Big Think Interview With Carol Friedman

Question: What is your working routine as a photographer?\r\n\r\n

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

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Question: Why do you only shoot on film?

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

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

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

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

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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\r\nit is giving them their idealized version of themselves.  We all look in the mirror and see us a\r\nlittle blonder or a little thinner or a little younger, whatever that ideal\r\nmight be and most of the people that I’m photographing are selling something,\r\nyou know whether they’re on the front of an album cover or a magazine or\r\nthey’re a corporate person ready to switch companies or a doctor selling a\r\nskincare line... so I want to help them achieve that. And when I worked at Motown\r\nRecords the head of the label called it, you know, he’d say, “Diva, you need to\r\nfix them.”  So he called it fixing\r\npeople and that is really the joy of what I do is really... not to fix them, but\r\nto give them the them that they want to be visually and a big part of that is…\r\nfor me is obviously making them comfortable, making sure that our… because it\r\nis a dance.  You know a photo session\r\nis really a dance and making sure that they’re comfortable and for me it’s the\r\nmusic, the music, the music.  That\r\nis everything.  So I do select a\r\nsoundtrack for each of my subjects and again my assistants you know they make\r\nfun of me because that is more important to me than the lighting, which I just\r\ndo in a minute right before, but I spend a long time on the soundtracks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Question: What are some common mistakes that novice photographers\r\nmake?

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

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

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

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Question: Have you ever acted as a mentor yourself?

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

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Question: Who have been your most difficult subjects?

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

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Question: Who have been your favorite subjects?

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Carol Friedman: \r\nI love that question.  I\r\nthink my most favorite subject was Lena Horne because she embodies soul and\r\ngrace and elegance and street.  She\r\nembodies everything and beauty, great beauty, so she was a favorite\r\nsubject.  Many of the jazz\r\nmusicians whom are no longer here. \r\nYou don’t realize that it's history when it is happening and then time\r\npasses and you look at a picture and you say "Wow, there is history attached to\r\nthat."  You know, Dexter Gordon\r\nplaying, you know, in my studio for an hour after the session, things like\r\nthat.  There has been wonderful\r\nmoments like that.  This sounds so\r\ncorny, but I love my subjects.  I\r\nhave to love them to do what I do. \r\nI have to fall in love with them to create a successful portrait of them\r\nand it’s not confected.  It just\r\nhas to be, so it’s like a mother saying "I love all my children equally," but I\r\nreally do.  I love my subjects.

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Question: Do you feel more self-conscious when photographing\r\na fellow artist?

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Carol Friedman:  Robert Rauschenberg, one of my favorite sessions\r\nactually.  I had never met him and\r\ncame to his studio, where he lives, where he painted, where he works.  He has a building, had a building and\r\nthere was a few minutes that I had to wait and there was an incredible piece of\r\nhis that was forged of texture, metal, you know.  It was probably a big rusted side of a truck or something,\r\nbut it was this beautiful textured metal, and Bob was great.  He was just so wonderful, and I didn’t\r\nlike what he had on.  I, you know... clothing is a big component, but that is another story, so I said can I look\r\nthrough his closet.  He said sure,\r\nso I picked a shirt and then there it was.  There was this leather jacket that was the same exact\r\ntexture of the metal, so you live for moments like that and again that is what\r\nI mean by paying attention.  That\r\nis what I mean by mastering improvisation.  It’s all there. \r\nYou just have to find it. \r\nSo I grabbed the shirt.  I\r\ngrabbed the jacket and of course in the picture that jacket and that metal is\r\none thing and it is all organic and wonderful and he was beautiful.  Great artists know who they are, so\r\nthere is no excavating at all. \r\nThey’re happy to share and I think that I’m really blessed actually to\r\nbe able to be in the presence of them and to give them back to themselves in my\r\nwork.  It is really wonderful.  I’m thinking aside from Rauschenberg,\r\nsame thing with Roy Lichtenstein, same thing.  These painters, they know exactly who they are.  Great jazz musicians, they know exactly\r\nwho they are.  Great opera singers\r\nknow exactly who they are.  Jessye\r\nNorman, there is not really work to do with Jessye.  It’s just centering in on exactly who she is.

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Question: Who would you most like to photograph that you’ve\r\nnever had a chance to?

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Carol Friedman: \r\nFrank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Bob\r\nDylan.  What does Bob Dylan have\r\nthat those other people do not? \r\nHe’s still here. So Bob, call me.

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Question: What is the story behind your Sarah Vaughan album\r\ncover?

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Carol Friedman: Of all the singers, Sarah Vaughan is every\r\nsinger’s favorite singer, or else they just don’t know. And I was just so happy\r\nto meet her, and it was the ultimate compliment and the ultimate moment when she\r\ninvited me into her vocal booth and closed the door behind her, so I got to\r\nhear Sarah sing a capella with her headphones on and she made me bouillabaisse\r\nand requested me to do her album cover. \r\nIn 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,\r\nbut not for jazz back in that day. And Sarah had, you know, she was a big\r\nwoman.  She wasn’t petite and it\r\nwas easy to take an unflattering picture of her.  Let’s put it that way. \r\nSo I thought about what I wanted to do and I wanted to do an homage if\r\nyou will to the Black-gama campaign that Peter Rogers had done, the brilliant\r\nPeter Rogers, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” And all of these women legends\r\nwould have their fur coats and be hugging themselves in the fur coat. So I had\r\nthat story in my mind to do that and the day came and it was the most exciting\r\nday and I asked that she bring her coat and her gowns and everything and she\r\napparently was terrified of having her picture taken, maybe because she had so\r\nmany bad pictures taken and I went downstairs and she got out of the limousine\r\nshaking her head no.  “I don’t feel\r\nwell. I’m really sick. Let me go home.” \r\nAnd she hadn’t even come into the building, so I said just come upstairs\r\nfor a minute.  She came in the door\r\nand really like a scared cat said "Bring me a chair," because she didn’t want to\r\ngo further than right inside the door, so she sat there and she peeked around\r\nand saw all the lights and got even more scared and she said, “Oh, please,\r\nplease, I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.”  And her manager is on the phone saying,\r\n“Is she there? Don’t let her leave. She’ll never come back.”  And then out of nowhere she said, “Do\r\nyou like chili?”  And I said,\r\n“Chili as in chili?”  And she said,\r\n“Yeah.”  She said she had… Sarah\r\nhad a great, like a little girl speaking voice.  You know she said, “I’ll come back and cook chili for you\r\ntomorrow.”  “Let’s make a shopping\r\nlist.”  So my set assistant you\r\nknow chopped me onions, whatever it was that that was on the list and I thought\r\noh, she is tricking herself into coming back to cook for me, whatever.  So I said, “Okay, under one\r\ncondition. You have to leave\r\nyour mink coat here.”  And she\r\nsaid, “No Problem. No\r\nproblem.”  So I took the coat.  I put it in the back.  Walked her downstairs and her driver\r\nwho was…  Her driver back then was\r\nequivalent to people’s kind of advance people and bodyguards now.  You know she knew how to protect\r\nherself and he said, “Where is the coat?” \r\nAnd I said the coat is staying here and he didn’t like that and I said the\r\ncoat is staying here and then the manager called me about ten minutes later and\r\nhe said, “Listen, if you want to leave the house tonight you just call me and\r\nI’ll send a couple of my nephews over to watch the house.”  So everybody was worried about the coat\r\nand she did come back right on time, singing, singing, making her chili in my\r\nkitchen saying, “Are you stirring that chili?” while she was having her makeup\r\nput on, and it’s a picture I’m really proud of.

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

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Carol Friedman: Giving someone their style or bumping up\r\ntheir sense of style to be a better version of what it is, is part of the fun\r\nof 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\r\nengendering the kind of trust that he should have for what he wanted to do in\r\nhis life and I actually approached him at a party and criticized his what he\r\nwas doing and his people got back to me and said, “Well what would you change\r\nand what would you do?”  And I said, well, I’ll meet with him.  

I don’t photograph anyone if\r\nI can’t meet with them first because if I don’t do that, then they’re just going\r\nto 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\r\nand they’re bringing all of that. \r\nWhen I meet with them they realize it is a collaboration and they look\r\nforward to coming back.  In the\r\nsame way that Sarah Vaughan tricked herself, it’s that similar thing.  That said, I met with Al Sharpton ahead\r\nof 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\r\nit engendered the kind of trust that he is after in his political life and I\r\njust 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\r\nto take it further.  Can I do\r\nthat?”  And the people that were\r\nsitting around him were dying. \r\nThey couldn’t believe I was talking to him about his hair, but that was\r\nit 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\r\ndifferent look, more of a banker look, suspender look.  I think someone in the press commented\r\non his makeover as if it came out of nowhere.  That was my makeover. \r\nThank you very much. 

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

Question: Which photographers have inspired you?\r\n\r\n

Carol Friedman: \r\nFor me there were two photographers, just two photographers, Irving Penn\r\nand Richard Avedon, and if, you know, I talk about music lineage I guess if there\r\nwas lineage I come from that school, not the Cartier-Bresson school, not the\r\nDiane Arbus school, although we all experiment when we’re coming up, and I had\r\nmy…  You know, I did run around Paris\r\nwith my Leica being Cartier-Bresson, and I did, you know, knock on the door of\r\na 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\r\ncanvas existed through Penn and Avedon, and I had very different energies and I\r\nnever got to meet either one of them or photograph them, but that’s kind of, their work is just, again, indelible.

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Question: What makes a photograph art? 

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

Recorded on April 21, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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A conversation with the photographer and art director.

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