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Q&A: How Photographer Ernie Holzman and a Naked Model Transformed Local Landmarks Into Art
When Ernie Holzman began his latest art project he wanted to attain a sense of invincibility—the L.A.-based photographer had been fighting cancer and struggling to feel emotionally alive. With one nude model named Carly, a 60-year-old camera, help from his wife Terry, and not a single permit, he captured familiar L.A. hot spots in an unfamiliar way. The result is his new exhibit, L.A. Backstory.
It’s hard to tell from your photographs—where did you shoot these shots?
Chinatown, Union Station, LAX, Pinks…
Those are all iconic places. How did you choose your sites?
I was always fascinated with shadows, architecture, and light and this of course led me to cinematography. But whenever I would scout a location in L.A. or New York I would take mental notes about great places. Union station is a place I’ve always loved. When I worked as a cameraman in 1980, it was one of the locations where we shot Blade Runner. But there were also places that were suggested to me by my wife, like a mannequin factory. When we finished the shooting there we passed this building that had a “Jesus Saves” sign in the back and we stopped immediately. I love airplanes so that is why I decided to shoot at LAX. We waited for a couple hours for the right plane to take off. I put Carly in LAX in the afternoon and got a beautiful shot. I wanted to give some motion to the plane, so I shot at a slower exposer so the plane would blur, but everything else was really sharp.
You decided against pulling the necessary permits to photograph legally at the locations you shot. Why?
When you have cancer you don’t know what is going to happen from scan to scan. So before I had this scan in April of 2012 I wanted to do something radical coming out of chemotherapy. I felt, Well, nothing can hurt me now. I got this disease and I am dealing with it. As a teenager you feel nothing can touch you or harm you. I wanted to feel like nobody can touch me again. And I had the sense while shooting that I did not care if I got arrested or got hassled.
Did you run into any challenges?
Paramount Studios was a particularly dangerous location for us because there was a day care center next door and we had to make sure there were no kids in the playground. There were a few complaints. I expected a guard to come out of the gate but he or she never did.
Which location was the most challenging to shoot?
Well one that gave me the most anxiety was Union Station because I was flirting with the TSA. I shot the image from the velvet rope where I was given permission to be from one of the police officers. I was told to not go inside and I didn’t. I used one of my laser pointers to indicate to Carly where exactly I wanted her to stand. Terry helped her take off her dress and she went in quickly and I snapped one shot and that was it. As luck would have it I was very pleased with that shot. The whole thing happened in 30 seconds or less.
How did you get into the empty diner where Carly is sitting, nude, in a booth with a cup of coffee?
Director Patrick Norris and I lost touch for many years and reconnected doing a show called Huge. He revealed to me that he was cleared from cancer and then a year later, when I got diagnosed, my wife Terry suggested I join a support group. That’s not my cup of tea, so I decided to call Patrick. He responded immediately and we decided to meet at this café weekly. Sitting in the booth that Carly sits in he helped me get through the rough spots emotionally. So at one point I asked the manager of the café if I could do a photograph there. No one was there except for a few bus boys. The manager was not thrilled with the scene. She said, “You can’t do this. She is not wearing any clothes.” And I said “Oh is that a problem? I am making art.” I just packed up my things and left—but I had gotten my image.
Which image is your favorite?
The one at the café. I absolutely love that restaurant because that is where Patrick helped me come out of my chemotherapy gloom. I had withdrawn pretty much from life and he was very instrumental in helping me cope and come out of my shell.
Were there any locations you wanted to shoot but couldn’t?
Well, there was this one place that my wife forbid me to consider and she was right. On the Cloverfield exit off the 10 freeway there is a huge American flag that is on the north side of the freeway, and I wanted to shoot the model on the side of the freeway hitchhiking with that huge American flag in the background. Terry said, “you can’t do this, you might cause an accident.” She was right. It would have been dangerous.
The model you use is essentially alone in all of your images. Are you making a point about the L.A. experience, or was this the easiest way for you to work?
If we did this in Milwaukee I am sure we would have had a completely different response to a nude model out in public. People in Los Angeles have seen it all. At some places I wanted to have people in the background, like at Paramount or in Chinatown, so that it would be as if she was invisible. At times I really liked that there were people in the shot and no one was looking right at her.
The project is titled L.A. Backstory. Why?
The title evolved. When I decided to do this project I wanted to do something that would be interesting to me photographically. I felt photographing a nude model from the back was more interesting as an artist. But there was also something about photographing the same woman in all of these environments and not seeing her face but seeing what she is seeing. I didn’t know my future and I didn’t want to know what she was seeing. I wanted to photograph her looking at the world.
L.A. Backstory is on display at The Known Gallery from Jan 12th to Jan 27th.