Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

October 09 2010

Julian Schnabel's Polaroids

We know Julian Schnabel as a painter (the plates) and as a film-maker (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Now, with an old handmade Polaroid camera and a little help from his friends, he is making stunning photographs

Julian Schnabel is an American renaissance man. In the 80s, he attracted international media attention for his large-scale "plate paintings". He went on to become a notable film-maker and, in 2007, his film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, about French editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, was nominated for four Oscars. Now, although he continues to paint and make films, he has found himself for a third time – as a photographer.

His accomplice in this – and he refers to it as if describing a venerable, trusty friend – is his Polaroid camera. It is one of only six in existence: a 20x24in 1970s handmade machine. It is huge, cumbersome, intended for studio photography and greedy for flash lighting. But for Schnabel, it has been a revelation. He started taking photos as a personal record but became amazed by what his camera could do. "This camera works like photosynthesis. It is as if you were Xeroxing your own face. The pictures have such physicality: their surface is like fine leather, stained from chemicals. Each one has a body and is more than an image."

When I ring him, it is tea time in New York. Halfway through our conversation, he volunteers: "I can see giant boats sailing down the Hudson river, going through concrete columns." It is not the answer to a question, but it is good to hear.

I suspect it is characteristic of Schnabel to wish to place himself pictorially in the moment. In the introduction to his handsome book, Julian Schnabel: Polaroids, he writes: "Traditionally, photography is supposed to capture an event that has passed; but that is not what I'm looking for. Photography brings the past into the present when you look at it…"

It is an intriguing remark, because so many of his photos – he loves sepia – seem to exist outside time. They describe an invented past. Take the photo of one of Schnabel's twin sons, Olmo. It is a sepia image in which the boy's face stares out beneath a headscarf. He looks, as Schnabel notes, like a Moroccan peasant woman. The image has authority, but is a sober fiction.

Then there are the disturbing "crazy people". Schnabel explains: "I turned 3x3in pictures of people hospitalised in a 19th-century asylum into 24x20in prints." Lost souls – found. The pictures ask: who owns these images? "I wanted to make pictures where you would not know who took them. I also bring the present into the past."

There are several arresting self-portraits. The intention here, too, is that the photographer should remain mysterious. They should look as if "taken by someone else". He loves what over-exposure can do and revels in the moments when "you cannot extract the material from the image". Sometimes, he paints on to the images in ink, as if writing on to "infinite fog". Yet most of the pictures were taken in daylight in his studio on 11th Street. The process is slow. He sees the pictures as "smoke and mirrors and happy accident". He recognises himself in them. The portrait with a blurred dog, Milton, is "pretty much me. Milton is dead now. I loved him. He was something else."

There are extraordinary portraits of Schnabel's friends here: Mickey Rourke, Plácido Domingo, Lou Reed, Takashi Murakami. Is there any difference between photographing celebrities and family? "I know Lou, he lives across the street. He is like my family." In one portrait, Reed seems to have halted after a "walk on the wild side", ceremonial sword in hand. "He looks like Andrei Rublev in the Tarkovsky film," enthuses Schnabel. Another friend is similarly armed: Plácido Domingo. "I asked him to come over and bring some armour." Domingo obliged with full Simon Boccanegra kit. "He is as if out of another century – spectral."

In a second, tremendous picture, Domingo sits in operatic darkness; his eyes, with a tragic gleam, are the subject. As for Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, he is "a sweet guy – jovial and funny. But sometimes, I think he might have a deeper answer than the one I get from him".

Meanwhile, the photos of Mickey Rourke bring out his vulnerability. "He is vulnerable in real life," says Schnabel. "He has this brash, tough-guy demeanour but he is soft… Mickey, Chris [Walken] and Lou are all super-shy and pretty uncomfortable. These pictures happened almost by accident. They needed their pictures taken for some reason. And then it is all about trust – making pictures that are intimate."

Julian Schnabel Polaroids is at Colnaghi gallery, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1 until 12 November. An accompanying book written by Petra Gilroy-Hirtz and published by Prestel is out now


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Polaroids by Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel is best known for his paintings and films, but now, with a handmade Polaroid camera and a little help from his friends, he has made stunning experimental photographs.

Julian Schnabel: Polaroids is at Colnaghi Gallery, London until 12 November. An accompanying book written by Petra Gilroy-Hirtz and published by Prestel is available now



March 14 2010

Once upon a life: Nick Kent

In 1972 he was sorting mail in a Sussex post office. Twelve months later he was partying with Led Zeppelin. Here, the hugely influential music critic Nick Kent looks back on a year in which he witnessed the birth of punk, the arrival of Ziggy Stardust and the life-changing impact of Iggy Pop

Michael Caine was recently being interviewed on French television when a question about the 1960s came up. The venerable actor set off on a misty-eyed saunter down memory lane about the early years of the decade, when he and his immediate social circle – folk like Terence Stamp, Vidal Sassoon and Harold Pinter – were suddenly catapulted from struggling obscurity to glittering blockbuster success in their chosen fields of endeavour. There was a window of opportunity back then – or so he claimed – that was magically made open to anyone who was young, slightly different-looking and imbued with a certain irreverent outlook on life and good instincts about their profession. That window was now closed, he quickly added, because the novelty of youthful self-empowerment had gone the way of all flesh and the times had simply changed.

His words stirred something in me because I'd known that window, too, albeit a decade later than Caine. It might not have been wide open in the early 1970s, when I came of age, as it had apparently been throughout the 1960s. But it was still definitely ajar – offering just enough space for the young and ambitious to squeeze through in order to go on and make their mark on the world. I was ordained to receive my catapult ride from student nonentity-dom to gainful employment as fledlging celeb journo for the NME in 1972. I began the year sorting mail in a Sussex post office to the baleful strains of comedian Benny Hill singing his No 1 hit single of the day, "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" – His name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west – and ended it in a four-star hotel carousing with Led Zeppelin. It wasn't what you'd call a normal or particularly healthy career trajectory to embark on, but I've never complained. Later on in the decade there would be hell to pay, but it would all seem worth it in retrospect. If I hadn't let myself get sucked up in the career tidal wave that '72 presented me with, I'd have probably stayed in my student garret dreaming my way into an underachieving life as a provincial librarian.

The key events that sparked my rise in fortune and public notoriety are dealt with in microscopic detail in my new book – specifically a long chapter dedicated to the year in question. Mostly it was about being in the right place at the right time, I now feel. From my vantage point, 1972 was the year when 70s culture truly cut itself off from the ghost of the 60s and began to express the real growing concerns and desires of its age. Films such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Martin Scorsese's seminal Mean Streets were all put into production during its 12-month duration. And there was a brand-new sensibility in rock music, too – a turning away from po-faced musical virtuosity (or middle-class prog rock ideal for post-hippie navel gazing) to make way for the emergence of something shorter, sharper, more vanity-driven and impudently audacious. In January, David Bowie first showcased his doomed peacock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on English stages, and it was at that moment that the 70s as we now perceive them were born. David Bowie didn't invent glam rock – Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper had both predated him as hit-making ambassadors of the form – but he was its prettiest and most musically accomplished human asset and, moreover, possessed the requisite charisma and lightning intelligence to change the whole course of popular music that year.

Bowie also had exquisite taste, particularly when it came to choosing other rising forces in the new decade to share the spotlight with. He cajoled both Lou Reed from New York's recently disbanded Velvet Underground and a wayward Michigan-born young man known as Iggy Pop to move to London that year and employ the services of his manager, a loud Colonel Parker wannabe called Tony DeFries. Reed had been Andy Warhol's house minstrel in the late 1960s and didn't waste the opportunity to instil the fey pop artist's glamour-fixated anti-utopian doctrines on British pop culture upon his arrival on our sceptred isle. And Iggy Pop imported his old group, the Stooges, from the Motor City that spring and performed just one concert, in a King's Cross cinema, that was already being called "punk rock" four years before the Sex Pistols and their scheming manager claimed to invent the genre in 1976.

Elsewhere in the metropolis a young US poetess – Patti Smith – gave her first feisty spoken-word recitation to European ears early in the year, while a bunch of snooty UK-based refugees from the halls of higher learning, known as Roxy Music, were busy re-styling art rock with bold camp flourishes and a menthol-cool postmodernist perspective. In short, those of us who'd failed to cast our shadows across the 60s creative landscape suddenly were dealt the opportunity to leave our respective signatures on the decade's trickier successor.


In my case, things took off in January when – tipped off by a friend – I'd taken an afternoon off from studying "linguistics" in a section of the University of London then known as Bedford College in order to offer my fledlging music-writer services to an underground journal based on Portobello Road called Frendz. I just turned up at their office unannounced, but the paper's editors were encouraging. When I returned with three album reviews, they printed them and then offered me the job of becoming their music editor for the princely sum of £4 a month and all the free albums I could cadge from the record companies. It seemed like a sweet deal to me, and it only got sweeter. That spring I went out on separate tours with weird and wonderful acts, like Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind. Sometime in February I met Iggy Pop and discovered in the process my very own lifestyle guru for the years ahead.

The Iggy connection was important also because it was what first drew me to the attention of the New Musical Express. The music weekly had been struggling to keep afloat at the beginning of the 1970s and in early '72 was given an ultimatum by its owners, IPC: either find a new direction and a much larger readership base or get put out to pasture. The editors had exactly 12 issues in which to turn things around and began furiously headhunting young scribes from the (then-ailing) underground press to help swell their ranks and inject a more "irreverently hip" attitude into the copy. Nick Logan – then the assistant editor – phoned me out of the blue some time in the summer and asked me to write a short piece about Iggy for their pages. Once I handed him the text, he offered me staff membership but I politely refused, preferring a role as a freelancer to a (mostly) desk-bound job in the office. He was agreeable to this less structured arrangement and I was suddenly afforded the financial sustenance and mainstream platform to really get my name out to the greater Brit-youth consumer demographic du jour.

What was it exactly that made me so suddenly sought after? I couldn't even type my own copy – I'd scribble everything out in wobbly longhand and then pass the pages over to a long-suffering office secretary to type instead – but the editors never made an issue of my (considerable) shortcoming. I had a problem with deadlines, too. In point of fact I was any self-respecting copy editor's worst nightmare. But they tolerated all this because they evidently sensed I was an overall asset to their general operation. I'd like to think it was all somehow tied in with the excellence of the work I was handing in, but I've reread most of those old early pieces of mine and they're neither excellent nor particularly good.

The truth of the matter is I wouldn't start maturing into a writer of credible "new journalism" for another two years. But I was prepared from the very outset to go to extremes in order to snag a story, and "going to extremes" always gets results (even if – most of the time – they're not the results you may have at first set out to attain). Also, I had good instincts for embracing rising talent and, recognising instantly that the paper's readers were generally afflicted by an extremely short attention span, I thus chose to affect a flamboyant, look-at-me approach to my journalistic endeavours and general comportment when in public in order to keep them (hopefully) hanging on to my every word.

But the key to it all lay in the fact that I was really just part of a winning team. Two other underground-affiliated young writers – Charles Shaar Murray and Ian MacDonald – had come on board roughly at the same time I had, and both proved to be deeply influential on the paper's rising style and substance. And Nick Logan was at the controls, honing the skills that would go on to make him one of the most visionary and successful editors of the late 20th century.

The paper's change in fortunes was practically instantaneous. By autumn of 1972 the NME's weekly sales had rocketed up from 60,000 to approximately 150,000; by year's end we'd become "the world's biggest-selling music weekly", a state of affairs that lasted throughout the decade. But skyrocketing success always brings its share of problems to whoever is tied to the rocket, and we were no exception to that rule. An unhealthy measure of divisive competitiveness soon entered into our office relationships and grew as the paper became more and more widely read. Heads started swelling – and as the youngest contributor to the journal I became more arrogant than most. In due course this would turn to premature jadedness, and soon enough I'd be heading for self-destruction.

My immediate future was blindingly bright: in '73 I'd tour with my heroes the Rolling Stones through Europe, spend two months traversing America on a hectic voyage of (self-) discovery and fall head over heels in love. But a year after that I'd fall into heroin addiction and heartache, and all that early journalistic promise I'd displayed would be hijacked and rendered dormant for the rest of the decade.


But back in 1972 everything still seemed possible. My NME co-conspirators and I were still in our brief-but-blissful honeymoon period of one-for-all-and-all-for-oneness. And I'd yet to become personally tainted by the whole pop process. At heart I was still a callow 20-year-old who'd spent his teenage years in his bedroom lost in music, and now that I'd penetrated the music industry itself and was getting records for free, free tickets to all the concerts and lots of face-to-face contacts with musicians I'd once only dreamt of encountering, I couldn't get over my luck.

When I think back to that year, the memories that shine brightest are the many times I was privileged to see shows in London – and elsewhere – that left me trembling with ecstasy. I caught the UK debut of Germany's groundbreaking Can, witnessed Captain Beefheart speaking in tongues and reinventing electric music to a bewildered Brighton audience, was bedazzled by David Bowie's first Ziggy show in London and equally captivated by Roxy Music's early showcases. Oftentimes those future historic events would attract only a handful of paying punters. Indeed one monumental concert that the MC5 performed in London's West End that summer only attracted three attendees, none of whom had paid to get in. Even the Stooges's now legendary "punk"-inducing King's Cross gig only managed to draw 150 or so spectators. But that show changed my life. Before it I'd been a cautious youth, but when I witnessed Iggy doing somersaults on a moving microphone stand that night, I realised once and for all that – in order to leave a lasting impression on the times I lived in – I had to throw all caution to the four winds and plunge headlong into the fray of whatever fate had in store for me.

By December of 1972, it was official: I'd been expelled from the University of London, exiled from academia. It was bound to happen, as I'd failed to turn up to all my lectures and hadn't even been there to sit an important end-of-term exam. In fact, I'd been out on tour with Led Zeppelin when it had occurred. My fate was already sealed, in other words.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl