By Charles Rotmil
In contradiction to shooting nakedly and honestly as a street photographer, I was also an assistant commercial photographer, working on the edges of dishonesty. W. Eugene Smith, the uncompromising photojournalist, who was once my neighbor on 6th Avenue in the Flower District, told me he would never work on a cigarette advertisement. Most of the time I hated to assist in shoots such as fake soup ads and cigarette campaigns. Working five years on the dark side, I did mostly food photography with Irwin Horowitz. Once, for Campbell’s Soup, an account executive wanted us to show that the soup had lots of ingredients, which it did not. So we put in clear marbles to raise the level of the soup and make the ingredients rise to the top. A lawyer came by the set and said we could not do this anymore, so we had someone make us shallow soup dishes. And so it went.
One time we did a food story for Women’s Day about a chocolate cake that Ann Landers had created. The Dear Abby variety. We used foam boards cut into a circle and then covered them with shaving cream. No one could tell if it was real or not. Another time we had Phyllis Diller in the studio for a recipe she called Garbage Soup: “All the garbage in the fridge that you could throw together. Like stone soup, the one where you start with a stone and water and then add all kinds of stuff to it…” She was a card. Always funny.
We had one shot when the art director wanted Phyllis to be hanging backwards with her arms outstretched. I was asked to hold her down behind the set. So I held my arms around both her legs and part of her hips, while she hung over backwards and did her thing, flinging her arms around. To this day, I remember it as not the most pleasant of embraces.
With Bill Monroe, the photographer, I was interviewed for a job and he told me to show up at 4AM for a shoot. I did not understand why so early, but I showed up. His other assistant was outside the studio in a red Triumph. “Where is your stuff?” the assistant asked me. “What do you mean?” “Your stuff, man; we are going sailing for four days!” We drove back to my pad on East 10th Street and Avenue B to get some underwear and other necessities.
We drove out to Long Island to meet the sailboat. We would shoot the whole product campaign for Coca Cola in four days and do as many ads as possible. Because this was for European publication, the models had a worldly look. I loved it, but I busted my ass loading Kodachrome 25 and taking light measurements. With such film you could not manipulate the process with the film, so it had to be accurate, or bracket some shots. The situations were complex: typical sailing shots of young couples looking as happy as possible, leaning over the edge of the boat and drinking Coke. In between shots, the art director rolled joints for all of us. I could not partake, because I would not have been able to tell an F stop from a stop sign. I had to keep my head clear. We set beach parties with the sun setting in the background, and, of course, the party would go on. I had to stay in a motel on the shore while the director and the rest of the crew stayed on the boat with some of the models.
I also worked for Peter Basch, who was a glamour photographer, shooting people like Brigitte Bardot and other movie stars. I once opened the door to Kevin McCarthy, who was in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We did not say anything except smile at each other. One day Kim Novak came to the door, all by herself. A stunning woman I thought, and she sort of liked me as well, or maybe that was the effect she had on everyone: Just smile and let you take her in. She went into the studio, and I loaded up some sheet film for a four-by-five view camera. I had trouble loading up film at times; I would miss the groove in the darkroom. If you pulled the slide out and the film was not loaded properly, the film would fall out. Peter came to get the loaded film from me and went back into the shooting studio. I was kept out of that one. Well, the intercom came on with Peter shouting for me to come to the set. When I got in, Novak was lying on a couch in a negligee. Peter was furious at me because some of the film came apart as he tried to load up the camera. “Is this the way to load film?” I was totally humiliated. When I looked over at Novak, she looked at me smiling in a way that said not to worry about it. My prospect of marrying her and having a good life together was blown away right then and there.
Catering to the Famous and Infamous
One time I went to the employment office for New York City and got a job working for a tailor shop as a salesman. I found myself at Sills of Cambridge on the second floor of 49th Street and Fifth Avenue. The shop was run and owned by two brothers, who had a similar store in Cambridge near Harvard University. Their last name was actually Silverstein or something like that but they it shorten it to Sills. Not as Jewish, I guess. The younger brother, Ben, interviewed and hired me on the spot. They liked my look, sort of European with longish hair and a natural turtle neck sweater made in Ireland. In fact, I had bought this sweater from an ad that required exact measurements and the company would knit it custom. Well, I got the sweater back and it fit exactly. It was so tight I could barely breathe. You were supposed to give slightly larger measurements but I did not know this. In any case the Sills / Silversteins liked my looks.
No one came into the shop off the street. One could walk by and not even know the shop was there. I was not to question anyone who came in, just give them whatever they wanted and have them sign for it. It was really simple. There were yards of fabric and drawers full of fine shirts. There were two kinds of suits. Those that were ready made, but could be altered and even mixed. And the suits made to order after one picked the fabric, basted and so on, until they fit exactly. Those cost much more.
Leonard Bernstein came in once and asked for a shirt. I opened some drawers, and he picked a white shirt and signed for it. The coolest thing was to act normal and not seem surprised at seeing him. The tailor came out from the back with a jacket he had for him, basted, i.e., with loose threads that could still be pulled out. Bernstein wanted to make sure that when he raised his arms up high, the sleeve did not ride all the way down his arm while he was conducting.
Later I discovered he was going to rehearse in an outdoor stadium way up in the Bronx at City College. I went up there and found the orchestra ready to rehearse. I asked Bernstein if it was okay for me to sit with the musicians, so I could take photographs. You could see the cityscape behind him, even some laundry hanging to dry in the distance. It was a cool shot and I sent it to the Times, but they were not interested. I always had the chutzpah to do things like this; all they could say was no. I wish I had known Bernstein better, but often when meeting someone famous like him, there is nothing to say to them. I respected their privacy.
Another time Anthony Perkins walked in asking for a shirt. He was in a play on Broadway at the time, I think, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, or maybe it was Tea and Sympathy. He was tall and slender. In those days, I had no idea he was gay or that Bernstein was gay. Who knew? It was all hush-hush back then. I acted professionally and did not say much more than ask what he needed help with. I opened a drawer filled with shirts; we had several, and he chose one. I had him sign for it and that was it.
Way back I was already familiar with homosexuality from reading Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Jean Marais… did I leave anyone out? The idea was accepted in France way before here. In the current world, Ginsberg who was my neighbor on 10th street, was all too familiar. Never felt uncomfortable. But I felt closer to Jack Kerouac’s lifestyle than anyone else.
Every Thursday we had a reception after five. The Sills brothers gave me money and told me to buy several bottles of hard liquor. We had a cart on wheels and the next thing you know I am the bartender. I never mixed drinks before. Just like in Mad Men everyone drank in those days, and I mean drank all day without seeming to get drunk. As one person told me, it took the edge off. Even the Sills drank all day and then sang songs from musicals. As much as I tried, I did not like to drink, except for wine and some liqueur. I also got to like gin and tonics, so I knew how to mix that. I would stand there behind the cart and mix drinks. The front of the store filled with people.
At the open house, a man told me he was a king. Another man told me he was a pilot. I thought he meant or the big airlines. I asked him which airline he flew for and he answered his own. “I fly people to safaris in Africa on my own plane.” Once I delivered several pairs of pants to the house of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, the writers of several famous musicals. For a while, I was immersed in this other world.
I met Maxwell Bodenheim in the Village. He was a wild one, writing poetry for a buck so he could get a drink. Most people did not know who he was. He had written a batch of pulp fiction mystery novels, like Naked on Roller Skates. For about a week he latched on to me whenever he saw me. There used to be a cafeteria on 6th Avenue and 8th Street. I bought him breakfast there once, and he covered his eggs with ground black pepper. I mean covered. His woman friend scolded him. “If I want to put pepper on my eggs, I can do whatever I want with them,” he drunkenly shouted. I guess his taste buds were gone by then from all the drinking.
Once he came by my apartment, just a room really, on 10th Street near Sixth Avenue. I left him there while I went out to get some more food. When I came back, he was gone. He drank all of the cooking wine I had in the cupboard. I do not even know if it was real wine. Still he drank all of it. Just a month later, I read in the papers that a drifter had allowed Bodenheim to stay in his room somewhere in the Village and tried to seduce Bodenheim’s woman. According to the papers, the drifter raped her and then killed them both. Even Bodenheim’s editors could not help him; they sent him some money to no avail. He was a lost soul by then.
I got involved with Horace Richter when I met the painter Bob Thompson at the Cedar Bar. That led to taking photos for Jacques Lipchitz, the sculptor. I would take the train to the Upper Hudson River Valley to Lipchitz’s studio to photograph his vast African collection. He felt inspired by such work. I took a few photos of him as well. Once the door rang and when I opened it, a small man was standing there. It was Billie Rose the impresario. He asked to come in. Rose at that time had arranged to have all of Lipchitz’s original clay sculptures shipped to Israel for a new museum dedicated to Lipchitz. Lipchitz was always very tired and wanted to nap and that is when I took a photo of him sort of floating in space, from the top of a ladder. We did not say much during that month I photographed his African collection.
I knew from the crowd at the Cedar Bar, a gang of artist, writers and photographers, about openings on Tuesdays. At the opening for Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup show, Andy had cans of soup, real cans of tomato soup, there, and he would sign them for $100. It was wild. Suddenly, Salvador Dali was standing next to Warhol, and I said, “Bonjour, Monsieur Dali.” He just stared at me, eyes wide open and whirled his thin, long mustache, which seemed to levitate above his upper lip. He cupped his lips, but did not say a word. He smirked at me, again with eyes wide open. I mean what was there to say? He was definitely a genius but also chose to be a jester. He is the one who said once, “Il faut épater le bourgeois?” You must tickle the rich man’s fancy.
I used to run into Warhol at a small restaurant on 6th Street and Avenue A. Macrobiotics was still a new thing, and we both ate the same dish: a bowl of brown rice topped with black beans and with some salt mixed with sesame seed. The cost: one dollar. It did the trick as far as we were concerned.
I met Red once at an all-night party and got him confused with another artist, Steve Durkee. They were both sort of thin and tall and had red hair. I knew Steve from the artist community in Haverstraw, which was an outshoot from Black Mountain College. The community, called the Land, had its own school. It was typical of that area of New York, which started anarchist and, eventually, independent schools. I liked Red a lot and once we ran down 6th Avenue near midnight, knocking down garbage cans as if we were in a giant football field. This was about the time he took his paint-splattered shirt and stretched it upon a canvas. Even the 10th Street Gallery refused to show it.
One time I took Red with me to visit Chaim Gross and his daughter, Mimi, or maybe he took me. I knew Mimi from parties. In fact, I mistook someone else for her at a party. I fell asleep in a bed on the floor of a big loft. A woman stood over me and said, “You are in my bed.” I said, “Well, if it is your bed, come on in.” She did and in no time at all we were at it. I got lost in her huge breasts. But it was not Mimi. Years later, when I was married to A, I met her brother, who was a tattoo artist in Woodstock. His wife said to me, “You don’t remember me do you?” And I said, “Should I?” and she reminded me that she was the woman at the party, and I had forgotten all about it.
I was drawn to Mimi. At the time, Chaim Gross taught a sculpture course at the New School or NYU in NYC. Wood sculpture, which is a totally other matter. You cannot make mistakes with wood. I never tried. I like clay or other mediums, like pastel, water color, gouache, and oil. Gouache is my favorite. Immediate and fast, not so many layers needed. And you can correct and change things, even weeks or months later.
When we got to Chaim’s house, as we climbed the stairs to his living space, I passed a photograph of Chaim with Chagall. I was really immersed in that world at the time. The upshot of that meeting was that Red got involved with Mimi and eventually married her. The next thing I knew they were travelling all over Italy in a horse-drawn caravan, doing puppet plays out of the back. That may have even been one of my ideas. I once gave a friend of mine an idea like that, and he and his wife took me up on it. They got a small carousel on the back of a truck and sold ice cream and made a lot of money for a couple of years. Years later, they thanked me for the idea.
Red got really big when he created models of cities out of papier mache with the help of some assistants and Mimi. Great works of cities, like Chicago and New York. Red once exhibited in a large hall in Grand Central Station. He had a show recently where he was selling some of these things, like a life-size city bus, which one could climb aboard with people sitting in the seats. The fact that he is letting go of these now says something about him. I know how that feels: to let go of something special. I have been obsessed with a recent photograph I took of a gypsy accordion player in Paris. I did a water color, then a gouache, then a pastel, then an oil. I will not sell them at this point, unless someone offered a ridiculous price for them. To me, they are worth millions.
Steve Durkee is a weird bird. I met him through the same art opening scene, at a party John Chamberlain had. It lasted all night; some of us even fell asleep on Sunday morning on the fire escape. We could see people going to church. What did they think of us?
Steve and I bonded in a homoerotic way, as Freud would have said. We talked endlessly about the meaning of life, the universe, and some of the time’s spiritual leaders, like Meher Baba. Baba, an Indian word for father, had taken a vow of silence and preached that love was the answer to everything. His followers understood what he meant with sign language and in other non-verbal ways. Personally, I could not go one day without talking. Try it. Talking is like breathing to me. Steve had pictures of Meher Baba in his studio on Fulton Street.
This is where Steve brought me to meet Robert Indiana, who had already made a reputation with his one-word sculptures created from found wood and metal wheel, which he rescued from downtown streets and dumps. Bob lives on Vinalhaven Island now. I saw him recently and took a photo of him lying on a couch in the manner of Truman Capote. Back then, Bob also had a studio in the Fulton Street area. His lovers were busy at a sewing machine. Bob pulled out some of his one word paintings, like EAT, a sort of phallic post from railroad beddings, for me to see. He was on to something and it works for him to this day. His works incorporating “LOVE” are everywhere, even on a stamp.
Steve changed after he helped design the Sufi retreat in Lama, New Mexico, near Taos: The Lama Foundation. Baba Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, Marshall McLuhan were all influential, and just to show you how close we were, I went to visit him there in the 1980s, and we slept near the top of Sangre de Cristo Mountain where the Lama Foundation was to be built. From up there, the landscape looked like the beginning of creation. I wrote a piece which was published in The Saturday Review entitled “The Apocalypse is a Nice Place to Visit, But… .” In it, I parodied the dropping out scenes of the time, people moving away and creating communes that actually replicated the stuff from the cities with all the city innuendoes and acting out between couples. What they were dropping out of was control. They could do whatever they wanted by replacing city life with new restrictions guided by new spiritual rules. The New Age had begun, started in Esalen, a retreat in California near Big Sur.
Esalen was not there when I went to see Henry Miller. Then it was the Nepenthe Inn, and there were natural springs in which one could bathe, while facing the endless Pacific Ocean, sometimes over the clouds. Again, the beginning of creation, where the acting out continued with everyone getting it on with each other, including the guru who would get the most.
Eva Broch / Pierrakos
In 1973, I was led by friends to a medium named Eva Broch, who was related to the writer Herman Broch, who formed a German triumvirate with Hesse and Mann. She was drawn to Eastern Philosophy by the Banes collection of books, including the I Ching, used by Carl Jung. The Book of Changes and Jung books were everywhere. Chance encounters and events were meant to happen; synchronicity Jung called it. John Cage was a big proponent of chance in composing his music. According to Jung, there was order in chaos (actually a Chinese proverb) and a collective consciousness that was shared by all. This would drive Freud crazy as his former followers, like Jung and Reich went off on their own and devised their own eccentric theories. Jung with his mandalas and Reich with his focus on genitalia. Reich’s book, The Function of the Orgasm, is still on sale at the souvenir shop in Rangeley, Maine where Reich had a retreat to perform his experiments with orgone boxes made of steel wool and tin. The box definitely got real hot, but Reich maintained the box was a collector of orgone energy. He sent one of the boxes to Einstein, who wrote back and said there was a simpler explanation for the heat.
The interested can see all Reich’s stuff at Rangeley along with his cloud busters, a long tube filled with steel wool which he would aim at clouds. When the clouds split, Reich would claim responsibility. John Pierrakos, a former patient of Reich’s who I knew well, replicated these experiments near Woodstock. He would also put old razor blades under little metal pyramids and claimed they would sharpen in a few days because of the collective energy caught in the scattered pyramids. John aimed one of those cloud busters into the sky claiming he could cause rain on command.
I had sessions with Eva Pierrakos. In exchange for a fee, I would cook for her sometimes. Those sessions benefited me greatly, in spite of all the hullabaloo with guided spirits and mediums. What counted most was her keen perception and inventive dream interpretation, which brought up real buried feelings, some painful some pleasurable.
Once they invited Alexander Lowen to dinner, who wrote The Betrayal of the Body. I made truite bleu, a lightly cooked, almost raw trout, turned blue. The Betrayal of the Body is a marvelous book on character analysis. Contrary to Freud, he broke up the body into the masochist structure, which was even top and bottom; the psychopathic structure, which was heavier on top, as if the body was the body was floating off the ground; and the split structure, where the top was heaviest and the bottom light, as if you were easy to topple. While Freud put the patient on the couch, Reich made him stand up, and Lowen made him stand up and move. This all led to movement classes tied to emotional outbursts of anger and sadness, which were buried or hidden behind body armors. The idea of anger management sessions is credited to Reich.
I was an avid follower of WBAI; I listened to the station all the time. It was there that I heard the first recordings of Bob Dylan as they came out. Bob Fass had a show called “Radio Unnamable” that started at midnight and went on to dawn. On my own, I recorded material for him. I had an Uher tape recorder, reel to reel, that recorded at a high level, not as good as a Niagra, but it was fine, and I owned it. Once I recorded sounds of the city: a Puerto Rican church service, the footsteps and noises of the subway, steps walking in the street, and the bells from Salvation Army Santas standing on street corners. I would come into the studio and give the tape to Bob, and without even listening to it, he would put it on and let it play for half an hour. He was amazing that way, profound and like nothing else on the radio back then.
There was also a guy in Philadelphia who did amazing stuff on the radio, talking on and on and captivated everyone. Jean Sheperd. He had a way of going off on tangents. Once he talked about memos: How office officials sent memos to one another and he imagined one of them publishing his memos as a book. Sort of a prediction of Tweets.
I heard him in person once when he was broadcasting from a restaurant inside a hotel in Philadelphia. He went on and on in spite of the din in the restaurant. He mesmerized his listeners. Once he asked his listeners to lean out their windows and shout something all over the city. I cannot remember what it was, but he had a hold on people. He was way ahead of his time. Bob Fass on the other hand was more underground, being on late into the night, past midnight to 3AM or later. Yet he managed to play new Dylan music first and play the whole record. In vinyl.
When I lived on 10th Street between Sixth and Fifth Avenues, I hung out a lot at the New School for Social Research, which is still going strong with great writing courses. I heard Robert Frost read there. One day I was in the elevator with a man who held a small painting in his hands. It looked like one of Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral at noon. Is that a copy? I asked. “No it’s the real thing. I bought it from him. I am giving a class here you want to come? We are going to look at it.” The man was the surrealist Kurt Seligmann.
And that we did. We sat around the painting in a darkened room with only the painting lit. Monet wanted those same shadows at noon, so he came back each day and redid the paintings. I became a friend of Seligmann. I went to his studio, which was located right by Bryant Park near the New York Public Library. Each floor had huge windows and this is where Seligmann painted. He was immersed in alchemy and used egg tempura to simulate the special glow produced by medieval painting techniques. His figures were draped and wrapped up, including the heads. They conveyed an eerie feeling.
Once I brought Jill Johnson there, who wrote pieces for The Village Voice on dance and art. She had a diary style of writing, all up front. We met at a party given by John Chamberlain after an opening for his car part sculptures. I liked her right off and told her she had the legs of a peasant, and I liked that. We hit it off and ended up in my pad on 10th Street. We were only involved for about two weeks. I was really not mature enough for her. She had two children and would call me in desperation. I could not handle it and I broke it off. She never forgave me for that. It was sad, really. Years later, I met her in Soho in a coffee shop. She was sitting with another woman who may have been her lover; Jill became a lesbian by that time. She did not even look up when I went over to say hello.
But she loved visiting Seligmann, and we all talked about the old days, the ones he knew about with the Ernsts and Tanguy. Once when I was there, Seligman got a phone call to say Tanguy had just died. He was in shock. Later suffering from illness, Seligmann went out to hunt crows at his country house and they found him dead in the field from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. A suicide, like Van Gogh.
Interviews with Photographers
Years later in the seventies, I went on a job interview to assist Irving Penn, who was in the same building as Seligmann once was. I did not meet Penn. The secretary told me there was a list of people who wanted to assist him. No pay. That was impossible as I needed money. Penn had stacks of photographs in wooden portfolios, which the secretary brought out one after the other.
I also interviewed with Arnold Newman. He told me I would not go with him on trips. I would just sit in the studio and probably perform darkroom work in his absence. Behind him, I saw the photo he did of Igor Stravinsky sitting at a grand piano.
Finally I ended up working for Irwin Horowitz doing still life and food photography for the likes of Campbell Soup, Stouffers, and various ice cream companies. That was the calmest job I ever had. Chefs would come in for shots and we would hang out talking all day about how to boil an egg and so on. I learned a lot in those five years about cooking. Our biggest assignment was for Esquire. We recreated a dinner Alexandre Dumas, the French writer, once ate, which The Four Seasons would recreate as a special event. We set up a display of a row of partridges, then a row of quails, then a row of partridges and more quails and behind a spread of peacock feathers. It was huge and we had to imagine the servants carrying this into the dining room. On the side was a giant bottle of wine, Balthazar. It held roughly 15 liters of wine.
Writing this in October in New York City and going over the places and people I have encountered, the energy of the city is still that of a beehive. It was a holiday weekend and it gets jammed in Midtown. I went to see a Bernard Shaw play, Candida, way over on the West Side on 36th Street in a tiny third-floor theater with an excellent cast. Getting home from there was a hassle, walking down dark streets along 9th Avenue and then taking a crosstown bus to Fifth Avenue and then onward down to 11th Street where I was dog sitting for three weeks.
Just the other day, I went to an 80th birthday celebration for Philip Roth at the Temple Emmanuel on Fifth Avenue. The opportunity to see Roth filled the place up, and people read from his work. Alec Baldwin read from The Plot against America. But Roth could not make it. He was in the hospital with a bug, they told us. I wonder if the bug’s name was Gregor Samsa.
It just so happened that as part of an apartment open house, I went back after all these years to Chaim Gross’ apartment in the Village. Marvelous the way it looks now with all his stuff relocated from the Upper West Side: the hanging photographs of Chagall and Gross, and Soyer, as well as Gross’ wooden sculptures, his inspirational African sculpture collection, a painting by DeKooning and more.
Mimi Gross, his daughter, showed up. Here we were meeting again after fifty years. She is a great painter in her own right. It was marvelous. She was no longer married to Red Grooms. I kissed her and it all came back. Who said you cannot go home again. She still has a youthful, playful feel about her.
There is something special about being a street photographer in that one does not need permission to take photographs. No need for model releases. You can shoot away as you please with no reprimand. People may come up to you and object. I can respect that and I will stop, but there is no need for permission in public places. I find that some people want to be photographed, even though they may be a bit shy about it. Yet if I used such a photo in an ad, I would get in trouble. Then you need a model release.
Journalists do this all the time. Recently, The Economist had a cover photo of Assad from Syria. Surely, they did not go over there and ask his permission to use it. This is what Nixon meant when he said they could not kick him around anymore. You could still photograph him but you could not say things about him in public.
That is not my intent in these recollections of illustrious people and places. It is merely another form of my street photography, like Robert Frank’s The Americans, which was shot on the sly and now considered a classic. My writing here, like the best photography, is, most importantly, honest.