Books: Loengard’s Ode to the Age of Silver

Posted on October 25, 2011


John Loengard, photographer, author, and former director of photography for Life magazine, has been in love with photography since 1953, when at age 11 he shot his first picture. In the 1980s he began taking photographs of other photographers–members of what might be called photography’s Greatest Generation, who worked through the mid-to-late 20th century, shooting mostly for magazines. That generation is gone now, for the most part, but it left us with many iconic images. And Loengard has left us with very beautiful portraits of them, along with images of some photographers still shooting, all collected now in a new book, Age of Silver: Encounters with Great Photographers. I recently sat down with Loengard to talk about the book for an interview (go to La Lettre de la Photographie to read our entire conversation.) During our talk Loengard recalled what it was like to shoot some of the greatest names in photography. Here are a number of his recollections, along with his images.



There’s nobody I admire more in the book. He’s a wonderful man. He was about the age I am now. He was like a tea kettle that is always on simmer. If you said the wrong thing all of a sudden he would start steaming. He had agreed to be photographed, but he wanted to know if all the pictures could be taken from behind. He didn’t like to have his face shown in pictures. His excuse always was that since he worked in the street he didn’t want to be recognized. I have a feeling—and it may be totally unjustified—that he also didn’t like the way he photographed. He wasn’t ever happy with they way he looked, and he found this a very good reason not to be in photos.  I was took one shot that focused on his hands, and he said, “Oh, don’t focus on my hands, I have arthritis, they look so ugly.” His hands looked terrific, but he was very self-conscious about it. I think he might have been sorry that he didn’t look like Cary Grant.



He was very nice. I’d never met him before. I went over to his studio and he led me straight to this room, and it was just a terrific room, where there was this wall covered with clippings. This was in 1994. He had had a show at the Whitney Museum and the reviews were very poor. Before the show the only pictures of his that appeared in any magazines were self-portraits. So it was obvious to me that he was controlling all this. I was shooting for People magazine, after the exhibition had already opened to the dismissive reviews.  And at this point I think he  was willing to let the magazine send a photographer.



He’s doing that because I’m focusing a lens very close to his face, a 65mm, and he just did the same thing as a joke. He had these big bulging eyes.



He took me to the beach to photograph him,  and he was showing me tricks of how to take pictures by putting a stick on the ground and telling your subject to walk around it in a circle, and that every time they crossed the stick you were going to take their picture. It never worked very well for me. He told me I didn’t get his hips right, which was true. But it was obviously something he’d done. It’s a wonderful trick. And so after that he said, John photograph me, I’ll stand like this.



I shot this for the New York Times. Annie had show and book coming out. She was also being filmed by a crew from Kodak. We started in her apartment that morning, then went to her studio where she photographed a dancer, then up to the Chrysler Building. She shooting a friend of hers, a dancer, who is standing out on the gargoyle with a jock strap on.  What I like about the picture is that something is going on between her assistant and her. He’s handing her film. It has nothing to do with the fact that they’re standing where they are. It was 60 floors straight down to Lexington Avenue. She was up there for the benefit of the film crew. This location is of course where Margaret Bourke-White was famously photographed in 1932.  Annie didn’t like the pictures she took of the dancer up there. She liked the pictures she took in her studio that afternoon. Which proves that you don’t have to go out on a gargoyle to take a good pictur.