The career of Jerry Schatzberg is nothing short of remarkable. Fashion, film, photography and music—over the course of six decades, he conquered them all. Starting his career as a fashion designer for magazines like Esquire and Vogue, Schatzberg spent the ’60s amassing an astounding portfolio of celebrity portraits that include Charlotte Rampling, Edie Sedgwick, Catherine Deneuve, and many of the most beautiful women of the time.
As one of the decade’s renowned photographers, Schatzberg traveled the world absorbing the runways of Paris and nightclubs of London, eventually returning to New York to open his own. Starting with the Jackie O and Andy Warhol hangout Ondine, and culminating with Salvation—the club that gave Jimi Hendrix his first gig—Schatzberg imported the sounds he heard from abroad and became an instrumental figure in the city’s music scene. He had relationships with The Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan, which resulted in a number of iconic photographs, including the cover for Blonde on Blonde—the portrait for which he’s arguably best known.
In the ’70s, Schatzberg transitioned to filmmaking with a succession of gritty, vérité-driven character studies that positioned him as the arty outsider of the ’70s film revolution. His early films, “Puzzle of Downfall Child,” “The Panic in Needle Park,” and “Scarecrow” would be the first of over a dozen that would combine for four Palme d’Or nominations and one win.
To squeeze Schatzberg’s contributions to pop culture into an introduction is nearly impossible. They couldn’t even squeeze into a book, which may be why there are two in the works. But at age 84, with a handful of projects in development, it’s clear that his legend is still being written.
Jim Walrod: What made you become a fashion photographer?
Jerry Schatzberg: I grew up in the Bronx and worked for my father, who was a furrier. I was married with two kids and all I wanted was to leave the fur business. I had an uncle who worked for a diaper service, and when people bought his diapers they got a free picture of their baby. My uncle agreed to take me on, so I borrowed money from my mother to buy a camera and began taking pictures of babies. From there I got a photo-assisting job and the photographer let me use his studio at night so I could photograph aspiring models for their books. I upgraded to better agencies and eventually got to Ford. That allowed me to shoot every beautiful girl that came through New York. I did this for a couple years, then left to work for Vogue.
JW: Around that same time you opened nightclubs. That’s a big jump.
JS: As a fashion photographer you have to be fashionable, so I used to hang out at a place called Le Club. Olivier Coquelin ran it, and he asked me to invest in a new place. I was spending so much money at his club I figured I should do it so I could drink for free. He wanted to do a French disco, but when he showed me his record selection I told him his concept was all wrong. I had been working in London and was hanging out at The Ad Lib, which at the time, was the best club in the world. I didn’t want to open that French bullshit, so I brought him to Colony Records and we bought all new records.
JW: What kind of stuff?
JS: British rock ’n’ roll, The Dave Clark 5, Chad & Jeremy. I probably photographed half of them at one point or another. Olivier wasn’t totally sold on the idea because he thought his stockholders would be furious. I said, ‘If you want to please your stockholders, do your club, but if you want to get a crowd, do mine.’ He agreed, and for the next couple years I’d go to work at the studio during the day and then go there at night with Dylan and drink scotch.
JW: It seemed democratic to a degree, like there wasn’t any velvet rope policy.
JS: It was. I remember one of our stockholders refused Frank Sinatra. Sinatra came in a limousine with Eddie Fisher and Natalie Wood, and he wouldn’t let them in because we were too crowded. He was an asshole.
JW: How were you photographing all day and running nightclubs at night?
JS: A lot of speed! A friend was giving me these things called Black Birds, and I’d be flying around all day. When Sybil Burton opened her club, Arthur, we started to lose business. Michael Butler (producer of “Hair”) was a stockholder in our club, and I told him we needed to do something before we went down the toilet. I had an idea, but I told him he’d need to pay me for it. He didn’t like that, but the club kept sinking, so he finally agreed. I was friendly with people from California, and they kept telling me about the music scene there, so I brought in all the bands from the West Coast. I brought in The Doors and Buffalo Springfield before they had albums out. I also brought in Jimi Hendrix when he was still going as Jimmy James. That drove The Animals and the Stones crazy, but they eventually all became friendly.
JW: It’s ironic that The Animals’ manager Chas Chandler became Jimi’s manager.
JS: Chas was the first to tell Jimi to go to London. Then Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda came along and worked him to go there too. I don’t know how long he was there, but when we opened our next club, Salvation, he played his first gig there.
JW: My friend Gene used to be the doorman at Salvation.
JS: Who’s Gene?
JW: Gene Krell. He used to own Granny Takes a Trip, but now he’s the head of Japanese Vogue. He married Nico.
JS: This must have been after The Velvet Underground because we used to double date. She used to go out with Nikos Papatakis. He produced “Shadows” for Cassavetes. The four of us would always go to Birdland. One night we were leaving and this guy came running past us with a gun. I think somebody stabbed the owner’s brother and he was there for a revenge killing. The four of us walked right into the middle of a gunfight!
JW: Were you a fan of The Velvet Underground?
JS: Lou has a good voice, but Nico was a weird singer. She’s an acquired taste. I was never a big fan. Nico turned me on to Dylan though. She kept telling me to listen to him and when I finally did, I got hooked.
JW: Blonde on Blonde sat in my record collection for years before I realized you shot the cover. It doesn’t look like a typical cover from that period.
JS: If the record company had any say it would have never been published. It was a lucky strike.
JW: How did it happen?
JS: I was shooting in my studio with these guys that knew Dylan, so I told them to tell him I wanted to photograph him. I used to date Sara, who was Dylan’s wife at the time, and the next day she called and said “I heard you want to photograph Bobby?” She gave me the address to where he was recording Highway 61 and I went over to meet him. He’s very suspicious of people, but because his wife said I was cool, I had entrée to him and he treated me like an old buddy. He came to my studio and we went outside to the Meat Packing District. It was freezing but we got the shots off and he chose the ones he liked.
JW: What was your path to film?
JS: After “Bonnie and Clyde,” Faye Dunaway came to New York to do press and I got a call from her people to take photos. She asked me what I was doing and I told her about this movie I wanted to make about models. She loved the idea and imme-
diately got involved. Because of her I had access to powerful agents and the film took off. Carol Eastman, who wrote “Five Easy Pieces” wrote the script, but it did terrible financially.
JW: But it led you to “The Panic in Needle Park” with Pacino.
JS: I turned that down at first because of all the drugs in it, but afterwards my manager told me Al was interested. I really wanted to work with him, so I went back to the producers and told them how foolish I was. They really liked my first film and my photo work, so we were still able to close a deal. After I signed they told me I couldn’t use Pacino.
JW: Didn’t that happen to him with “The Godfather?”
JS: He had to screen test four times for “The Godfather,” and it was because of “Panic” that he got that role. I told everyone “The reason I’m doing this film is to work with Pacino,” and after a bunch of charades it worked out and I got to bring him in.
JW: And that led to “Scarecrow,” which is such an amazing film. There’s a generation of photographers from Steven Shore to William Eggleston who were looking to capture the slice of America you captured in that film. How did you find those locations?
JS: We went out in a helicopter and I saw this landscape that reminded me of the farm I had upstate. I saw a historical marker that said it was the place of the first baptism of Native Americans. The film dealt with baptism, so I thought it was serendipitous. After that, I drove back and forth across the country three times finding locations.
JW: You won the Palme d’Or for that. Did that mean anything in the U.S.?
JS: Most of the American reviews were bad, and it’s still not considered anything important in this country. Thank goodness for the French because they love my work, and with the kind of work I do, you take it where you can get it.
JW: What happened after “Scarecrow?”
JS: I took a deal with Warner Brothers to develop projects for them and nothing ever developed. So I wasted two years when I was really hot. I did more films afterwards that weren’t terrible, but just good. They were commercial projects, so I didn’t have creative freedom, but they were my only films that made money.
JW: “Street Smart” was a great movie. Morgan Freeman’s performance was brilliant. I don’t know many pimps (if I know any at all), but he was terrifying. How did you start working with him?
JS: He showed up to read for me and when he came in he sat down, reached into his bag, pulled out a banana, and started eating it. That sold me. I went home and told my wife how amazing he was and that I was going to change the part for him. He’s a phenomenal actor who can really be gangster. I’m sad that he never pursued interesting roles, but he probably knows how much money he can make repeating himself in bullshit movies. That’s the trouble with Hollywood: everybody becomes so satisfied making money that they stop acting.
JW: You’re talking about a 15-year time span between storing fur, photographing celebrities for Vogue, owning nightclubs and shooting legendary movies with Pacino. Did you train for this stuff?
JS: No. I just went to the movies. People always ask me how it feels to be part of the ’70s film revolution, but I don’t really know what that revolution was. I think you just have to keep growing. I’m 84 years old, and I hope I’m still growing. That’s why I keep young people around me, so I can stay in touch with what the hell is happening.