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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

My Elizabeth: Interview with Firooz Zahedi

My Elizabeth: Interview with Firooz Zahedi

Image Above: 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated
Musée writer Alexandra Glembocki speaks with photographer Firooz Zahedi on his book My Elizabeth published by Glitterati Incorporated:

Alexandra Glembocki: As a child living in Tehran, Iran, cinema became a sanctuary for you. Is this where you became familiar with Elizabeth Taylor?

Firooz Zahedi: Growing up in Iran in the 1950's was not easy, with civil unrest and revolutions and my family being involved with all that. There was a huge sense of insecurity. I found Hollywood movies a great escape. They were colorful and happy. I loved the westerns and the swashbuckling movies. I wasn't so much into the actresses as much as the action guys. But I do remember beautiful actresses like Elizabeth and Sophia Loren and some others.

AG: What was your impression of Elizabeth Taylor before you met her, and what was the most surprising thing you discovered about her once you got to know her?

FZ: When my family moved to London in the late 50's, and I got to go to the movies more often, I started becoming more aware of the whole "star" side of actors and actresses. In the early 60's, when Elizabeth and Richard Burton took over every page of every magazine with their romance and their "scandal," I became more aware of her. The two of them made the word "jet set" the happening thing. I never thought she was someone I would ever meet. That stayed with me because she and Burton were super stars for such a long time, whether they made good or bad films. In the 70's, when movies became less "Hollywood' and more avant-garde, I was focused more on the anti-war anti-everything movies than the Hollywood ones. Elizabeth to me was still a Hollywood "Star," so when she walked into my life in 1976 dressed like a hippie and really laid back, I was totally surprised. Within a few days, we became great friends, confiding in each other and having a blast. That whole Hollywood image of hers went flying out the window.

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Image Above: From 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated

AG: Who are your artistic influences, whether they are photographers or artists of other media?

FZ: When I first thought I'd be a portrait/fashion photographer, I was a big fan of Francesco Scavullo's. He made everyone so beautiful and had a great lighting technique. Later on, I became more enamored by Avedon and Irving Penn. They are truly the masters. Scavullo was great at making people pretty, but those other two were real artists who covered such a wide spectrum, and I consider them fine art photographers. Even as a child, I was very capable of drawing and painting well, so I had initially wanted to be an artist one day. I landed up doing portraits, since for some reason, I was capable of making people look good. I got married and had a son and needed to make money, and there was money in commercial photography. But I did love movies and did pursue the portrait and poster work because I was still living and breathing movies.

I succeeded, and once I felt I had reached the summit of that genre of work, I moved on to more fine art photography, which gives me so much more satisfaction. I have great respect for the work of such photographers as Edmund Teske, Heinz Hajek-Halke, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, whose works are so much more abstract and surreal.

I'm always looking for photos that challenge the norm. Celebrity photography has lost its luster. I'm also fascinated by the realism of portraiture by the likes of Chuck Close, which shows people with warts and all.

Outside of photography, I love modern and contemporary art. My wife, Beth DeWoody, is a big collector and connoisseur, and I've learnt a lot from her about contemporary art. Besides loving Ellsworth Kelly, Stella, and the other international stars of the art world, I also love the works of the California artists, such as Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses and Robert Therrien. There are way too many artists for me to name here.

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Image Above: From 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated

AG: How has your art school education and diplomacy education at Georgetown informed your work?

FZ: I was raised to be diplomatic. After studying at the Foreign Service School at Georgetown, and then working as a diplomat, I learned to put up with people's BS and keep a smile on my face. Art school was a great relief for me, and I got to relax and be myself. But in dealing with Hollywood, I applied the tricks I had learnt as a diplomat. Charm always helps in getting things done the way you want them to be done.

AG: Aside from photographing Elizabeth, you’ve shot multiple iconic movie posters. How do you capture the essence of a film in a photograph?

FZ: I used to LOVE movies. I was passionate about them, obsessed. Living in that fantasy world helped me deal with the tougher side of life. So when I started to be successful in Hollywood and got to shoot movie posters, which was very tough to get, I poured my heart and soul into getting to know everything about the script, the actors, etc, and giving 100% of myself to what the producers wanted. When I was asked to do the poster for Pulp Fiction, I was at an advantage as I had grown up with pulp fiction books, the paperback ones. I had collected some, and, in time, they'd gotten bent out of shape—the covers were all wrinkled and scratched up. I showed one of them to the marketing people at Miramax and suggested that they do the ad looking like an old weathered pulp fiction book. They loved the idea. I created a cheap motel room set and placed Uma Thurman on the bed with a cigarette and a gun and voila, that was the shot. I loved that shoot. So did Quentin and the Weinsteins. I got several more ads with them. But in the end, most movie posters are decided on by way too many people in the marketing department and rarely do they take any chances. I shot a lot of work which I was not that proud of but made tons of money from. In time, it got way too tedious, and I lost my passion for it.

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Image Above: From 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated

AG: Has your work and experience with Elizabeth eased the process of photographing and understanding other celebrities?

FZ: Before I started taking photos of Elizabeth—and I took photos of her solely for ourselves, it was never supposed to be for commerce—I did some portrait work for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. It was no one that special, but it gave me an opportunity to deal with people in front of my camera. I never push anyone to be uncomfortable. I didn't have an agenda. I was happy just to have made the transition from being a diplomat to being a creative person. Elizabeth was so encouraging and so warm and friendly that taking her photos felt like snapping photos of an old close friend. After I did the shots of her in Iran, dressed in tribal costumes etc., and they were seen by Warhol and put in Interview magazine—though that was never my intention—I realized that maybe, just maybe, I'm OK at taking photos. Of course, now those photos are iconic, if I may say so myself. But seriously, at that time, I was just having fun. And I was stoned, too, when I was taking them, so that helped! After Elizabeth, when I was trying to establish myself in Hollywood, it was tough at first. But I persevered. I didn't give up. I photographed newcomers, wannabes, has-beens, whatever, until I started to get to the crème de la crème. I always used my diplomatic charm. Why not? If you make people feel good about themselves, they'll give back in return. Elizabeth always trusted me, both as a friend and as a photographer. I established the same kind of relationship with others. Trust. If a celebrity knows you are not out to screw them over, they will cooperate and give you what you want. Of course, some need more babying than others, but if you're making a living doing that kind of work, what's wrong with a little babying?

AG: Did Elizabeth’s attitude towards the camera change with time? I know that you mentioned that she had a moment of insecurity in front of the camera when you were shooting for the 2002 issue of Vanity Fair. She was afraid that she was coming off too Sunset Boulevard.

FZ: Elizabeth did have some preferences with angles etc. when she was being photographed. But she knew the camera, and just gazing into your lens with those eyes was so powerful that you got the shot very soon into the shoot. When I shot her for the Hollywood Issue of Vanity Fair in 2002 and had her seated in the back of the Rolls Royce with the mysterious driver, I had no intention of having her come across as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The fact that she made that comment when I finished the shoot was more in jest than based on any insecurities or hurt feelings. She was getting older, and she knew she could only project so much with a photograph. She wanted to remain in the public eye in order to promote her perfumes and to promote her efforts to combat AIDS. She was happy to be at home most of the time in comfy clothes with no makeup.

AG: Was there anything that Elizabeth said was off-limits when it comes to photographing her, or was she an open book?

FZ: She was very giving when being photographed—that's why she held a condom in her hand for me for the cover of Vanity Fair. I mean, back in 1992, who else would have done that?!

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Elizabeth w Sugar in Cannes
Image Above: From 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated

AG: Are there any shots of Elizabeth that stand out to you in your mind? That you were the proudest of capturing?

FZ: I love the shots of her in Iran, where she's dressed in the tribal costumes and when she's wearing a burka outside the mosque. It’s unique, especially since there was no one but us doing that. There was no big production. They were just snap shots.

Later on, I love the photo I did of her with short white hair after her brain surgery. She looks so sweet and innocent with very little make-up. I also love the photo of her sleeping in the back of the batch in Cannes with her little dog Sugar on her lap. Bruce Weber loved that photo, and I just gave him a print for his birthday.

AG: Aside from Elizabeth, you also took intimate pictures of her close friends and family. Were the people around her just as receptive to being photographed as she was? What was their reaction to your presence?

FZ: Whenever I was with her at her home, everyone had a camera. This is pre-digital and iPhones. We used film and took the film to a drug store and got cheap little prints in an hour. Her friend, Roddy McDowall, was always taking photos of her, and we would take turns in shooting everyone and creating photo albums for her and her family.

There was no tension or anything like that. It was just for fun.

AG: Did you ever imagine that you would accumulate such a comprehensive volume of Elizabeth Taylor? At what point did you realize that this project could come together?

FZ: I didn't set out to build up a huge volume of photos of Elizabeth. It just happened. We were together a lot, and I was also given several assignments to shoot her for various magazines and ad campaigns. A few years before she passed away, I suggested we do a book and raise funds for her foundation- The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. She was delighted and even wrote a foreword for the book. Sadly, I couldn't get any publishers interested. But just like in the movies: after years of persevering, I got a publisher who had faith in the book. I got it published, and the first printing sold out. Now it's in its second printing, and it made the cover of People magazine and was on CNN, etc. There was lots of great press. So, like an old Hollywood movie, it became a success. I'm sure there's a bunch of pissed off publishers cursing at themselves for not taking on this project. I have raised a considerable amount of money so far and am waiting for the checks from the publisher to give ETAF more money. It was a labour of love. She was so good to me; I wanted to repay her kindness and friendship. I'm sad that she isn't here to see how well the book is doing and how much she is loved and missed.

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Image Above: From 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated

AG: How has your connection to Iran shaped your work?

I am not that connected to Iran, although I did love visiting with Elizabeth in 1976. I left in 1959 and grew up in England and the States. I only went back three times and the last time was with Elizabeth, which was a treat, as I got to see all the most beautiful and historic sites.

AG: What would your advice be to young, aspiring photographers? Especially to people considering a bold career change as you did when you moved from working in diplomacy to photography and the arts?

FZ: I remember when I first started in Hollywood and all I had in my portfolio was a few photos of a middle aged Elizabeth Taylor, I had to hear comments such as "Is this all you got?" Or, "Why doesn't she do something about her weight?" as they looked at her photos. It was a shock for me. I was lucky that my first wife was a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, and I got some small assignments there. Later on, I also did shitty and boring catalogs to pay the bills. It was tough, but I didn't give up. At a certain point, I said to myself: You wanted this. You love taking photos and somehow you're making a few bucks and managing to pay your bills. I lived modestly but loved what I was doing. I didn’t have a 5 or 10 year plan. It was one day at a time. Somehow, I lucked out and made it. But truth be told, I was happy when I was making just enough to get by, because I was proud of the fact that I had made the decision to do what was my passion and made me feel alive. So now that we are in this age of digital everything and photo-effing-shop, which makes everyone look like they're made of plastic and anyone with an iPhone and an Instagram account thinks they are photographers, it's a lot tougher. But just toughen up if you really want to be a photographer and you feel like you've got it in you. Give it all you got. Push as far as you can go. And if in the end you don't become super famous and rich, be happy and proud of yourself for having had the courage to pursue your dreams. Fame is not everything they make it out to be. Trust me.

AG: What’s next for you?

FZ: I have had several exhibitions of my abstract photography including one at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach. I showed my Elizabeth Taylor in Iran photos at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I have also shown my collages at several galleries. I have a new series of images, which are more conceptual and will be showing them at the Craig Krull gallery in Los Angeles in September. The best part of that is that I am showing my work alongside Ed Moses and Don Bachardy, two exceptionally prominent artists from Los Angeles. I sort of feel I now have paid my dues and have finally achieved my childhood dream of becoming an "artist," not just a commercial photographer. It's a great feeling.

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Image Above: From 'My Elizabeth' by FiroozZahedi © 2016, published by Glitterati Incorporated
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