Interview with Photographer Charles Rotmil

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Since adding the comment feature to RealityStudio, we have gotten a small but very informed response to the Bunker and elsewhere. One of the more active comment threads deals with Kulchur, particularly Kulchur 2. While Kulchur made its name as a little magazine with a strong critical angle, over the years the covers have caught my attention as much as the articles. I wrote on the Kiss cover of issue 13 and compared it to the Couch cover of the Mad Motherfucker issue of Fuck You. The Kulchur covers act as a billboard announcing what was hot and talked about in art and creative circles in New York City in the early to mid 1960s.

Kulchur 2Kulchur 2 is no exception featuring a striking photograph of African America Abstract Expressionist Bob Thompson. The photo was taken by Charles Rotmil. Thompson died in 1966 at the age of 29 in Rome of complications due to heroin abuse. The writing of the Beats is essential to understanding the work of Thompson. Thompson lived at the famed Beat Hotel for a time. The University of North Carolina possesses a copy of Kaddish inscribed by Allen Ginsberg to Thompson in April of 1961. Ginsberg was experimenting with heroin at the time. The poem “This Form of Life Needs Sex” is from April of 1961 and shows him toying with the idea of women as well. The Beat Hotel and the heroin connection suggest that Thompson was familiar with William Burroughs.

African American painters were not common in the New York art scene of the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Eras, so over the years interest in Thompson has grown considerably. The Whitney Museum provided a retrospective in 1998 that featured another photograph by Rotmil of Thompson. (See also this review, that review, and also these images.)

Bob Thompson photographed by Chalres RotmilCharles Rotmil emailed RealityStudio inquiring about a copy of Kulchur 2. In the emails, he provided some great stories about the creative scene of New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s and graciously agreed to an interview. The Beats were a much photographed group of writers and even fancied themselves skilled with the camera, particularly Allen Ginsberg. In the late 1950s, photography was in the process of a major shift in style signaled by the snapshot aesthetic of Robert Frank in The Americans. Rotmil’s work was included in the acquisition by the Smithsonian in 2006. See this picture of Bob Thompson in his studio. The picture on the cover of Kulchur differs drastically from this studio shot and shows the range of Rotmil as a photographer. Born in France, Rotmil was a hidden child during the Holocaust and has spoken on this experience in lectures and talks.

Always with his ear to the ground and his eyes open, Rotmil was right in the thick of the whirlwind surrounding photography, writing, art, theater and dance in New York City. He was involved in the earliest days of the Judson Dance Company and photographed in detail the workings of The Living Theater. He met casually or knew well a who’s who from Diane Arbus to Judith Malina to Jack Kerouac to Robert Frank to, of course, Bob Thompson. Rotmil addressed a handful of questions and answered in a very candid manner that allows an intimate look into the endlessly fascinated time and place that was New York City of the post-WWII era.

Interview with Charles Rotmil

Provide some background into how you came to New York and became a photographer.

Long story here…. and personal… but I came to New York in the 50s having knocked up this woman who became my wife, and we had two more unplanned children. All based on bad advice: A. the rhythm method… does not work, B. you can get pregnant when you nurse a child, and C . you cannot keep a diaphragm on for a week. Then shortly after that I divorced my wife who took off with another man.

There is a book here for sure…

I was never in hippiedom but did go to California and Mexico right after my separation to get over the pain and the crisis. Wild adventures in both places. On the Road was my travel guide book at the time. I got involved with a call girl in L.A. and went camping in Big Sur and met one of her ex-lovers, Henry Miller. It was a pilgrimage of the first order. He gave me 6 books all signed and all stolen or never returned to me. Dan Balaban was one of the culprits I am sure, and I can’t get hold of him. It could be there are two Balabans, one the writer and the other the actor. If he has my books, he should return them.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s describe the pervading scene surrounding photography. You mentioned Diane Arbus in an email to me. Who were the major influences from the past and present? What was the opinion of Robert Frank particularly his American collection?

Charles Rotmil with Red Grooms drawing in sandI studied with Harold Feinstein, whom I met through a lover at the time, a woman who was a nurse. Through him, I met Robert Frank, who was very modest and hardly ever talked to me, although I saw him often. Once I had a huge party, after a gallery opening for Jay Milder, the painter, filled with everyone you could think of, Red Grooms, De Kooning, Poons, Warhol, and others. We played one record all night, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”

Feinstein was, and I think he still is, a prodigious teacher and an eternal influence of the school of honest street photography, totally anti-commercial. Even Avedon seemed square. Frank would not even let Cartier-Bresson in his apartment.

Diane Arbus at the time I met her was studying with Lisette Model, the grotesque school photographer. I studied painting with her husband Evsa Model. I became an assistant to many other illustration photographers, Monroe among them, eventually ending up with Horowtiz the food photographer. I stayed with him for five years… I also continued shooting street stuff and the Living Theater. I took tons of photos there night after night. I knew the Becks well and Judith Molina. I also hung out with dancers, and took photos of them, the Merce Cunningham crowd. Most of them lived in a retreat upstate near Stony Point called the Land. Even Cage hung out there… and others from the Black Mountain College days.

You mention The Living Theater and you are also connected with The Judson Dance Company’s early days. Can you give some details of that scene and your involvement?

The Living Theater was a hangout for me. They let me go to many performances and I hung with some of the actors, who later made it to Hollywood. But I have some real fine portraits of the Becks where I posed them on stage and took with my old Rollei… then it was Pirandello, Tonight We Improvise… Kurt Weill… The Brig, which I did not really care for, but it is on again I hear with Judith Malina still there (she was on the Adams show, remember ?)… best was The Connection… with a real jazz combo on stage and they are all waiting for “cowboy” for their heroin fix… great play… saw it many times… I have photos of the Tonight We Improvise… where the actors throw out the director and eventually the author too… and get lost…. a bit like Six Characters in Search of an Author

The theater was on 14th Street. On the second floor was a dance studio run by Bob Dunn and his wife, offshoot of Merce Cunningham. There I saw Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs… but Rainer just came out with a book… I took photos of the rehearsals… I have to look for those negatives…

Julian Beck photographed by Charles RotmilThe weirdest thing happened with the Judson Church… I knew Debbi Hay then, she lived also on 10th Street with her then husband… they heard me play the shakuhachi (Japanese flute I improvise with and meditate with… still play it) and she asked me to play during a performance. It turned out to be her first performance ever. I was happy to do this… and John Cage was in the audience at the time… I had trouble getting all the notes, but that was okay because there is a concept in the playing called Ma, which is those silent moments after a long note… nothing happens… that’s intentional and in the notations, which are all written in ideograms… or hatagana…. that got me mentioned a while ago in a New York Times article on the Judson Church history. I will try to find it and send it to you… marvelous experiences there…

Carolee Schneeman used to do her thing there, in the nude, with killed chickens and blood all over the place, and sometimes chocolate… she is now the Great Madame of art performances… I had also a very close connection to Red Grooms, we hung around a lot and once went to see the great sculptor Chaim Gross… Red ended up marrying his daughter Mimi. They went to Italy and got a wagon with a horse, travelled all over the place, performed shadow puppet shows…

There is a community upstate near Haverstraw, stemming from the Black Mountain College people, that I used to go to with everyone… and name it, they were there… poets, Cage, Cunningham, LaNoue Davenport (medieval music)… I wanted to move there but could not… too costly for me… My apartment on 10th Street and Avenue B cost me $35 a month. Before that I lived on 1st Avenue near 2nd Street… with my apartment overlooking the very large 2nd Avenue cemetery, cost me $18 a month. It had cold water, for real… I would wander down to Allen Street and go to the Public Baths and take a bath or a shower for 25 cents… once in a while.

What did you think of the Kerouac foreword to Frank’s collection?

Robert Frank, The Americans, 1959It did not impress me too much. I mean he was the in-guy then. But Frank never did anything as good as The Americans ever again, except for the English series, which came either before or after that, still not as strong.

You mentioned that Kerouac and Ginsberg were quite visible in New York at the time. What was your experience with them and how were they looked upon at the time?

It was very casual actually. Crowds did not appear… I would go to a reading on a Sunday afternoon… walk over from my pad on 10th Street to MacDougal Street and stand with Kerouac against the wall in the coffee shop and listen to Gregory Corso.

One time I was hanging out on Washington Square by the fountain and a group from a magazine, like GQ, appeared and asked me to model sweaters for them. They saw me as a hippie. I always had long hair, a French habit. (I told you I was born in France, no? Strasbourg.) We went around the village, and a woman took shots with a large-format view camera. I have never been able to find the magazine. 1959 or so. Fall issue on sweaters. Would love to find it.

How did the art scene like Abstract Expressionism and Pop intersect with the photographers? Did they influence you as a photographer or was it more social?

I can’t answer that question. I took all the Tuesday night openings as social events which ended in one party or another. Chamberlain comes to mind, the sculptor. I liked what they did. But it had no influence. It was the school I mentioned, Walker Evans, Frank, Feinstein that has the most influence on me…. as honest photography.

Tell your best Cedar Tavern story.

Well, it was a great pick-up place for girls… typically one would come up to me say I need to talk to you… or once I made eye contact with a woman who had a date, and I said, Why don’t we just leave… and we did… and her date came out and punched me… but I went home with her to my pad and we fucked all night.

Another time was when I was after this girl and she said she had a date… and this bald guy appeared and when I asked him what he did he said he drew. Draw, I said, only draw, why not paint? Well, it was Saul Steinberg… to my shame…

I miss the Cedar Bar scene terribly. I loved all the people who came to it. We were like a family. Claes Oldenberg, who had this great little wife, was showing me drawings of a huge lipstick as a sculpture. Never would I dream he was going to pull this off later on, but he did.

Describe how you came to photograph Bob Thompson for the cover of Kulchur 2?

I was in touch with lots of painters who lived on the edge, barely existing; some committed suicide and others disappeared. Bob lived in a loft, and after the Cedar Bar I would hang out with him all night at his loft down east side… played drums, got high.

Can you give some back-story on Bob Thompson?

Bob Thompson in studio by Charles RotmilWhitney Museum did a book on him; you should try to find it. I did the frontispiece photograph for it, the only quasi-formal shot of him, sitting in a wicker chair. He looks like an African prince.

What was your sense of Kulchur as a magazine at the time?

I was used to French literary journals, put out by Sartre and so on… and the publisher who would put out books that were banned here. Olympia Press. Read Lolita there. So I was not surprised by this magazine, emulating the European ones… of course I loved it…

Were there any other magazines that you read at the time?

See above… not sure if Paris Review was in existence then… but that would have been included… I still go to Universities and to their literary magazines section, and peruse them all…

I am fascinated by New York City in the early 1960s. What was it like to be an artist in that atmosphere? If you can say, how did it differ from New York of the 1950s and then in the mid-to-late 1960s?

That is a hard question for me to answer… Like I said I knew many who struggled. Some hit it big right off. I did photography for Leo Castelli when he was uptown in a townhouse, even did photos for an Italian magazine. Ivan Karp sent me out on missions to do a day on artists. He liked my style. Now whenever I visit New York I pop in to speak with him and reminisce. Allan Stone was another gallery I worked with, and I was very fond of Allan until his recent death.

What is your opinion of Allen Ginsberg as a photographer?

Well, I never took it seriously. He liked taking candid pictures. In fact once I met him at the Met with his lover and he asked me to take a photo of both of them against a painting. He was very casual about it… I took the shot… he had an old low-key 35mm camera. I have never seen his stuff.

The obligatory Burroughs question. What the opinion in your mind and in your circles of his work? Did it progress beyond Naked Lunch? Did you come in contact with him when he was in NYC in the 1964/1965 time period?

I was very aware of him, but more from a heavy drug scene point of view. I stayed shy from the heavy stuff. Tried everything else. He was hard to read then… but I liked him, his whole persona… and as far as I knew he was in Morocco somewhere hunting down young boys.

Provide some detail about your photography besides the Thompson photo. Was that shot typical? What was your work like in the 1960s?

It was typical yes. Fringe light photography, under duress, low light, street stuff, which would pull me in. I still do this.

Fill us in on your career to the present. Exhibitions, shows, the trajectory of your work.

That is a problem with me. I have never really had major shows. I have sold photos and at one time I was getting $500 a day in the 70s for commercial stuff, like book covers etc…

More by Charles Rotmil

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 14 August 2007. You can view more of Charles Rotmil’s photography at Picasa.

7 thoughts on “Interview with Photographer Charles Rotmil

  1. Bob Thompson was married to my sister, Carol,who
    died in January 2005. I have the photograph of
    Bob in the “wicker chair”. Something he found on
    the street. Also, their wedding pictures and quite a few more. I cherish them. I saw Charles
    at the Whitney opening, but I don’t he remembers
    me. Would be nice to hear from him.
    Elaine Plenda
    80 N. Moore St. 13D, NYC 10013

  2. sorry Elaine that I had not seen this till now. I remember seeing you at the show. Yes let’s get in touch.

  3. Great interview, but I have one minor but key correction: Bob Thompson was not an abstract expressionist. He may have shared their interest in monumental scale (at times) and flat planes of color, but his work diverges in important ways from that of the abstract expressionists and even the New York School. I don’t mean to nitpick, but in an era completely overshadowed by this one style, it’s important to point out incredibly innovative artists like Thompson, who followed their own vision and as a result have been marginalized by the art historical canon.

  4. Fair enough on abstract expressionism. A very good point and I appreciate the comment, particularly about how canon labels can marginalize.


  5. I am not an art expert so point well taken. In fact when I used to talk to Bob I mentioned Gaughin to him, which he reminded me of a lot. I used to hang out in this studio and watch him paint and play the drums. Horace Richter came by a few times, one of his collector, who died recently. Grey Gallery in New York is planning a show dealing with the 10th street gallery scene. I will have some photos in it of artists of that time, Red Grooms, Jay Milder, Thompson among them.

  6. I used to be married to Jay Milder. I remember those Cedar Bar days. They were amazing. Charles Rotmil did a great photograph of Jay with our first daughter, Rachael, when she was only a few months old, in Jay’s studio. It was used with another photo by Charles of Bob Thompson playing the bongos, in Bob’s studio, for a 2 person show of them at the Zabriskie Gallery.

  7. I am glad to see this piece is still on line. I live in Maine now where elephants gather to die. In Portland. I am hoping to come out with a book of photographs and a biography of the war years when I lived in hiding. My father was gassed in Auschwitz. Lots to tell.

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