Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/19/18
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Glen Wexler: I actually clean it every time I take it out to shoot, but I don’t take a camera everywhere I go. I am interested mostly in the creative process and not so much about the cameras, or shooting without a specific concept in mind. I give a lot of thought to the creative process before the shoot, and typically shoot for the purpose of realizing a preconceived idea.
JS: Your new book is The ’80s Portrait Sessions and you have a stack of beautiful prints here that will appear in your book so let’s talk about some of them as we visit here today. Tell me about this photo, which is the cover photo.
GW: This is Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead shot in 1982. It was part of a series of shoots I did with him for his band Bobby and the Midnites. It was a fun project to create images for the album packaging and PR. I felt it would be iconic to get a shot of Bob smoking a joint, a nod to the psychedelic era, with which he is associated. I shot one roll of film on a Hasselblad, which is 12 photos. He took one hit per frame. I captured the image I had in my head. When we finished he handed me the joint and said, “I’m so stoned.” Bob came to the shoot with Robert Hunter, the Dead’s lyricist. I passed the joint to him. This photo eventually ended up in the permanent collection of the Grateful Dead Archives.
The pictures for this book reflect a sort of intimacy. This was a time of Rock and Roll excess, everything was over the top, but that’s not what I wanted to capture. I wanted to actually connect with the subject. Show something personal.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
GW: Different photographers for different reasons. I am best known for my conceptual work, which is about blurring the boundaries of photography, coming up with a scene that looks improbable but also looks real at the same time. That influence came from Hipgnosis the English design group that created album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and other iconic images from the1970s. As a teenager, Hipgnosis showed me that photography is only limited by your imagination.
Edward Weston was an early photographic influence and relates to my modernist roots. His photos are pure and beautifully lit, designed and composed in a way that would often transform the subject for the viewer to discover something new or unexpected. I learned of his work at age eighteen from a nurturing instructor when I first became interested in photography. This was during my first year of college. He also introduced me to Duane Michals’ work, which is about photography as a narrative medium. I connected with Duane’s irreverence. A little bit later I became aware of the work of Irving Penn. I liked that he was not restricted by subject matter. As an artist everyone wants to put you in a box. However, Penn shot beautiful fashion, beautiful still life, amazing portraits, and he photographed trash off the street and made it look incredible! There is a continuity of vision that ties all of the work together. I also admire greatly Albert Watson in the same way I respect Penn. I think he’s the greatest living photographer.
JS: Another photo from your new book.
GW: This is Dale Bozzio the singer of Missing Persons. I met the band just as they were about to break out on the L.A. music scene through their producer Ken Scott, who also became their manager. Ken is legendary. He started his career working for George Martin and The Beatles. Missing Persons was a group of incredibly talented ex-Frank Zappa musicians. It was a special time. I was working on the cover for their first studio LP, Spring Session M. They were a perfect mix of art and music. It was an amazing collaboration.
JS: The shots in your book are close-ups. Tell me about that. How close were you to the subject when you took these pictures?
GW: Often, just a couple of feet away. I was using a 150mm lens on a Hasselblad. It was all about establishing an intimate connection with the artist. I was trying to move past the excess, and authentically connect with the person.
JS: That outlook reminds me of the photographer Norman Seeff.
GW: Interesting you should mention Norman Seeff. I was a photographer’s assistant for only one day in my entire career. That was so I could hang with Norman and see him work. I had a chance to shoot my first album cover when I was about halfway through school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. At that time they were training photographers for commercial work in the advertising world. That was not what I was interested in though it was great place to learn the technical craft of photography. There are my two primary bodies of work that started to emerge from these early days. First, the narrative photographs, and second are the portraits. The portrait guy in Los Angeles that I really admired was Norman and I just wanted to meet him. At first, I was shooting full-frame images with a Nikon and printing on Portriga Rapid, a beautiful warm tone photo paper. The look of my early prints were influenced by Norman’s prints. The shoot I assisted him on was for a new band called The Police. It was at Madame Wong’s in downtown LA for Life Magazine! Overall, Norman’s approach to shooting portraits is much more kinetic than mine. His shoots were often referred to as “happenings.” There was lots of movement and he followed his subject with a 35mm camera. Most of my portrait shoots in the 80s were with a medium format Hasselblad locked down on a tripod. It was a bit more formal and everything happened within the frame versus moving with the subject.
JS: Who besides photographers influenced you?
GW: In 1968 I was spending the summer with relatives in Minnesota and I had heard about the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. My brother and I convinced our uncle to drop us off at the movie theater. My uncle told us we would hate the film because he had heard it’s weird and there’s almost no dialog. I walked out of the theater after seeing the movie and my life had changed. What Kubrick did with that film was as influential as anything on my photography. I later learned of how he pushed technical boundaries to capture specific shots, such as developing a super fast lens to shoot by candle light in Barry Lyndon. His approach of pushing technical limitations for the purpose of realizing your vision is something that I find inspiring and resonates with my approach to making images.
JS: Tell us about photographing Michael Jackson.
GW: I got a commission to do a commercial print assignment with Michael and his brothers for Yamaha. This was in 1984 after Thriller and just before the release of the Victory album. The project was to create two posters. One was for musical instruments, and other for audio gear. At the time, these were ambitious and challenging photo illustrations. I had Michael and his brothers in the studio for three days. On the last day Michael asked if he could stay late and if I would shoot his portrait. I was honored that I had gained his trust. Michael was not always that comfortable in front of a camera. The session lasted about a half hour. He was inquisitive and engaging. He was not controlling but he would suggest things like shooting him at a higher angle. The glove was so well known for being in his performances and I wanted to bring it into this setting for an intimate portrait.
JS: What was your first camera?
GW: My uncle gave me a Nikomat, the Japanese version of a Nikkormat, when I was about thirteen. He had just returned from Tokyo. I didn’t have an affinity for photography as a kid. I did take a photography class in high school but it really wasn’t my thing. I’d take a camera with me as a teenager when I would go on many backpacking trips. I spent a lot of time in nature. Those were my first photographs. I had a natural tendency to look for design in nature, which influenced my compositions and is why Edward Weston’s work made so much sense to me.
Photography seemed like a technical craft, and I was attracted to the art but not so much the mechanical side of things. This is ironic because later on my photography became so technical. After high school I had no idea what I was going to do. I went to Humboldt State University in Northern California primarily because of the redwoods. I gravitated towards the art department though I didn’t have the discipline to become an illustrator or painter. That’s when I started to use photography more seriously to illustrate ideas. I had a nurturing instructor who saw something in my work and encouraged me. I started to immerse into photography as an art form.
Humboldt State had a limited number of photography classes. After two years, with my General Education requirements behind me, I decided I wanted to learn the technical aspects to help me say what I wanted to say with photography. I wanted to turn ideas into photographs. I was accepted at Art Center College of Design, which was known for having a great technical program. We learned using a 4×5 view camera. Everything had to be precise. We weren’t allowed to shoot Polaroids to verify exposures or check focus. We had to learn and understand light, how to meter it, and to understand and control tonality and exposure with film processing. With a 4×5 camera you shoot one sheet of film at a time. It’s slow and methodical. Using a 4×5 requires considerable technique, and mastering the medium. I also had a Mamiya 645, but it got little use. After five of the eight terms at Art Center I started shooting professionally and bought a Hasselblad because I was shooting album covers. It was a natural transition to a camera that shoots a square photo, especially for portraiture.
JS: What camera are you using today?
GW: The Canon 5DRS camera for smaller projects and personal work. For commercial jobs I rent the latest and greatest equipment, usually a 100 megapixel Phase One back for a Hasselblad.
JS: Tell us about this photograph.
GW: This is Paul Hutchinson, a New Wave artist from the band Espionage. I thought he had an intriguing and unique style. It’s one of my favorite portraits from the 80s. A lot of people think he looks like David Bowie. He’s not well known, but in selecting photos for the book, I felt it was important to prioritize image over celebrity.
JS: Is there a camera you always wanted but never got?
GW: Not really. Cameras are just tools. The photo is about the idea, the image, the composition, and the light. If there was ever a camera I wanted that I didn’t have I just rented it. The best camera is the one you have with you! I used to be a big fan of the Mamiya 7, which made a 6×7 image. I rented and shot a lot of backgrounds with that. I am however eyeing the Hasselblad X1D. The files from that camera are very pretty, and it’s compact for a medium format camera. I recently shot with a Leica for the first time. Leica lent me the Leica S and it did amazingly well in low light. I was impressed. I shot an album cover image with it in between takes of a music video I was directing.
JS: Is there anyone you’d like to photograph that you haven’t?
GW: I really wanted to work with Prince. Warner Brothers sent my portfolio to him a few times for his album covers. It came back to me that Prince was not happy that I had worked with Michael Jackson. I also wanted to work with Miles Davis and Bowie. I would have loved to have worked with the greats that were just before my time: Hendrix, Lennon. I was recently interviewed with legendary Rolling Stone magazine photographer Baron Wolman for a radio show promoting a recent exhibition in Santa Fe. The interviewer asked him how many covers he shot for Rolling Stone and he said 30. He asked me how many album covers I’ve shot and I said 300. The radio host said, “You win!” I thought, “No, Baron wins. He shot Hendrix!”
JS: This is an iconic photo of ZZ Top
GW: ZZ Top left their imprint on the 80s. I included this photo in the book even though it was shot in 1992. It was from the sessions for their Greatest Hits album cover, which included a lot of their songs from the 80s. Their style is so much a part of the decade. I reached out to Billy Gibbons about the book and he agreed to write the foreword, which I’m thrilled about! I also did a recent photo shoot for Billy’s new band, The Big Bad Blues with Matt Sorum, and Austin Hanks.
JS: Have you done stills for feature films?
GW: I’ve done Key Art for films but not production or special unit stills. I’ve also designed and created photographic logo treatments including “Batman Forever” and “The Star Wars Trilogy.”
JS: What was the move like from film to digital?
GW: When the digital editing tools came along it was a big deal. I had access to the early prepress tools in the mid 80s, but the technology was developing and still very crude. All you could see were pixilated images on a tiny screen. I didn’t see any creative use for it at that time. We knew of the pending digital revolution years earlier when I was a student at Art Center but it didn’t mean anything to me at the time because it wasn’t relevant to making images at the time. Around 1987 I started to get calls from Tony Redhead, an Australian, who was working with and modifying a Quantel Paint Box. Quantel had workstations that were being used for motion picture post-production. Tony was with the Post Group in Hollywood and had set up the first dedicated Quantel workstation for print output. His company was Electric Paint. He was familiar with my photocompositions for album covers and thought I would be interested. He tried to reach me several times and finally I agreed to meet with him after the third or forth call. I walked into this amazing editing suite. It had a thirty-five inch HD Sony monitor, which I had never seen before, and in another room he had a Scitex machine, which was designed for digital prepress. At this time the largest file available from the Quantel was 4000 pixels. However 8000 pixels was needed to make a high-resolution one-sheet movie poster or a magazine spread. Tony had figured out how to use the Scitex to combine two 4000 pixel files into one 8000 pixel file. All this technology of course had to be run by a computer. It was all powered by a mainframe, which filled a 6×8 closet! Things that would take days or weeks before this technology we could now do in minutes or hours. That’s when I got totally hooked on digital image editing as a better and faster way to realize my final images. This was long before Photoshop. In 1992 I was one of the very first photo studios to have in-house digital post-production.
As for digital capture, using a camera to take the picture, I was late to the party. Digital capture didn’t seem to present a better medium or workflow than film until about 2004. Canon was loaning me their newest cameras to test. I took one of their cameras, a 1DMarkII, to a commercial shoot with the intent of using it for smaller elements of the photocompositions. But, I then ran into a very difficult depth of field challenge with one of the main sets. It was impossible to get the shot I needed with a 4×5 view camera, which was being used for the other set-ups because it has a limited ability to capture sharp focus throughout certain scenes. The Canon 35mm DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens and a small aperture worked great to capture the range of focus needed for the image. I later found I was able to blow the photo up to six feet and it held up beautifully. By 2007 I was 100% digital. It has become a more efficient workflow than scanning film.
JS: Here’s another one of your photos.
GW: This is The Brothers Johnson. They were the musicians of my very first album cover shoot from when I was still a student at Art Center. This picture is from our second session and album cover project together where I did both photography and art direction. They were an amazing multi-platinum band produced by Quincy Jones. These guys represent my start in the music industry.
JS: Tell me about the process of creating the book.
GW: It started with the publisher Andy Burgess at Dark Spring Press. He produces beautiful fine art books. Andy asked me if I’d be interested in doing a book of my 80s portraits. I’d been planning to do this book for a long time, which Andy didn’t know about. I had thought earlier about going with a major publisher but then you loose control of the project. I liked the idea of working with a small publisher making their mark with exquisite fine art books. I started cracking open my archives. That was a trip, re-visiting photos I hadn’t seen in 30 to 40 years! Then I had to edit, scan, and start the big job of digitally re-mastering the negatives for print. I used to have a state-of-the-art darkroom at my studio in Hollywood where I would make silver prints. I spent a crazy amount of time in the dark room. I was a very good traditional printer, before immersing into digital printing. This analog experience informed the digital process of how the images look. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue photography as a career.
GW: What I tell anyone who is serious about photography is to look at lots photography and explore what is out there already to understand the history, but shoot YOUR vision, the way you see things. Shoot your story. Add to the conversation versus repeating it. The problem with photography is that the tools are not complicated nowadays, which makes it far too easy to mimic other work. You need to establish your own voice as an artist.
JS: You certainly have done that with your work Glen.
GW: Thank you Jimmy. I look at it as a forty-year endeavor to avoid a day job! It’s been a fun ride.
JS: Tell me about this photo.
GW: Bernadette Cooper. She was a founding member of the all girl R&B band Klymaxx. She got a solo deal with MCA and I did her album cover. She was super cool, edgy and had lots of attitude…all in a good way. I also directed her music video, which was my first. I believe she was one of, if not the first, female Hip Hop artist. Definitely, she was ahead of the curve.
JS: Who’s this photo of?
GW: Giorgio Moroder. He is a prolific producer who worked with Donna Summer, Blondie, Billy Idol, and Berlin. He’s known as the father of Disco but also led the way in EDM, electronic music. Even though he’s not looking at me in the photo it appears as if we’re in a conversation. He was warm and engaging. For me this photo tells that story.
JS: tell me about your career as a director.
GW: That started in the late 80s, early 90s. I did a couple commercial and music video projects. I got the jobs because of my still work. It went well but I found it difficult at that time to translate my photographic vision into motion. About five years ago I had the opportunity to direct music videos and commercials again and found it to be a completely different world because all of the technical challenges that existed earlier had been overcome. Now it’s fun and I can do what I want to do in creating live action and visual effects. Next I want to direct a feature film. I have an amazing script, which is perfect for my visual and conceptual sensibilities. I have an amazing production team, the budget and shoot schedule are completed, but we’re still working on securing financing.
JS: That’s some 80s hair in this photo.
GW: Patrick O’Hearn, the bass player of Missing Persons, probably had the most awesome hair of the 80s. You can’t see it here in black and white but his hair is actually very red. I originally met him when he was with Group 87, which was a great Jazz Fusion band.
JS: Tell me about your father the legendary architect Donald Wexler.
GW: I grew up in a house that my father designed and that Julius Schulman, the famous architectural photographer, said should be retroactively put into The Case Study series. I was influenced by his design aesthetic or it’s just in my DNA. My dad and I were not particularly close when I was a teenager. I was very much of the counter culture. I was a longhaired hippie questioning authority and rebellious. He was a conservative mid-western Democrat with a strong belief in institutions. There was a built-in culture clash. In college, when I became serious about photography and was accepted to Art Center he realized it was a good school and paid for me to go there. But around the second year at Art Center a childhood friend of my dad’s, a top advertising executive, told him photographers are a dime a dozen and he was wasting his money on photography school. When home for the holidays, my dad asked to see my portfolio thinking he’d see noting special there and that would be the end of photography school. However he looked at my photographs and saw that I was pushing boundaries with photography just as he was pushing boundaries with his architecture. He saw I was taking a similar career path. We connected and from that point on he was more supportive than anyone of my work. We used to talk every few days about art, commerce, managing clients, everything. From when I turned 21 until his passing a few years ago he was one my closest friends.
JS: Tell me about this photo.
GW: This is one of those guys whose music is known by everybody but not many would recognize him. This is the great session player Nicky Hopkins. He played keyboards with The Stones, The Who, Jeff Beck and The Kinks. Music producers have called him “The Secret Sauce” on all of those famous songs.
JS: Tell me about this photo of Chaka Kahn.
GW: She was one of the first artists I had the opportunity to work with. First, I shot her and Rufus for a magazine cover and press photos. She came back to me to shoot the album cover for her solo project, Naughty. This is the image that was used for the inner sleeve. She’s such a powerhouse. I’m so happy she’s nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
JS: Tell me about these photos of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
GW: I originally met Gene when he was working with the band House of Lords. They were signed to his label, Simmons Records. I created the first three covers for them and developed an ongoing working relationship with Gene. When he was recording the KISS project Hot in the Shade he asked me to shoot the band. Gene was very focused and was all about image. With an uncertain amount of irony he would refer to himself a “powerful and attractive man.” That’s what I was after with this portrait. It was challenging with Paul to establish a similar connection. I had the existing relationship with Gene but it was the first time I had met Paul. He was perhaps the toughest of anyone I’ve shot. I had the sense he had his favorite photographers and he just wasn’t interested in working with me. When I met with Paul after the shoot to show him the photos he was happy with what he saw and said, “I didn’t know you had it in you.” That was probably his way of complimenting me.
JS: What’s next for Glen Wexler?
GW: The feature film, as soon as we are financed. Right now I’m focused on launching the book. We’re on press in January. We’ll start shipping them in March. It’s going to be printed locally because by shear chance the best black and white printers I’ve seen on the planet are close to Los Angeles. I printed a poster with them to test the printing process for the book and it turned out incredible! The first exhibition and book launch will be here in L.A at Mr. Musichead Gallery. After that there will be an exhibit in Palm Springs. We’re also beginning to line up international exhibitions. The book I do after this one will be about my narrative and album cover works.
JS: Is there anything else you wish to say about photography.
GW: I think in general there is a responsibility of artists in challenging times to drive a cultural conversation. It’s artists that impact cultural change. As an example, The Beatles were so important (as was music of the 60s generally). There was meaning to what they did. Rock and Roll was first and foremost a statement. It was about the way people view the world. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones rose to stardom because of their art. That sense of art began to fall by the wayside and substance was largely replaced by marketing and image. For many, it became about a quest for stardom. Being famous was becoming more important than the music. Where I hope to go in the future and I hope this for other artists too is to make a statement that will influence the conversation. Artists can cause people to think differently by re-examining the world or belief systems.
JS: Where can I point our readers to learn more about you and your work?
GW: GlenWexler.com and BlueChimp.com