By Jimmy Steinfeldt
All Photos By Peter Sorel
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/26/18 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
PS: Not too often. Unless I know I’m around dirt or a windstorm. A little dust will only diffuse the image slightly, which does not hurt as digital is too sharp as is. Otherwise I rarely look at the lens. I’m not obsessed by equipment. It’s just a tool. It’s all in my eye and my head.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
PS: Irving Penn, Irving Penn, and Irving Penn. And of course the great Edward Weston. From the more modern, younger generation Albert Watson. He plans his pictures, lights them beautifully, serious planning goes into his work. Some of Annie Liebovitz is amazing, her nudes are beautiful too. Also Ruth Bernhard, Willy Ronis, Andre Kertesz. Helmut Newton is amazing. And Horst, Harry Callahan, Mapplethorpe’s flowers. Margaret Bourke-White, Giacomelli, Duane Michals, Bill Brand, and the list of greats goes on. I like Henri Cartier-Bresson but there is much that he did in his last years that’s not so great. I saw a large exhibit of his work and it included much mediocre work. When large exhibits are put on even museums are not selective enough. Cartier-Bresson traveled everywhere. The Soviet Union where he shot propaganda photos for them. Avedon was great. Nan Goldin shot some great stuff of herself and her friends. I know a good deal about most of the great photographers but photography today is not at a very good place.
Everyone thinks they are a photographer. Even museums sometimes put on shows of such poor work it makes you wonder. The New Yorker did a big story on Wolfgang Tillman whose work is not good, he has big shows in major museums. I saw one of his shows in L.A. maybe 15 years ago and other then a few exceptions, they were snapshots of his friends pinned to the wall, unframed, unmounted.
JS: Who or what besides photographers influenced your photography?
PS: Art. Lucky for me I live in Chicago, with its Art Institute. And maybe some of the film noir cinematographers and directors. And I read a lot. I am completely self-taught.
JS: What was your first camera?
PS: Voightlander probably made in the 1930s or early 40s. I was 13 years old when my father gave it to me.
JS: What camera were you using on movie sets?
PS: Nikons and then Canon.
JS: Did you know Irving Jacobson the inventor of the camera blimp?
PS: Yes. Photographer Bruce McBroom and I were the first customers of Mr. Jacobson in 1968 when he was on Vine Street. Bruce retired like I did. Jacobson cornered the market until the mirrorless camera came out.
JS What camera are you using today?
JS: I’m shooting with the Canon 5D and the Leica D-LUX 6. I’m also shooting film sometimes for fun.
PS: I’m not shooting film anymore because there are so few labs. There used to be labs and camera stores everywhere. Many labs today are not good and the good ones are ridiculously expensive. I don’t really miss film. I am pretty good with Photoshop so I can make good black and white prints from a color digital file. I print all my stuff up to 17×24. Also I can imagine something in black and white, when seeing it in a color reality.
JS: You like the artist Rothko.
PS: Yes, very much. You must have seen my Lake/Sky photos. I took one this morning. I’m amazed by the constant change and how beautiful it is. The idea of photographing the Lake/Sky came to me years ago. Shooting it with the same camera, same lens, same angle at different times of the day. It all started with my having coffee in my 17th floor apartment here in Chicago every morning. A French press espresso. I looked out at the lake and sky and thought my god I have to take a picture. Then it became a habit, a mania. I’m never gonna stop doing it. I always see something new. Only after I had been doing it a long time did I realize that they have a similar look to the paintings of Mark Rothko. I certainly wasn’t trying to copy the idea of the color field. I shoot all the photos from three feet inside my apartment looking out over my balcony. When my friends come over they can sit anywhere they like except the one place where I keep my camera and lenses.
When I moved from L.A. to Chicago I gave all my archive of motion picture photographs (negatives, transparencies, and prints) to the library of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. They are there for researchers and students to see and study. If someone wants to use one of the photos for a book or something they contact me.
In the 1960s I had all kind of jobs, I was printing other photographers work at Globe Photos and I got into doing movie stills just as an additional source of income. It was fun at the beginning and until the mid-eighties, when the age of blue screen and green screen started. Also the quality of films, the stories changed. I quit the movie business in 2011 after Life of Pi. I was surrounded by blue screen. Of course we couldn’t have the little boy actually in the scene with the tiger because the tiger might eat him. But even when the boy was in a boat in a pool the size of a football field with wind machines and wave machines, we were surrounded 360 degrees by blue screen, about 5 stories high. Technically it was amazing but it was not the type of photography I enjoyed doing.
JS: Is there anyone you wanted to photograph that you haven’t?
PS: Not really. I’m much more interested now in composition, still lifes. Also the idea of motion. Take a good picture of a grapefruit. Not too many people. A beautiful woman is the only thing I couldn’t say no to. I love to shoot women. In the movie business I shot a lot of actors and with the women I never had a problem, unlike the guys, who sometimes had more vanity than the women. I had very good rapport with the actresses.
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue photography as a career?
PS: Unit photography in this day and age is a total waste of time if you are talented. If you just do it for the money, no problem. I advise good photographers to find another outlet.
JS: Could you comment on some of my favorite movies that you photographed?
PS: Yes, of course.
PS: It was a low budget non-union film. I did it because I needed money ($150 per week) and my friend Laszlo Kovacs shot it. Also Boris Karloff was in it. I was assistant cameraman (focus puller) and also did stills. Laszlo and I were the whole camera crew
JS: Easy Rider.
PS: Terrific experience. I actually liked the people, liked the freedom. They let me do what I wanted. Today you could never shoot like that. Hanging out of, or laying on top of a station wagon next to a speeding motorcycle. The rules today wouldn’t allow it. Through the years some people got in real bad accidents or got killed. Overall if you are smart this won’t happen. During the making of the film drugs were abundant and sometimes this was noticed in the dialog. Luckily Laszlo Kovacs the cameraman wasn’t even smoking marijuana. He liked Scotch. Not during the day but some in the evening. In the morning Peter Fonda would ask Dennis (or vice versa) “So what should we do today?” The only plan we had was from the production manager who was generally several hours or a day ahead of us finding the location and arranging things. He and Laszlo were essential. Otherwise we wouldn’t have ever finished the movie. 4 years after Easy Rider I was able to get into the union, and started working on major films.
PS: Shampoo was great. That was Laszlo’s movie also. The reason I did Shampoo is I was working on the Barbra Streisand movie Funny Lady at MGM and I quit because I couldn’t stand the rudeness of Barbra. I was a very nice guy, very courteous. But I have an ego and I don’t like to be ignored. If I say good morning I like people to acknowledge that. I’m an old fashioned person in many ways. The cameraman got fired the third day of the filming. Then his gaffer quit and then I quit. I had a good excuse. I was on the movie because of the cameraman and the cameraman was fired so there’s no good reason for me to stay.
I went over to Laszlo’s set on Shampoo and I said “Hey guess what, I quit Streisand” This was unheard of. A still photographer quit a Barbra Streisand zillion dollar movie.( Laszlo and I and also Vilmos Zsigmond were very good friends since 1959.) Anyway Laszlo is in the first week or two of shooting Shampoo. I said wow Laszlo this is a choice movie. You have Julie Christie, and Warren Beatty, this should be a good film. So Laszlo says do you want to do the stills for this movie. I said don’t you have a still photographer. Apparently the photographer they had didn’t get along too well with Warren Beatty. That photographer said “I heard you quit Streisand you wanna take over this movie?” I said “Are you kidding, really?” So I got the job. I got along so well with Julie Christie I could go out to the beach and shoot stuff of her for European magazines. She was absolutely terrific. The movie was fun, and good, and hard work. With Warren you need a lot of patience because he would need forty or fifty takes. He would never do, like some directors, two or three takes. It became boring sometimes but not much because there were great actors. I really like Warren. I did four or five movies with him. He was always very interested in the quality of the film. He was also a great producer. He would spare no money or time to make the shot perfect. I love that type of filmmaking. It was a very good experience and I think a tremendously good movie. It stands up today.
JS: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
PS: That was great! That will always be one of my favorite films. Milos Forman was a great director. He was very exacting on how to shoot a scene. Like in the therapy scenes he gave specific instructions for closeups of Jack Nicholson and the other actors, and then specific instructions for other shots. However the cameraman Haskell Wexler liked to shoot with a second camera, would argue with and set up the additional camera next to the one the director wanted, to shoot it a different way, panning back and forth. So this went on everyday. Eventually Milos couldn’t put up with Haskell’s theatrics and fired him. By this time none of the actors had seen dailies because Milos doesn’t have the actors see dailies. So Forman and Michael Douglas (one of the producers)came to me and said, pick your favorite stills and have the lab print them up large and put them up in the big dining hall so everyone can see how the movie is progressing and won’t be worried that the cameraman has been fired. So I did that and everybody was happy. Later Haskell won the academy award for the cinematography. When he got the award he thanked the director and the actors but he didn’t mention the other two cinematographers (Bill Butler and William Fraker) who shot more than half the film after he was fired.
JS: Marathon Man.
PS: That was enjoyable. My best work was done when I was working with a great director or cameraman or both but never because of a great actor. I would never try to get a job because of who was in it.
JS: Close Encounters of a Third Kind.
PS: That was huge and very, very difficult. Steven and I got along fine. He let me do pretty much anything. It was a tough movie, climbing mountains, very physical work. The landing site was a huge set, several stories high. You wanted to get good angles so you were climbing all over. Steven liked me and liked the pictures.
JS: The Blues Brothers.
PS: It was a dangerous film to work on. It’s amazing no one got hurt. The boys were driving themselves a lot of the times. It was great fun. Those great cameos, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and the others. I loved John Belushi. He was a lovely, sweet, nice person, stoned or not.
JS: Die Hard.
PS: That was OK. It was just a job. No idea at the time that it would be a big hit and launch Bruce Willis’ big movie career.
JS: What’s next for Peter Sorel?
PS: Exhibits. I’m looking for a new gallery. I’m also selling prints from my archive. Like Jayne Mansfield and other photos. This year I was approached from England, Germany, and other places. A school in Brazil wants one of my photos for an art history text book for 12 year old students. In Brazil they believe art studies is important enough to have a book on art for young students. That makes my day.
JS: Where can I point our readers to learn more about you?
PS: My website http://www.petersorel.com/
Also when I shot the movie Se7en New Line Cinema asked me to do an interesting project. They asked me to pick all my favorite shots from the film. Then they projected the photos on a big screen and sat me down in front of the screen with a microphone. I then narrated the presentation and it became a terrific forty minute film in which I talk not only about Se7en but about the work of a still photographer. It’s included in the re-release of the DVD. https://www.amazon.com/Se7en-Seven-Deluxe-Special-Disc/dp/B00006ILCK