Interview with Ellen Graham
by Scott Eyman, The Palm Beach Post
The first time Greta Garbo came to dinner at Ellen Graham’s house was in the mid-1970s. Garbo’s friend Gaylord Hauser warned Graham that, whatever else she did, she shouldn’t ask Garbo about the movies. Oh, and one other thing: Whatever you do, don’t tell her you’re a photographer.
On the appointed day, Garbo and Hauser showed up. Graham promptly forgot herself and blurted out, "Oh, I’ve seen all your pictures at the Museum of Modern Art."
Garbo’s only response was to roll those incredible eyes of arctic blue.
Ian, Graham’s husband, asked Garbo if she’d like a drink.
"Yes, Scotch, please," she said.
"Wouldn’t you like vodka?" he asked. "I have Swedish vodka. Absolut."
Garbo changed her mind, said she’d like the vodka and drained it in one long gulp. With preliminaries out of the way, she put the glass down, turned to Ian and said, "Scotch, please."
She loved the house, wanted to see all of it, including the room in which Graham hung her photographs. She walked around the room and asked, "Who are all these people? Are they your friends?
"Who took the pictures?"
She came to a portrait of Valentina, the legendary designer who had once been Garbo’s best friend – until Valentina’s husband left her for Garbo.
The portrait was the first Graham ever shot, taken on the Lido at Venice in 1959. Valentina is gesturing imperiously, like a silent movie queen, as if demanding the Doge send a barque for her.
Garbo looked at her ex-friend, asked when the picture was taken, then moved on. She spent 15 long minutes looking at Graham’s photographs, then walked past her, pausing only to say: "First class." "It was the best review I ever got," says Ellen.
There have been a lot of great reviews over the years, and there are undoubtedly more in the pipeline. Graham took three years to put together her new book, Talking Pictures, which collects her celebrity work from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in a luxurious coffee table volume.
The people she met were surprising in surprising ways. Garbo, for instance, smoked, which greatly irritated her friend Hauser, who was a health freak.
Garbo is usually characterized as fundamentally uninterested in other people, but that’s not the woman Graham knew. "She was totally natural, with a good sense of humor," says Graham. She also loved Graham’s husband. "When you married him, you hit the jackpot," Garbo announced.
When it came to her work, Graham worked casually, most frequently with available light.
"I’m not Annie Leibovitz, dragging along 50 people to get a shot. I liked working one-on-one; that way the only person that could annoy them was me. I knew I had to make them relax, get them to laugh."
She had her favorites. There was Garbo, of course, but she never photographed her. And there was Olivia de Havilland – Graham took what is apparently the last photo of de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine together.
The two women loathed each other as young women and although they’re both in their 90s, they loathe each other still. But one day 30 years ago, they gritted their teeth and got together for the birthday of their aged mother.
If Graham could get those two together, she can do anything.
"She puts people at ease, she’s funny, she doesn’t pull punches," says John Loring, author, artist, and retired design director at Tiffany’s. "Ellen has an ability to establish an instant relationship that tears down the barrier between herself and the person she’s photographing.
"It gives her photographs a great immediacy; when the subject is looking at you, they’re really looking at you. You feel closer to them because they’re not guarded."
Graham is an attractive woman, and the occasional pass was thrown her way from the likes of Omar Sharif and, of course, Warren Beatty. "It wasn’t me," she says about Beatty. "It was a reflex."
She met her husband when he showed up for a date with a ballerina who was a friend of Graham’s. The minute she heard his voice she was interested. His name was Ian Graham, he was an insurance executive, and they lived together for two years before they got married 42 years ago.
"I had about 20 proposals by that time, but I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life with any of them. Ian is good-looking and has a great sense of humor. We’ve always laughed a lot, which is the key," she says.
Graham’s photographic needs were simple; she started out shooting with a Leica, and for most of her career she used the same Nikon. She preferred black and white, but then, most photographers do.
Graham likes film and the mechanics of film. "I’m not into digital," she says.
"If you do something for 40 or 50 years, and it works, why change it? I like the paper, I like the look of silver nitrate.
"Olivia de Havilland loved a picture that I shot of her, so I gave her a print. And decades later, when the color had faded, she asked for another one. So I ordered one, but the printer did it digitally and it looked … strange. It didn’t have the bounce of film. I gave it to her, and she looked at it and said, ‘This is not the same picture.’
"And that’s the way I feel, too."
Part of Graham’s lessening of a devotion to her craft derives from the proliferation of digital photography, which has changed the art and craft, while also perceptibly cheapening the image.
"I don’t shoot much anymore. Everybody with a cellphone thinks they’re a photographer, and I’d rather have photographs of these people" – a gesture toward her book – "than of Kim Kardashian. I’d rather photograph people of talent; it means more.
My basic philosophy is that the camera remembers everything, people forget, photographs are our memories.