Helen Marcus: New York Freelance Photographer

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215 East 68th Street, Apt 3-O
New York NY 10065


An Interview with Helen Marcus

With Robert Day, Author, at offices of NEW LETTERS Magazine


NEW LETTERS:  I want to ask about your famous photograph of John Barth.  Just a kind of professional question:  Did you have an assignment to take that photograph, for a book jacket or a magazine?

HELEN MARCUS:  I was asked by The New York Times to photograph him for a Sunday magazine piece in 1979.  So, I called him up, and I came down from New York.  I do have a story to tell that is somewhat embarrassing, but it doesn’t really matter any more.  I never had read anything of Barth, and I’m a great reader—at least I think I am—so I picked up a paperback edition of The Floating Opera.

NL:  That was his first book. 

MARCUS:  It was a book I got on the train.  I started reading it, and I thought, hmm, this is rather dense.  I already had read a bio the publisher sent, and Barth was well known by then for Lost in the Funhouse, of course, and lots of others.  Anyway, I arrive, take a taxi to his house.  He lived in a wonderful old house in Baltimore, on the top of a hill, and you climbed up some steps to get into the house.  Myself, being somewhat nervous because I was impressed with his credentials and everything, I said, “Oh, I’ve been having an interesting time on the train reading your book.”  And the first words out of his mouth are, “Did you understand it?”  That was shocking.  I’m not always as forthright—I mean I don’t like to say disagreeable things—and I said, “Oh, well, of course.”  Then he had the good sense never to say anything about it again. So I loved him immediately. 

NL:  The photograph you have of him has appeared on a number of books.  Did you pose him?

MARCUS:  We started in the house, and I felt like I couldn’t get any interesting backgrounds that made sense to me.  Sometimes you go into an author’s house and there’ll be an area, whether it’s a desk, or even a living room, or whatever.  It was a lovely day, and there was a park across the way, so we went outside, and he took his beret with him.

NL:  The beret figures later in his novel Sabbatical: A Romance, but I see the factual beret he had with you disappeared from the portrait, and then disappeared later in his fiction, also.

MARCUS:  He doesn’t have any hair to speak of, as you can tell, and I’m sure that’s why he usually wears the beret.  All you want to do, as a photographer, is to make people feel comfortable, because such authors, particularly one so popular and famous, are always being photographed.

NL:  The photograph of Toni Morrison, which I suspect would be the most celebrated photograph you’ve taken—was that an assignment?

MARCUS:  That was actually for Knopf.  I think the first thing I photographed for Knopf was a party for the great pianist Arturo Rubinstein, which were essentially party pictures—that’s what they were—and I’d come to know the PR person.  Knopf had published Toni Morrison’s first book, Song of Solomon, already and apparently didn’t like her publicity picture very much, and so the PR director asked me to photograph her.

NL:  Had you known her before this?

MARCUS:  No, I had not.  I only knew of her because of Song of Solomon, which I did dutifully read. In my apartment, before my mother insisted I take her a baby grand piano, I had a fair amount of space where I could photograph people.  So, in July 1977, we arranged that she would come up to my place, and I would photograph her, and we spent a couple of hours together.  It’s before her real notoriety and what we’ve come to think of her today.  There was a corner where I had a table I used for dining, and she sat there.  I set up what we call “hot lights” today, and they were pretty hot to get an exposure with my camera and the film I was using, so that I could get a sharp image of at least her face.  I moved around this table, and I probably took four rolls of film, and this is the only one where she looks like such a different person than the others—I don’t know how to explain it, exactly.  She is quite beautiful in that photograph, I think.

NL:  Yes.

MARCUS:  She certainly is a beautiful woman.  During the session, we talked about her family, and how she was a single mother, what she was doing at Random House, where she was then an editor.  We got on famously.  Since then—this was a long time ago—I have had continual requests for that photograph.  When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she apparently suggested to the Swedish post office that it contact Helen Marcus, because of that photograph.  So the Nobel Foundation, in Sweden, and I had negotiations about uses, and so on.  It’s probably the most reproduced photograph I ever made.  It was made into a postage stamp by the Sweden Post.

NL:  That photograph has also become part of the National Portrait Gallery, right?   Come on, tell us that story.  Don’t be modest.

MARCUS:  I won’t be, I won’t be.  That was a lovely thing that just happened when the Gallery re-opened after renovating, in June 2006.  They were being—and very interesting to me—careful about what they were going to put into this up-to-date collection.  The “10-year-dead” rule had just been banished.  They invited people to submit work—you had to show them the work—then the committee decided whether it wanted to accept it or not.  In fact I just the other day got back the original, which is just a small image that I sent to them just last year.

NL:  Now, if we go the National Portrait Gallery, and we find the Helen Marcus photograph of Toni Morrison, what size is it—do you know?

MARCUS:  I think it’s 11-by-14 inches.

NL:  Your photograph of Tom Wolfe is famous because, as far as I know, it’s the only photograph I’ve seen of him, at that age, where he’s not wearing a white suit.  How did you contrive to get that done?  It’s a plaid suit of some kind, isn’t it?

MARCUS:  The odd thing is, actually, I was asked to take that while he was being interviewed for a little magazine called Book Digest.  The editor was a fellow by the name of Martin Gross, who ran that magazine, which existed for two or three years, and did some nice things. 

That was, I hate to say it, back in the ’80s, and I had nothing to do with Tom Wolfe, myself.  He was in his office for this photo, quite a spacious room, in his apartment, in New York City. 

NL:  Were you aware that his appearance not in his famous white suit was unusual?  I mean, did you say, well, that can’t be Tom Wolfe?

MARCUS:  At that point, one just thought of him with his bow tie. 

NL:  When I first met you, at the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, we talked about photographs that you had made of authors.  Among the photographs I’ve seen was one of Lewis Thomas. Generally, when one teaches American literature or contemporary literature, Lewis Thomas, after all, is not usually—or often enough—on our list of writers.

MARCUS:  As you know, Lewis Thomas was the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, and that is probably the premier cancer research hospital and a prestigious place to be the head of, and the day I went to take his photograph, he was wearing a brown suit.  I don’t know of anybody ever wearing a brown suit, I’m sorry to say.

He had an enormous office, also, and a proper-sized desk.  I asked him to stay there and didn’t move him around very much.  We’d set the appointment up with no stated time.  He didn’t say, you know, you have ten minutes, and you can do this.  I had read Lives of a Cell or something else, so we chatted.  I kept thinking, these are the most boring pictures I may ever have made in my life.  You know how people sit, and he had nothing to speak of on the desk, and the office was so big.  I then said, “Dr. Thomas, would you be able to go to your lab and maybe show me some of the things that you’ve done?”  He was really very nice and gentle, and I followed him into the bowels of that building, because it goes on for what seems like miles.

NL:  In this brown suit.

MARCUS:  In his brown suit.  Absolutely—he did not undress.

NL:  People passing by in lab coats and white shoes.

MARCUS:  And him saying hello or whatever.  So we get into this small cubicle, and there are microscopes sitting there, various ones.  I did ask him if he would mind putting on his lab coat, and the minute he got into the lab coat, it was like a new person had evolved.  He became thoughtful.  He had this wonderful expression on his face.  I took a couple rolls of film.  He had great big glasses on, sort of owl glasses.

NL:  When he took the lab coat off and went back to the brown suit, did he go back to being the brown-suit man?

MARCUS:  He was the brown-suit man, and then he was very formal and thanked me, and took me out of the bowels of the building.  He was a wonderful man, and I followed his career ever after that. 

NL:  I’m fascinated with the photograph of Norman Mailer because the other writers—Jack Barth, Toni Morrison, Tom Wolfe—look more or less, in my mind, like their recent photographs.  That is to say, they’re plausibly the same kind of people.  But the photo you have of Mailer seems to me quite young and pugnacious in a way that we think of Norman Mailer—sort of leaning forward, as if he’s in some kind of argument already about something. 

MARCUS:  Actually, that’s right.  TIME magazine had asked me to photograph him, while he was being interviewed at the Algonquin Hotel, to the right of the Oak Room.  That was 1967.  There were some seats and a little table, and he was having coffee.  I believe it was coffee.  I didn’t take a lot of pictures, because I felt intrusive, but I got up on the chairs, on the sofa, whatever was there, these lush, leather seats that were in the Algonquin Hotel. 

NL:  These photographs were not taken with what you called “hot lights.”  You were just there with a camera.

MARCUS:  I did nothing.  So I tried to sort of make light with what was available.  Back then, you could “push” the film.  The film with an ASA reading—which is the amount of light that you had to have for certain settings—of 400, for example, could have been pushed to 16, or something.  So, when I take it into the lab, I say to the guys, This is how you have to process this film, and make sure you don’t make a mistake.

NL:  Did TIME magazine then run the picture?

MARCUS:  Yes.  It was one of my first published pictures there.

NL:  You mentioned a couple of times that when you’ve gone to see writers, you’ve read their books first.  Does that make a difference?

MARCUS:  I sense that if you’re going to photograph people, and love faces and people, then, yeah, I want to know about them.  If they don’t have a book, I want at least some bio.  I would sometimes ask for a photograph, but I didn’t care about that a lot.  I figured I’d see them my way.

NL:  There are a number of photos of yours that I’ve seen of Anne Tyler.  She’s a notoriously private woman.  Was it difficult to get permission to photograph her?

MARCUS:  No.  That was for The New York Times in 1977, around the time I photographed John Barth, because Anne Tyler also lives in Baltimore.  I came down on the train again, and I didn’t take lights; I just came by myself with my camera and lenses, or two or three cameras, and I spent about six hours in her house.  I had dinner with her and her husband.  We walked around the house.  She showed me her office, and we discussed ideas.  It was an amazing assignment for me, and she was fascinating.  I like to think that she was interested in what I had to say.  She is a good friend of another woman photographer.

NL:  Who would that be?

MARCUS:  Diana Walker, the White House photographer for TIME through most of the 1980s and ’90s.  She was part of the White House press corps, and so, being a friend, Diana Walker’s the one who usually photographed Anne Tyler.  But many of the photographs I made of her were wonderful, I thought.  I think she was very happy with them. 

You try, as a photographer, to hang on to those negatives, because that’s really all you have.  Generally, you have the right to resell the photographs, and some of her pictures I would sell to other places.  Magazines, People magazine—whatever it was.

NL:  Is there a difference in photographing writers, or politicians, or generals?

MARCUS:  I feel a greater affinity toward a creative person, whether it’s an artist or a writer.  But, corporate executives were an interesting bunch.  I had friends who said to me, How can you photograph them?  They’re so boring.  But that’s not really true.  Nobody really is boring.  I mean, you can usually get them to come out of themselves, and some of them did interesting things, besides being the head of Pan Am or Clairol, or whatever it was, Volvo.

NL:  Is there any difference in the quality of time you spend with the writers who are women as opposed to the writers who are men, and the way you photograph them?

MARCUS:  I do have a theory.  Sometimes a woman photographer does have an advantage over a guy, and I’ve discussed this with other male and female photographers.  Particularly in the corporate world, I felt I had some advantage, in a way—even though you’re not exactly flirting, or they’re not; but they are flirting.  Maybe you flirt with everybody. 

NL:  There are two writers in your pantheon of writers you’ve photographed who are now lost to my students.  My colleagues who are writers who teach in colleges tell me that these writers don’t turn up on anybody’s lists any more, and that’s William Saroyan and Erwin Shaw.  They were certainly on my lists when I was a student.  I think of Shaw’s wonderful story . . .

BOTH:  “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” 

NL:  Tell us about these two writers, then.

MARCUS:  Saroyan made much more of an impression on me.  I again was working for this small magazine Book Digest.  He had just come to New York from California, in 1979, en route to somewhere else, so we were out at LaGuardia, in a room they had arranged.  Imagine—Saroyan arrives in this enormous hat, sort of a sombrero, I guess—more than a cowboy hat.  And he comes in, throws out his arms over the sofa that he’s sitting on, and he’s really bigger than life.  Like his stories.  He really was the Armenian juggler—he was charming, and I could see how Carol Marcus married him—twice—had two children, one of them a writer, Lucy and Aram.  Carol went on to marry Walter Matthou, as you know.  Saroyan was charming and very European.  Shaw was quiet, really, and rather serious and—not dour, but hard for me to feel a rapport with.  Of all the people in the group we have here, I think Shaw was the most difficult. 

NL:  I think the curious thing is that I’m of the generation that could recognize every photograph of every author.  I don’t know whether there’s that kind of identification today.  I don’t know what students or other people think of writers.  The photograph you have of Jerzy Kosinski was all over the press when it first came out, in 1980.  I remember seeing it, and the name Jerzy Kosinski, and the title The Painted Bird, and the first paragraph in that novel.  I think I had a paperback that didn’t have a photograph on it, but I remember when I saw your photograph of him; I thought to myself, yep, that’s Jerzy Kosinski. 

MARCUS:  He was probably the sexiest person I’ve ever photographed, in that you felt real vibes coming from him, and exchanging with you more than anybody I ever experienced.  I don’t remember anyone else like that.  He had a small apartment—I think it was on 57th Street in the Carnegie Apartments.  It never occurred to me not to wander into a place, and he was very generous.  Small rooms, with a small terrace outside.  And a lot of books everywhere.  He likes tennis, horseback riding, things like that.  I just asked him to sit here, sit there, and I moved around him.  He gave me plenty of time.  Would you know that he was a great writer?  We didn’t get into any philosophical discussions, as I did with both Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison. 

NL:  Did you find you were having conversations with writers in which you realized you disagreed with them politically, and philosophically, and artistically? 

MARCUS:  Part of my personality is such that I’m not a debater.  I want to say I go in and I like you.  I might come out afterward and say I really hated that person, but I always felt that was the only way I could work.

NL:  When I saw your photograph of Joseph Heller, I looked at it, and I thought the opposite from when I saw your Jerzy Kosinski; I thought, that’s not Joseph Heller.  I don’t know why I thought that.  It’s a wonderful photograph.  I like to look at it, but it never occurred to me that he should look that way.

MARCUS:  He worked in a tiny studio, not half the size of this radio studio, really, with a desk, in the Carnegie Apartments, now that I remember.  I had read somewhere that Alfred Eisenstaedt, who was a photographer for LIFE magazine, and so very well-known and thought-of, would bring a 250-watt tungsten bulb and just put it into whatever lamp, or shoot it up into the ceiling.  So I brought one to this little cubicle, really, that Heller rented to write in.  He was very friendly.  Very business like.  I had him at his desk and had him move around a little bit, so he wouldn’t be behind it.  It was probably about 45 minutes or so.  Then, later, I photographed him for Book Digest while he was being interviewed, which was a little easier, because he’d be sitting in more space, and he was interacting with somebody else.

NL:  Is there a writer whom you’d like to photograph?

MARCUS:  I really would like to have had a session with Tennessee Williams. 

NL:  I was wondering if that would be the case.

MARCUS:  I did photograph him once, just a snapshot, really.  I was in Key West, in May 1988, doing some food and wine photography for Gourmet magazine, and we’d gone off, a few of us, to have lunch.  He came over—it was some waterside place—and sat down, because he knew some of the people I was with.  We all sat around and talked, and I just took a snapshot of him. 

NL:  Do you still have it?

MARCUS:  Oh, yes. 

©2007 NEW LETTERS, The Curators of the University of Missouri, Kansas City