I ’ve said it many times: actors are uncomfortable in front of a still camera because they’re not acting. When they have no lines, no action, and no recourse but to be themselves they can feel vulnerable while being stared at through a lens — exposed, if you will. Let me tell you about a quintessential example. (How about that! Two puns in one paragraph.)
My opportunity to photograph Anthony Quinn came during a business stopover he made in LA, traveling between production locations for two unmemorable films. (Even great thespians have to make a living.) His most memorable role was Zorba in “Zorba the Greek.” Lots of people thought he was Greek. But his grandfather emigrated to Mexico from Ireland in the 19th century. The future star of American movies was born in Chihuahua, in 1915, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution.* His father rode with Pancho Villa. Later in life he filled up the screen with his performances, always passionate and often profane, in films like “The Guns of Navarone,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” and Fellini’s “La Strada.” The Academy honored him twice with an Oscar; but not for “Zorba” in which he gave — more than merely memorable — one of the most iconic performances in cinema history.** Then again, he played Chief Crazy Horse in “They Died with Their Boots On” starring Errol Flynn as General George Armstrong Custer. In the movies, Quinn always played the macho man; virility incarnate, bigger-than-life. But I discovered that the real Tony Quinn was quite shy.
I accompanied a writer to meet Quinn for a magazine assignment. (Regrettably, I have no recollection of which magazine or which writer.) We caught up with him at L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. I shot 35mm color candids during the interview. Then, with my professional obligations out of the way, I asked Quinn to pose for a portrait. I always tried to squeeze in something just for me at the end of a photo assignment. I would switch to a larger format camera, something special to practice my artistic prerogatives, unless, of course, making a large-format portrait was called for in the first place.
“I never take a good picture,” Quinn demurred.
“You don’t have to,” I said. “That’s my job.”
I was getting better at this kind of stand-off. I was 30 years old. I’m two years older, as I write this, than Quinn was at the time; older now than most of my subjects were when I photographed them — even when I thought they were old. Now they’re gone. It’s hard to get my head around that. Was it my doom lens? No, just the inexorable drumbeat of time. But in 1982 I addressed the 67-year-old as Mister Quinn, with the respect due to an artist, and also my elder. Nonetheless, I threw him a hard-ball.
“I’m pretty good at this sort of thing, just like you’re good at what you do,” I said. “Trust me, just like I trust you to give a great performance when I buy a movie ticket. That’s why we’re here today, together; right?”
He was looking for a polite way out. But he agreed, reluctantly, after I showed him some of my work. I always brought along a portfolio when I went off to shoot someone famous. Showing portraits of equally important people usually overcame a reluctance to pose. This gambit got easier as my career went along and my portfolio got bigger. Once in a while, when someone or other tried to beg off by saying they didn’t have time, it helped to whip out a portrait of, say, Ronald Reagan, a sitting president, and say something like, If he gave me half an hour you can give me fifteen minutes. I wasn’t always so aggressive.
“Well,” said Quinn, “you won’t get a good one.”
I took up the challenge, hoping the movie star wouldn’t deliberately make it a fight to the finish. We really didn’t have much time; so, to avoid wasting what time we had to set-up lights (I hadn’t brought along a photo assistant), I asked him just to sit in front of a bare wall, for a background, in his hotel room. I made use of “available light,” the sunlight coming through white drapes covering a sliding glass door. It was obvious, albeit incongruous, that this powerful man was ill at ease as he squirmed in his chair when I faced him with my camera.*** I wondered if I could use Quinn’s introversion to create something different in the way of a portrait.
There are twelve separate frames, or exposures, on a roll of 120 film. That’s the square film format, 6 x 6cm, that Hasselblad cameras use.**** For my different kind of portrait, and because I was running up against the clock, I decided to shoot only those twelve frames, hoping to capture what I wanted on one roll of film: a composite portrait — all twelve frames seen together. I wasn’t going to reload my camera. It was an on-the-fly decision; intuitive. And for the less-than-ten minutes it took to wind through that roll, it fascinated me to watch Quinn go from extreme discomfort in the first frame — look at his hands — to mild anxiety in the fifth, then to settle on a pensive expression by the sixth frame. In subsequent frames he looks increasingly impatient. There is indifference in the seventh; exasperation by the ninth. When we got to the eleventh frame, trying to please me I think, he settled on a smile. He looks uncertain. He’s not truly happy. When I told him that I had only one shot left in the camera his expression turned smug: See, I told you so. He kept that look on his face and folded his arms, emphasizing with finality how he had endured. I was ready, and now came the twelfth and final frame. Kerflop! The reflex mirror went up and the shutter opened and closed. Done. The most self-assured if pensive portrayal, one that can stand alone, is the sixth frame, smack in the middle.
When I returned a day or so later with two prints in hand, one for Quinn and one for him to sign for my collection, he boomed, “You caught me!” Then, meekly, “Oops.” And that’s what he inscribed with a black marker as bold as his laugh was a hearty bellow, “You caught me! Oops.” That’s the print that hangs on my office wall. The composite works best when it’s reproduced really big for public exhibition. It was the only composite portrait I’ve made.
* He became an American citizen at the age of 32 in 1947.
** He won an Oscar starring opposite Marlon Brando in “Viva Zapata!” and again for his portrayal of painter Paul Gaugin opposite Kirk Douglas’s Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life.” In 1964, although nominated for “Zorba,” Rex Harrison won the Oscar for Best Actor as Prof. Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” The competition for Best Actor included Richard Burton for “Becket;” Peter O’Toole, also for “Becket;” and Peter Sellers for “Dr. Strangelove.” 1964 was a classic year for movies that also included: “Mary Poppins;” “Goldfinger;” and “The Night of the Iguana.”
*** My simple set-up was a Hasselblad 500c with an 80mm Zeiss lens on a tripod.
**** There are also 24-exposure rolls and a special camera back that loads hand-spooled rolls of 70mm film, each rendering 72 separate frames (the equivalent of six rolls of 120) without having to reload.