A young photographer’s fairy-tale, George Holz and his friends, Just Loomis and Mark Arbeit, talked their way into becoming Helmut Newton’s assistants while still at art school. Five years after Newton’s death in 2004, Holz, Loomis, and Arbeit—all three of whom are successful photographers in their own right—honored their former mentor with their Berlin exhibition, “Three Boys From Pasadena,” curated by Newton’s wife, June. After Berlin, the show moved to Paris and New York. This month, a new, expanded version of the exhibition opens in Pasadena, where Loomis, Holz, and Arbeit first met Newton in 1979. Here, we talk to George Holz, with whom we have a personal history; Holz shot various portraits for Interview throughout the 1980s, from Eddie Money in October of 1980 (one of Holz’s first professional jobs) to a pre-Like A Virgin Madonna in 1984. We asked Holz about how he sweet-talked Mr. Newton, his early Interview experiences, and his current fine-art pursuits.
EMMA BROWN: I know that you first met Helmut Newton while you were at art school. When did you first become aware of him?
GEORGE HOLZ: Probably when I was a young boy or a teenager living in Tennessee. I used to see his pictures in photo magazines at the local drug store. I would go down there and see a photo magazine with pictures by him, or David Bailey, and Avedon, and I was always attracted to his photographs. When I was going to the Art Center [College of Design in Pasadena], they had a great library—French Vogue. I think that’s when I really become more aware of his work.
BROWN: When you actually saw him around campus, how did you convince him to take you on as an assistant?
HOLZ: I didn’t meet him on campus. I actually, a friend of mine, Mark Arbeit, was a student at the Arts Center, and Mark was working for a boutique in Beverly Hills, and we knew Helmut was coming to pick up something from the store, so we waited around all day down in the basement of the store, got in place at the store until he got there and started talking to us. I didn’t meet him at Art Center. That’s how it all started.
BROWN: Was he very receptive when you first sort of accosted him at this boutique?
HOLZ: [laughs] Well, it wasn’t exactly stalking. Maybe it was a mild version of that, but, in those days, I don’t think people were as nervous about that kind of thing, this was way before the Internet. I think he saw that we were very serious photographers; we were studying, and we’d show our work. I think he liked hanging out with us, he liked young people and I don’t think that’s how a lot of people approached him. He respected us. We were persistent, [but] we had to be to show that we were serous. Then he would start calling us to help him on shoots and things after that.
BROWN: What would you do if someone did that to you?
HOLZ: I get contacted a lot; especially up on the website, we have a thing for interns. People do contact me. I’m an adjunct professor, so when I’m not shooting jobs or my own work I do some mentoring and teaching. But I can tell right away if someone is serious by the kind of letter they write, by their work. If it feels right, I take them in. I currently have an intern who’s from the Rhode Island School of Design. I like it. I like sharing things. A lot of people just aren’t serious about it, but you just have to be able to call that.
BROWN: So what makes you continue to expand the “Three Boys From Pasadena” exhibit?
HOLZ: We’re all very excited about doing new work. I think a lot of that came from Helmut and June [Newton]—up until the very end, he was very excited about his photography. June also still does a little bit of shooting and is very excited. We always will show her our new work, and she’ll give us critiques; sometimes she’s very hard on us with what she likes and what she doesn’t like. By having all these shows, in Berlin, in Paris, and in New York, and now Los Angeles, it’s kind of a real shot in the arm, and we’re all inspired to keep doing new work and having this show grow. After the Berlin show, June said, “This show has to have legs.” Every time we would go to a new city we would always try to do a body of new work [and] we continue to do that. I think still in all of us, we’re very excited about photography; we’re not jaded by it. We’re always looking to stretch and not rest on our laurels, we’re photographers’ photographers. We apply the old school techniques. That’s what we grew up with, that’s what we went to school for. We love it, and love the things that we do, but also embracing the new technologies.
BROWN: I was looking through our archives, and it seems that the first thing that you shot for Interview was Eddie Money in October 1980. Is that correct?
HOLZ: Yeah. That was interesting, because I was thinking last night [that] it was Madonna and Laurie Anderson, who I also shot [for the magazine]. Then I realized that Eddie Money was one of my first jobs out of school—I shot him for Interview, but also for Capitol Records. I photographed him at this really funky kind of ’50s hotel that was right behind the house I lived at in Pasadena, when I was going to Art Center. I used to shoot there because I could walk there.
BROWN: And how did you get involved with Interview? Through Columbia and Eddie?
HOLZ: I think it might have been. It was also a thing with Madonna, [I shot her] as a kind of a joint project with Warner Brothers Records and with Interview. I think they used to kind of team up on things like that—so, I don’t know what came first, the chicken and the egg, as far as that goes. I had a good friend that was working at Warner Brothers Records and I got the job from her, but it was kind of simultaneously through Interview as well, through [then Interview art director] Marc Balet, who I became friends with, and we’re still friends today. When I moved back to New York after being in Europe and then in Los Angeles, I was simultaneously kind of in all places at the same time, that’s when I started doing stuff for Interview and Marc. I also shot Barbara Hershey, I believe, for Interview.
BROWN: Yeah. And Roseanne Cash.
HOLZ: And Bernadette Peters, as well.
BROWN: And that was the first time you worked with Madonna?
HOLZ: That was the first time I worked with Madonna. I was supposed to work with her again, years later, but I was living in Italy at the time, and I couldn’t do it because I burst off with Italian Vogue. I had a shoot, and sometimes fashion is like that. In hindsight, I probably wish I could have worked with Madonna again. I used to run into her down in the Village, and we’d always say hi. But yeah, those were kind of iconic photographs of her; it was for Borderline, as well as for Interview. I remember meeting her over at the Chateau Marmont and going to her room. I’m sure she did her own hair and makeup. She had a bunch of clothes laying on her bed, we picked the stuff out and then we walked—a friend, or somebody, had this really funky studio in walking distance on Sunset Boulevard. It was totally a guerilla project, but it worked out fine. I can just remember walking down Sunset Boulevard with her and no one knew who she was.
BROWN: Yeah. It was before Like a Virgin, wasn’t it?
HOLZ: Yeah, yeah it was.
BROWN: And I know that now you do a lot of personal work as well as commercial work. You’re very famous for nudes. What attracted you to the nude female form in particular?
HOLZ: I don’t know. I’d always been shooting nudes, I think I did my first one when I was 18, maybe a little bit younger. I was always fascinated with the female form, and I think working with Helmut and seeing his personal work inspired me as well, but I’ve loved always the work of Edward Weston as well, it’s very classic.
BROWN: Do you feel that there is something you get out of photographing the form that you don’t out of doing portraits?
HOLZ: I approach all photographs kind of the same. Sometimes, they’re very thought out; sometimes I go with the moment. I’m very intense; I like to move around a lot. I am like a racehorse with blinders on when I’m shooting; I don’t see a lot of the outside world around me, I get very focused on what I’m doing, whether it’s an editorial job or an advertising job, or personal work. The difference in my personal work is that I’m there as my own client, and the hardest thing to do is to please yourself with your own work. I’m very hard on myself. I just try to really bring something out, but at the same time be open to things that happen, especially if you’re on location somewhere, weather or things that you can’t predict. I think the most important thing is to shoot a lot. That’s how you develop a style—years and years and years of shooting, and couple that with life experiences and outside influences and work that inspires you. Let things come out. This past summer, I spent a couple days up at Edward Weston’s old compound called Wildcat Hill in Carmel [and] became friends with his grandson, Kim Weston. It was really inspiring being around these areas where all these amazing, iconic photos had been taken and bringing your own style into it, and do[ing] your own work.
BROWN: When you are doing a celebrity portrait for a magazine, what are you trying to convey? The moment in time, their personality, none of the above?
HOLZ: I think, especially in the day of the Internet, magazines are very aware of celebrities, and pictures they’ve taken. Of course [with] Jack Nicholson or someone like that, you’ve seen all their movies, but a lot of times [with] younger actors or actresses, I don’t really like to see too much of what they’ve done, because I don’t want to be baited by what I’ve seen. I like a very fresh perspective. I start to try to get something about that person, bring out their personality or style, but with my own twist to it, and not try to do something that I’ve seen before. That can be difficult sometimes, publishers will try to shape the vision a little bit—”You can’t do this. You can’t do that. This doesn’t look good. They look too skinny. They look too fat.” It’s great when someone arrives without a huge entourage, and who’s willing to play. I think the important thing for me is that I have a willing subject who likes my work and knows what I do and feels comfortable. I shot Angelina Jolie, very early on in her career; she had just done the movie Gia and won an Emmy for it, [but] she wasn’t a huge actress at the time. She showed up and I had my own hair and makeup people and my own stylist, there was no entourage. It was just amazing, she was just fully uninhibited. That sometimes happens, sometimes it doesn’t. I find photographing people in the infancy of their careers to be kind of fascinating, before the whole machine swallows them up.
BROWN: What are you working on right now?
HOLZ: I’m working on a book called Holz’s Hollywood, to be published by Damiani, in the spring of 2013. Right now I’ve just been totally engrossed in this show at Art Center. The amount of preparation and the amount of stuff over the past month. It’s really big, about twice the size of the other shows and installations that we’ve done so far. I’ve been a part of Art Cologne, so that was also pretty intense. Once this blows over, and I have a little bit of vacation time, I’m going to jump into some new work.
THREE BOYS FROM PASADENA: A TRIBUTE TO HELMUT NEWTON OPENS TONIGHT AT THE WILLIAMSON GALLERY, THE ART CENTER COLLEGE OF DESIGN IN PASADENA, CA.