Interview With Ellen Graham

by Marshall Heyman, The Wall Street Journal

November 2011


On Wednesday, Ian Graham will host a party for his wife, the photographer Ellen Graham on the release of her new coffee-table book, "Talking Pictures," a collection of images from her career. Accompanying photos of Hollywood types like Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood and Anthony Perkins and New York fixtures like the socialite C.Z. Guest, Brooke Astor, the jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane and the fashion editor Diana Vreeland are Ms. Graham's recollections of shooting them.

Many of her observations involve memories of how handsome she found the various actors she photographed. In 1973, Burt Reynolds wore a jumpsuit when he helped carry Ms. Graham's heavy camera and equipment, "and he would have looked better without the jumpsuit," she writes. Michael York "couldn't have been more attractive." The "handsome and charming" Prince Albert of Monaco "sends me a Christmas card every year!" James Caan "looked terrific in jeans and an open-necked shirt. But I wasn't looking at his tight jeans. I had my eyes on his two pit bulls, Luca and Trouble. They terrorized me and ate my film."

As for the "marvelous" and "handsome" Christopher Walken, "I wouldn't have minded being locked up on the roof with him for a couple of hours."

Ms. Graham, who grew up in Manhattan living "a privileged existence we sometimes took for granted," now resides with her husband on Park Avenue in the 70s, where she spoke about the publication of "Talking Pictures."

"My God, it's a masterpiece," said Mr. Graham, when he popped into say hello to his wife.

"Is that because it's dedicated to you and there are four photos of you inside?" answered Ms. Graham, who has a sense of humor that manages to be both acerbic and warm

Why publish a book now?

I've been taking pictures for years mostly on assignment for magazines and I have a tremendous archive. People thought it should be in a book. I've done a book before, but this is the first one that has writing in it. I wanted to work with [designer] Sam Shahid for years. He did "Pools" with Kelly Klein. And I also wanted to work with Pointed Leaf Press because they do the best coffee-table books.

You seem to have a penchant for photographing male movie stars.
I'm better at taking pictures of men. They tend not to fuss about hair; they tend not to fuss about makeup. They're easier than female movie stars. I'm not like Annie Leibowitz - I don't have a staff of 50 helping me. It was often just me in the back alley of my house in Los Angeles working with a camera. When I started in this business in the '60s, I didn't go into it so I could photograph beautiful men. There weren't many women photographers. But they thought I was there for something else.

What did they think you were there for?

Everyone who sees the cover portrait of Warren Beatty asks me, "Did you sleep with him?"

Did you?

I was the only person who was going to say "no" to him. And I'm sorry about that now. That's true.

Did you sleep with any of your subjects?

Omar Sharif invited me to take his picture at his rented house in Malibu. We had some wine. He knocked the wine over, he jumped on me, it fell over and then he grabbed me. It turns out he had another woman upstairs and I didn't want to get into a threesome. Again, now I'm sorry. In those days, you didn't go to bed with just anybody the way you do today.

What's the difference between photographing men and women?

With men, you have a sensual rapport. It's easier. You tend not to have to have all this fuss and worry about the lighting. There's no retouching. A man looks at a photo and if there are lines on his face, that's part of it. If a woman sees a line, she goes berserk. As for vanity, I don't think I found the men I photographed vain, but they did think I should go to bed with them.

And you didn't?

That's a tough question. How can I answer this in front of my husband? I don't remember. Do you want to see the pictures on my wall now?

Talk about your 1973 book called "The Growling Gourmet." Zsa Zsa Gabor and Charo are in it.

Celebrities gave their recipes and what they fed their dogs. Gloria Swanson did not have a dog but she felt she was a great friend of dogs so we went to FAO Schwarz and got her a toy dog to pose with. When Earl Blackwell came to pick her up, he asked, "Now, how in the world did you get a dog to pose like that?"

You must love dogs.

Not after that book. It was worse than photographing children.

Do you still do a lot of photography?

I won't do digital - I think it's cheating, and I can't get the results I like. Everybody today with a telephone is a photographer, and I'm not going to be one of those. I could learn but I like silver nitrate.

In your book there's a photo of Truman Capote at Denise Hale's wedding eating cake with his hands. You write he ate "almost all the wedding cake." How big was that cake?

Do you want to know how many tiers? I haven't a clue! I say he ate the whole cake, but I never saw the whole cake. I was busy taking pictures! That was the only time I ever saw Truman Capote. And I didn't sleep with him, if you must know. He was too busy eating the cake