A photographer all her life, Ellen Graham has met and photographed the beautiful people of the latter half of the twentieth century. How gorgeous they were. And so many of them! Flipping through the proofs of her forthcoming book, with the somewhat bittersweet title ‘The Way We Were’, we were hard pressed to name the Warren Beattys, the Ryan O’Neills, the Newmans and Redfords and Eastwoods of today. Answers on a postcard please. (As you can tell, there’s a possibility we’re stuck in the past). Her work captures a naturalness that doesn’t seem to exist any longer, and she herself is a very natural, easy person to be with, both candid and funny. ‘Fat and bald now,’ she kept saying said, as we gazed at one god after another. Her home (‘I tried to knock off Coco Chanel’) is Art Deco-elegant, and, like her pictures themselves there’s nothing fake—it’s all the real thing.
What is going to be the focus of your nextbook?
It’s going to be sort of around the 1970s and it’s Julie Christie and Warren Beatty all looking terrific, and Omar Sharif, maybe Fred Astaire and Angela Lansbury. We’re going to call it ‘The Way We Were’. They were more glamorous than people are today. I mean Britney Spears …
Why is that? Is it just the passage of time that makes people seem more glamorous? Or are they definitively more glamorous?
I shouldn’t say it totally because there are some great actresses today.
But are they glamorous?
Yes, who is glamorous today? Life today isn’t so glamorous. You can go to the best hotels, the best restaurants all over New York, all over Europe and people are in t-shirts or flip-flops. It’s the era of the flip-flop.
How do you start to build the trust between you and your subject?
Well, you build the trust first of all by making them like you … I figured they’d better like me, they’d better have fun or it’s never going to happen.
So how long do you give it before you actually start shooting them?
It really depends … I mean Frank Sinatra gave me ten minutes after I flew from California to New York, so you have to be fast and you have to hold their interest.
What was he like when you were shooting him?
I was not impressed.
I would like to see that picture you took of Olivia de Havilland in Central Park with a homeless guy in the background, glowering .
Oh yes! I was shooting in Central Park and I saw this bum and I said [to her] ‘get behind him’. She was terrified so she stood there like that. I went over to get her and the guy looks me and goes [she blows a raspberry] right in my face. And then I see this guy everywhere and my son sees this guy everywhere and he said ‘You’d better be careful because he’s going to sue you … I don’t like to just do a plain portrait. I want something happening.
In some of your pictures, you don’t realize who they are at first glance.
It’s because they’re sort of loose. I don’t particularly like studio shots. I don’t particularly like to use lights. I like available light.
Is it true, even now, that actors don’t like being photographed?
They hate it! They’re not used to shooting stills.
So you’ve been working your whole life.
Pretty much. My mother and father took me to Venice and they had a cabana next to Winston Churchill (I mean it was a very glamorous time) …Valentina Schlee who was a fabulous designer in the 30s and 40s and she was a great friend of Garbo’s until Garbo went off with her husband. My mother knew her because she had made some clothes for her, so my mother for some reason bought me a camera, and it was a good one. I was only 17, I didn’t know what I was doing and this woman posed for me. And it was the best picture I ever took. So that started it. And then the first assignment I ever got was with Bazaar, photographing the hundred most attractive men in the world.
That was your first assignment! Were you married at the time?
No! We never got to a hundred. Probably we got to ten, but that was how I got Omar Sharif, Fred Astaire, Warren Beatty …
Did he [Warren Beatty] try to get you into bed?
Yes. And so did Omar Sharif. I was shooting him in Malibu. We had some red wine and he knocked it over me and then he jumped on me. I was madly in love with him from Dr. Zhivago and I might have done something, but there was another woman there and I thought I’m not getting into this.
I thought he was a sensitive soul.
Well, at that time there were very few women photographers and I was kinda young and cute, so every guy thought they had a jump on me. It was ridiculous. I thought I’m going to be the only one who turns down these people because I don’t want to be number 568 or 3002 or whatever.
Yes, your pride stops you in a way.
I was there to take pictures! Now I’m so sorry I can’t tell you! [laughs]
Some of them became your friends though.
In many cases. I mean Fred Astaire I photographed for 20 years. He was in his sixties in the 60s and went into his eighties. He was lovely and my mother was dying of cancer and his wife arranged to take her out to dinner, which was a very nice thing to do. It was her dream, to have dinner with Fred Astaire.
So can you get that access now to people?
I can’t! I’m not working. [People] now have press agents, they have managers, they have advisors, they have … what are the people who get their clothes?
Stylists! Unless you’re Annie Liebowitz and you promise them the cover of Vanity Fair, forget it.
Who would you like to do?
I had to sit here and think very hard on who I really want to do today. I’d like to do Vanessa Redgrave. She saw the book and she said she’d pose for me. Incredible face … I wouldn’t mind Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore … Kate Winslett. I think Brad Pitt is so nothing.
There is quite a lot of sexual energy in your pictures. How do you feel about getting a sexual charge into your pictures?
Yes, they’re sexy. I think it’s terribly important. If it isn’t there you’re going to lose the picture.
That picture of Paul Newman … he must be the most beautiful man ever born …
To me the most beautiful man ever born was Robert Taylor. And the woman would be Garbo.
Did you know her?
Well, Gaylord Hauser, who was this nutritionist, fabulous man who was a great friend of my mother’s, brought Garbo to dinner when we [Ellen and her husband] were living in a house in Beverly Hills. I was told ‘never discuss her film career’ and to never tell her I was a photographer. She was about 76 at the time. She comes with him, loves the house, she’s crazy about my husband and he gives her a few drinks. And then she says, ‘I want to see the rest of the house.’ And she heads right for this room where I have every photograph I’ve ever taken of anybody famous. She looks at the pictures and she says ‘Who are these people?’ And it was people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli. I didn’t answer. And she says ‘Are they your friends?’ And I said yes. So can you imagine? She doesn’t know that I’m a photographer and she sees all these pictures of all those people, what the hell are those pictures doing there. So she says ‘Who took the pictures?’ I said ‘I did.’ So she goes around the room and the first picture she picks up is the one of Valentina Schlee who she’s not speaking to (whose husband she went off with). She spends ten, fifteen minutes walking around the room. She looks at me as she walks out and she says ‘First class.’ She stayed for dinner, she helped me with the dishes, she was smoking and drinking.
How would you describe her personality?
She had a great sense of humor. She wanted to know what mascara I used and I gave it to her. We once went to dinner at Jean Howard’s house … we have dinner and she was reciting poetry in German. Then it was time to leave so I go to where the car is parked and she walks me out like a parking attendant. She opens the door for me and she opens the door for me on the right side. But the steering wheel is on the left. So I get in and she looks at me and says ‘Where is the steering wheel?’ I said, ‘It’s on the other side.’ And she said ‘Well, why are you sitting here?’ I said ‘Because you opened the door for me …’ and she started to laugh like Ninotchka, you know … and that was the last time I ever saw her.
Do you think that the camera steals the soul?
I don’t think that at all. I think it is a wonderful way to preserve time and capture the moment. What else do you have? Your memory doesn’t have it. The discouraging thing for me today is that everybody’s a photographer. Being a photographer today is almost meaningless.