Born and raised in Nairobi, Johnny Rozsa spent his earliest years in a beautiful and remote country where every day was an adventure. “Living in Kenya made me curious,” he observes in his introduction to Untouched (Glitterati Incorporated, October 2009, $75), a collection of celebrity portraiture set to launch this fall at Barneys in New York and Paul Smith in London.
He arrived in London in the 1960s and, after college, ran a vintage shop in Covent Garden where he met fashion editors, models, actors, and photographers on a daily basis. Making the rounds at all the parties, Rozsa hobnobbed with the likes of Ian McKellen, Leigh Bowery, and John Galliano while setting off on his own journey as a portrait photographer. With over three decades experience shooting some of the most admired figures of our time, Rozsa has selected 115 of his favorites—from Hugh Grant to Halle Berry, Janet Jackson to Nicholas Cage, John Malkovich to Natasha Richardson—for Untouched. Rozsa sat down to discuss his career photographing the Hollywood elite.
Miss Rosen: How did you first get into photography—both as a fan as well as a practitioner?
Johnny Rozsa: When I was a teenager I painted. I enjoyed the texture of oil paints and painted almost every day from the age of 15 until I turned 20. In Nairobi, I had several solo exhibitions and sold quite a few paintings which were mostly of faces, with big eyes, long lashes, and big pouty feminine lips—and that was just the men! I loathed filling in backgrounds because they were so time consuming, and often wished I had an assistant to do the boring bits! I studied Communications at College in London and it helped me develop the ability to connect with other people and to comprehend the immense power of journalism, of radio and television. When I discovered the instant moment of taking a photograph and the speed in which to develop it in a darkroom I was hooked! I poured over glossy magazines and started to collect big photo books by the photographic masters, and the fashion greats. I never trained as a photographer, and as a result felt a little “less than” so I practiced with light until I understood it.
What was your first photography assignment?
When I was living in Kenya, Andrea Dellal (photographed in Untouched with Arnold Schwartzenegger) came from London to shoot a catalogue for a British fashion enterprise. I thought of myself as the new David Bailey and I wanted to carve out my own style, and I thought I should always use the most exotic models. And I did. Exotic was a theme in my fashion work. Living in London I felt I was being exotic by being associated with this dynamic Brazilian! Once I shot Andrea in Rio wearing two of Carmen Miranda’s film outfits on spec. I sold it to the Observer color magazine as a cover and double page spread. Happily Andrea and I are great friends to this day and usually spend Christmas and New Years together with her four children!
What aspects of photography most appeal to you?
The getting ready phase of photography. Creating an idea, a theme.
How did you get into celebrity portraiture?
I think it stems from my painting days. I observe well and I listen even better. I am always polite and respectful, and I worship at the shrine of “beauty” so my intentions are always to make celebrities as beautiful as they can be. I think most people react well to that! Luckily I had a few friends who were actors, and just took their photographs.
How do you define “celebrity” — or rather, what makes someone a star in your eyes?
My dream star is Sophia Loren.I like everything about her—her poise, her exotic beauty, her experience and her longevity. She is the consummate star still alive today. Brilliance as an actor shows intelligence and observation, and people like that are interesting to me. My friend Al Pacino is a fabulous observer of character and obviously has an amazing ability to capture different characters, which makes him a star.
What interests you about photographing personalities? Well, I am interested in people. Actually, I am interested in loads of things, animals, plants, geography. But a person’s face—their eyes—fascinate me. It could be an old tribeswoman in Namibia or it could be Jessica Alba. Everyone has a story, and apart from capturing a mini second of their lives, their time with me, I like to engage them and hear their story.
What interests you about photographing personalities?
Well, I am interested in people. Actually, I am interested in loads of things, animals, plants, geography. But a person’s face—their eyes—fascinate me. It could be an old tribeswoman in Namibia or it could be Jessica Alba. Everyone has a story, and apart from capturing a mini second of their lives, their time with me, I like to engage them and hear their story.
Could you describe your personal style of photography? How do you approach your work?
I have an open mind. I usually wait until they turn up to the studio or location, chat to them while scanning their face, their body, and then, on the spur of the moment, while they are getting their hair done, I set up lights and backgrounds. I am a person that tries to live in the present moment. My ideal and favorite way to photograph someone is in a studio. with lights, beautiful clothes, warmth and food and drinks! My style is usually clean sharp and uncluttered, with my subject being the focus of the image. Photography is an art, too. There are so many elements that one has to have knowledge about: fashion; the history of fashion; a sense of color, a sense of shape and composition; lighting—hard or soft, indoor and outdoor; make up and hair; the history of photography. I could go on!
As a celebrity photographer how do you develop trust with highly image conscious subjects?
I am an optimist. I am flexible. If someone believes that his or her left side is their more photogenic side, I go with that and then try to encourage them to break out of a mold that really is in their own head, if I see that they can look interesting from a different angle. My shoots are usually happy and fun. People tend to relax around me and open up with stories about themselves. I listen and converse and am interested in them and I think people feel comfortable that way.
How did you get access to these personalities and the chance to photograph them?
I have been taking photographs for 30 years. I know lots of people and have gallons of charm! Sometimes, I would search them out, Sometimes they would be a commission from a magazine. Sometimes, I would just meet them at a party!
Untouched recalls a time before both Photoshop as well as publicist/handler controls. What was it like to collaborate directly with these stars on the creation of their image?
Fun! Excitement! Nervous tension! What if a celebrity walked into my studio and was a total bore? What if they only gave me 30 minutes? Often I photographed well-known actors wearing the latest threads of the day for a magazine spread. Most times, it was in conjunction with a movie or album that they were promoting. People needed me just as much as I needed them, so collaborations were mutually rewarding.
In your story about Ione Syke, you mention Paul Starr—and that story is emblematic of the creativity you brought to your work. Who are some of your other favorite creative collaborators?
I have always striven to create a team. I crave to work with the best hairdresser, make up artist, stylist, and set dresser on every shoot that I do. Most of the ones I worked with on this book have passed away and it makes me truly sad that their talent has often disappeared. Ray Petrie was a great visionary stylist, whose book is still inspirational today even though it has been years since his passing. Paul Starr was an amazing make up artist in LA who brought out the best in an actors face.
The late, great Ray Allington became a star Hollywood hairdresser. He trained in the Vidal Sassoon stable in London and as youngsters we tested with models and worked together as often as possible for over 25 years. His hair and presence at a shoot always added to the final goal of a photo session—the photograph itself. My favorite collaborator was Stevie Hughes. His make up enhanced every face he worked on. He was the most talented man I have ever worked with. He could sew, do hair and was a brilliant cook too. Everything he touched turned to gold. I miss him dreadfully, as he died early on in the AIDS era and never had a chance, as I have, to curate his work.
Susan Sarandon writes a forward and is also a subject in your book. What’s your relationship with her?
I met Susan Sarandon socially. She is a wonderful, compassionate person and extremely intelligent. I do not see her much these days because she has a busy family life and a megawatt career, but back in the day, we would spend some great times together. Once, before she had children, I stayed with her in her penthouse in New York for two months. She would have dinner parties; we would go to the movies together. I think because of that time together, we can pick up wherever we left off.
A lot of your photos evoke the glamour of Old Hollywood, be it dashing diva Holly Woodlawn or heartthrob Chris Issak. Who were some of the artists of that era who influenced your aesthetic?
I adore black and white photography. I love sepia, too. I am awestruck by the star portraits of Old Hollywood. John Kobal has compiled many books on star portraits of that era. George Hurrell was a master. Horst was a master of light. Many stars of that era inspire me—like Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, andMarlene Dietrich. Their images are truly iconic. But they worked in conjunction with these great photographers as well as the best clothes designers of the day, like Adrian and Edith Head.
Is Hollywood glamour dead? If so, what happened?!
Old Hollywood Glam is dead. Lots of things are dead. Manners. Loyalty. It is a different time. Product placement, money and corporate decisions have changed the way things are done now. The way we raise our children, fast food, mobile phones, television, mass air travel are things that have drastically altered the world we now live in. I think there is a different type of glamour. But, a beautiful room in a well-constructed house is glam. Personal style can be glam too.
So much has changed in the way celebrities are shown—either completely remade by Photoshop or completely undone by the stalkerazzi. What does your work offer in the way of an antidote to these unsettling photographic trends?
I think truth and honesty. There is a simplicity and a realness to my images. I revere and respect my subjects, and I do think that humor and a sense of wit and fun add to my images. I have a sense of history too, which all blends, like a braid, to create this book of which I am proud.