Interview: Jerry Schatzberg

The legendary singer-songwriter is notoriously suspicious of the media. But during the 1960s Jerry Schatzberg gained his trust, and his friendship, to take a series of iconic photographs.


Schatzberg:  “I’m  always a voyeur”

Schatzberg: “I’m always a voyeur”

He was an ordinary boy from the Bronx, hailing from a family of Jewish furriers, but thanks to his talent as a photographer and film director, Jerry Schatzberg became friends with some of the biggest stars of music and cinema. In a career that has spanned five decades, Schatzberg has worked and socialised with Keith Richards, Al Pacino and Jimi Hendrix among others. He was even romantically linked with Hollywood actress Faye Dunaway in 1966 - the equivalent of dating Keira Knightley today. He later cast her in his Golden Globe-nominated movie, Puzzle of a Downfall Child.

Now 81, but looking years younger in his all-black attire, dark shades and wavy silver hair, Schatzberg is in London to talk about the biggest star he ever photographed, Bob Dylan. Indeed, Schatzberg's most famous image is probably the blurry, yellow-tinged portrait of the singer-songwriter, shivering on a New York Street, which adorns the front cover of the seminal 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde.

The pair met through Dylan's then girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Sara Lowndes, in 1965, when the previously unplugged folk music hero controversially went electric on his album Highway 61 Revisited.
"There was a rock'n'roll journalist and a disc jockey I knew," recalls Schatzberg. "They were talking about Dylan and I said: ‘Next time you see him, ask him if I could take his photo?' Next day I got a call from Sara saying: ‘Bobby says you can photograph him.' I said: ‘I'd love to.' She gave me the address where he was recording at that time. I went the next day."

Dylan had a reputation for being unco-operative, especially when it came to journalists and photographers, but Schatzberg managed to draw out his playful side. "He was very open right from the beginning," he says. "I thought he was fun. He went about his business. He likes it when someone comes in and he can say: ‘Hey, listen to this!'"

Between 1965 and 1967, Schatzberg took a series of intimate and revealing photos of Dylan. The photographer is particularly proud that he managed to persuade the initially reluctant star to come to his New York studio. Usually with Dylan, photographers came to him.

The sessions were terminated only when Dylan was recuperating from his serious motorbike accident and became, temporarily, a recluse.

"We had a great relationship," remembers Schatzberg. "Once he trusts you, he has no problems doing things. We'd just find things to work with. I'd find a prop and give it to him. People look at the photographs and say: ‘What's the meaning of that?' But there are no meanings, we were just having a good time. He smoked a lot so he often appears doing that. We had a rapport. We'd go out to places, hang out. It was very important that I was a friend of Sara's. And I'm not ever interested in ever exploiting a situation and he felt that.

"He's normally very cautious and very suspicious in a way, particularly when journalists ask stupid questions. There was an English journalist who asked me if I could put her in touch with him for an interview for a fashion magazine. The first question she asked was: ‘Now that you're making all this money, how much money do you want to make?' He looked at her as if to say, ‘That's a stupid question,' and he answered: ‘All of it!'"

As well his career as a photographer, Schatzberg also ran a nightclub called Ondine, in New York. It was place where musicians and film stars came to indulge in the kind of illicit substances that at the time were thought to aid creativity. Not that Schatzberg ever joined them. "People I knew and I was friends with died of drug overdoses, like Jimi Hendrix," he says. "I would come to the club and I loved sitting and watching people. I'm always a voyeur, because that's what I do as a photographer. I would sit there and at that time I was drinking whisky. And we'd go through some experiences. I was very friendly with the Stones. I met them in London right at the beginning. I remember one night with them, popping amyl nitrate, me drinking whisky and we were laughing hysterically. We didn't know why, but we were laughing."

Disappointingly, the topic of Schatzberg's and Dylan's shared Jewishness never came up during the photo sessions. "Dylan went through a period where he wanted to try orthodoxy and I think he did, then he wanted to become Christian, which he did for about a week or so. I'm not very religious. I know I'm Jewish and I don't deny it, but I don't practise. But we never discussed it. Why would it?" The two men enjoyed an intense period of friendship, so it is surprising that they have not seen each other since 1974. "I'd like to see him," says Schatzberg. "I won't photograph him. He's on tour for 100 days a year. I'm doing my thing, I don't wake up every day and think, ‘I want to find Dylan'. It's the same with [Al] Pacino [with whom he made the film Scarecrow]. Before we did the film we weren't friends. But after the film we went back to what we were doing. He's got a life, I've got a life. But we see each other we hug we kiss. We've got mutual respect. And it's like that with Dylan. But I wouldn't hug and kiss him - he's not the huggy, kissy type."

Jerry Schatzberg's photographs of Bob Dylan are at Proud Central, 32 John Adam Street, London WC2 until January 28. Visit www.proud.co.uk for details

    Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014