Sunday Brunch with Matthew Rolston

This past weekend, just as L.A. weather began morphing its way back to the usual luminosity after months-long semi-gloom, I attended a Sunday brunch at the famed Fahey/Klein photo gallery on LaBrea Avenue for my old and great friend, the great Hollywood photographer Matthew Rolston. Hosted by Anne Crawford, muse and L.A. ambassador-ess for Rick Owens and all around bon vivant about town, it was held right in middle of theall-white gallery that’s also displayed, at one time or another, the work of Herb Ritts, William Claxton, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Melvin Sokolsky, Cartier-Bresson, Horst, Edward Weston and Man Ray. And an expected eclectic crowd of L.A. art-aratti’s turned out: Joel Chen (of J.F. Chen furniture gallery), Michael and Kim McCarty (owners of Michaels’ restaurants in N.Y. and L.A.), Rupaul (who, ladies and gentlemen, needs no introduction), Cybill Shepherd, Kelly LeBrock (whose appearance in a pastiche of Rolston photos is prominent on the walls), Jennifer Love Hewitt, artist James Brown and wife Alexandra, decorator Suzanne Rheinstein, photographer Paul Jasmine, designer Elisabetta Rogiani – and the way-glam Elaine Irwin, 80’s supermodel, former wife of John Mellancamp – current wife of Jay Penske (owner of WWD, Variety and Deadline Hollywood). And what do accomplished people in cultural circles do when they assemble? Of course all gawked at each other and the photos, all the while downing delicious quiche and mimosas, and never losing a lick of lipstick.

Matthew Rolston on set
Click images for full size views

It’s not often you get invited to a brunch in an art gallery (luckily there was no red wine)– but Matthew Rolston never emulates what anyone else might do, whether it comes to entertaining or shooting. And in fact, the man has one of the most eclectic careers on artistic/cultural record: portrait photographer, video director, commercial director and hotel designer/creative director – and now, fine artist (with many a book, imprint and gallery showing of his fine art photography work). The work of this particular show, flamboyantly named “Hollywood Royale” is a series of portraits of some of the more famous and fabulous names from the pages of the taste-making magazines in the 80’s and 90’s (remember those days, when magazines were still relevant?): Rolling Stone, Harper’s Bazaar, W GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times. Hollywood Royale is appropriately named for a variety of reasons – one being that Rolston is Hollywood royalty himself. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he practically defined celebrity portraiture in that glamour throwback period, along with lens men Herb Ritts and Greg Gorman – as well as Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber. He’s lectured at the Annenberg Space for Photography (adjacent to CAA in Century City) on several occasions, and teaches well-attended photography classes at the prestigious Art Center in Pasadena, where he also honed his craft, and has endowed a fellowship.

Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles, Angled View.
© MRPI. Published by teNeues, Germany.

This particular show, which opened at Fahey/Klein on March 1 and runs through April 21 at L.A.’s number one photo gallery, helps define that era’s take on celebrity image-making, gender bending (long before gender neutral), ushering in a revival of the glamour of old Hollywood – combined with a heavy hand of postmodern irony. These Rolston images – rife with sets, costumes, heightened personae, wigs, beauty makeup and more than a little big of vogue-ing – of Prince, Baryshnikov, Isabella Rossellini with a bird, Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Joan Didion, the young baby-faced Spielberg, the young baby-faced Timothy Hutton, George Michael, Shirley MacLaine – are all examples of a zeitgeist, a pivotal moment in time – “a revival of Hollywood glamour that regrettably died in the ‘70’s,” explains Rolston – that’s propelled the way towards the cult of fame with which we live today. You may remember the 70’s as the decade of Barbra Streisand in see-through bell bottoms at the Oscars, and Cher in all manner of goth-meets-showgirl get ups.

Matthew Rolston. Jodie Foster, Director II, Los Angeles, 1991
© MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

The opening night of the show was co-hosted by Rolston pal and oft model (super, to you) Cindy Crawford, who told reporters “Matthew’s work b is such a great recognition of L.A. as a real school of photography. I was fortunate because it happened right when I was emerging as a model. Before my generation, magazines didn’t fly models to L.A. to work with photographers. They would, maybe, fly the whole team to L.A. to work, but they didn’t really see that L.A. photographers were fashion photographers and, especially, the kind of celebrity photography that Matthew and Herb Ritts and some of the others started doing at around that same time.”

Matthew Rolston. Isabella Rossellini, Bird, New York, 1988 © MRPI
(Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Rolston’s portfolio helped fuse fame and fashion in the moment right before designers started to hyperventilate about dressing actresses on the red carpet. His portraits graced the covers of most fashion magazines – because of his unfailing eye, he knew how to dress subjects in eye-catching (to say the least) and trend-shaking ways. They created personas not unlike the pages of fashion magazines: individuals portrayed in ways you’d never seen them before, revealing something – everything – as contrived as possible – all to reveal some deeper truth and personal exposure. It could appear pop and even trivial – while remaining serious, true and deep. And the fact that they’re still relevant today is testament to that.

Matthew Rolston. Madonna as Marlene, Los Angeles, 1986 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

“It didn’t hurt that my earliest clients were Michael Jackson and Madonna,” admits Rolston of his start. Matthew’s a longtime personal friend of mine going back to own my early journalism days, conducting interviews on the sets of his shoots for the stories that went with the pictures. Our first collab, so to speak, was when he shot Annette Bening for the cover of W in 1993, where I was a writer/editor for over 11 years. She was just rising from Broadway actress to film star – long before Beatty – and the resulting cover was a striking and singular black and white image redolent of the 1930’s golden age of Hollywood. I remember him shooting Demi Moore for the cover of W’s annual A-List issue back in 1995, where she dressed down and donned a – no she didn’t!!! – Banana Republic black turtleneck, and legendary editor in chief Patrick McCarthy nearly having a meltdown because, of course, they weren’t advertisers, and even worse than that – they weren’t a luxury brand. Still, the picture alone was worth a million ad bucks – and he unwittingly ran it, scowling all the way. I also interviewed Jessica Simpson for a cover of Marie Claire in between takes on a Rolston shoot– who’s always been known as the man who knows how to make women especially (Jodie Foster, Madonna, Salma Hayek, Drew Barrymore) look breathtaking. “It’s what I call ‘beauty lighting,’” he says, a name that stuck in any description of him, and tk book. Cindy Crawford commented, “I think the most important thing is lighting, and Matthew is a master of lighting. Hurrell had that beautiful, ultra-idealizing-of-the-subject kind of lighting. I feel like Matthew had and has a modern take on that.”

Matthew Rolston. Prince, Portrait in Psychedelic Colors, Los Angeles, 1988
© MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

The more than 100 photos on the walls of the current show were all taken in the period from 1977 to 1993, and are from the accompanying book Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles, 262 pages, teNeues, available for purchase through the gallery for $125 – his fourth monograph) that celebrates what Rolston’s described as “the gestation of the Eighties revival of Hollywood glamour. In the Seventies, glamour was debased. Then along came Interview Magazine – where I started my career – and Andy Warhol commissioning photographers like Herb Ritts, Greg Gorman and myself in Los Angeles. And suddenly a new style was born, an ironic take on old Hollywood – modern for that time, the Eighties. That set in motion a domino effect that led to the revival of glamour, which we’re still in and defined by now.”

Matthew Rolston. Robert Downey, Jr., The Bad and the Beautiful, Series, Los Angeles, 1985 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles)

Rolston commissioned three culturally climatic essays for the book describing that particular zeitgeist: by Charles Churchward (longtime creative director of Vogue), Warhol diarist Pat Hackett and photo curator Colin Westerbeck, all on what he terms “the Los Angeles school” of art photography. “I’m not responsible for the revival of glamour in the 70’s,” Rolston offers up. “But my work is really a reaction to it. The people who really ushered that were Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, and from another time, the great man himself, George Hurrell – and they all knew each other. Andy knew Hurrell in the 70’s – and Helmut Newton and George had Hurrell met – and I wonder who introduced them – could it be – David Fahey???” The dapper but oh-so-modest Fahey himself was walking around the gallery brunch, personally greeting everyone himself.

Matthew Rolston. Cybill Shepherd, Reclining, Los Angeles, 1986 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

“What happened was that Helmut became SO successful in the 70’s and lived in France,” as Rolston tells it – “and he didn’t want to pay taxes in France – so he and his wife June moved to Monaco, where there are no taxes. And from that moment on, he and June would winter here in Hollywood, hole up at the Chateau Marmont, and shoot his work for Vogue Paris or his erotic portraits. One on of his first visits to L.A., he sought out the photo galleries – of which only a few existed at the time – and went to G. Ray Hawkins, where David Fahey was director. They subsequently got to know each other very well over the years. Newton expressed a desire to meet George Hurrell – who was at the end of his career, living in the Valley, not working that much – doing the occasional wedding or Bar Mitzvah. Anyway, they hit it off – they even photographed each other. The friendship blossomed, and one day, Helmut called up the editor of Vogue Paris, the most influential Vogue at the time, and said, “You must have George Hurrell photograph the couture collections” – and it happened. I saw these pictures of Jerry Hall and other models when I was a student at Art Center in Pasadena – and that was another big clue for me of what was coming– that the glamour and values of the 1930’s could still be created – or recreated. David Fahey is the number one photo gallerist in Los Angeles, he’s represented me my whole entire life – and he was nice enough to introduce me to George Hurrell years ago at Art Center Pasadena, I think this was around 1976 or 77, the time when Hurrell himself was 76 or 77. And I asked a dumb question but maybe a good question – ‘Mr. Hurrell, what is glamour?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, kid – maybe a suffering look.’ And it’s true – when you look at glamorous shots of stars, they are not smiling – it’s a look of mystery, and sometimes a real look at suffering.” An iconic Hurrell photo of Joan Crawford is a great illustration of that point.

Matthew Rolston. Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters, Los Angeles, 1977 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Rolston was also the “family photographer” of both Michael and Janet Jackson. He developed an unusually close rapport with Michael, and in 2007 he shot him in what would become the last photo session before his death. Rolston is also the man behind the seminal image of Michael Jackson portrayed as a king.

“Michael called me up one day and said, ‘I want to be photographed as a king,’” recalls Rolston. “This was before anybody called him the King of Pop. That happened almost 10 years later — when Elizabeth Taylor called him the King of Pop. At his request and his commission, I photographed him as a king: full regalia, crown, jewels, on a throne. It seems that I was there at the birth of iconography of Michael Jackson as the King of Pop.”

Matthew Rolston. Michael Jackson, King, Los Angeles, 1985 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Rolston styled Jackson using pieces from his own closet and his personal collection of antique brooches. “I had a whole thing where I would pin a bunch of brooches on one side of my shirt,” Rolston says, himself a disciple of personal glamour and iconography. “At one of the shoots, before [Jackson] wanted to be a king, he wanted to wear them. He took them literally off my shirt and put them on himself.”

Matthew Rolston. Don Johnson, Polo Clothes, Miami, 1986 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

Meanwhile, Matthew Rolston has conjured a rather royal career of his own: his photographs are in the permanent collections of LACMA and the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. Rolston’s work has also been shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), among many others. Hollywood Royale is his ninth solo show – with several having been staged in L.A., but also New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Berlin. And three monographs have already been published of Rolston’s work: Big Pictures: A Book of Photographs (1991), a collection of early photographs published by Bulfinch Press, New York; beautyLIGHT: Pictures at a Magazine (2008), a survey drawn from twenty years of Rolston’s celebrity portrait photographs published by teNeues, Germany; and Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits (2012), published by Pointed Leaf Press, New York. The last is a series of portraits of old ventriloquist dummies he shot close up, to show their faux “humanity.” Spooky and alienating, they appealed to those who like their art a little macabre – like Rostlon’s biggest fan Diane Keaton.

Matthew Rolston. Molly Ringwald, 1920s Style, The Four Decades, Series, Los Angeles, 1985 ©
MRPI (Courtesy Fahey/Klein, Los Angeles).

It’s always interesting to see our current cultural giants in light of what their legacy and big picture is evolving to. Robert Sobieszek, the legendary former Curator of Photography for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), compared Rolston’s work to the “four mega-greats of the ’50s and ’60s: Avedon, Hiro, Penn and Skrebneski… I think Rolston is one of the foremost editorial, glamour/fashion photographers working today,” he said, “giving us immensely sophisticated, exciting, glamorous shots and portraits that surround us daily.”


Merle Ginsberg



Ernest Schmatolla is publisher of Lookonline since 1994. It is the longest running fashion site on the Internet.

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