The Stern, Cheeky Genius of Gerry Mulligan

“The sound that Gerry Mulligan produced in the early ’50s, with the quintet that featured Chet Baker, is well known now, but you can imagine hearing it for the first time back then. The music had humor and drive, and made me smile whenever I heard it. I was so excited that I contacted Harper’s Bazaar to photograph a recording session in Los Angeles for them.

Profile of Mulligan's rumbling baritone sax in action

Profile of Mulligan’s rumbling baritone sax in action, 1953

It was really a treat to be there. Gerry was in complete control. He knew exactly what he wanted; he heard his arrangements in his head. He sat at the piano, playing out chords for his sidemen, stopping them midstream when it didn’t please him. Mulligan’s resonating baritone sax rumbled like rude words said in Italian, something a little like his own temperament.

I once saw the group perform at The Haig in Los Angeles. If the patrons were not paying attention, as was the case the night I was there, he simply stopped the music, stood with his big hands folded over the sax, and waited. Saying nothing, just standing there. When the noisy ones noticed that the music had stopped, they knew why, for he was looking right at them. Then he would resume, having gotten their attention.”

 

Getting Started: Early Influences and Process

“I found some massive war-surplus aerial photography scrapbooks with black pages. When I brought my magazines home, I tore out my favorite images and pasted them into the book in sections; as portraits, fashion, advertisements and so on. I kept another of these huge books for painting and sculpture. When I found a new photograph that I liked better than a previous one… out it would go. In this way, I constantly kept editing and (I hoped at the time) improving my eye.

Three photographers seemed to be selected more often than any others–Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith and Irving Penn–quite a diversity of style, and I learned from each of them. Cartier-Bresson has an amazing eye for composition, and his use of space is unique. Edgar Degas, the painter, had influenced my composition, by the unique way he placed the weight of the images on his canvas. I find Cartier-Bresson’s photographic images have this same tension.

W. Eugene Smith touched me emotionally where Cartier-Bresson did not. Smith obviously felt things very deeply, and sought the human element in his images. The things that Smith did for Life have still, to my mind, never been topped by any photojournalist. I only crossed paths with him once, when I watched him photographing Charlie Chaplin for Life, on Limelight. Life had the exclusive, so I was not allowed to take pictures on the set, but I sat in the audience and watched Chaplin and Buster Keaton work out a comedy routine with a piano, and it was a memorable occasion.

Irving Penn has a wonderful style all to himself, and he taught me the value of seeing the figure as sculpture. He refined his elements down, in elegant style. I think he is also unique in what he did. His color still lifes and the photographic series he made of the Peruvian natives in the old portrait studio he found there are superb.

It is interesting to me that Penn and Cartier-Bresson were both painters, and it was only late in my life that I discovered that Degas was also a photographer! Not that these disciplines are interchangeable, but they continue to influence each other, and I have certainly learned from both in the design and composition of my own work.”

 

Barbra Streisand as an Arab Princess

Glamour magazine had assigned me to photograph Barbra Streisand, who was not well-known then, but the magazines felt she was ‘hot,’ as they say. I kept getting the runaround from her, and finally telephoned her in Lake Tahoe where she was performing. I told her, ‘Look Barbra, I’m probably just as good a photographer as you are a singer, so let’s get real!’ She seemed to respond to that, and asked me where I wanted to photograph her when she came to L.A. I said, ‘Any place except in front of a microphone.’

Close-up of a princess

Close-up of a princess, 1963

She made a date for the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I went over on my lunch hour from My Fair Lady. She was late, but finally came out with a ‘beehive’ hairdo, and a strange young man, whom I later discovered was her husband, Elliott Gould.

She was very cooperative, and I made her look like an Arab Princess with towels, since the cabanas at the hotel pool looked like Middle Eastern tents. We had a good time, and when she was asked by Look magazine to be photographed with her new baby years later, she told them she wanted me. By then she was a big star, so Look brought a West Coast photographer back to New York, which was a first for me.”