Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic, programmer, journalist, and video essayist from South Central Los Angeles, California. He studied film at Stanford and is a doctoral candidate in History of Art and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Film Comment, and the Criterion Collection.
Al Pacino tosses pantyhose in the air as he sprints up and down the aisles of a thrift store, and Gene Hackman has no clue why. The director of the scene, Jerry Schatzberg, laughs himself to tears offscreen, and so do we.
Pacino is Lion, a sweet sailor. Hackman is Max, an ex-convict. Lion is a drifter-dreamer, a clown who wants to give a toy to the son he’s never seen and to make amends to the wife he abandoned. Max is prickly, icy, but he has a concrete dream: to open up a car wash in Pittsburgh. Lion wants in. For most of Scarecrow (1973)—the movie in which they drift, Schatzberg’s magnum opus—Lion is levity (a zany softie, “a real pussycat,” as Schatzberg describes Pacino) while Max is gravity (grounded in a grim, relaxed, ornery drabness). At one point Lion, who’s dressed without any explanation in an astronaut suit, tells the soused patrons of a Denver bar what’s in store for them at a car wash they’ll never visit, hundreds of miles away: “There’s gonna be . . . ladies’ night every Monday night of the week! And we will have, uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . (Max: “Free balloons?”) free balloons!! And we will have . . . (Max: “Lollipops?”) lollipops!! And a loaf of bread!” Meanwhile, bartenders and alcoholics and high school dropouts cheer Lion on, forming a spontaneous conga line that snakes through the bar to the worn-out tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” on the bar’s jukebox. It’s joie de vivre of a rare, intoxicating type.
The pantyhose sprint comes midway through Scarecrow. Max and Lion are short on money, so when the two enter a thrift store, Max asks Lion to distract the clerk as he shoplifts some clothes off the rack. “Okay,” says Lion. His distraction: sprinting up and down a series of tight aisles, expending as much energy as he can, throwing clothes up in the air, attracting the attention of everyone in the store—including Max himself, who is so baffled he looks back at the clerk in confusion, forgetting his mission. The sheer randomness of Lion’s run has to be seen to be believed; it never fails to fill a movie theater with howls of laughter. Before the scene was filmed, Schatzberg did not tell Hackman what Pacino had planned to do, so Hackman’s reaction is entirely genuine.
Spontaneity, candor, the feeling that you’re watching people at a loving, proximate warmth that can turn violent or tragic at the drop of a dime: this is Schatzberg’s territory.
At the age of ninety-two, neither Jerry nor his gaze has slowed. I’m in awe of the fact that one of America’s top fashion photographers of the 1960s has a treasure trove of an archive that he’s getting in order—playful, masterfully composed pictures, most of which have never seen the light of day. I’m delighted that one of the major players of the New Hollywood—that rough group of directors (Martin Scorsese, Elaine May, Robert Altman) who changed the way American films moved in the 1970s—is planning his next movie in 2020. The man whose films launched the careers of Pacino, Morgan Freeman, and Meryl Streep still walks about Manhattan with a lucid spryness.
“I’m always photographing,” he tells me as we walk down Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side during a particularly brutal heat wave. Rushing toward us are a boy and a girl who tug at their mother’s dress. She carries a bag of groceries in one hand and a stroller in the other, her face registering a profound tiredness. As they run by, Schatzberg points my attention their passing way. “See, that was a photograph.” Then a few seconds later: “I shoulda brought my camera today.” A beat. “Oh, well. Next time.”
Jerry’s gaze—and he insists you call him “Jerry,” none of this “Mr. Schatzberg” business—is that of a drifter who looks people deep in the eyes; his wisecracks, those of a no-bullshit, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. His humility is staggering: “I found something in Dylan that really appeals to me,” a downplaying way of saying that his photographs of Bob Dylan during his Highway 61–Blonde on Blonde period (Jerry shot the cover for the latter) are by far the most original ones that exist—by far the most playful and relaxed, especially considering Dylan’s reputation for inaccessibility.
We enter Jerry’s beautiful apartment, which he’s had for over fifty years. His bookcases betray the cinephile in him, being lined to the nines with DVDs and VHS tapes of the films of Ingmar Bergman, Frank Borzage, Allan Dwan, Abbas Kiarostami, Akira Kurosawa, Elaine May, Jacques Rivette, Wong Kar-Wai, Peter Watkins, and Zhang Yimou. He is still omnivorous in his viewing habits. As we chat, he gets up to show me book upon book of the photographers who have moved him the most: Ara Güler, Martin Munkacsi, Irving Penn, Sebastião Salgado, Vivian Maier. He shows me a Maier image of the back of a woman’s head, snapped in 1958, that is uncannily similar to a photograph he himself took—also in 1958, also of the fuzzy back of a regal woman’s head. This, despite the fact that Maier’s photographs only reached public view in 2009.
“Wow,” I say. “You two were really on some kind of secret, same wavelength, eh?”
Jerry nods and smirks. “Yeah. I really relate to her. If I had the guts, I’d just give everything up and do street photography for the rest of my life.”
“If I had the guts, I’d just give everything up and do street photography for the rest of my life.”Jerry Schatzberg
Schatzberg was born on June 26, 1927, in a Manhattan hospital. Until the age of fourteen, he was raised off Grand Concourse, the center of the Bronx, in a lower-middle-class family of Jewish furriers. His childhood best friends were a mix of Italian, Irish, and Jewish second-generation immigrants from whom he acquired his offbeat sense of humor.
As a kid near Grand Concourse, Jerry always went to the movie matinees at the Loews Paradise and RKO Fordham theaters, watching everything under the studio sun: Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musicals, Camille with Greta Garbo, a lot of Alfred Hitchcock. In his twenties, he started off working for his father’s fur business to support his wife and two kids, but hated the job and wanted to leave as soon as possible. His uncle worked for a diaper service that gave people a free picture of their baby when they bought the diapers; Jerry’s uncle hired him as the photographer, at $2 a session. From there he bought his first camera and kept taking photographs, practicing, until he landed at the doorstep of William Helburn, one of the top fashion and advertising photographers of the 1950s and ’60s. During his time with Helburn, he was introduced by Jack Shannon, Helburn’s studio assistant, to the foreign art house cinema scene on 42nd Street: Bergman, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), the French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and François Truffaut. After working as Helburn’s assistant for two and a half years, Jerry had enough saved up to start his own studio, at 333 Park Avenue South, between 24th and 25th streets. (Today it’s a million-dollar co-op nestled near a bank and an Equinox gym.)
Schatzberg honed his eye and his warm sensibility in a course taught on the Upper East Side (later at the New School) by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. “Any photographer worth his salt took Brodovitch’s course,” Jerry says—and indeed, among the students at his Design Laboratory Brodovitch counted not only Schatzberg but also Penn, Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman, Robert Frank, Hiro, Marvin Israel, and Garry Winogrand. Brodovitch would give his students a subject—Times Square, Halloween, the Brooklyn Bridge—and ask them to shoot it however they saw fit. “He wasn’t interested in technique or style or anything like that,” Jerry says. “He was interested in subject matter and, most especially, what you did with the subject matter. He taught you how to think.”
From there, Jerry rose at a steady clip. During the six months after he left Helburn, his portfolio starting making its way around town. Modeling agencies began to call. He began shooting for Vogue in February 1958; by June of the same year, his image of Dolores Hawkins was on the cover. He became Our Man in Manhattan, friends with the famed Swingin’ London photographers David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Brian Duffy. (Their lives were the loose inspiration for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up , based on the beguiling Julio Cortázar story “Las babas del diablo” [The devil’s drool].) In addition, he opened and owned two swinging nightclubs in New York City, patterned after London’s Ad Lib: uptown, Ondine, and in the West Village, Salvation. Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Diana Ross were regulars at these clubs.
Looking through his vast thousands of photos, one realizes how centered Jerry was in ’60s culture, quietly shooting the whole chic chaos of the times a-changin’: the Beatles in red Christmas garb, the Rolling Stones in drag, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. He has stories galore for all his subjects. Jerry was close friends with Tate five years before she married Polanski; he did a series of photographs of her in a bathtub. After she and Polanski got married, every time Jerry dropped in, Tate would run up to him and ask him frantically, “Have you a cigarette?” Polanski had banned smoking at the house because he was afraid of its effects on her health. To intimidate her out of the habit, he would apparently drive her to the doctor’s to show her pictures of smokers’ and nonsmokers’ lungs. Tate, Jerry says, remained unfazed: “She was a sweetheart. As nice as you can hope anyone to be.”
What’s remarkable about Schatzberg’s photographs is their “off,” relaxed details. Jerry had a knack of making his famous subjects look like no big deals, old pals with a streak for impish laughter. He tells me that he’s always going for the “accident” or the “fumble”: the puppy with a slender curving leash (a remarkable punctum) that breaks up a glamour shot of four models in Gramercy Park (1959), or the remarkable moment when a physically small woman stops in front of a gaudy Christian Dior storefront (1962)—an image neither ironic nor condescendingly sympathetic, but simply a record of the bleed between incongruous worlds.
Schatzberg’s portraits of figures such as Dylan, Catherine Deneuve, and Carmen de Lavallade have that mysterious element known as rapport, the human connection between artist and subject that brings out the latter’s antisurface soft side. Note Dylan’s campily oversized smirk to the camera as he holds a just-as-oversized lighter (1965), his face the face of a friend with whom you’re so close that he’ll show you, and only you, his rarely seen goofball randomness. Schatzbergian rapport—whose hard-to-pin-down elements include ambling, improvisation, extension of the scene past a logical endpoint, getting to know a subject for an hour before the camera is even trained at them, regarding the subject from fantastically askew angles, and a bizarre, punny humor cribbed from a Dictionary of Dad Jokes—refuses to show a person as a cold, objective fact, their existence simplified to Icy Belle, British Invader, or Ballerina. Instead, Schatzberg often lights from the side, darkening and obscuring half of the subject’s head, intensifying the face to bring out the “soul,” as he puts it. Sometimes, in his fumbling way, he reaches for a future beyond the 1960s: a gender-bending Tate in a pre–Annie Hall suit and tie, a steampunk-goggled Peggy Moffitt manspreading her plaid legs on a car bumper as a boy looks at a man looking at the time-traveling woman from the 2010s with confusion (a postmodern chain of looking, years before Don DeLillo came on the scene).
Looking through his vast thousands of photos, one realizes how centered Jerry was in ’60s culture, quietly shooting the whole chic chaos of the times a-changin’.
Asked how he makes such great films or photographs, Jerry is quick to pivot the glory back to his actors and subjects—a humble man’s move. He lets their energies determine the dimensions and qualities of any given work. He brings out the inner godly Madonna of Deneuve, a side rarely allowed to flourish in her popular image as a frozen killer-beauty (Polanski’s Repulsion ) or bourgeois punching bag (Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour ). During Jerry’s first shoot with Faye Dunaway, he affected her to such a degree that she wrote, in her autobiography, “At one point I began crying because he was being so heartbreakingly kind to me. All my life, I’ve been the sort of person who could shatter easily. . . . Jerry somehow managed to reach me, to let me know that in this I could trust him, that the photos would be wonderful, that it would be okay.” (The two were later briefly engaged.) His love of people—a care that shows in his rhythmic playing-around with light, colors, and facial expressions—shines brightest in his Dunaway portraits. The red of her beret is a funky, tasteful blip that breaks up the overwhelmingly sleek-black force field enveloping her. In the same field, Jerry gets the closest he ever will to abstraction with a famous photograph of Faye, who, with him, dreams herself as a series of hovering slashes that line up to form a pair of legs. She becomes both art and person, existing in a rare zone of adoration and modern grace.
The evenness of vision in tumultuous situations that defines Schatzberg’s photos carries through to his films. In 1968, he sold his photography studio to fund his first film, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), a fractured and disturbing glimpse into the fashion industry and the mental breakdown of a once-in-Vogue model (played by Dunaway). The subject was close to Jerry’s heart: the model was based on Anne St. Marie, a success in her heyday (later a close friend of Jerry’s) who posed for his portfolio when he was just starting out as a fashion photographer. But when St. Marie found herself unable to find modeling work due to “overexposure” and her age (mid-to-late thirties), she had a nervous breakdown. Schatzberg came to her side to help her recuperate, and later taped two and a half hours of her thoughts on life, romance, her burnout, and her withering thoughts on the glamour industry. With the hunch that there was a film in her story, Jerry gave the tapes to the still-grossly-underappreciated screenwriter Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces, The Shooting, Model Shop), who took some of St. Marie’s observations and shaped them into a poetic, 300-page, first-draft screenplay. The film’s very framing device involves a director (Barry Primus) who tapes a close model-friend talking freely about the industry and its men; he hopes that the tape may inspire a film. Jerry points out that many of the models he knew went through the same experiences as St. Marie, and as Dunaway’s character: some became drug addicts, some were institutionalized, one became homeless. Initially, Puzzle was conceived as a series of photographs, but Jerry soon realized that that would not be enough: “I tried to photograph [St. Marie] but it didn’t say the story in the way I thought cinema could do it. So I started the move in that direction. I didn’t know too much about cinema, but you learn.”
The gray, Andrew Wyeth–infused gloom of Puzzle started the second phase of Schatzberg’s career: film director, New Hollywood auteur, a sharp chronicler of American drift. In this he hangs out in the same universe as Juleen Compton (Stranded , The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean ; a similarly underappreciated great), his contemporary Altman, and an unconscious successor, Jim Jarmusch. What goes into a Schatzberg shot is a Bazinian impulse to record unfettered life transmogrified by the holy everyday—whether in long takes (Streep’s and Alan Alda’s electrifying kiss in The Seduction of Joe Tynan ) or in shards of montage (the memory-recalling bursts of Puzzle, as in Richard Lester’s Petulia  or in a Resnais film). Puzzle has a noticeably looping rhythm, as a mind tries nervously to pick up the pieces of its broken heart. The sound stutters forward about five beats ahead of the images. The style matches the people, who are volatile, tripwire; Dunaway will say one thing and absolutely mean it (“If a person wants something, he should just take it. That is what I feel, that is my philosophy”—said in the most heartbreaking shattered-china voice since Margaret Sullavan), then she’ll dramatically change direction without warning (trembling, on the verge of tears, her philosophy immediately dissolves into a flurry of doubts).
“I write words that translate into pictures,” Jerry says. Which may be why what he and Puzzle cinematographer Adam Holender (also known for his work on John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy ) bring to The Panic in Needle Park (1971), and what Pacino (Bobby, the strung-out boyfriend) and Kitty Winn (Helen, the strung-along girlfriend) bring to their roles, transcends the easy sadism and misery of the script, by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who observe the addicts from their usual troubling pedestal—intrigued tourists instead of involved artists. (When asked whether Schatzberg liked her dialogue, Didion quipped, “He doesn’t like any dialogue!”—with which Jerry more or less agrees.) The actors work overtime to bring the film its howling-pain energy. Schatzberg and Holender make us look deep into Winn’s eyes—beady, glassy, mentally not there—as Pacino injects heroin into a big blue vein in her arm. (Panic has the most disturbing shots of needles in cinema history.) We are spectators, yes, and we’re never brought into the inner life of the addict (how fully can witnesses be?), but we are always violently present. There is no score, no cakey makeover to guide our emotions. Watching Panic, I go numb as some unseen supernumerary mumbles what could be an addict’s addendum to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the heart of the picture: “I seen people kickin’ their habit in the streets, pukin’ in the alleyway.”
In Scarecrow, Pacino gives one of the most extraordinary and devastating performances I’ve ever encountered. Whether it’s moving a door in a backyard to cockblock Hackman (Scarecrow will have you weeping with laughter at Schatzberg’s ingeniously framed bits of business) or drinking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon as he pretends to scrub a car, Pacino draws out his performance with a tenderness that makes poignant the absurdities and traumas faced by his character, Lion. Along the way, he teaches Hackman’s Max that if you’re to get through the madness of life, you have to keep people laughing.
That he does, and so does Jerry. Scarecrow’s spectrum of emotion is awe inspiring: from the most knockabout fun to utter emotional devastation (a nervous breakdown in a fountain has the messy, gripping, underground-opera charge of John Cassavetes’s Woman under the Influence ) in the space of only 110 minutes. Pacino’s and Hackman’s acting prowess in Scarecrow cannot be overpraised: they may have been in countless strong and deservedly well-known films, but they never had roles more open or well-developed.
Even established screen presences whom you think you’re sure of (Dunaway, Streep, Pacino) have layers that they’ve only exhibited in Schatzberg’s sensitively felt universe. In Sweet Revenge (1976), Stockard Channing plays an unpredictable, slick eccentric of the kind that the New Hollywood all but ignored in its poststudio pursuit of active-male narratives, which rarely gave female actors the time or the opportunity to develop strong, filigreed women. Sweet Revenge follows a punky car-thief aesthete (Channing) who is hounded by police while pursued by a square city attorney (Sam Waterston), smitten with her and hoping to help her out after she’s been picked up on a bum carjacking rap. But this “female Jimmy Cagney” with the many faces (Jerry’s own words about Channing—and he’s spot-on) doesn’t need any help, in love or in crime. The only man she wants in her life is Edmund (Franklyn Ajaye), her black best friend, who dreams of starting a key-forging company in the back of his sedan. It’s a nice rhyme to Hackman’s equally goofball, starry-eyed dream of opening up the car wash with Pacino, but Scarecrow has the beloved reputation that Sweet Revenge sadly lacks. An overlooked gem among Schatzberg’s overlooked gems, it continues at the same languid-zoom pace as Scarecrow (both have the same cinematographer, the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond), which matches its doddering shaggy-dog structure. It starts off in a scampering kook’s tone—a cool throwback to pre-Code Cagney get-rich capers like Hard to Handle (1933) and Blonde Crazy (1931)—before it veers sharply tragic when you least expect it.
Schatzberg’s magnum opus, Scarecrow, won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at Cannes in 1973. But after that win, he was offered a plushy two-year desk job at Warner Bros developing scripts. “The biggest mistake of my career,” he tells me flatly. Instead of letting projects come to him, he worked on the projects of others—projects that he never personally brought to fruition, such as the 1976 A Star Is Born. By the time Sweet Revenge came along, Jerry felt that he had lost his momentum.
Regardless of any flaws they might have compared to the early-’70s Schatzbergs, his later films have plenty of moments, particularly Honeysuckle Rose (1980; a country song in film form; MVP Dyan Cannon; it gave us Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”), Street Smart (1984; a tactile catalogue of grimy 1980s New York, with a star-making, Oscar-nominated turn from Freeman as a sadistic pimp who goes after Christopher Reeve’s naïve white reporter), and especially Reunion (1989; a lovingly detailed, period masterwork, starring Jason Robards and written by Harold Pinter, that confronts the legacy of anti-Semitism through the story of two young boys in prewar Germany, one of whom is Jewish).
Jerry defines his practice by his desire to go beyond whatever medium he finds himself working in. His photos want to be films and his films want to be life. He masters photography by an impulse to tell stories, jumping past the stillness inherent to the medium; he masters cinema by jumping past the formulaic plots of Hollywood pictures. His best films are haphazardly organized grace notes that preserve in-between moments, going against the impulse to tell a story whose ending is known from the start. Schatzberg’s films, above all, are an accumulation of punctum shards, what Manny Farber called “the unheralded ripple of physical experience, the tiny morbidly lifeworn detail which the visitor to a strange city finds springing out at every step.” The films want to be something other than films: a song (Honeysuckle Rose), a memory (Puzzle, Reunion), even the knotty language of reality itself (Scarecrow, Panic).
Schatzberg today has no intention of slowing down: he is planning his next movie, his first since The Day the Ponies Come Back (2000). He is also getting his vast archives in order. He believes his legacy will rest more on his photographs than on his films. He’s been hanging out with old friends, including Pacino and Helburn, the photographer who first hired him more than half a century ago.
“I saw Bill last week,” Jerry says. “He didn’t have any teeth left. I remember him so lively, running around. Now he’s in a wheelchair. Kind of sad.” A beat. “Oh, well. It’s gonna happen to all of us, one way or another.”
As I edge toward his apartment door to leave—we’ve talked for nearly four hours straight—I turn to shake his hand. I see it’s bandaged and bruised; he explains that he hurt it last week trying to open a glass jar. I shake it gently. “I’m glad photography found me,” he says, as he closes the door behind me.
All images, unless otherwise noted: © Jerry Schatzberg Archive, LLC