Interview: Jonathan Becker
Photographer Jonathan Becker Talks to Elizabeth Avedon: "30 Years At Vanity Fair"
L’Oeil de la Photographie, December 14, 2012
Photograph: Brassaï on the day we first met, Denfert-Rochereau, Paris 1974 © Jonathan Becker
Photographer Jonathan Becker celebrates the publication of his new book, 30 Years At Vanity Fair, (Assouline, 2012) three decades after his portraits first appeared in the prototype for the magazine’s 1982 relaunch.
As one of the great visual storytellers of our time, Becker has worked in an exclusive world of aristocrats, artists, and heads of state most would never observe except through the lens of his Rollei. He’s documented for Vanity Fair HRH The Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles at their first public appearance together in Buckingham Palace, “Dr. Death” Jack Kevorkian, China’s outspoken human rights activist Ai Weiwei, the mother of modern dance Martha Graham, as well as countless other fascinating characters from the rarefied worlds of art, literature, politics, pop culture, and society.
Becker grew up in New York and was mentored by legendary photographer Brassaï in Paris in the 1970s. His career began at Interview and W magazines, followed by working with Slim Aarons and Frank Zachary at Town & Country in the 1980s. Becker has also contributed his portraits extensively at Vogue, The New Yorker, and many other major magazines. His other books for Assouline include “Bright Young Things New York” and “Bright Young Things London.
I recently spoke with Jonathan about meeting Brassaï in Paris, the exclusive front room tables of Elaine’s in Manhattan, and iconic art director Bea Feitler’s final project designing the prototype for the premiere issue of the revived Vanity Fair.
Elizabeth Avedon: How did you begin working for Vanity Fair?
Jonathan Becker: Thanks primordially to Bea Feitler when she involved me with Vanity Fair’s relaunch after almost 50 years. I’d loved the old issues of Vanity Fair, The Smart Set, those great magazines of between the wars, and to be involved with the prototype for this relaunch was beyond my happiest imagination, my wildest dreams. Bea in a sense launched me when she launched the prototype because you had in it Avedon, Penn, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Bill King and Jonathan Becker. Who’s Jonathan Becker, right?
She finished it and sent it to the printers, then got on a plane to Rio and died. It was her swan song. I don’t think she ever saw it. It was awful. Heartbreaking forever. She went off and died, but she had thrown me over the fence.
It was pretty rocky for the first decade of the magazine. You had changing editors and then Graydon Carter came in and put his shoulder to it and really made the magazine a success in terms of again being the glamorous intellectual magazine that it is.
Graydon is the classically great editor. Slim Aarons and Frank Zachary saw him as the last editor making a great magazine under real journalistic principles that they admired and always called him the ‘Last Man Standing’. Graydon may not be literally standing in this picture, he’s swimming, but the portrait, to me, is of Frank and Slim’s ‘Last Man Standing’. [Photo: “Graydon Carter at home, Lake Waramaug, Connecticut, 4 September 1998”]
EA: How does it feel to have all three decades of your work collected in this book?
JB : I’m so moved to have this book printed. It feels important. In a sense, it also feels like a Christmas present from Graydon, because he let it be done and let the title of the magazine be used. Graydon always wanted me to collect my work in a book and had quite a hand in this one’s inception. He stipulated the formatting of the book, a strict portfolio format. He even stipulated the Helvetica type for the cover. It’s an Assouline format, but it’s the one he approved. I don’t think he wanted me or anybody editorializing randomly under the Vanity Fair name. Brilliant set-up. All this was decided in a half an hour meeting, and then I oversaw the rest. Graydon’s truly one of the great editors of all time. I’m very lucky to work with him.
EA: What historical implications do you feel this body of work possesses?
JB: It’s a document of documents spanning 30 years of time – actually fairly important times with important people in important places – all touched by Vanity Fair. The criteria for the book is that either the picture had to be done on assignment for Vanity Fair, whether or not it were published, or it can be a picture that I did elsewhere for other reasons that were itself actually published in VF.
I feel that photography is a documentarian art form. I feel it’s very important to have a film negative as proof that this was for real. I don’t have anything against digital imagery per se as long as there’s some point of departure and reference – which there isn’t. They’ve made a big mistake in not establishing some form of a certifiable proof of what the camera took. I don’t care if it’s even a process that one has to go through of verification. This is something I think is very important. Even in war pictures in journalism there’s a lot of fraud from biased, interested parties with digital. Now, with the newest version of Photoshop, as I understand it, there is a way for the program after you’ve done your cloning and cutting and pasting and this’s and that’s, it will rearrange the pixels in such a way that it’s undetectable. I think, in this way, that digital photography is not photography, in the sense of it being a document. It’s become a form of fiction or photo-illustration. And I feel that photography is a poor tool for fiction, in most cases.
EA: Tell me about your relationship with Manhattan restaurateur Elaine. There’s something very special in the way she’s looking at you in your photograph that isn’t in any other portrait I’ve ever seen of her. [Photo: “Queen of the Night,” Elaine Kaufman at Elaine’s…14 May 2002.]
JB: Well, we love each other. We’ve known each other (in this photo) for 30 years, since my 18th birthday party at Elaine’s. I used to sit at these tables, and all of those other people in the background were at all the other tables, and I’d be playing backgammon with Elaine until 3 in the morning. In the left top corner of the photo you can just see a snip of the Brassai poster I have on the wall over there. Brassaï gave that very poster to Elaine when Elaine and I gave him his 80th Birthday party at the restaurant. She hung it right over her favorite place, which was the cash register. It says “Pour Elaine” on the bottom. When she died, Diane Becker (no relative), who took care of things for her, gave it to me when they closed the restaurant.
I was there every night for a couple of years. As close to her as anyone could get, I think. I used to drive her home. We’d pull down the gates and put the padlocks on. She’d get in my ’64 Volkswagen Bug, which was pretty old then, and I’d drive her home. Sometimes I’d go up and we’d finish playing backgammon together.
Elaine was a fiction writer. She embellished on everything. You never got quite the same story out of her twice about something because it sounded better this way. She was really as good a friend as you could have. She was proud of herself there and she was proud of me – that’s that look.
EA: You did a lot of photographs in the kitchen of Elaine’s. Why?
JB: I didn’t carry a flash around. I had my twin lens with me, my Rollei. There was light in the kitchen and that’s one of my ‘things’ is to go where the light is. It’s a lot of years in lighting something. There’s light out there. Somewhere there’s always light, you don’t always have to make it. I mean, I do use a flash a lot; it’s a simple strobe and it has to be in an appropriate circumstance. There were people who took flash pictures occasionally at Elaine’s, but it’s intrusive, so I never did that. I started taking people in the kitchen and this funky kitchen became kind of a studio. You can see from this Saturday Night Live picture [“In Elaine’s Kitchen, New York, January 1976.”] what it was really like in there. You know how they give the restaurants ratings now? She would have gotten an F. Everyone complained about the food. I loved the food, as long as you stayed away from some of the seafood. Shad roe wasn’t a safe bet.
EA: Why is Brassaï the first image in your book? Photo: “Brassaï on the day we first met, Place Denfert-Rochereau, Paris, November 1974. Published: Vanity Fair prototype, 1982.”]
JB: He’s the first because this image was reproduced in the prototype for the premiere issue of the modern Vanity Fair. Brassaï was coming out with a book called “The Artist of My Life” (1982) – a great, great book – and he was also having a show, so Bea put a portfolio of Brassai photographs of artists opposite their paintings. It was beautifully designed, about 8 or 10 pages in the prototype and the opening picture was my portrait of him on the day we met.
We met seven or eight years earlier in Paris because I had written something about him at a summer school I went to. I had taken a post-graduate course on Surrealism. I wrote the paper late and the instructor said “I happen to be an acquaintance of Brassaï and he might like this paper”, so I sent it to him. I didn’t think much of it but I got this letter back (it’s now in a safe deposit box on Madison Avenue). The letter said I had given him, “Une grande satisfaction.” He wrote that I had understood and expressed the spirit in which he photographed. I thought I’d had a pretty useless life up to then; but now I thought if you could put those words of Brassaï’s on my tombstone, I’d be all right. So I wrote him back and I said I just happen to be coming to Paris, as if this were just the sort of thing that I did, and this was the day I came to meet him. He took me out to lunch with his wife. We had a really nice time, an interesting time. I stayed in Paris for a year.
EA: What class led you to write about Brassaï?
JB: I was 17; I got up to Harvard Summer School. They have great courses, it’s not part of Harvard, but Harvard organizes it. There are some Harvard professors. John L. Brown was from American University in Washington. The reason I took his course was the curriculum was fabulous. There was Breton and Man Ray, all these things I was really intrigued with. Brassaï wasn’t really part of the curriculum. I already liked Brassaï. Even from just the little 1968 MoMA catalogue. There hadn’t been much published since “Paris by Night” on Brassaï at that time in this country; now there’s lots of books, but then there wasn’t much. I found his pictures to be very surreal. And so even though he wasn’t part of the curriculum, I wrote the paper- it took me months. I extended this hiatus I had from Harvard. I told my father I had to write my thesis for the course “just as he had taken so much time to write his doctoral thesis on Yeats at Oxford” so I went out to Southampton and spent the Fall out there, blissful but writing this thing called, “Brassaï and Surrealism; Brassaï as Surrealist” because I found his pictures to be very surrealistic. And indeed when he wrote me back, and he talked to me more and more, he quoted things and it turned out he indeed didn’t consider himself a Surrealist per se, but he was very influenced by the Surrealist’s and was friendly with them all. He said, “I find Surreal in the Real”. That really hit me over the head. I got that – I wrote about that – but for him to hand it back to me, we were playing a good game of catch.
I told him I would be staying on in Paris. Right away we began seeing each other. He liked me. I was very young, 19 or 20, but something connected. We had a very warm relationship and he trusted me. He never had children and something about me may have connected with him, I don’t know. It was a fortuitous friendship. But he was depressed the day I met him. Everybody has down years – I’m sure the Mona Lisa was in a basement for some time at some point in its career. He’d had that small show at MoMA in the late ‘60’s. He said, “You have to understand, all my friends are dead.” Picasso had just died and they were very close. They worked a lot together. Now you see books that have come out of all their collaboration.
Brassaï never really promoted himself. He became a writer. He really took most of his pictures between 1931 and 1933, and then he went on to do portraits of artists and things like that. The bulk of his work was done in those years. He was still photographing in the ‘50’s. He worked with Diana Vreeland, he worked for Harpers Bazaar, and then in the ‘60’s he wasn’t as much a photographer as a writer. He wrote wonderful biographies of people and he wrote poetry.
EA: What did you do with Brassaï the year you were in Paris?
JB: He had all this work that he had been trying to publish as a book. It ultimately became that book, “The Secret Paris of the 30’s” which were all the unpublishable [at the time] pictures from “Paris By Night” of prostitutes and compromised things, opium dens and really the underworld of Paris. The photographs were sitting here with a literary agent who wasn’t doing anything with them. I’m talking about two huge portfolios. There were about two hundred what they call now “vintage” – they were glossy ferrotyped Brassaï prints in plastic sleeves in binders about 16 x 20 size and I went and got them with a letter from him. So the first thing I did of course was take them up to Elaine’s and everybody poured all over them. Can you imagine? This is like millions of dollars worth of stuff and people were all drinking; and luckily nothing happened.
EA: You were back in NY?
JB: I was in Paris, but I wanted to go home for Christmas because I’d never ever been away from home at Christmastime. I had always been at the house for Christmas. Some German thing, you know? I sent Elaine a little picture of myself in Paris – sort of forlorn looking picture – saying that I wasn’t coming back for Christmas. I didn’t expect anything; I just did that because I was feeling that way. I got a Christmas card from her and inside were three crisp, fresh one hundred dollar bills. The note said, “Take Icelandic. There’s a dollar left for cigarettes.” Brassaï said, “If you are going to New York, go get these prints for me,” which I did. I recouped them from the literary agent and I brought them to Elaine’s and then I brought them back to Paris. Then he started working on the book.
I stayed a year to the day in Paris. My airplane ticket expired after exactly a year. Sometimes I went a little awry trying to make a buck. I was getting into stuff I probably shouldn’t be getting into in Paris: underworld things, people who were selling fake Cartier watches, mobsters from Italy. I played backgammon at night. About one in the morning, I would head over to this little club down the street from Régines, but it was a step down from Régines. I didn’t have enough money to play for high stakes. To be truthful, I never lost when I was playing for money. There I was at 20 hustling backgammon. Brassaï didn’t encourage it, but he thought it was terribly good stories. He knew that world and he lived for a long time with no money.
I knew a guy named Dennis Deegan, who had been in the theatre here with John Houseman. His wife was an exquisite model named Mouche, the favorite model of Diana Vreeland. I was very friendly with Mouche and she had a friend who was starting up the Paris office of the new W Magazine. She sent me over there with the black portfolio box of 11 x 14 prints I had at that time. There were very good pictures in there of Genevieve Waite, Larry Rivers, Linda Hutton; a lot of pictures taken before I went to Paris. So I took the box up and the guy hired me. [Gerry Dryansky, ex-pat editor and author, was the guy.] I was twenty, and I was the first Paris based photographer for W Magazine. I did the picture of Louis Malle for W. I was very happy with that picture and it was published in the prototype of Vanity Fair. Bea loved it too. That picture became part of my growing box. [Photo: “Louis Malle at home, Cahors, France, 26 June 1975. Published: Vanity Fair prototype, 1982.”]
At that time, I figured if I could take one good picture a year that would be all right for a lifetime. That was my view. I want pictures that last. One picture a year is all you need. I was doing a little better than that. I wasn’t greedy, you know? I just wanted one a year.
EA: How did you set up the extraordinary photograph with Mrs. Vreeland? [Photo: “Diana Vreeland in her red “Garden in Hell,” at home, New York, styled by André Leon Talley, 21 July 1979. Published: September 2012.”]
JB: I first met Diana Vreeland in a taxicab that I was driving. I knew her grandsons and her sons. So who is this taxi driver that knows your whole family? That was pretty cool. Then I dropped her off. I mean she wasn’t going to be a regular fare. Andy Warhol was a regular fare. He was scared of taxi drivers because he didn’t know who they were. He thought they might do something to him. He was at Studio 54 and if I were there he would always count on my Checker and sit up front – no tip. He actually tried not to pay the fare. It was $3.50 up to Madison Avenue. Never a tip from Andy. Unbelievable. I have a picture of him in my taxi riding shotgun. And somewhere in his archive must the picture he took with his Minox 35 of me in the driver’s seat.
Anyway, I forgot about Diana Vreeland and then W Magazine gave me an assignment to photograph her here in New York with André Leon Talle. So this taxi driver that she met shows up at her door months later with André who she’s really close to. One thing Diana loved was people who work and I was working like a fiend. Sometimes I’d park the taxi and go and do pictures – parties for W or Revlon – and get back in the taxi to make an extra buck. She loved the picture. She wrote me letters. W paid me $75. bucks. I made a lot of money with this picture after, not to worry. She made sure I did, too. She was great.
EA: I really admire your photograph of Prince Charles standing in his garden. How did that come about? [Photo: “HRH The Prince of Wales at home at Highgrove, Gloucestershire, England, 21 June 2010. Published: November 2010]
JB: Bob Colacello and I went out to Highgrove with Robert Higdon, the then Executive Director of the Prince of Wales Foundation who had hired me. Bob and I wanted to craft a story for Vanity Fair about the Prince’s good deeds and all formidable people who had come over for the Prince of Wales Foundation charity events. One result was the picture of Charles with Camilla entertaining together at Buckingham Palace for the first time. This was the first time I’d photographed the Prince, and the story came out very, very well. It was wonderful; I had the whole run of Buckingham Palace. It was like Eloise with a camera!
This was a simple story, again with Bob Colacello, about the Prince of Wales’s charities and charitable causes and about Highgrove, so I got to photograph the exquisite Gardens and whatnot. The Prince was very relaxed: this was the third time I’d photographed him. There’d been another Vanity Fair story with Bob in the interim. Highgrove is such a beautiful place. Look at the walkway. These are all different varieties of thyme growing between all the lichen-covered paving stones and it’s so perfectly matured and all these topiaries, and the colors, all the shades of green and pale yellow and ochre and blue sky. Even his shoes have a little red tassel.
EA: Tell me about the dinner scene in your photograph of Camilla and the Prince of Wales in Buckingham Place in 2001. [Photo: “A Court of his Own,” TRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla Parker-Bowles) entertaining at Buckingham Palace, London, 21 June 2001.]
JB: This was the Great Hall. The paintings are just dumbfounding. They made a long table with hundreds of people at the table. The center of the room was Charles and Camilla. He’s talking to Lily Safra to his right. Bob was seated, but they made me a special table because I had to get up and down. I didn’t use a flash, just available light. It’s a candle-lit photograph.
It’s the first time they entertained and received publicly, officially at Buckingham Palace, and it was very important to him. She was still Camilla Parker-Bowles. He really appreciated the tone of the picture and the gentility of the whole thing. It was very good for their image together. This story was a huge success for them and everybody else.
EA: And the photograph of Bob Colacello? [Photo: “Bob Colacello. Buckingham Palace, London, 21 June 2001.”]
JB: Well he looks just like James Bond there. A reportorial journalistic James Bond.
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Avedon