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Who's in the Video

Carol Friedman

Carol Friedman is a New York-based portrait photographer who has photographed music, art, and business icons for more than two decades. Her award-winning images of jazz, soul, and classical music[…]

A conversation with the photographer and art director.

Question: What is your working routine as a photographer?rnrn

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

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Question: Why do you only shoot on film?

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Carol Friedman: rnGood question.  Well I guessrnI’m half traditionalist, half modern girl and I just never…  I love the digital world and I lovernelectronica and after I shoot everything is digital, but I just... I don’trnknow.  I love my cameras.  I love contact sheets.  I love the visceral thing of film andrnI’m not positive that I can replicate my lighting digitally.  My assistants tell me I can, but, justrnstubborn 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 myrnwork.  I kind of—you learn it,  you master it, and then you make surernthat it just disappears.  You know,rnlike if I could have invisible lights, I would, and invisible cameras.  I’m just really trying to get at myrnsubject and I respect the technical aspect, but it is not anything that I thinkrnabout at this point.

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Question: Why do you spend more time preparing thernsoundtrack 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 thenrnit is giving them their idealized version of themselves.  We all look in the mirror and see us arnlittle blonder or a little thinner or a little younger, whatever that idealrnmight be and most of the people that I’m photographing are selling something,rnyou know whether they’re on the front of an album cover or a magazine orrnthey’re a corporate person ready to switch companies or a doctor selling arnskincare line... so I want to help them achieve that. And when I worked at MotownrnRecords the head of the label called it, you know, he’d say, “Diva, you need tornfix them.”  So he called it fixingrnpeople and that is really the joy of what I do is really... not to fix them, butrnto give them the them that they want to be visually and a big part of that is…rnfor me is obviously making them comfortable, making sure that our… because itrnis a dance.  You know a photo sessionrnis really a dance and making sure that they’re comfortable and for me it’s thernmusic, the music, the music.  Thatrnis everything.  So I do select arnsoundtrack for each of my subjects and again my assistants you know they makernfun of me because that is more important to me than the lighting, which I justrndo 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’vernplayed during a shoot?

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Carol Friedman: A lot of the people that I photograph arernmaster musicians themselves, whether they’re singers or great jazz players andrnit’s kind of fun to figure out who they came up with and who they emulated orrnwho they idolized actually. And that's just... it’s a wonderful way to get at whornsomeone is through their own love of music and going right at theirrnsubconsciousness if you will.  Yourndon’t play girl singers for girl singers. rnYou know, there’s certain things. rnYou do play Ellington for Bobby McFerrin. Sometimes like for TeddyrnPendergrass, Teddy has a whole lineage that came before his solo career withrnHarold Melvin and the Blue Notes, so he has a signature song, “The Love IrnLost,” so I planned it.  I got himrnready.  There he was.  We put on “The Love I Lost” and thernminute he heard that bass solo, boom, there was the album cover for “Joy,” andrnit really was joy, that is the title, because it was that visceral memory forrnhim.  So sometimes it is anrnoutright manipulation like that, but most of the time I’m just, I’m creating arnmood that is a place of comfort for the person and a way for our dialogue to bernmore fluid.

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

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

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

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

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Question: What are some common mistakes that novice photographersrnmake?

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Carol Friedman: This whole business of all these lenses is ridiculous.  You know, it’s like you have to capturernyour picture.  You have to creaternit.  You have to see it.  You have to seize it and you have tornmove in to get it, so those lenses are just an escape of some sort or arnshield.  I think that people getrninto trouble when they photograph something that they... that is not in theirrnworld.  It’s like when they sayrn"write what you know."  I can’t tellrnyou how many reshoots I’ve done from, you know, famous photographers who reallyrnlove just to shoot models and failed at shooting a Patti Labelle or someonernlike that because Patti Labelle didn’t turn them on, so you have to shoot whatrnyou care about.  For me if there isrnnot a component of intelligence or music or culture or something that is fascinatingrnto me I really don’t care about photographing the person.  That is just it’s about thatrnpsychological exchange.  That isrnwhat is interesting to me.  I thinkrnthat people have to just go with their gut and follow their passion if they’rernphotographers.

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

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Carol Friedman: rnOkay.  Just I really havernbeen lucky to have a lot of mentors in the music industry.  Quincy Jones, Ahmet Ertegun, JerryrnWexler, Bob Krasnow, Bruce Lundvall, you know all label heads and that era isrnagain, the music industry era is gone, but those rules still apply, because yournknow the record business is kind of a metaphor for life in a lot of ways, justrnbecause of all the components that had to come together and make an artist. Andrnmost of these people except for Ahmet, you know, came from the street and builtrnempires, and you asked before about what would I recommend to youngrnphotographers.  Make sure you havernmentors, you know, to teach you, because you can’t just intuit life byrnyourself, 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, bothrnbeing a mentor to someone and being mentored, and I think that when you arernmentored it inspires a generosity in you to mentor others and that I know isrnwhat happened with me, so for instance, the people that come through my studiornto work for me, it’s not good enough for me to just give them a paycheck.  I want to help them get to wherernthey…  You know I don’t care ifrnit’s you know an intern or a full-time employee.  I want to help them arrive at who they are or who they wantrnto be in the world and that is one of the questions I ask them when I meetrnthem.  You know, who do they wantrnto be.  So I think that that’s anrnessential part of life and if you don’t get to do that and receive it you’re missingrnsomething.

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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 publishingrnhead—that somebody is difficult, I’m in heaven.  I just say "Bring them on and I can’t wait," because whenrnpeople are described as difficult and have a reputation as difficult it’s 99%rnof the time because they’ve been disappointed over and over again by people whorndon’t really know what to do for them, and I know I’m going to make them happyrnand I can’t wait to work with them. And that happens time after time, so when Irnhear 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: rnI love that question.  Irnthink my most favorite subject was Lena Horne because she embodies soul andrngrace and elegance and street.  Shernembodies everything and beauty, great beauty, so she was a favoriternsubject.  Many of the jazzrnmusicians whom are no longer here. rnYou don’t realize that it's history when it is happening and then timernpasses and you look at a picture and you say "Wow, there is history attached tornthat."  You know, Dexter Gordonrnplaying, you know, in my studio for an hour after the session, things likernthat.  There has been wonderfulrnmoments like that.  This sounds sorncorny, but I love my subjects.  Irnhave to love them to do what I do. rnI have to fall in love with them to create a successful portrait of themrnand it’s not confected.  It justrnhas to be, so it’s like a mother saying "I love all my children equally," but Irnreally do.  I love my subjects.

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

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Carol Friedman:  Robert Rauschenberg, one of my favorite sessionsrnactually.  I had never met him andrncame to his studio, where he lives, where he painted, where he works.  He has a building, had a building andrnthere was a few minutes that I had to wait and there was an incredible piece ofrnhis that was forged of texture, metal, you know.  It was probably a big rusted side of a truck or something,rnbut it was this beautiful textured metal, and Bob was great.  He was just so wonderful, and I didn’trnlike what he had on.  I, you know... clothing is a big component, but that is another story, so I said can I lookrnthrough his closet.  He said sure,rnso I picked a shirt and then there it was.  There was this leather jacket that was the same exactrntexture of the metal, so you live for moments like that and again that is whatrnI mean by paying attention.  Thatrnis what I mean by mastering improvisation.  It’s all there. rnYou just have to find it. rnSo I grabbed the shirt.  Irngrabbed the jacket and of course in the picture that jacket and that metal isrnone thing and it is all organic and wonderful and he was beautiful.  Great artists know who they are, sornthere is no excavating at all. rnThey’re happy to share and I think that I’m really blessed actually tornbe able to be in the presence of them and to give them back to themselves in myrnwork.  It is really wonderful.  I’m thinking aside from Rauschenberg,rnsame thing with Roy Lichtenstein, same thing.  These painters, they know exactly who they are.  Great jazz musicians, they know exactlyrnwho they are.  Great opera singersrnknow exactly who they are.  JessyernNorman, 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’vernnever had a chance to?

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Carol Friedman: rnFrank Sinatra, Pablo Picasso, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, BobrnDylan.  What does Bob Dylan havernthat those other people do not? rnHe’s still here. So Bob, call me.

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Question: What is the story behind your Sarah Vaughan albumrncover?

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Carol Friedman: Of all the singers, Sarah Vaughan is everyrnsinger’s favorite singer, or else they just don’t know. And I was just so happyrnto meet her, and it was the ultimate compliment and the ultimate moment when sherninvited me into her vocal booth and closed the door behind her, so I got tornhear Sarah sing a capella with her headphones on and she made me bouillabaissernand requested me to do her album cover. rnIn 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,rnbut not for jazz back in that day. And Sarah had, you know, she was a bigrnwoman.  She wasn’t petite and itrnwas easy to take an unflattering picture of her.  Let’s put it that way. rnSo I thought about what I wanted to do and I wanted to do an homage ifrnyou will to the Black-gama campaign that Peter Rogers had done, the brilliantrnPeter Rogers, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” And all of these women legendsrnwould have their fur coats and be hugging themselves in the fur coat. So I hadrnthat story in my mind to do that and the day came and it was the most excitingrnday and I asked that she bring her coat and her gowns and everything and shernapparently was terrified of having her picture taken, maybe because she had sornmany bad pictures taken and I went downstairs and she got out of the limousinernshaking her head no.  “I don’t feelrnwell. I’m really sick. Let me go home.” rnAnd she hadn’t even come into the building, so I said just come upstairsrnfor a minute.  She came in the doorrnand really like a scared cat said "Bring me a chair," because she didn’t want torngo further than right inside the door, so she sat there and she peeked aroundrnand saw all the lights and got even more scared and she said, “Oh, please,rnplease, I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.”  And her manager is on the phone saying,rn“Is she there? Don’t let her leave. She’ll never come back.”  And then out of nowhere she said, “Dornyou like chili?”  And I said,rn“Chili as in chili?”  And she said,rn“Yeah.”  She said she had… Sarahrnhad a great, like a little girl speaking voice.  You know she said, “I’ll come back and cook chili for yourntomorrow.”  “Let’s make a shoppingrnlist.”  So my set assistant yournknow chopped me onions, whatever it was that that was on the list and I thoughtrnoh, she is tricking herself into coming back to cook for me, whatever.  So I said, “Okay, under onerncondition. You have to leavernyour mink coat here.”  And shernsaid, “No Problem. Nornproblem.”  So I took the coat.  I put it in the back.  Walked her downstairs and her driverrnwho was…  Her driver back then wasrnequivalent to people’s kind of advance people and bodyguards now.  You know she knew how to protectrnherself and he said, “Where is the coat?” rnAnd I said the coat is staying here and he didn’t like that and I said therncoat is staying here and then the manager called me about ten minutes later andrnhe said, “Listen, if you want to leave the house tonight you just call me andrnI’ll send a couple of my nephews over to watch the house.”  So everybody was worried about the coatrnand she did come back right on time, singing, singing, making her chili in myrnkitchen saying, “Are you stirring that chili?” while she was having her makeuprnput 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. AlrnSharpton’s image?

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Carol Friedman: Giving someone their style or bumping uprntheir sense of style to be a better version of what it is, is part of the funrnof 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’trnengendering the kind of trust that he should have for what he wanted to do inrnhis life and I actually approached him at a party and criticized his what hernwas doing and his people got back to me and said, “Well what would you changernand what would you do?”  And I said, well, I’ll meet with him.  

I don’t photograph anyone ifrnI can’t meet with them first because if I don’t do that, then they’re just goingrnto the dentist and they’re filled with fear.  They don’t know who I am.  Everyone hates their picture being taken and they’re nervousrnand they’re bringing all of that. rnWhen I meet with them they realize it is a collaboration and they lookrnforward to coming back.  In thernsame way that Sarah Vaughan tricked herself, it’s that similar thing.  That said, I met with Al Sharpton aheadrnof 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 thatrnit engendered the kind of trust that he is after in his political life and Irnjust 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 wantrnto take it further.  Can I dornthat?”  And the people that werernsitting around him were dying. rnThey couldn’t believe I was talking to him about his hair, but that wasrnit 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 arndifferent look, more of a banker look, suspender look.  I think someone in the press commentedrnon his makeover as if it came out of nowhere.  That was my makeover. rnThank you very much. 

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So he came to the studio and, you know, we dressed him in hisrnsuits, but again tweaked it.  Yournknow, more of a kind of banker look for the reverend, and the hair, the hairrnwas still wrong, so I said with your permission and you know I have this what Irncall glue in my hair and it is not a black hair product, so with his permissionrnI kind of glued his hair down and that is the wonderful hair that you nowrnsee.  Oh God, I feel like a plasticrnsurgeon that has revealed someone. rnI am usually more discreet about my makeovers, but I think Al will bernokay with it.  Picking the musicrnfor him was really challenging because I told him that he would love the musicrnand it was kind of I don’t think he believed me and that was…  He said, “You weren’t kidding about thernmusic.”  He said, “I loved thernmusic. Thank you.”  And you learnrneverything about someone when they’re in front of your camera or I learnrneverything about someone when they’re in front of my camera and you see arernpeople leading with their ego?  Arernthey leading with their compassion? rnAre they leading with their sexuality?  Are they leading with their intelligence?  And then it gets all broken down andrnwho they are fuses together. And again music helps that process. And I’m reallyrnfond of Al Sharpton because of what I learned about him when he was in front ofrnmy camera, not because of what he says to the press and I put on amongrnother  things, on his soundtrackrnwas the original Sam Cooke version of “Change is Gonna Come,” and Al wasrnvery, very moved by it and there is no need to explain to anybody why, but thatrnis all about the genesis of who Al Sharpton is, so again that is what pickingrnthat music is about.  It’s hittingrnsomeone in their own deep consciousness of how they came up and how they werernformed as professionals and humans and even children.

Question: Which photographers have inspired you?rnrn

Carol Friedman: rnFor me there were two photographers, just two photographers, Irving Pennrnand Richard Avedon, and if, you know, I talk about music lineage I guess if therernwas lineage I come from that school, not the Cartier-Bresson school, not thernDiane Arbus school, although we all experiment when we’re coming up, and I hadrnmy…  You know, I did run around Parisrnwith my Leica being Cartier-Bresson, and I did, you know, knock on the door ofrna 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 blankrncanvas existed through Penn and Avedon, and I had very different energies and Irnnever 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 magazinernphotographer and it was his edict that a photograph isn’t successful unless yourncapture the subject’s inner life, so I heard that, you know, before I was 20 andrnthat still resonates for me, so if you can’t…  If you don’t know who someone is by looking at the picturernthat I’ve taken then I haven’t succeeded, so in terms of greatness ofrnphotography I think that extends to everybody’s work.  You know you want to believe the moment.  I mean there are rotten ads and therernare great ads in the commercial world. rnI mean that Louis Vuitton campaign, it’s brilliant. And then there arernother ones that I just want to roll my eyes and say are kidding? you know thatrnyou take someone very famous in a Dolce & Gabbana ad, who is past the agernthat she should be for this ad, you know, with fake cleavage and a cat that looksrnmiserable and it’s not working for me. rnYou know, and then you turn the page and there is a Guess Jeans ad thatrnis so working and it is just singing off the page because it’s real and becausernthe 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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