by Jimmy Steinfeldt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/21/16 – Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Harry Langdon: (laughter) I think constant lens cleaning can wear away the coating on the lens. I just dust them off. Sometimes I clean them just before a shoot but not with lens cleaning solution.
JS: Do you use a neutral density filter to protect your lens?
HL: I’ve been doing photography for 50 years and we used to use a lot of filters and screens for various purposes but now with photo shop you don’t really need that. If a scene is too bright it is easy to adjust for that with today’s cameras by changing the ISO. So I don’t use any glass in front of the lens any more. I used to put filters (85B or 85C) even on the backside of my lens thinking it would be better for color correction but now it can be done digitally.
JS: What was your first camera?
HL: The very first was a Pinhole camera I made when I was a Boy Scout around 11 years old. It actually worked pretty good. Today some of the fine art photographers use Pinhole cameras to do Camera obscure. I also had a Kodak box Brownie as a youngster.
My first real camera was a Mamiyaflex twin lens camera. Fabulous camera. You could shoot people running, and when they were in midair. You could see them right there and you could click the shutter. Shooting with a single lens you don’t actually see what shot you’ve got even though it might be taken in 1000th of a second. A good example of this is shooting a bride throwing the bouquet. This is a real test for wedding photography, which I did for a few years. You see the bride throw the bouquet and you have to pray you get the bouquet in midair. You can click the shutter when it’s just left her hand and figure you will get the shot. However with a twin lens camera you can see the peek of the trajectory. You can see the shot and also see the flash go off. You can see the bouquet frozen in midair while the other lens was capturing the real picture. I used that camera for a long, long time.
Then I shifted to Rolleiflex but they were kind of cumbersome. Then I went over to Hasselblad and worked with them for quite a while. I could only afford a 50mm lens. The polaroid backs were cool. By the way I have kept 1000s of Polaroids because some are really priceless (George Peppard, etc). A lot of photographers have scanned their Polaroids and done exhibits in New York. Hasselblad was also cumbersome so then I switched to Nikon a single lens camera. Now I use the Canon EOS5D. They are so automatic. They focus almost intuitively. I very seldom have an out of focus picture. They are easy to use and take great pictures. Plus they shoot video.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
HL: When I started I worked as an apprentice to Charles White an old school portrait photographer located in Santa Monica. We shot 8×10 black and white film with a view camera using a bulb shutter with a big pneumatic rubber hose. He prohibited me from getting into any other kind of camera. He said this is the only way to take pictures. He got me to study Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa. So I grew up with that dramatic Karsh lighting. Most people know the famous Karsh photo of Winston Churchill. Our subjects were posed and we used tungsten light. That’s everything I knew about photography and lighting into my mid twenties.
I liked classic looking photos with shallow depth of field and kicker lights and hair lights but I wanted to try this great fashion stuff I was seeing. I started looking at fashion photographers and I thought wow, how can they get those great jumping pictures like Avdeon, and Skrebneski. I thought they can’t be using an old view camera! I started assisting another photographer Alberto Rizzo and he was totally the opposite of old time portrait photography. He was really good with strobes which I had never used before. I assisted him for a short time and got enough information to do fashion photography. I think if you’re halfway smart and have a little bit of an IQ you can figure out the rest of the story and do your own pictures.
So I was influenced by the New York photographers. They were shooting on a grey background very simple lighting unlike what I learned in the portrait studio. When I started there weren’t many west coast photographers to look up to. Also about this time I became a darkroom technician and earned a living doing that for about 5 years. This skill I learned from the portrait photographer. He even made me mix the chemicals from scratch. Hypo fixer from crystals. He was an alchemist so to speak. I told him they made this stuff already mixed and you can buy it in 5 gallon bottles. He’d say “No, no, no the pictures don’t come out as good” He even had me develop my black and white prints with two developers. One was a soft contrast chemistry and the other was high contrast developer. Thirty seconds in the first developer and then finish with the other developer. That way you could get deep blacks with really good detail in the highlights.
Later when I was out of work I got a job running a black and white lab and I made really good money. It was kind of neat being in the dark room all day long. Actually I was in the dark room when JFK was assassinated. Eventually I learned to develop color pictures because you could get your own color printing kit. So I started to shoot a lot of color and I became a really good color printer. It was a great education for learning color correction. Even now when I’m shooting I can see if there is too much magenta or whatever when I get to the photoshop stage of a current project. I really have become expert in photoshop and can make any adjustments that need to be made that weren’t done in camera. Also I have to photoshop a lot of my archive which was shot on film. Getty Images is my primary agency and they have a very high standard. Photos from my archive have to be cleaned up and made great for reproduction. Getty handles a lot of my celebrity photographs but I also have a lot of fashion photographs from when I was shooting couture. I even have a lot of body building photos from the 5 years I shot covers for Joe Weider’s Muscle and Fitness, and Shape magazines.
We have really come a long way in photography in the last 20 years. Truly quantum leaps. It is so easy to do photography today. I see people shooting photos in alley ways with natural light and today you don’t need studios like in the old days. I still use studios in Hollywood when the shoot calls for that.
JS: Do you bring an assistant on those shoots?
HL: It’s nice to have someone help carry equipment but they have to be talented and really well behaved. Mostly however I shoot by myself. I like the intimacy of being one on one with someone in the studio or in their home and being able to talk with them about deep subjects. That’s where I get really great expressions. Talking about their personal experiences. How they achieved the fabulous career they got. A lot of my clients are in the spiritual community.
Speaking of assistants I enjoy mentoring young photographers. The biggest challenge they have is accepting criticism. A young photographer might hear from a client that the client didn’t like some aspect of a photo. The young photographer might then say to the client “What do you mean, I think the photos are great” You gotta be open to criticism. All aspects. The lighting. The retouching. The cleanliness of, or air conditioning in, your studio. The behavior of your assistants and other employees. All of this is a reflection on you the photographer whose name is on every photo.
JS: You mentioned the Boy Scouts earlier?
HL: That’s a really good place to learned crafts. Woodworking, Radio-crystal sets, Electronics, Chemistry, Basic photography. As a photographer you really have to be good at construction. You have to at least be able to tell a carpenter how to build a backdrop. I’m really good at painting and will often paint a backdrop instead of rent one. I learned much of this in Boy Scouts. I’m a high school dropout. I dropped out in the 10th grade. My hobbies were so neat (photography, ham radio, model airplanes with engines) and school was so boring.
I started skipping classes and was trained as a carpenter making really good money. I was getting all As in shop classes and Fs in French, English, and Social Studies. The carpentry foreman said drop out of school and work here full time which I did. My mom thought I was socially disconnected. I thought working in the dark room developing your own film or building model airplanes with engines was much more fun then going out on a date. My mom got me into Arthur Murray dance studio when I was 16 or 17 to learn social dancing. Well naturally I met women there and I asked them if I could take their picture and things moved forward from there. I became an exhibition ballroom dancer by the time I was 20. Arthur Murray studio paid me to do exhibitions. Dances like the Cha-Cha, Mambo, Tango, Samba and so forth.
Early in my career I thought I’d specialize in photographing men. So I photographed male models from Mary Webb Davis Modeling Agency. I used the classic Karsh lighting and I started getting models coming in for their portfolios. Then the women models saw the photos and they started to come in for portfolios because they were blown away by this classic looking photography.
By the time I was 30 I had my first studio. It was in Van Nuys in an old garage behind a Chinese restaurant. I ate there all the time because that’s all I could afford. I started shooting the model portfolios with my homemade strobe lights.
My next studio was on Ventura Blvd in an abandoned warehouse. By then I was about 35 years old and I was getting clients like Max Factor, and also prominent actors and actresses like Ann Margaret. Then I could charge more. However it was so hot in the valley I moved to a studio in Los Angeles at 3rd and La Cienega.
I wanted to be a fashion photographer like Scavullo. His lighting was really simple. He became a legend just using a grey background. I found out however that the fashion designers didn’t have any money and I started getting stiffed. Fortunately I started shooting more celebrities like Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Donna Summer and lots of the Motown artists. By now I’m about 40 and I got the Ebony magazine account. I shot for them for about 10 years. Also I started photographing a lot of authors for their book covers including Danielle Steele, and Judith Krantz and those sessions paid well.
Eventually I moved to Beverly Blvd and Sweetzer. I bought that studio and all it’s equipment for next to nothing. It was owned by Glen Embree a top notch old school photographer. That studio was huge and had amazing equipment, chromium plated light stands, etc. I was there for 8-10 years.
Then my social life started consuming me. This happens with a lot of photographers. You get well known, and invited to parities, and you enter a downward spiral and get lured away from your calling. Also in those days it was common to have a lot of illicit things floating around photo studios. So eventually I got out of that environment and sold that studio to photographer Greg Gorman who went on to a great career.
My next studio was 4000 square feet on Burton Way in Beverly Hills. It was beyond luxurious. I had lots of business but it was a very expensive space to rent. Plus due to its size I had to have a guy in the front, a girl in the back, a guy in the office, a receptionist, etc. Also I had a Rep and they can be very dangerous. Their job is to Represent you and get you work but they often have their own agenda and sometimes personal problems. They might end up dating your clients and that could turn out bad. And of course they get paid a significant fee.
What happens is you become dependent on your Rep for business. It’s not like the previous period of time where you depended mostly on yourself to seek out new accounts. So eventually I gave up this beautiful but incredibly expensive studio. I gave up my Rep. I went back to square one. I taught myself how to do QuickBooks and WordPerfect. Then I got a chance to take up a space at Wilshire and Crescent Dr. I did my photography there for several years until a bank came along and bought the whole corner.
I needed a new studio and it turned out a Rabbi had a really neat space above Lexus of Beverly Hills and he needed someone to share the rent. So I offered to rent the whole 3000 square foot space from him and I was there for 6-7 years. After that I took some time to recoup and I found Judaism and its teachings very interesting. I studied the Torah, the Zohar, and Kaballah. I still find it’s inherent wisdom useful and important.Around this time digital photography started to come in and I got a digital camera.
Then I got a call from actress Julie Newmar (Catwoman from the Batman TV show.) She owns buildings in the Fairfax and La Brea area. She said to me she had a building with a 1500 square foot space on La Brea and I could name my price to rent it. So I thought to myself do I really want to do this again and rent a studio space. There were 3 vacant spaces in the building. I had a high profile name, and could put up attractive photographs in the big window. I made her an offer and she accepted it.
A while later it turned out natural light photography became popular. So I really didn’t need a studio any more. When my lease expired I ‘regrouped’ and decided to get an apartment in Beverly Hills and shoot mostly on location. When necessary I rent the 1444 studio (in the old American Legion building on Highland Ave) by the day. It’s crazy that my current apartment is across the street from my old studio at Wilshire and Crescent Dr. It’s Déjà Vu.
JS: Did you ever do still photos for movies?
HL: I did but I wasn’t in the guild. I’d go because famous actors would insist that I take the photos. The crew was very surly towards me because they figured I wasn’t a union dude. They make it really hard for you. Once I went on a set because Burt Reynolds asked me to. The crew hated my being there. One of the grips grabbed my umbrellas and threatened to break them. I was not welcome.
JS: What’s next for you?
HL: Photo sessions, internet work, and two book projects both about my father. He was a famous comedian in movies and Vaudeville and his name was Harry Langdon! He died 72 years ago and I’ve got 1000s of publicity stills of him. One book is a photo scrapbook and the other is a written book dictated by my mother to a writer about 10 years ago. Publishers are now interested in it. I’ll also probably do my own book about my life, and photography career.
I’m living simply and enjoying what life has to offer. I’m interested today in living humbly. It’s not good to get a big head. I’m a photographer and it’s sort of a Bohemian state of mind and so I just allow things to happen. I say just be a nice person and allow destiny to take you wherever it will.
To learn more about Harry check him out on the web: