An Interview with Vanessa Davis about Gerald Davis’ Strange Stories
Vanessa Davis is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Los Angeles, author of the collections Spaniel Rage and Make Me a Woman. Last year, AMMO Books published Strange Stories, a posthumous retrospective of work by her father, the photojournalist Gerald Davis. Selected by the designer Todd Oldham, the images in Strange Stories make a strong case for Gerald Davis as a unique and under-recognized talent, a keen observer of mid-to-late twentieth century American life with a wry, playful sensibility that falls somewhere between William Eggleston and John Waters. I talked with Vanessa about the book, and her father’s life and work, in a busy, light-filled café on Sunset Boulevard in early December.
So your dad was born in New York City?
He was born in 1940, in Brooklyn, but he grew up in the Bronx. When I was a kid he would tell stories about growing up, and it sounded like a classic 1940s Bronx-Jewish childhood: he played stickball, people called him “Slim,” he had a girlfriend named Cookie. His father was a hat blocker and his mother was a homemaker. He had an older brother, my uncle Danny, who got him into classical music; Danny was the bookish one and my dad was the goofy one.
Was he interested in art from an early age?
I know he went to Baruch College to study petroleum distribution (whatever that is), but at the same time he was hanging around at the New York Times photo library, where my uncle Danny worked. And after that he took a class at The New School with the photographer Lisette Model. He went to museums all the time, but it just seemed like something that was sort of organic, just part of his New York life experience. Because he was just kind of a regular guy and didn’t livein the world of fine art, being an artist wasn’t part of his identity in a really self-conscious way. I mean, he was very art-minded, and he would sometimes bust out with things: like, he loved the painter Morris Louis, and he used to talk about this one time when he just sat in the Museum of Modern Art and looked at Picasso’s Guernica for an hour.
But he didn’t talk very much about “art.” In our community in south Florida, everyone else’s dads were doctors and lawyers and accountants, so it just didn’t come up a lot. He was always talking about his photography as a job and not as an artistic pursuit, even though it’s clear that he had a very artistic eye. He talked about how ridiculous it was that he was making a living photographing water-skiing squirrels.
Do you know how he got into magazine work?
After college he worked with a photographer named Myron Dorf, doing a lot of advertising and fashion photography, and a little later he got a job working for the New York office of this Brazilian magazine called Manchete. He also helped co-found Contact Press Images, where he worked as a photo editor. (It’s still a functioning agency: Annie Leibovitz is one of their photographers, and so is Frank Fournier.) Eventually he was offered a job at the National Enquirer, and that was what led him to move his family to Florida, where I was born. But he only had that job for a very short period, and then started freelancing after that.
Back then there was a lot of money in publishing, and being a freelance photojournalist was a viable career for a talented photographer. It was the glory days of magazine editorials, where they would send people on these million-dollar trips to Antarctica for a four-page photo story. When my dad first started working for You, he booked a room in a motel somewhere and they got mad at him for it. They said, “You’re representing the magazine. You need to stay at a nice place.” And so he would stay at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, or at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas.
I love the snapshot of Martin Luther King Jr. smoking a cigarette. He doesn’t seem to know that he’s being photographed, or care. It’s really unusual to see pictures of him in an off-moment.
Your dad covered a number of antiwar and civil rights protests in the 60s. Was he political at all?
I think he was very political, as a person, but always tried to be an impartial observer and presenter of what he was observing.
Later, he spent a lot of time in Miami following police; he would go with the police for the night, and photograph drug dens and busts and stuff. I didn’t see a lot of that stuff until we were working on the book project. I know that he was really affected by those assignments, because he was seeing people killed.
Some of those Miami crime scene photos have a Weegee vibe.
Yeah. He discovered Weegee’s work when he was working in the Times photo library, and later on got to know him a little bit. My uncle once called my dad “the Sunshine Weegee.”
Todd [Oldham] decided it was important to include those crime scene photos in the book, even though they’re so different from the rest of the images. And I thought that was cool, because it emphasized that there’s something sort of dark about my dad’s eye, even when he’s photographing light or silly subjects.
More typical of the book’s subject matter, though, are the photographs of Florida nudist colonies.
Where were these pictures published?
I’m not sure. He went and did several stories on Paradise Lakes, a nudist resort in Lutz, Florida. I know he went at least twice, maybe three or four times over the course of a few years, to photograph nudists.
Was your dad nude when he took these photos?
No! I guess he told my sister that he felt weird, because he was the only who wasn’t nude.
Sometimes he’d take me along on his shoots. This one — The Banana Museum — I was there for that session. He went on this trip to L.A. and Phoenix and Dallas to photograph weird museums, and took me along.
I like how the Banana Man’s shirt is a little bit open there.
I don’t! [laughs]
You were also present for this session with Ming, the Fattest Cat in America (circa 1985). What do you remember about that historic day?
Well, Ming’s owner was this guy who ran a pet shop in a strip mall in West Palm Beach, near where we lived. I assisted my dad on this shoot; I set up the tripods and stuff.
How old were you?
Probably seven. And Ming was forty-seven pounds, and I think I might have been forty-seven pounds! And I remember being excited, because I loved cats, and cats didn’t want anything to do with me because I was just constantly running after them and wanting to squeeze them. So I was excited to be near a really big cat.
Because he couldn’t run away?
He really couldn’t! I remember being disturbed, because I didn’t realize the cat would be malformed. I just thought it would be even more cat, but he couldn’t really breathe, and he panted, and he had a neck roll.
Do you know if Ming was in The Guinness Book of World Records?
He was, and I remember he made the news when he died, and I told everyone, “I met him.”
My dad also took a bunch of pictures of me with Ming, and I thought it was just for fun — but then when the story ran in some German tabloid magazine, if I’m accurately remembering it, they said that it was my cat in the story.
“Vanessa Davis, pictured with her cat”?
Yeah, I have no idea if I was accurately identified or anything.
In the picture, I’m wearing this shirt with fruit and polka dots on it. I did really like to wear colorful clothes, but I wonder now if he encouraged me to wear that outfit because he knew it would make a better picture.
I recently found some photos of a trip we took in the same year — 1985 — to the Bronx, to visit my grandfather. They aren’t in the book, but my dad took a whole series of photographs of me on this subway train that’s completely covered in graffiti. I’m wearing a pink bow, pink glasses, a humongous oversized Fiorucci t-shirt with a big heart on it, fluorescent pink parachute pants, lace socks, and pink moccasins, and I just look ridiculous. I mean, I liked dressing like that! That was my style. But I also wonder if my dad was like, “Yeah. Wear the pink pants.”
Ming’s expression in those photos is pretty panicked. In fact, all of his animal photographs are kind of sad: none of the animals look particularly happy.
Well, that’s another example of his critical eye. I think that he had a lot of really strong political viewpoint, but a lot of the way he expressed it was visual. In the eighties, a lot of the magazines my father worked for were these sensationalistic, tacky European tabloid magazines. Usually the stories his photographs accompanied were positive or entertaining, and he’d have no control over that. But in the images, he could counter it, a little bit.
Some of his pictures of people, too, are pretty unflattering, even bordering on grotesque. Do you know what your dad felt about the ethics of that, presenting people in such an unflattering light?
At the end of his life he was working on a book about Palm Beach that was going to be called “Black Tie in Paradise.” There’s a stable of Palm Beach society photographers that go to all of the local events, and my dad went to all of the same events as they did, but his pictures came out very different. And the way my dad described it is that he was a journalist and had a journalistic eye, so he was portraying people as they really are, and not just trying to make them look good.
The Palm Beach society pictures reminded me a little bit of Lauren Greenfield’s photographs, and of her documentary The Queen of Versailles…
Obviously your dad’s work predates hers, but there’s a similar aesthetic: these really over-the-top, ostentatious displays of wealth, and the people have a kind of unselfconsciousness about it. Nobody’s at all ashamed of being rich. These are the images that would have been a book if he had finished it?
Yeah. He had been working on the book for spent like a year — I think it was sort of finished, but he wanted to get into more of the real shit. He was shooting these society parties, but after twelve o’clock you couldn’t take pictures, because that was when everyone was breaking out the cocaine and whatever else.
I can totally see all these people saying, as soon as the cameras were gone, “All right, cocaine time.”
Well, it seems like everyone is on cocaine in this book.
How old were you when your father passed away?
I was nineteen.
You were already drawing and making art by the time you were that age, right? Did he encourage you in that?
My dad was so into my work, and he had really high expectations of me as an artist. He treated me with a lot of respect, and he was really supportive and very involved. In college I had to write a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, who was this female Renaissance painter, and he tracked down a book on her for me, and I got an A+ on that paper. I called him and told him about it, and that was the day he died.
How was working with Todd Oldham on putting this book together?
It was amazing, especially because Todd was really an important figure for me as a young person. I watched him on House of Style, I read his column in Sassy, and I was discovering a lot of the stuff that he talked about for the first time. It was a really exciting alternative to life as I had known it. I had gone to this Jewish private school where you had to have the brand-name clothing and all this stuff. So right around when I was twelve or thirteen, I started going to public school, and made new friends, and we started going thrift-shopping. Which sounds like it’s just about a change in shopping, but it was really a change in perspective.
I had never made the connection before between Todd’s work and my dad’s work. I feel like I’ve always known that my dad’s photographs are really extraordinary. But because I was so young and ignorant, I didn’t know why, specifically, or contextually. I didn’t know what impact they’d have.
And of course you can’t be objective about it in the same way.
I’m not objective, and I’m not a photo editor. What I really liked is, when Todd came to visit my mother’s house in Florida to look at the slides that I had brought out for him to look at, the way he was interpreting a lot of the images reminded me of the way that my dad would talk about things. They have the same sort of affectionate yet arch view of things.
You’re a professional artist yourself, an illustrator and cartoonist. Do you want to talk at all about your dad’s influence on your work, or your sensibility? Can you tell what you took from him or what you might have inherited from him?
It’s hard to pin down, but I know that it’s a lot. I think certainly my sense of humor, just seeing the world as a ridiculous place but in kind of an ultimately optimistic way. My dad, and my mom, provided me with this really comfortable, fun, colorful childhood. He would always insist on color; like when he was going to take your picture, he made you change into something more colorful. He once complained about photographing Bryan Adams, because he always wore white. And I know I’m always trying to put as much color into my work as possible.
I also think that, especially as I get older, I’m starting to enjoy being more of an observer than a subject. And even though I’ve always been a very verbal person, and I utilize a lot of writing in my work, I think that my more sophisticated ideas are definitely better executed through images than they are through writing.
But I didn’t know how fleeting our time together would be. I think that I always realized that my father was really cool and important to my formation as an adult, but I also had this idea that as I got older, we would have time for all these conversations about his work and his way of seeing the world. And that never happened. He would hang out with his journalist friends, and I loved being around them. I had no idea what they were talking about, and I was mostly just thinking about myself. But I was like, “One day, I’m going to be one of the guys. I’m going to be an artist, too.”