An Interview with photographer JURGEN VOLLMER

By Wendy Cavenett

 

      In the last forty years, Jürgen Vollmer has photographed some of the most 
      charismatic people in the film and arts industry including William S. 
      Burroughs, Madonna, Dirk Bogarde and Nastassja Kinski. Of the many 
      European and American directors he has worked with it was Roman Polanski 
      whom he most admired, describing the genius auteur as "a movie in 
      himself". Vollmer is also the photographer who first captured, according 
      to John Lennon, "the beauty and spirit of The Beatles". 'From Hamburg to 
      Hollywood' is a compelling photographic-essay charting the journey of this 
      German photographer who, after a series of fateful encounters, finds 
      himself amidst the mecca of the world's film community. 

      Says Sir Paul McCartney in the book's introduction, "Meeting Jürgen 
      Vollmer, and his friends Astrid and Klaus, was a very important event in 
      my life and lives of the other Beatles. His sense of style and excellent 
      photographic skills were to have a profound effect throughout our careers."

      Between The Lines editor Wendy Cavenett reports on the phenomenal career 
      that took Vollmer from Hamburg to Hollywood and back again.

      It was 1960 in Hamburg and four musicians from Liverpool had secured a 
      two-month residency at a local club called the Kaiserkeller. Initially 
      opened to cater for the youth of Hamburg as a safe entertainment 
      alternative, but it was taken over by the Schlägers, or the 'Hitters' - a 
      black-leather motorcycle crowd - a year after its opening. By 1960, it had 
      become a notorious rock'n'roll haven, a basement club in the sordid 
      red-light Reeperbahn district attracting the wild German "rocker" youth 
      who spent night after night drinking, fighting, dancing and picking up 
      girls. Klaus Voormann, a young art-student, happened to be walking past 
      the club one evening and heard the music of a young band called The 
      Beatles (which then included Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best). Like most 
      college students, Voormann had grown up on jazz so the music of The 
      Beatles intrigued him enough to introduce himself at the end of their last 
      set and to show Sutcliffe some of his sleeve designs. (Indeed, it was 
      Voormann who would design the cover of their 1966 release, 'Revolver'). 
      Voormann was encouraged to bring his friends along and the following 
      evening, Jürgen Vollmer and Astrid Kirchherr accompanied him to see The 
      Beatles.

      They were three bohemian artsy-types amid the predominantly wild rocker 
      audience; three 'Exis' - as in 'Existentialist' - drawn - despite the 
      dangerous surrounds - to hear the strange music of these strange 
      musicians. And it was these scions from good middle-class families who 
      became The Beatles' most dedicated fans in Hamburg, with Vollmer attending 
      every performance for the next two months. 

       Vollmer and Kirchherr had recently left Hamburg's Institute of Fashion to 
      assist a local photographer. It was Kirchherr, the young German 'Exi' 
      beauty who would become Sutcliffe's fiancee, and although both 
      photographed The Beatles, it was Vollmer who took the famous shot of 
      Lennon standing in a doorway at the docklands in Hamburg while the 
      remaining Beatles walked past, their images blurred except for their 
      pointed shoes. Lennon, with hair quiffed and wearing a battered leather 
      jacket looks the seminal rocker and it was this image Lennon used for his 
      1975 solo album, "Rock 'N' Roll". In Albert Goldman's 'The Lives of John 
      Lennon' (Guild Publishing, 1988), Vollmer says Lennon performed with 
      "aggressive restraint", that he was "the Brando type". Indeed, the famous 
      docklands shot is reminiscent of images from 1954's 'The Wild One', with 
      Brando as the rebellious, leather-clad lead. 

      For Vollmer, this fateful meeting was only the beginning of a photographic 
      career that took him from the conservative, bourgeois German city of 
      Hamburg to Paris and eventually Hollywood where, by 1983, he was working 
      with some of the biggest directors in the American film industry including 
      Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola.

      Today, Vollmer's German accent drifts softly across the piano room of the 
      Sebel Hotel in Sydney. "I love this country," he says. "I even think I may 
      live here. There is so much beauty. The light is different; it's rich, 
      seductive ... and I love the people." Handsomely European with wispy white 
      hair crowning a tanned face, Vollmer seems relaxed - at home even - on 
      this gusty spring day. Staring through large amethyst eyes, Vollmer seems 
      almost shy and apologises repeatedly for his broken German-English. "I do 
      not express myself well," he says. "But," he admits later, "it is never 
      easy for any artist to describe his work or the motivations behind it."

      As a young art student, Vollmer was considered an Existentialist by his 
      contemporaries and the older generations who had embraced conservatism 
      after the horrific second world war. For Vollmer however, the stringent 
      prudence of this bourgeois class only fuelled his need to appear, and 
      ultimately be, different. But an Existentialist he was not.

      "They called us that," he says. "They called us 'Exis', types like us who 
      were artsy-artsy types, who dressed like the Bohemians in Paris. I mean 
      there were not - are not - many around in Hamburg but I was definitely one 
      of them. I liked the Parisian style, the Left Bank Bohemian types who of 
      course developed from the Existentialist movement.

       "They were not artists but they dressed that way - the types in Paris, 
      you know, the long hair, the turtle-neck sweater and the corduroys they 
      wore a lot. A little wild. Nothing was neat. Always a little bit as if 
      they'd slept in their clothes. That look, you know, I was drawn to. But 
      I'm not an Existentialist. I took more of the exterior of the existential 
      look without being Existentialist. At that time also I didn't know what it 
      was. I had read Camus at the time and I might have also read some of 
      Satre, but I was not an Existentialist.

      "We were called, as an insult in Hamburg, 'Exis'. The way the Bohemians 
      looked in Paris was an absolute horror for German people. Dressing like 
      Bohemians was rebellious, aimed at disturbing the square 
      pegs - and the 'rocker' crowds - in Hamburg."

      In his late teens, Vollmer went to art school and studied graphic design. 
      "I had never taken any pictures," he says, "I didn't even own a camera and 
      by coincidence, I met a photographer who needed an assistant. I was bored 
      with art school so I took that chance and became his assistant. I was 
      introduced to photography through him and the very first year I actually 
      took my first pictures was the year I met The Beatles. They were one of my 
      very first subjects."

      According to Vollmer, Sutcliffe was another type of American movie hero. 
      In the young artist-turned-musician, Vollmer sensed a James Dean edge. He 
      was a "mystery behind sunglasses," he says while Lennon was the 
      quintessential loner. "John was more aloof than the other Beatles. With 
      Paul, you know, he's still like he always was; a very nice, warm-hearted 
      man. Always smiling. With Paul you feel he never has any kind of 
      depression. But that wasn't the case with John. John was much more of a 
      multi-faceted person. He was much more complex and I didn't feel 
      completely comfortable with him in the beginning. It was only when I spent 
      more and more time with him that I could relax for he was very funny. But 
      he was never that accessible as a person. He was very guarded.

      "But," he says, "when I first saw The Beatles, I thought, particularly 
      John, that they were real rough 'n' tough rockers. They looked just like 
      their audience. You know, the Kaiserkeller was an extremely dangerous rock 
      cave but when I met them I realised that it was all an act. John was an 
      artist but he had to project that rocker image in order to play to his 
      audience. The Beatles looked like rockers but from their minds and their 
      creative side, they were more like us, like Astrid, Klaus and me. You know 
      like the Exis and eventually of course, they were even more the Exis after 
      they adopted my haircut."

       Yes, the 'mop-top maestro' as Vollmer has been daubed, was instrumental 
      in changing the image of arguably this century's most influential band. By 
      1961, he had left Hamburg for Paris as an assistant to the famous 
      photographer and film director, William Klein. In September of that year, 
      John and Paul visited him. Sutcliffe had already left the band and The 
      Beatles were enjoying yet another stint at the Kaiserkeller. "They glanced 
      at my hair," says Vollmer, "and said 'Yes, we want that funny haircut 
      too'." So, in his hotel room, Vollmer cut their hair into the famous 'mop 
      top' and took them to the Parisian flea markets to complete their new 
      avant-bohemian look. It was to have a profound effect on their career with 
      the youth in England embracing their bizarro appearance as much as their 
      pioneering music.

      "In Hamburg back then it was very bourgeois and people always wore the 
      same haircut - always short and always combed neatly back," he says. "My 
      haircut at that time was for me revolutionary against society. When I was 
      young and still going to school (way before art school), I went swimming 
      with the class one day and when I got out of the water, my hair was 
      hanging down over your forehead and I didn't comb it back. I just let it 
      dry like this and kept it that way."

      The famous 'Beatlecut' was a true Vollmer creation and it was this flair 
      for the chic that enabled him to become one of Klein's most renowned 
      fashion photographers in Paris. While living amidst the influential rive 
      gauche community, Vollmer began photographing the street youth and their 
      environment in his spare time, creating a series of raw, disquieting 
      images to much acclaim. In 1966, he photographed Rudolph Nureyev during a 
      week's rehearsal for the ballet Le Jeune Homme et la Mort in Paris. 
      Nureyev was his first international subject and these images are still 
      considered some of the best of the famous artist-dancer. By the late '60s, 
      Vollmer was a stills photographer on European movie sets. He worked with 
      Alain Resnais and was photographing the likes of Catherine Deneuve and 
      Yves Montand. While on a film shoot in New York in 1971, Vollmer literally 
      "fell in love with the city" and did not return to Paris with the rest of 
      the crew. Instead, he established himself as one of the most respected 
      film-star/movie-still photographers in America in the '80s and '90s. 

      He initially worked for several reputable magazines as a graphic designer 
      and artistic director until he established his photographic career on 
      America's East Coast film industry in the early '80s.

      "Photos are often the great ingredient that ignite people's imagination 
      and lure them to see a movie," he says. "A good movie photo should trigger 
      interest, a curiosity. You know, these images have great seductive powers 
      that can help make a film successful." Vollmer worked with Roman Polanski 
      for 'Pirates' ("which at the time was a masterpiece but for some reason it 
      didn't come across") and many other esteemed directors including Francis 
      Ford Coppola and Barry Levinson. 

       "Polanski was the most intriguing director I ever worked with," says 
      Vollmer. "He is a movie in himself. I mean, you don't really have to go to 
      the cinema, you just have to look at Polanski. He gets involved in every 
      detail, every minute aspect of his films. And he was so full of life, so 
      full of energy that with Polanski one has a hard time imagining that he 
      would be lonely. I don't think he was ever truly satisfied but he was 
      driven 100 per cent of the time. He never seemed lost; he was always too 
      determined to create."

      It was Vollmer who took the famous Madonna shot for her second film, 
      'Who's That Girl' in 1987, with the young Ms Ciccone peeping over a wall 
      with her red lips puckered. He photographed Arnold Schwarzenegger for 'Raw 
      Deal' (1987), James Caan for 'Gardens Of Stone' (1987), Walter Matthau 
      during 'Pirates' (1985) and Barbara Hershey and Robert Redford for 'The 
      Natural' (1983).

      "I am always wanting to capture people with an authentic laugh," says 
      Vollmer, "and the shot of Robert Redford was one of those. You know, so 
      often when people laugh or smile, you know it's phoney, it's not 
      authentic. But there is such a thing when a laugh will express jour de 
      voir (sic), ah, and when I get that, I am really very happy for this is 
      the highest a person can achieve, being so content at that moment that 
      they laugh authentically.

      "I was always very proud when I got it. It's like the photo of Redford. I 
      caught it, you know and it's not only that I captured it, it's also that 
      even at that moment, the moment that I took it, he had this kind of 
      seductiveness, a seductive smile placed in his laugh. For that is how he 
      is; he has that smiling sex appeal which is specifically Robert Redford. 
      The other photograph that comes to mind is one where John Travolta and 
      Olivia Newton-John are boarding a plane and they both turn around with 
      these authentic smiles. I got it in both! I couldn't believe it. It's a 
      rare thing though which makes any photo with an authentic laugh so 
      wonderful."

      Of the many stars Vollmer photographed in his career, there are few, 
      however, that match the photos taken in his spare time in Hamburg, Paris 
      and America and on numerous overseas trips in the '80s and '90s. Says 
      Vollmer in his book, "As a photographer I am trying to capture the 
      mysterious side of people, because as life itself is enigmatic, the 
      essence of a person can only become visible in a moment of mystery." 

       "I really like the shots I took in Africa, in Sicily and Egypt. They give 
      me the chance to say more in a photo, something more about the human 
      condition than the many star portraits I have taken. I think my favourite 
      photo is one I took in Senegal in 1978 with a group of fishermen with 
      their net. I always have this feeling that each person is in their own 
      little world, that everybody is alone with their dreams and their hopes 
      while relying on others for their subsistence. That is, in order to 
      survive as an individual you have to work with others, you have to be with 
      other people. So for me, the net is some sort of symbol, a way of 
      sustaining your life, of linking the individual with the group for 
      ultimate survival.

      In the '70s, three photographic books by Vollmer were released in New 
      York. "Nureyev in Paris" utilised images Vollmer had taken of the star in 
      1966; "African Roots" included photographs from his trips to Senegal and 
      Gambia (which was published with the endorsement of Alex Haley, author of 
      "Roots"); and finally "Sex Appeal", a collection of candid, youthful 
      images taken in Europe and America with an introduction by William S 
      Burroughs. "Rock 'N' Roll Times", his book chronicling his early 'rocker' 
      shots wasn't released until the following decade.

      "You know, I began to see the significance of many of my photos only 
      decades after they were taken," Vollmer admits. "At the time I took them I 
      just followed my instincts. I couldn't tell you why I took the photos when 
      I did. It's so hard to explain. It's like a drive. For most great writers 
      when they write, it comes naturally; they don't analyse, they don't 
      construct sentences intellectually. This is why they also say if you as a 
      writer are too intellectual, you might destroy or suppress the 
      instinctive, creative urge. For me, it's the same with photography. I 
      never know why I take a photo at a particular time because you can't know 
      consciously as these moments pass so quickly; it is an instinctive action. 
      It's odd. You're always learning about yourself from what you produce 
      creatively. If you allow creativity to come from that subconscious, 
      instinctive matter, you are reaching inside to where you yourself can't 
      always know what is there. This is true for my art, for my photography.

      "I am not a trend photographer. I want to go to the essence of what life 
      is all about, what people are all about and I think in my lifetime, I have 
      achieved that with some of my images. And these are the ones I'll always 
      treasure."

      "From Hamburg To Hollywood' is limited to just 1,750 numbered copies, each 
      volume signed by its author, Jürgen Vollmer.

       Designed by Vollmer himself, this deluxe production exhibits the highest 
      qualities on which Genesis Publications has built its name. Every 
      photograph is precisely reproduced by fine-screen lithography with image 
      varnishing. A hand-made, quarter-bound volume, it comprises 130 pages, 
      with 8-page full colour section, printed on 200gsm matt art paper, and is 
      finished with silver edging. Each copy is housed in an elegantly crafted 
      presentation box.

      An original 8" by 6" (20cm x 15cm) displayable print, also personally 
      signed by Vollmer, crowns this magnificent box-set. Offered to you in a 
      choice of one of four classic images (press here), this signed, original 
      print, made from the negative, is available only with "From Hamburg To 
      Hollywood".

      "It was very difficult choosing the images for this book," says Vollmer. 
      "There were so many. I selected them instinctively in the end, the ones 
      that really communicated something to me and looking at the book now, I 
      can see that I'm obsessed with loneliness. Fortunately I didn't know this 
      when I was putting the book together, but apparently I'm so obsessed with 
      this subconsciously that most of the people in these photos seem to have 
      this kind of longing, a touch of melancholy as if they want something else 
      from life. They never seem content within themselves. 

      "Everyone's lonely and that is such a tragedy. Most of the time you can 
      find a temporary harmony with another person but in most cases, it breaks 
      apart over time and becomes something else. There is nothing on Earth that 
      has a constancy. We all know this but seldom talk about it. It's just part 
      of our condition I guess; we are born alone and we die alone. For much of 
      our life, we also live alone."

      "From Hamburg To Hollywood" is available in Australia from Berkelouw Books 
      in Paddington (Sydney) and Silver K Fine Art in Armidale (Melbourne).

      For more information, please contact Genesis Fine Limited Editions, 9 
      Pilgrim House, Quarry Street, Guildford, Surrey, England. Tel: (01483) 
      537431 and Fax: (01483) 304709.