Big Think Interview With Carol Friedman

A conversation with the photographer and art director.
  • Transcript


Question: What is your working routine as a photographer?

Carol Friedman: My days are kind of controlled by my projects, so sometimes they’re album covers.  Sometimes they’re commission portrait shoots.  Sometimes they are editorial, so it kind of—I don’t dictate it.

Question: Why do you only shoot on film?

Carol Friedman:  Good question.  Well I guess I’m half traditionalist, half modern girl and I just never…  I love the digital world and I love electronica and after I shoot everything is digital, but I just... I don’t know.  I love my cameras.  I love contact sheets.  I love the visceral thing of film and I’m not positive that I can replicate my lighting digitally.  My assistants tell me I can, but, just stubborn I guess.

Question: What equipment and materials do you like to use?

Carol Friedman: That is the least interesting part of my work.  I kind of—you learn it,  you master it, and then you make sure that it just disappears.  You know, like if I could have invisible lights, I would, and invisible cameras.  I’m just really trying to get at my subject and I respect the technical aspect, but it is not anything that I think about at this point.

Question: Why do you spend more time preparing the soundtrack for a shoot than the lighting? 

Carol Friedman: For me there’s several components to picture-taking and it starts with my goals as an artist.  It’s capturing I guess the inner life of my subject and then it is giving them their idealized version of themselves.  We all look in the mirror and see us a little blonder or a little thinner or a little younger, whatever that ideal might be and most of the people that I’m photographing are selling something, you know whether they’re on the front of an album cover or a magazine or they’re a corporate person ready to switch companies or a doctor selling a skincare line... so I want to help them achieve that. And when I worked at Motown Records the head of the label called it, you know, he’d say, “Diva, you need to fix them.”  So he called it fixing people and that is really the joy of what I do is really... not to fix them, but to give them the them that they want to be visually and a big part of that is… for me is obviously making them comfortable, making sure that our… because it is a dance.  You know a photo session is really a dance and making sure that they’re comfortable and for me it’s the music, the music, the music.  That is everything.  So I do select a soundtrack for each of my subjects and again my assistants you know they make fun of me because that is more important to me than the lighting, which I just do in a minute right before, but I spend a long time on the soundtracks.

Question: What’s the most successful piece of music you’ve played during a shoot?

Carol Friedman: A lot of the people that I photograph are master musicians themselves, whether they’re singers or great jazz players and it’s kind of fun to figure out who they came up with and who they emulated or who they idolized actually. And that's just... it’s a wonderful way to get at who someone is through their own love of music and going right at their subconsciousness if you will.  You don’t play girl singers for girl singers.  You know, there’s certain things.  You do play Ellington for Bobby McFerrin. Sometimes like for Teddy Pendergrass, Teddy has a whole lineage that came before his solo career with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, so he has a signature song, “The Love I Lost,” so I planned it.  I got him ready.  There he was.  We put on “The Love I Lost” and the minute he heard that bass solo, boom, there was the album cover for “Joy,” and it really was joy, that is the title, because it was that visceral memory for him.  So sometimes it is an outright manipulation like that, but most of the time I’m just, I’m creating a mood that is a place of comfort for the person and a way for our dialogue to be more fluid.

Question: How do you interact with your subjects so as to capture their true selves?

Carol Friedman: You can’t play jazz without mastering improvisation and if I make the metaphor that a photo session is like jazz that’s, you know, because there is interaction between the players and you’re trying to get to the emotional core of things and it is paying attention to each other and capturing something.  You’re after something together.

Question: Do the best pictures emerge only after you find a “rhythm” with your subjects?

Carol Friedman: Sessions can last... you know, even though it’s not a session, I mean, I have a photograph of Francis Ford Coppola that I particularly love.  It was just one frame shot in an ocean with a play camera, but it’s waiting for that right moment and that right exchange.  There are photo sessions that last 11 hours and the person feels like they’ve done battle and you know, and at the end, end, end of their worst battle fatigue, “Let’s do one more roll,” and the picture comes there, so sometimes… And it has to do also with the person’s… the person’s self-knowledge and confidence.  There are certain people that you don’t have to even work at extracting their inner life.  It is just there and they’re happy to share it with you.  Bobby Short, you know, I think the third frame that I took, bing, bing, bing, that’s Bobby.  He had nothing to hide, loves who he is, knows who he is, and other people, it’s a little bit of digging sometimes.

Question: What are some common mistakes that novice photographers make?

Carol Friedman: This whole business of all these lenses is ridiculous.  You know, it’s like you have to capture your picture.  You have to create it.  You have to see it.  You have to seize it and you have to move in to get it, so those lenses are just an escape of some sort or a shield.  I think that people get into trouble when they photograph something that they... that is not in their world.  It’s like when they say "write what you know."  I can’t tell you how many reshoots I’ve done from, you know, famous photographers who really love just to shoot models and failed at shooting a Patti Labelle or someone like that because Patti Labelle didn’t turn them on, so you have to shoot what you care about.  For me if there is not a component of intelligence or music or culture or something that is fascinating to me I really don’t care about photographing the person.  That is just it’s about that psychological exchange.  That is what is interesting to me.  I think that people have to just go with their gut and follow their passion if they’re photographers.

Question: Who have been your mentors in the music industry?

Carol Friedman:  Okay.  Just I really have been lucky to have a lot of mentors in the music industry.  Quincy Jones, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Bob Krasnow, Bruce Lundvall, you know all label heads and that era is again, the music industry era is gone, but those rules still apply, because you know the record business is kind of a metaphor for life in a lot of ways, just because of all the components that had to come together and make an artist. And most of these people except for Ahmet, you know, came from the street and built empires, and you asked before about what would I recommend to young photographers.  Make sure you have mentors, you know, to teach you, because you can’t just intuit life by yourself, especially now.

Question: Have you ever acted as a mentor yourself?

Carol Friedman: I think mentoring is essential in life, both being a mentor to someone and being mentored, and I think that when you are mentored it inspires a generosity in you to mentor others and that I know is what happened with me, so for instance, the people that come through my studio to work for me, it’s not good enough for me to just give them a paycheck.  I want to help them get to where they…  You know I don’t care if it’s you know an intern or a full-time employee.  I want to help them arrive at who they are or who they want to be in the world and that is one of the questions I ask them when I meet them.  You know, who do they want to be.  So I think that that’s an essential part of life and if you don’t get to do that and receive it you’re missing something.

Question: Who have been your most difficult subjects?

Carol Friedman:  When people warn me about someone—the label head or the publishing head—that somebody is difficult, I’m in heaven.  I just say "Bring them on and I can’t wait," because when people are described as difficult and have a reputation as difficult it’s 99% of the time because they’ve been disappointed over and over again by people who don’t really know what to do for them, and I know I’m going to make them happy and I can’t wait to work with them. And that happens time after time, so when I hear someone is difficult I can’t wait to work with them.

Question: Who have been your favorite subjects?

Carol Friedman:  I love that question.  I think my most favorite subject was Lena Horne because she embodies soul and grace and elegance and street.  She embodies everything and beauty, great beauty, so she was a favorite subject.  Many of the jazz musicians whom are no longer here.  You don’t realize that it's history when it is happening and then time passes and you look at a picture and you say "Wow, there is history attached to that."  You know, Dexter Gordon playing, you know, in my studio for an hour after the session, things like that.  There has been wonderful moments like that.  This sounds so corny, but I love my subjects.  I have to love them to do what I do.  I have to fall in love with them to create a successful portrait of them and it’s not confected.  It just has to be, so it’s like a mother saying "I love all my children equally," but I really do.  I love my subjects.

Question: Do you feel more self-conscious when photographing a fellow artist?

Carol Friedman:  Robert Rauschenberg, one of my favorite sessions actually.  I had never met him and came to his studio, where he lives, where he painted, where he works.  He has a building, had a building and there was a few minutes that I had to wait and there was an incredible piece of his that was forged of texture, metal, you know.  It was probably a big rusted side of a truck or something, but it was this beautiful textured metal, and Bob was great.  He was just so wonderful, and I didn’t like what he had on.  I, you know... clothing is a big component, but that is another story, so I said can I look through his closet.  He said sure, so I picked a shirt and then there it was.  There was this leather jacket that was the same exact texture of the metal, so you live for moments like that and again that is what I mean by paying attention.  That is what I mean by mastering improvisation.  It’s all there.  You just have to find it.  So I grabbed the shirt.  I grabbed the jacket and of course in the picture that jacket and that metal is one thing and it is all organic and wonderful and he was beautiful.  Great artists know who they are, so there is no excavating at all.  They’re happy to share and I think that I’m really blessed actually to be able to be in the presence of them and to give them back to themselves in my work.  It is really wonderful.  I’m thinking aside from Rauschenberg, same thing with Roy Lichtenstein, same thing.  These painters, they know exactly who they are.  Great jazz musicians, they know exactly who they are.  Great opera singers know exactly who they are.  Jessye Norman, there is not really work to do with Jessye.  It’s just centering in on exactly who she is.

Question: Who would you most like to photograph that you’ve never had a chance to?

Carol Friedman:  Frank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan.  What does Bob Dylan have that those other people do not?  He’s still here. So Bob, call me.

Question: What is the story behind your Sarah Vaughan album cover?

Carol Friedman: Of all the singers, Sarah Vaughan is every singer’s favorite singer, or else they just don’t know. And I was just so happy to meet her, and it was the ultimate compliment and the ultimate moment when she invited me into her vocal booth and closed the door behind her, so I got to hear Sarah sing a capella with her headphones on and she made me bouillabaisse and requested me to do her album cover.  In those days there were no stylists or makeup artists for jazz artists.  It was kind of not fair.  There were budgets for rock and roll, but not for jazz back in that day. And Sarah had, you know, she was a big woman.  She wasn’t petite and it was easy to take an unflattering picture of her.  Let’s put it that way.  So I thought about what I wanted to do and I wanted to do an homage if you will to the Black-gama campaign that Peter Rogers had done, the brilliant Peter Rogers, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” And all of these women legends would have their fur coats and be hugging themselves in the fur coat. So I had that story in my mind to do that and the day came and it was the most exciting day and I asked that she bring her coat and her gowns and everything and she apparently was terrified of having her picture taken, maybe because she had so many bad pictures taken and I went downstairs and she got out of the limousine shaking her head no.  “I don’t feel well. I’m really sick. Let me go home.”  And she hadn’t even come into the building, so I said just come upstairs for a minute.  She came in the door and really like a scared cat said "Bring me a chair," because she didn’t want to go further than right inside the door, so she sat there and she peeked around and saw all the lights and got even more scared and she said, “Oh, please, please, I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.”  And her manager is on the phone saying, “Is she there? Don’t let her leave. She’ll never come back.”  And then out of nowhere she said, “Do you like chili?”  And I said, “Chili as in chili?”  And she said, “Yeah.”  She said she had… Sarah had a great, like a little girl speaking voice.  You know she said, “I’ll come back and cook chili for you tomorrow.”  “Let’s make a shopping list.”  So my set assistant you know chopped me onions, whatever it was that that was on the list and I thought oh, she is tricking herself into coming back to cook for me, whatever.  So I said, “Okay, under one condition. You have to leave your mink coat here.”  And she said, “No Problem. No problem.”  So I took the coat.  I put it in the back.  Walked her downstairs and her driver who was…  Her driver back then was equivalent to people’s kind of advance people and bodyguards now.  You know she knew how to protect herself and he said, “Where is the coat?”  And I said the coat is staying here and he didn’t like that and I said the coat is staying here and then the manager called me about ten minutes later and he said, “Listen, if you want to leave the house tonight you just call me and I’ll send a couple of my nephews over to watch the house.”  So everybody was worried about the coat and she did come back right on time, singing, singing, making her chili in my kitchen saying, “Are you stirring that chili?” while she was having her makeup put on, and it’s a picture I’m really proud of.

Question: What role did you play in making over the Rev. Al Sharpton’s image?

Carol Friedman: Giving someone their style or bumping up their sense of style to be a better version of what it is, is part of the fun of what I do, and I actually approached Al Sharpton.  They didn’t come to me.  I approached his people because I felt that…  I felt that his image wasn’t engendering the kind of trust that he should have for what he wanted to do in his life and I actually approached him at a party and criticized his what he was doing and his people got back to me and said, “Well what would you change and what would you do?”  And I said, well, I’ll meet with him.  

I don’t photograph anyone if I can’t meet with them first because if I don’t do that, then they’re just going to the dentist and they’re filled with fear.  They don’t know who I am.  Everyone hates their picture being taken and they’re nervous and they’re bringing all of that.  When I meet with them they realize it is a collaboration and they look forward to coming back.  In the same way that Sarah Vaughan tricked herself, it’s that similar thing.  That said, I met with Al Sharpton ahead of time because if he wasn’t going to let me change him…  That was the point.  I wanted to…  I wanted to just change his image, tweak his image so that it engendered the kind of trust that he is after in his political life and I just told him: “The hair, the hair, the hair is not right.  I see you’re working on it.  I see it’s getting flatter.  I see it’s getting smaller, but I want to take it further.  Can I do that?”  And the people that were sitting around him were dying.  They couldn’t believe I was talking to him about his hair, but that was it for me, so I said, “I know you’re going to the barber before you’re coming.”  “Have her get as flat as you can.”  “Really come flat.  And also I wanted to give him a different look, more of a banker look, suspender look.  I think someone in the press commented on his makeover as if it came out of nowhere.  That was my makeover.  Thank you very much. 

So he came to the studio and, you know, we dressed him in his suits, but again tweaked it.  You know, more of a kind of banker look for the reverend, and the hair, the hair was still wrong, so I said with your permission and you know I have this what I call glue in my hair and it is not a black hair product, so with his permission I kind of glued his hair down and that is the wonderful hair that you now see.  Oh God, I feel like a plastic surgeon that has revealed someone.  I am usually more discreet about my makeovers, but I think Al will be okay with it.  Picking the music for him was really challenging because I told him that he would love the music and it was kind of I don’t think he believed me and that was…  He said, “You weren’t kidding about the music.”  He said, “I loved the music. Thank you.”  And you learn everything about someone when they’re in front of your camera or I learn everything about someone when they’re in front of my camera and you see are people leading with their ego?  Are they leading with their compassion?  Are they leading with their sexuality?  Are they leading with their intelligence?  And then it gets all broken down and who they are fuses together. And again music helps that process. And I’m really fond of Al Sharpton because of what I learned about him when he was in front of my camera, not because of what he says to the press and I put on among other  things, on his soundtrack was the original Sam Cooke version of “Change is Gonna Come,” and Al was very, very moved by it and there is no need to explain to anybody why, but that is all about the genesis of who Al Sharpton is, so again that is what picking that music is about.  It’s hitting someone in their own deep consciousness of how they came up and how they were formed as professionals and humans and even children.

Question: Which photographers have inspired you?

Carol Friedman:  For me there were two photographers, just two photographers, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, and if, you know, I talk about music lineage I guess if there was lineage I come from that school, not the Cartier-Bresson school, not the Diane Arbus school, although we all experiment when we’re coming up, and I had my…  You know, I did run around Paris with my Leica being Cartier-Bresson, and I did, you know, knock on the door of a gypsy family and be Diane Arbus. So we go through our stages. But I was always interested in the blank canvas, and I learned that the blank canvas existed through Penn and Avedon, and I had very different energies and I never got to meet either one of them or photograph them, but that’s kind of, their work is just, again, indelible.

Question: What makes a photograph art? 

Carol Friedman: I studied with Philippe Halsman.  He was a great Life magazine photographer and it was his edict that a photograph isn’t successful unless you capture the subject’s inner life, so I heard that, you know, before I was 20 and that still resonates for me, so if you can’t…  If you don’t know who someone is by looking at the picture that I’ve taken then I haven’t succeeded, so in terms of greatness of photography I think that extends to everybody’s work.  You know you want to believe the moment.  I mean there are rotten ads and there are great ads in the commercial world.  I mean that Louis Vuitton campaign, it’s brilliant. And then there are other ones that I just want to roll my eyes and say are kidding? you know that you take someone very famous in a Dolce & Gabbana ad, who is past the age that she should be for this ad, you know, with fake cleavage and a cat that looks miserable and it’s not working for me.  You know, and then you turn the page and there is a Guess Jeans ad that is so working and it is just singing off the page because it’s real and because the energy is all there and all the elements come together in the right way.

Recorded on April 21, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen