By Jimmy Steinfeldt
Photos by Ebet Roberts
Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 4/09/2019
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Ebet Roberts: Not often enough unless it looks dirty. Besides that, if I have a big shoot, I clean my lenses and if I’m leaving town, I always clean my lenses.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
ER: John Loengard, a Life Magazine photographer who later became their photo editor taught me a lot. His main criteria for weekly assignments was to please not bring in boring photographs…neither he nor the class wanted to be bored looking at them. I also learned a lot from Murray Riis and Charles Gatewood, both of whom I studied with. Besides that, everybody from Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Atget, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and the list goes on.
JS: Besides photographers who influenced your photography?
ER: I graduated in panting from the Memphis College of Art and was influenced by a number of painters. Burton Callicott, an amazing painter that I studied with at the Memphis College of Art, had a huge influence on me.
JS: Are you painting now?
ER: No, because I don’t have the time, but I’d love to have the time to get back into it.
JS: How did Memphis influence you?
ER: I grew up in Europe before moving to Memphis when I was ten. I always loved music and was surrounded by a lot of friends who were musicians. I still spend a good bit of time in Memphis.
JS: What was your first camera?
ER: Minolta. I got it to photograph my paintings with in the 1970s. Then I went to Olympus and I finally switched to Nikon FM’s which I loved.
JS: What camera are you shooting with now?
ER: The Nikon Df which I like because it has manual dials besides digital settings. I’ve also been shooting with a Fuji mirror less camera.
JS: Is there anyone you wanted to photograph but haven’t?
ER: I photographed Leonard Cohen in concert, but I never had the opportunity to do a session with him and I would have loved that. I’d also love to do a session with Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and I am sure there are more.
JS: Tell me about the switch from film to digital.
ER: I went kicking and screaming. I still prefer black and white film over color although I shot a lot of color. I held out switching for a long time, but I kept having to pay for the film and processing and then having to scan them. When I finally gave in to digital, it was a big learning curve and I’m still more comfortable with a film camera.
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue photography as a career?
ER: I have no idea what to say. The business has changed so much. I guess just shoot and try to connect with as many people as you can and get your photos used, starting with small publications and moving up. Don’t take no for an answer.
JS: Can you describe for our readers what the inside of CBGB was like?
ER: It was great. I loved it, lots of character and was really fun.. Walls covered with graffiti especially the bathrooms. It was small and gritty and it reeked of stale beer and cigarettes. It had a good sound system and good stage lighting. When you walked in, Hilly Kristal, the owner, was often just to the right of the door. Then there was a desk with either BG or Louise sitting there collecting money or checking the guest list. The club was in a long skinny space. Past the desk, on the right was a long bar. There was a pool table and pinball machine on the left . Up front sometimes, there was seating. You had to walk a narrow path to the left of the stage to get to the notorious dirty bathrooms, which were down the stairs. The stage was only a couple of feet high.
JS: Tell me about Max’s Kansas City.
ER: Max’s I loved too. Downstairs was a restaurant, known as an artist hangout and upstairs was music. I was there in the late 70s/ early 80s. It was a really cool club. I photographed DEVO the first time they played there and there were only about sixteen people at that show. When they played there again later that year , the place was packed, including David Bowie, who had come to see them and then had a lot to do with getting them signed after that.
JS: You have been a New Yorker for a long time and I wonder if you could comment on two New York artists that I admire, photographer Richard Avedon and an artist in all mediums Andy Warhol.
ER: Richard Avedon had a big show at the Whitney. I went on the last day and there he was in the lobby signing books. I bought the book which he signed and then I went up to the first gallery of his work to see the show. Soon after, I heard this voice behind me saying to all who were there, “Hi I’m the photographer and if any of you have questions and would like to talk just follow me to the last gallery.” So I went to hear what he had to say. If someone asked a question that he didn’t like, he’d say, “That’s a dumb question. I’m not going to answer it.” He took questions and held court for two or three hours until the museum closed, so I never got to see his show. Sometime later, I was in to London for work and got to see the show there.
I photographed Andy Warhol so many times. Lots of times backstage or at parties. Once I did a shoot with him for USA Today at his loft, perhaps at the second factory location. It was during the time when he was working on a collaboration with Basquiat, whose paintings were all over the studio. I just wish Basquiat had been there also. Andy was interesting. I must have met him a dozen times or more, but I don’t think he ever remembered who I was and if so, didn’t acknowledge it.
JS: The photographs on your website are amazing and perhaps you could comment on a few of your many legendary photographs. We could start with the gorgeous photo of Bob Marley.
ER: He was my favorite person I photographed. That portrait session lasted about five minutes. I had planned to shoot him on the roof, but there was no time according to the publicist, so I photographed him against a window and used one light with an umbrella.
JS: Robert Smith of The Cure.
ER: I love The Cure. I met them when they first came here and spent about a week with them. I never thought they’d become huge and I was really excited and happy when they did. I loved working with them over the years.
JS: We spoke earlier about CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Both birthplaces to Punk Rock. Tell us about The Ramones and the Sex Pistols.
ER: I photographed the Ramones many times over the years staring at CBGB’s.
The Sex Pistols, I photographed at the Taliesyn Ballroom in Memphis and it was probably the most exciting show I ever photographed. It was in a beautiful turn of the century mansion and the whole floor was bouncing up and down with the audience. I was sure the floor would collapse at any moment and we’d all be in the basement.
JS: You have a wonderful picture of Frank Zappa with a flag.
ER: He came up to my studio and he wanted to use the flag.
JS: The Cars.
ER: I did portraits of them for Crawdaddy magazine very early on. Their first record had just come out. We were outside shooting when this woman ran by and I tried to grab a shot with her in the frame as she ran by. It was so fast and spontaneous that I had no idea if she was in front of the band or out of the frame, but was excited to see that I had gotten it. Ric Ocasek called me up about a week or so later and asked me to go to Europe with them. I loved working with them over the years.
JS: Miles Davis.
ER: He had an apartment overlooking Central Park, I think in the Essex House. When I got there the floor and everything else was covered with his artwork on paper. You couldn’t even walk. He started picking them up to get them out of the way, but was just grabbing and scrunching them and they were getting crumpled which I hated to see. I told him to stop, he was messing them up and I would pick them up.
He later asked me which outfit I liked better and I mentioned I liked one of them. When he came out of the bedroom he had on the other one.
JS: What was one of the first shoots you did in New York where you thought being a photographer could work as a career?
ER: I think Mink DeVille. I really never intended to be a photographer. My friend was in a band and wanted me to photograph them. I told them I really didn’t do that, but I tried it and they loved the photos. The band opened for Mink DeVille, who I met at the show. Nothing to do with music, I wanted to photograph Willie DeVille and his wife Toots. I really wanted to do a portraits on the street, but Willie wanted me to come to Max’s Kansas City and photograph them at the show and backstage after the show. I photographed the show and then after the show I did photos of Willie and Toots backstage. Then someone from Capitol Records came over and said they had just signed Mink DeVille that week and wanted to see the photographs. I told them I didn’t do photography for a living and it was just one of my art projects and I wasn’t a professional, but they insisted. So I made some prints and showed them to them. They loved them and they started hiring me. I guess it was then that I started contemplating being a photographer.
JS: You have a beautiful photograph of Madonna.
ER: She is an amazing entertainer and I loved photographing her. I photographed her a lot over the years in performance.
JS: How did you hook up with the Hard Rock Café?
ER: I used to shoot there for various clients when they had events there.
JS: You also shot stills on music videos.
ER: One that sticks in my mind is Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. I spent 2 days there shooting with the song playing non-stop for the entire time. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days.
JS: Do you have a book?
ER: I’m working on putting one together now.
JS: Is there a cause you support that we should know about?
ER: I am a huge supporter of Farm Aid and have been photographing for them since 1985. It was started by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp to help save family farms and sustainable farming. I also did a lot of work for PETA and I support many environmental causes.
JS: What’s next for Ebet Roberts?
ER: Right now, I am trying to concentrate on putting together a book and checking out publishers. I’m also working on a commencement speech I’ll be giving at the Memphis College of Art in May.