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Peter Adams: The stuff of legend

Picture having an unpleasant exchange with an arrogant Helmut Newton; almost killing Yousuf Kearsh; smuggling negatives past vicious communist border security; dealing with Annie Leibovitz and Lord Snowden’s layers of minders; or seeing a 91-year old Alfred Eisenstaedt working tirelessly at Life magazine.

Peter Adams at home, Katoomba, NSW. Photo: Peter Eastway.

These are a handful of stories that renowned portrait photographer, Peter Adams, has accumulated in his career-spanning mission to photograph as many living legends of photography as possible. And like many great journeys, it began with a rowdy lunch with friends, soaked in red wine and good food.

‘It started off as a conversation – an inebriated conversation, I might add – in a coffee shop in Sydney called Mario’s back in 1983,’ Adams told Inside Imaging. ‘We had far too much red wine, and started playing a kind-of photographic trivia pursuit. We asked who took the photograph of the Hindenberg blowing up, the killing of the Vietnamese man in Saigon, or the nurse kissing the sailor in Times Square in 1945. We knew the names of the photographers, but we didn’t know if they were alive or what they looked like.’

Since then, Adams has travelled the world on numerous occasions and captured portraits of 500 photographers. To mark an end to this monumental project, Adams’ upcoming book, A Few of the Legends, features 380 portraits along with one of the subjects’ most iconic images, and a 500-word passage written by Peter about each photographer.

The initial concept was to capture 40 photographers in North America, mimicking their style and using their equipment. The opportunity arose after Adams won the Australian Professional Photographer of the Year Award, then known as the Kodak Achievement Award for Photographic Excellence, and was invited to visit the Kodak factory in Rochester, upstate New York. Not totally entranced by the offer, he proposed the trip included a visit to the West Coast as well.

‘I said what I’d really like to do is go and meet some photographers like Imogen Cunningham, and then down into Mexico to see Manuel Álvarez Bravo and other heroes of mine,’ he said. ‘In those days everything had to be done by licking stamps and sending letters. So in 1983 I began to tee up photographers living on the West Coast [USA], which took forever. You’d send a letter, weeks or months later an answer would come back, then you’d have to reply.

‘About two years after that, in 1985 when I won the Award, I took off on that trip. And that was all it was ever intended to be – 40 photographers. But the conversations were like 40 amazing one-on-one lectures, and I enjoyed that (in many ways) more than the photography. So I decided to keep going.’

While Cunningham slipped through the cracks, along with many others who sadly passed away or were unable to participate, the list of legendary photographers that were captured is a Who’s Who of the great 20th century photographers.

Pictured is Joe Rosenthal, who photographed the famous photo, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. He passed away in 2006. Source: A Few of the Legends.

Each portrait session lasted roughly an hour – 45 minutes interviewing the subject and 15 minutes capturing the photograph. ‘The trick to making a great portrait is knowing a little bit about the person. In a short period you can know enough to capture a moment where they’re doing something peculiar to them,’ he said.

Adams was mentored by the great Arnold Newman, a pioneer of ‘environmental portraits’, where the objects in a portrait are crucial to telling the subject’s story. This motif is clear in Adams’ work, and there is a strong connection between his body of work and Newman’s portraits of great artists.

First and foremost Adams wanted to photograph the ‘old timers’, such as Alfred Eisenstaedt, who captured V-J Day – the photo of the sailor kissing the woman in Times Square to celebrate the US defeating the Japanese in WWII. As time went on, the criteria was opened up to any photographer with a philosophy or great idea.

‘There is no great piece of artwork that works unless it has an idea. If we’re talking about digital manipulation, putting a duck in a pond or a new sky in a landscape isn’t an idea – it’s a technical exercise, a craft. The people I wanted to include had ideas or philosophies about why they were taking pictures, or changing elements in the pictures.’

If an interview went well, opportunities arose to spend more time with some of the greatest minds in photography, while in other instances it was a case of ‘never meet your heroes’ – some may have ‘egos the size of New York’.

Adams arrived in Monaco in 1987 to photograph fashion photographer Helmut Newton. He apparenty lived between there and Los Angeles to avoid paying tax.

‘We arrived at his high rise apartment in Monaco, and the reception area was like Darth Vadar’s bathroom. It was all black, shiny and horrible. We pressed the button, and over the intercom he said “you’ve got exactly an hour”. In the elevator I looked at my assistant and said “I get the feeling we’ll be out of here in 45 minutes”. We entered his flat, and he was just unbelievably rude.

‘He spoke about how he likes to destroy art directors, won’t do a job unless it’s done his way, and how much he liked to charge. While he was saying all this, I was quietly photographing him sitting on a couch under a big painting of a pink cow. When I got back to Australia, I sent him a print of the portrait, and he sent back a postcard saying “it’s a very lovely portrait of a pink cow, but I don’t like the way I feature in it. Please take me out of the book”.’

Helmut Newton by Peter Adams.

But the contract was signed and the job was done. In A Few of the Legends, this exchange is recounted, along with the portrait and Newton’s postcard. ‘It says more about him than I can say’.

After this unsettling experience, the next destination was a village in the south of France to meet Swedish portrait photographer, Christer Strömholm. A road closure caused a major delay, and Adams arrived hours late and hurried to the door. Strömholm answered to meet a couple of visibly panicked and stressed-out lads.

‘He put his finger over his lips to say “shush”, and we went up to the roof. He had taken half the roof off his house to create a verandah that looked over the Arles valley. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand over the valley below us and said “listen”. I couldn’t hear anything. There were no cars, nothing. So I said “I don’t understand, I don’t hear anything”, and he said “Exactly, slow down you’ll see more”. He was a marvelous photographer and a philosopher. I could have quite easily listened to him speak for a week.’

While the two would meet again, Adams was flying to Prague that evening to meet art photographer and painter, Jan Saudek.

Saudek warned it may not be possible to leave Prague with film. The communist rulers were in the habit of confiscating photographic gear and arresting photographers. Peter carefully rewound the film of Saudek making it appear to be unexposed film and sealed the boxes, and did the opposite to six rolls of fresh film to make them look exposed.

‘When I went to leave this woman with bad teeth, a bad attitude, a strong smell of garlic on her breath called me into a room. Jan was right. They took the unexposed film, put it in an envelope, and I never saw it again.’

The cover photo for A Few of the Legends is a portrait of US war photographer, Eddie Adams, who captured the famous image of the Viet Cong prisoner execution.

In 1991, he met the photographer at his farm in upstate New York, not far from Woodstock, where an assortment of oddball characters were hanging around. Long-haired folk who went to Woodstock and, well, never left. It was snowing heavily, and Adams arrived in the afternoon. He began interviewing Eddie, who made it clear he wasn’t going to talk about his famous photograph.

‘He was 56 then and told me he has children in their late 20s, and is now a grandfather. But he had hardly ever seen them growing up because he “was away playing war games”.’

Adams realised Eddie Adams had sacrificed crucial family moments to be on the front line. In the corner of the room there was a couple of mushroom sculptures, so they lugged them out into the snow and photographed Eddie in the falling afternoon light.

Eddie Adams by Peter Adams.

One of the many profound lessons Arnold Newman imparted to Adams was that ‘great portraiture is one and a half percent inspiration and 98 and a half percent moving furniture. ‘It’s absolutely right – Arnold’s genius was removing anything from the photograph that wasn’t leading toward the story behind the subject’.

A Few of the Legends is available for pre-order from $160. Click here for more info.

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