Dennis Hopper’s pinched, grizzled, weathered face stares out from the book jacket. Little white shapes around his head suggest flower petals, until you realize he has his arms clasped overhead.
Holz Hollywood: 30 Years of Portraits, published by DAAB Media, gives an overview of celebrity photography by George Holz, who lives with his family, two dogs, and a flock of East Friesian sheep on a farm near Phoenicia. A party celebrating the launch of the book will be held in the lounge at the Phoenicia Diner on Saturday, August 22, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Among the book’s 164 tritone black-and-white photos and 89 color plates, lushly printed in Italy, are film and TV stars (Jack Nicholson, Liza Minelli), musicians (Joan Jett, Yoko Ono), politicians (Donald Trump), athletes, and a few unknowns. Many were shot on assignment for magazines, including Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Others were publicity shots for record albums, such as the cover for Madonna’s “Borderline” single. There are pictures that never made it into the magazines, alongside iconic photos: Anthony Quinn standing beside the oak tree he planned to be buried under; Carly Simon in a bathtub, holding a live lobster.
It wasn’t easy selecting an image for the jacket front, which is actually different from the book cover. (Beneath the jacket is a leaping portrait of Dominique Swain, who starred with Jeremy Irons in the remake of Lolita.) Beauty and character mingle in Holz’s work, but for the jacket image, he went with character. “We wanted something closeup and strong. We were looking for someone who bridged the worlds of entertainment and art,” Holz explained, pointing out that Hopper, who appeared in 75 films, was also a photographer and an art collector. “And he was a polarizing person. Some people hate him, and some are fascinated by him.”
Holz recalled the shoot at Hopper’s barbed-wire-topped compound in a rough section of Venice, California. The interior was adorned with works by Lichtenstein, Pollock, Warhol. “It was like going into the Whitney,” said Holz. “We walked around the compound, and I photographed him with his art. He was obsessed with vacuuming, and I photographed him vacuuming his bedroom. He was not a smiley kind of guy.”
Some of the photos are accompanied by text by either Holz or the subject of the portrait. Monica Lewinsky, who had lived next door to the photographer in the West Village and babysat for his son, wrote about her photo session. It took place at 2 a.m. in the meatpacking district, now trendy but then a gritty setting that yielded a shot with an aura of 1940s Paris.
Holz photographed Steven Spielberg when Schindler’s List had just come out. “Spielberg made me nervous,” said Holtz. “I was worried he’d ask me to move the lights, that he’d start directing me. But he was a total gentleman. He wanted to know about my family, since my father had escaped Nazi Germany at 13. My mother has my picture of Spielberg on her mantel.”
Holz grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the scientists of the Manhattan Project had been at work in the middle of Appalachia, designing the atom bomb. After World War II, research at the Oak Ridge lab turned to nuclear reactors. “There were more Ph.D.s per capita than anywhere in world,” Holz remembered. “It was very suburban. Our fathers could not talk about their work.”
He began to take pictures at 16 and studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Later he lived in Milan and Paris, shooting for Italian Vogue and French Elle, before settling in New York City. In 1988, he bought his property in Shandaken, where he loves to fish and goes hiking with his dogs. Many photography sessions are redirected upstate, with rural beauty serving as backdrop for several photos in the book. He continues to maintain a studio in Manhattan, traveling to Europe and Los Angeles on assignments.
Holz still shoots analog film for his personal work, fine art studies of nudes in nature, which have been shown in galleries and museums around the world. For commercial work, he has gone digital. “I love that film makes you think more, slows you down,” he said. “You have to wait to see what you’ve got. But for the workflow of modern-day jobs, people want it yesterday, and you have to do digital. It’s a different way of thinking, with people looking over your shoulder at your computer, giving you feedback. I liked to shoot without even Polaroid tests because I didn’t want people looking at it while I did it. But they both work. I try to make my digital photos look like film.”
When taking pictures of famous people, he said, “Celebrity is secondary. You can’t rely on celebrity, or the picture won’t stand the test of time. You have to use your skills in lighting, timing, technique, capturing the decisive moment when everything comes together at once. To me, someone should look at the photo and wonder, ‘Who’s that?’”
A launch party for Holz Hollywood: 30 Years of Portraits will be held on Saturday, August 22, from 7 to 9 p.m., in the lounge at the Phoenicia Diner, 5681 Route 28, just east of the turnoff for Phoenicia.