Belongings

Celebrity Photo Confessions: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey Before Photoshop Was a Thing (Q&A)

Amid new controversies over celebrity retouching, photographer Johnny Rozsa — who has shot Aretha Franklin, Daniel Day-Lewis and a young Michael Jackson — rereleases "Untouched," featuring his collection of images that captured the stars long before Photoshop found them.
Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated

From Whitney Houston’s bleeding bustier to Mariah Carey’s two-day diva trip, celebrity fashion photographer Johnny Rozsa has dealt with his share of raw personalities. 

Untouched — Rozsa's rereleased book with a new cover — chronicles the decades he spent photographing some of the biggest names in the industry before they were world-famous, and before the publicity machine existed to the insane extent it does today. The resulting images carry a kind of unguarded intimacy that Rozsa credits to the freedom of creativity inside the studio — and not on the computer.

Here, Rozsa chats with Pret-a-Reporter about everything from his visit to the Jackson family compound to shoot a young Michael Jackson to Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover controversy and how "we’ve gone a little too far."

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You were born in Kenya, correct?

Yes. I lived there until I was 20 years old.

What’s the story of how you ended up doing celebrity photography?

I worked with a girl; we had an old vintage clothing shop after I finished college in England. It was in Covent Garden, in the West End of London. In those days, Covent Garden was like My Fair Lady, very sort of root and vegetable market, not trendy like it is now. But all the magazines were situated in the West End, in that area. In those days [the early '70s] you could get beyond-fabulous clothing from the '20s and '30s and '40s from people's estates, very Downton Abbey, with furs and gloves and gorgeous hats and beaded dresses and so forth. It got to be this very popular store. All these magazines, Vogue, Harper's and all these different editors would come in and borrow clothes and then give us lots of publicity, and as a result of that I knew all the editors already, and models. Celebrities came in because it was always in the magazines. I’m a very artistic person and I said, “Here I am, ironing hideous old schmattes, and here are all these glamorous celebrities and models, and Grace Coddington, etc., and I’m just standing there ironing clothes.” It was just kind of hideous. So I decided to sell the shop. What was good about the shop was it taught me the incredible history of fashion. I really knew about makeup from the '20s, hairstyles from the '30s. So I decided I really wanted to be a fashion photographer, to be creative.

Shooting for magazines?

Freelancing for magazines, yeah. When I first started photography I was influenced by people like George Hurrell, Laszlo Willinger and Clarence Sinclair Bull. Great photographers. Because I hadn’t gone to school, I felt insecure compared to David Bailey and other photographers who were in England at the time. I wanted to really learn my craft and that’s how I did it, by trial and error.

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It’s interesting that you’re a big fan of Hurrell since your book is called Untouched and Hurrell perfected the art of retouching.

The funny thing is, I love all that retouching. I love retouching. I’m crazy about it. It’s gone a bit funny with the book. They’ve put the emphasis on people not being touched, being before plastic surgery. I adore plastic surgery. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great!

But the book is trying to capture that moment when we were still seeing people as they were.

Yeah, everyone now is a photographer, everyone has Instagram, has filters, is photoshopping everything. That whole thing right now about Lena Dunham being photoshopped on the cover of Vogue …

What do you think about Jezebel offering a bounty for those unretouched photos?

It’s interesting to see, but I think we, as a people, are now just so used to seeing people without pores, without wrinkles, without blemishes on them of any kind, and it’s not the reality of life. We’ve all got moles and age spots and gray hair and funny bits and fat in our tummies. I think we’ve gone a little too far.

And I suppose there’s a difference between retouching and airbrushing, actually sculpting people’s bodies.

Well, Hurrell was the sculptor of all time, wasn’t he? I love freaks, I love the sheer oddities, really. But I think I’m the exception, because look at Faye Dunaway, such a great actress, but because she’s had so much plastic surgery, she doesn’t work. Or Daryl Hannah, these great beauties and talents, you think, “I don’t know what happened,” because what’s wrong with getting older? I don’t think it’s that bad.

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You probably value being creative with the costuming and lighting more than going into Photoshop afterward and cleaning things up.

Exactly. I used to have a team of hair and makeup friends who were good at those things and when we used to get a dull subject — now you can’t really do much because there’s always a manager and publicist saying you can’t do this — but in those days you would get somebody like Kelly LeBrock and she’s really pretty and very natural, beautiful skin, fabulous hair, and then you add lashes and color and hairpieces, and by the fourth photograph she was beyond, like a drag queen practically, and that’s what we loved doing. It was just creative. Creative times.

You have so many great subjects in this book, I’m wondering which ones really stood out to you as particularly memorable, or where you really discovered something about someone.

I would say Anjelica Huston. That was very Hurrell-ish with those tungsten lights. I didn’t know Anjelica very well. I didn’t realize she had had such an impressive modeling career before, but she was very statuesque, and I luckily had a friend who had that great plastic Thierry Mugler top and she just looked magnificent. We’ve become really good friends since. She’s a super person.

How was Mariah Carey, on the opposite side of the spectrum?

She’s super talented, she’s a great singer, love her, but I was commissioned to photograph her on a video shoot she was doing for a magazine and she made me wait for two days. And then she gave me five minutes. There were a few of those.

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And you photographed Whitney Houston?

Whitney Houston was another one I photographed on a video shoot. It was her first shoot in England and I was commissioned to do the stills. It was a super, super, super shoot and she was divine. She was wearing this tiny Lurex dress with metal bits woven into it. She was young. We built up this incredible relationship because every time she finished a take she would call me and say, “Help me,” because the metal dress had totally rubbed on her tits, and she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t stand up. It was raw. And it was so intimate. I’m not really a nurse. You just get some cotton wool and put it in between. You don’t really want to put tape on there because how do you get the tape off? And you don’t want her tits to look too big.

Was she just blowing up then?

It was her first single, "How Will I Know." She was fabulous, and you know what? I never saw her again. Tragic story, poor thing.

You also did Aretha Franklin?

Aretha was on the set of The Merv Griffin Show in L.A. It was the mid-'70s and I was just starting my career. I was so excited. I just love music, and as a kid growing up in Kenya with Aretha’s Respect, Chain of Fools -- I was super excited to meet her. And she was a real dullard. “Hi, Aretha, so nice to meet you!” “Don’t call me Aretha. I’m the Queen of Soul.” It’s like, “Oh, really.”

I’m curious about shooting Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s such a notorious method actor. How is he to shoot for photographs?

Well, I love him, just crazy about his talent, and I kind of had a slight crush on him. So when I got the chance to photograph him, he had just done that film My Beautiful Laundrette, and I knew his sister Tamasin, they’re kind of a well-known family over there. He was very quiet and very shy, hardly said anything, was super nice. I did tungsten on him for the big black photograph where it’s just his face, and the other was just with strobe. He was just super nice and pleasant. 

Did you find any difference between American actors versus British or European ones, in terms of entourage and over-management by publicists?

Definitely. The Americans are much worse. It’s a whole business, especially in Hollywood. You can see that on the red carpet, they’re all rushing around them. I think it keeps people away from reality when they’re so overprotected like that. That’s why I’ve admired people like Al Pacino or Susan Sarandon that just walk around New York and you can see them and go up to them and they’re just amenable. They’re like that in England. But here, there is a layer of film between the actor and the photographer.

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When you went to shoot the Jacksons, there must have been a huge publicity machine and parental interference at the same time, no?

I never saw Katherine, the mother. That job was really early on in my career. The way I got that job was because the guy who was married to Vanessa Williams [Ramon Hervey] was their publicist and he thought I was great and got me a couple of great celebrity jobs for British magazines. And he said, “Do you want to shoot the Jacksons?” And I loved the Jacksons, so of course I said, “Yeah, I’d love to go and shoot them.” They were nice. I brought this wonderful friend of mine who’s also an actress [Marsha Hunt], and she interviewed them, and we thought it was really weird how Michael was so quiet. But look at what happened to Michael.

So you noticed that from the beginning that there was a split between performance Michael and private Michael?

Absolutely. Just really different. And he was not pretty back then. He had terrible skin, and he didn’t have a narrow, pretty nose. After his first nose job, then he did, but he kept going.

But you caught him before any of the surgery?

I caught him before any of the surgery, yeah. And then of course all of them did it. Look at Janet and his brothers. 

What are you working on next?

I’m going to start on a whole new series of New York Portraits. I’m not really that in, I’m not Mario Testino, although he did used to be my assistant.

Really?

Yeah, lovely person, and we’re really good friends, but my life is not just sucking up to Vogue. That’s not me. My work isn’t all I am. I’m trying to be a great person.

Are the New York Portraits going to be man-in-the-street?

No, all in my studio, like the book. That’s the funny thing about Untouched — it looks like snaps, but it’s all carefully thought out. It’s me in control, not just snaps. I’m not a snapper.

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Are there going to be celebrities?

Whatever I can get! That was a major thing about Untouched. Many of those people, when I shot them, weren’t going to be what they became. Susan Sarandon had just done Rocky Horror when I first shot her. It’s funny. People become something else.

Does it surprise you or do you usually look back and say, "Yeah, I could see that in them?"

I can definitely see that in them. There’s something about me where people really open up and I can also see the potential in people and I love that. Like Daryl Hannah, she was just gorgeous, but I didn’t know she was going to become a big movie star.

But it’s funny because when we look at these pictures we feel like we’re looking at movie stars. You really capture that compelling thing in them.

Well it’s eye-to-eye. It’s all in the eye. It’s all that connection.

Untouched by Johnny Rozsa, Glitterati Incorporated, $50

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