Celebrity Candids from the ‘70s

From Petersen’s PHOTOgraphic Magazine, June 2005 issue

A conversation with photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker will take you back in time to the heyday of artists like Bob Marley & the Wailers and Jimi Hendrix. She’s captured stills on the set of Halloween and numerous films by director John Carpenter. Her photos of Jimi Hendrix are included in an art book entitled Classic Hendrix (published by Genesis Press in England). This book is limited to 1750 copies, and is “a must for Hendrix collectors,” asserts Gottlieb-Walker. (She was even “immortalized as a babe” on the pages where her photos appear, as the writer acknowledged that Hendrix was attracted to the young photographer.)

“I consider myself the opposite of a paparazzi,” she states. “Rather than ‘take’ photos, the process is one of giving. The subject entrusts themselves to me and in return, I respect their privacy and their sensibilities and do my best to capture them at their most beautiful and expressive—a mutual act of giving. On the set, I see myself as a ‘recording angel’ who’s there to document what happens for posterity—a historian more than an artist—capturing the moments worth preserving.”

The Lowdown

Photographically, Gottlieb-Walker was initially influenced by her mother, who was a photographer’s assistant in the 1940s, “and taught me a lot about light and gave me my first 35mm (fixed lens) camera, which I took with me to Berkeley when I started college, just in time to photograph the ‘free speech movement.’” As her father used to document important events with an old Speed Graphic, “we were a family of amateur but talented photographers.”

After a year and a half as a psychology major at UC Berkeley, she discovered the school’s only class dealing with motion pictures and loved it. She transferred to UCLA to major in Motion Picture Production, and got her degree. “It was during my time at UCLA that I first started covering concerts and interviews with my teacher, Bill Kerby,” she points out. He was the one who conducted the interview while she photographed Jim Hendrix in 1967. Although she had originally set her sights on becoming a camera operator, she says she lacked contacts in the film industry after graduating. But she was great at shooting stills. “I traveled abroad, worked for underground papers, put together a portfolio, and it was finally seen by a small independent producer who hired me to shoot a movie called The Goodtime Band, which was never released.” But the script supervisor was Debra Hill, who went on to produce “Halloween.” Hill remembered the young photographer and her work, and hired her to shoot the stills for the film—which led to her association with John Carpenter.

“After getting into the Cinematographers Guild in 1980 (it was a very difficult thing to do; it took a court case with Debra Hill fighting for me and winning the arbitration…she was my hero),” she recalls, “I got on the union’s ‘available’ list, which led to my nine-year job on ‘Cheers’ and my five-year job on ‘Family Ties’ at Paramount. Every job led to another.”

A Few Anecdotes

In 1970-71, when she photographed Jamie Lee Curtis on the set of Halloween, the actress initially avoided Gottlieb-Walker, possibly because she was from a high-profile family, and photographers represented the paparazzi to her. One day, Gottlieb-Walker left her portfolio in Curtis’ Winnebago on the set, and, “once she saw my pictures of Hendrix and other stars of the 60s, her whole attitude changed. These images were lovingly shot, and she recognized that.” This trust is apparent in photos like her black-and-white portrait of a 19-year-old Curtis. Throughout the years, she loved working with John Carpenter on various movies. “John would ask that scenes be restaged for me,” she says. Since the still photographer can’t be exactly where the movie camera is, she points out, a photographer needs the cooperation of everyone to get the shots he/she needs. “I’ve always served as the ‘family photographer’ or historian of these projects,” she adds. “There’s nothing quite like the joy of working on a feature film over a period of weeks (or a season or more a television show) when you cover everything with the full cooperation of the cast and crew and even cover personal events for them, like baby showers and parties.” In 1975, Gottlieb-Walker went to Jamaica to shoot the reggae performers on the Island records’ roster. The following year, she and her husband went back, and were threatened by “two huge Jamaican guys” while they photographed a billboard over the Kingston bus station that featured some of her photos of the reggae artists. When her husband explained who she was, they immediately backed off. “We avoided an ass-kicking in Kingston,” she laughs.

In Jamaica, Bunny Wailer—Bob Marley’s half-brother--was thought to be an Obeah Man (one with special powers). One photographer wanted to take pictures of him, but he replied, “I don’t let dead men take my picture.” Oddly enough, this photographer died soon afterward. However, he allowed Gottlieb-Walker to photograph him. “I figured I’d be around a while,” she says.

Shooting Candidly

How does she become unobtrusive so that her subject won’t be too aware of the camera? “My ideal circumstance is when the subject is being interviewed and becomes enthused about the discussion,” she responds. “As long as I’ve had the chance to set up where everyone is seated so the subject is opposite a nice natural light source, I can just shoot at will and it doesn’t draw attention to me. Otherwise, it’s up to me to establish a comfortable rapport, to make conversation and ask questions or give some direction.

Choosing Subjects

Does she select her own photo subjects, or are they chosen in conjunction with a writer? “I would accompany the writers on their assignments. When working for The Staff in the early ‘70s, we would often cover writers and political figures, and do the interviews at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel on the patio where the light is very nice. That’s where I shot Andy Warhol and author Howard Fast, among others.” Who does she typically shoot? “My career has covered the full gamut,” she says. “In the 60s and 70s I shot for music magazines (Crawdaddy, Music World), both concerts and interviews as well as political figures and writers, while shooting for ‘underground papers’ like The Free Press, The Staff, and the original L.A. Weekly. I shot a lot of publicity and album photos for Island Records, both in Los Angeles and in Jamaica, and in the 80s and 90s, I shot production stills for movies and T.V. (the early John Carpenter films and nine years on “Cheers” and five on “Family Ties.

When is the Right Moment to Click the Shutter?

“This is instinctive—you wait with the camera up to your eye and wait for that moment when someone reacts to something, gestures, interacts, or gives a spontaneous glimpse of themselves. When the moment comes, you just have to be ready for it.”

Natural Light or Flash?

“I prefer soft, natural light, generally from a window or open door. The rare occasions where I might use a fill-flash are event coverage, or when my subject has a lot of wrinkles or bags under his/her eyes and wants flattering photos!”

Camera Equipment Then & Now

“My first 35mm SLR was a Pentax, which I used to shoot the Jimi Hendrix interview. After it was stolen, I invested in a Nikon F2 Photomic, which is probably considered an antique now, but I used it for all the films and television I shot. I still have my Nikon F2s, but today I also have a Canon EOS 20D digital camera that I’m enjoying very much. I still like to choose my own exposure and focus.

Film Choices

“I almost always used Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film because it was so flexible and forgiving. When I began shooting production stills for movies, the studios insisted on Kodak Ektachrome 160 transparency film for the color work, which worried me at first. The exposure must be exact and a reflective reading won’t do the job. I learned to use incident readings for transparencies and reflective readings for negative films to get accurate exposures. On the set of Christine, I used 1000 ISO color negative film for the first time and loved the results at our outrageously low light levels.”

“Shooting transparencies at the low-light levels on most sets is difficult and requires very fast lenses and shooting wide open and at slow speeds (Ektachrome 160 pushed to 320 EV was the best we could do with tungsten light. But the Tri-X film could be pushed to 1200 ISO and beyond, and still get decent results). For my personal photography and informal portraits, color negative film is a pleasure, usually ISO 400—800.”

What Does the Future Hold?

“Now it’s time to publish books about all the subjects I’ve photographed over the years,” she states. “My first will be about the films I worked on with John Carpenter (Halloween, The Fog, Christine, Escape from New York, Halloween II), and then one covering the late 60s and early 70s—rock n’ roll, reggae, politics—there’s a LOT of material.” “The last feature I shot was ‘Dean Quixote,’ written and directed by my son, Orion Walker. Although it doesn’t yet have a distributor, it’s a wonderful film and was a great pleasure to work on—it probably has the best art that an under-$250,000 movie ever had!” (Photographs from DQ can be seen at www.deanquixote.com).

She’s also started a Website as a gallery for her work, and make her rock n’ roll and reggae photographs available to the public via a “gift shop” on the site. Over the past few years, she’s devoted herself to helping photographers in IATSE Local 600, the Cinematographer’s Guild, by arranging for seminars in new digital technologies and “trying to find ways to fight the proliferation of cameras on the set that violate the set security and try the patience of the actors.”