|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.