.
Reserved: I think we’re set. Thank you so much Peter!