By Jimmy Steinfeldt http://jimmysteinfeldt.com/
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/18/18 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Jerry de Wilde: Usually, almost every time before I use them. I’m very careful with my equipment. I respect the fact that I don’t want a malfunction when I am working. I make sure that it is part of my preparation for each shoot. My cameras, lenses and blimps still look and perform great although I’ve had my gear for over thirty-five years.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
JD: Edward Weston was my first hero. In his daybooks he describes how, when he was photographing his nautilus shells and bell peppers in Carmel, he used natural light and an 8×10 camera for which he needed long exposures and very controlled lighting. He’d talk about how he’d be a half hour into a time exposure when a friend would come by to say hi and walked in shaking the wooden floors of the house. Weston would have to start all over again. I thought it was awesome that Weston had such patience. I also liked how organic his images were. It wasn’t just a bell pepper. It was a sensuous form. His prints also exhibited the full range of zone system grey tones. If he found a scene he liked, he’d sit there for a whole day and then decide the best time of day to shoot this image. That is so cool to be a photographer who was not in a hurry.
I also went to school on the works of Paul Strand, Robert Frank, Jacob Riis, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Weegee, Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans, Imogene Cunningham, Ansel Adams and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson was famous for setting up a shot and then waiting for something to happen within the frame. He might be standing there for hours waiting. Patience.
Ansel Adams’ meticulous images reflecting his skills in print making impressed me. I remember him once saying, “the negative is like the sheet music and the print is the performance”.
JS: Who influenced your photography other then photographers?
JD: Great artists like Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Degas, Miro, De Kooning, Magritte, and Calder to name a few. I liked the mystery of their work. Filmmakers Jean Cocteau, Robert Frank, John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas, Akira Kurosawa and Fellini. I loved experimental stuff that I could translate into photography. Old Hollywood was too formal. I liked the underground filmmakers with handheld Ariflex cameras, low key lighting and a more spontaneous work ethic.
The teachings of Krishnamurti, Meher Baba, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Subud were big influences. These teachings helped free my mind so I was not locked up playing and replaying old tapes in my head. I gravitated towards people who would help me allow my unconscious creative energy to influence my choices.
My father was an indirect influence too. He had a Brownie 620 box camera and never let me use it. I saw it as a forbidden magic box. That created a hunger to find out about photography when I was off on my own. My mom said she didn’t care what I did in life as long as when I got up in the morning I couldn’t wait to get to work. Photography made that happen for me.
JS: What was your first camera?
JD: I frequented a local movie theater on Saturday mornings when I was 12. I won a contest and the prize was a Dick Tracy camera but it was a toy and didn’t take pictures. So I went around my neighborhood in Brooklyn pretending to take real photographs.
JS: How did you get started in photography?
JD: When I got to L.A. in 1960 I made a few friends who were photographers. Doug Quakenbush was one who would go to clubs and hunt with his camera for his Jazz favorites. He taught me how to process film and how to make a print. I eventually got a Honeywell Pentax 35mm SLR camera with screw mount lenses that I used all through the 60s. I also acquired a Beseler 23c enlarger and built my first darkroom.
Then fate stepped in. I was visiting a friend from my days at the Theater Academy, Rusty Gilliam, who had just given birth at her home in Silverlake. In walks another well wisher, Conrad Rooks, heir to the Avon fortune. Conrad is in the midst of making a movie. Rusty told Conrad if he was going to film in Big Sur he had to speak to me because I knew the area. Conrad said to me “Be at the Beverly Hills Hotel tomorrow at noon.” I show up and Conrad says I want you to meet my director Robert Frank. Also in the room is the beautiful model Ann Prentiss. Rooks gives me his credit card and tells me to go the hotel concierge and reserve a plane out of Van Nuys to get us to Carmel that same afternoon so that we are there before sunset. We get there in time. Frank shoots the scene with Conrad and Ann wearing a gauzy kind of flowing gown running along the beach. The next morning I’m told to go with Robert and help shoot the sunrise coming over the mountains. I knew the perfect spot on a hillside in the predawn light over looking the Salinas Valley. I remember mentioning to Robert that the Salinas Valley was Steinbeck country and we were witnessing his great line, “when the black of night meets the light of day”. We had a long chat before sunrise and kind of got to know each other a bit. The film ended up being called “Chappaqua”. I learned to load film magazines, shoot stills and was the general production coordinator. Robert said to me “You’re a good guy. I’m working on my own movie as well. I can’t pay you but if you come to New York I could use some help from someone like you. I like your attitude and abilities.”
In September of ‘64 I drove across country and in New York I reconnected with Robert Frank. I worked with Robert on his film Me and My Brother. During this time I wanted to ask for Robert’s opinion of my photographs. I eventually got the courage and made about ten prints. I said to Robert I hoped I wasn’t bugging him, but could he give me his opinion of my work. I wanted to know if he felt my photographs showed promise and were good enough to continue pursuing photography as a career. Robert said in his heavy Swiss accent, “You take very pretty pictures but what are they about? What are you trying to say?” I had never thought of it that way. Robert put a seed in my head and a flower started to grow.
So I took Robert’s advice and started to think about what photos to shoot. I felt that New York with eight million people was really a lonely place. It reminded me of the movie, A Face In The Crowd. So I went looking for lonely. Down to the Bowery, the Lower East Side, Wall Street. I shot a series and printed it on AGFA paper and showed Robert the pictures and he said “This is good. You’ve got some good images and ideas. But everybody shoots New York. Subways, Bums, etc. What you should really do is go out there and see what’s going on around the country.” This is the winter of 1964/65 and the Counter Culture Revolution was starting and was a very interesting subject to explore.
JS: How did you end up photographing the historic Monterey Pop Festival?
JD: I wasn’t really a Rock ‘n’ Roll photographer at that time but in 1967, while living in Big Sur, my old friend and producer Peter Pilafian reached out to me, “We’re doing this thing in Monterey, do you know any carpenters up there?” Peter said he needs a crew to put together the stage and lighting for a concert coming up in a few weeks. This is something I could do because I had stagecraft experience. I ended up on stage as part of the deck crew during the performances. I saw the list of who was playing and was impressed but I was really into Ravi Shankar at the time and I wanted to do a photo essay on him. These photos would be part of my mosaic of the 60’s. Ravi wanted to play Sunday afternoon. No Rock ‘n’ Roll, quiet, no rowdiness.
I arrived from my cabin in Garrapata Canyon early Sunday morning and shot the empty stage and the fairgrounds. It was drizzling and misty. It was very ominous weather for Ravi who came on at 1pm. Ravi comes out and says, “ I hope it doesn’t rain and we can give a good performance”. Just then the misty drizzle stops. There is a crack in the clouds and a shaft of sunlight hits the audience. Then a plane slowly takes off from Monterey airport and Ravi playing his sitar makes the same sound as the plane and goes into the first Raga. The jaw dropping audience was amazed.
I’m taking photographs from my station on stage, the photographer’s pit and in the audience. Everybody was like on another planet at that point experiencing a mass meditation. At the conclusion of the last Raga you could hear a pause for about five seconds. Then everybody explodes onto their feet and started cheering. It’s like everybody came back to earth at the same time.
So now I’m out of film but around 6pm Peter Pilafian comes to me and says there is this guy playing later tonight and whatever you do you’ve got to shoot this guy. So I went to my good friend Henry Diltz whom I knew from the Farm in L.A. and I asked him if he could spare a roll of color film. He gives me a roll of daylight Ektachrome 125 and he says he’s shooting at 5.6 at 1/125th. I said great! There I am on stage taking a few snaps of The Who from stage right and afterwards out comes Jimi Hendrix. He is tuning up and everybody is going “Wait a second, we never heard sounds like this before.” Then he turns to the audience and starts playing. It was truly innovative to the point where Jimi’s performance will be remembered as an important piece of Rock ‘n’ Roll history. It was disturbing, exhilarating, and erotic. We couldn‘t believe what we were seeing and hearing. He’s on his knees. Feedback is coming from his guitar and speakers. He’s lighting his guitar on fire! Luckily I got some great shots. Ravi Shankar was upset that The Who and Hendrix destroyed their instruments. Afterwards, I thanked Henry profusely and I thanked Peter for turning me on to Jimi.
We all went our separate ways after Monterey. I went back to L.A. to The Farm, my home base. In 1968 I left for Europe and shot a street photography project in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Rome, Morocco and in London where I met my wife, Mary.
After Monterey there were Love-Ins, Art Happenings, Be-Ins, trips to The Hog Farm, journeys with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as well as lots of tie-dying on The Farm with the legendary Tie-Dye Annie as our mentor.
JS: What else happened after Monterey?
JD: Friend Bobby Steinbrecker was a producer of TV commercials and hired me to shoot stills for a food commercial and it paid $150 per day which was good money in 1973. The shoot was for Swift’s Butterball Turkeys at a house in Pasadena on a hot July day with a fresh turkey coming out of a dozen stoves every 15 minutes looking for the perfect first slice. The total number for the shoot was 300 turkeys. That morphed into a 30 year career as a specialty and production still photographer. I enjoyed the movie biz. I just walked around taking photos like a street photographer. I became one of the top two or three most popular shooters in commercials because I always delivered. I could shoot 2 ¼ and 4×5 for advertising agency print work and I knew the protocol of working on a set. Stay out of the way!
JS: What camera are you using these days.
JD: At age 80, it is harder for me to carry my heavy film equipment. I use my iPhone a lot. It’s small and easy to carry giving great results. I also use my Sony RX100 to get more resolution and make larger prints.
JS: Is there a camera that you always wanted but never got.
JD: Leica M3.
JS: Is there anyone you’d like to have photographed?
JD: Mae West, Muddy Waters and the Marx Brothers to name a few.
JS: What helpful advice have you gotten over the years.
JD: Ellen Burstyn once told me you get paid for putting your ass on the line. Another bit of useful advice was from Corey Allen, the actor best known for Rebel Without A Cause. He asked me “Why be afraid of the unknown?” He was right! Why should we?
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue photography as a career?
JD: Know your camera so well that it becomes an extension of your body. I wouldn’t recommend photography as a moneymaker. As Robert Frank told me, “I hope you don’t think your going to get rich”. If you have to see it as a career instead of a creative obsession, the trick is to make friends with people who have not been discovered yet. Cool, exciting, talented, fun people to shoot and be with. Once they become famous they will be very protective of their image and will only want to work with people that they know. People they trust.
JS: What’s next for Jerry de Wilde?
JD: I am now scanning and printing my 1968-69 photos from my European journey. I have been posting some of them on Instagram and enjoying the fact that I can share them with lots of folks and get enthusiastic reactions. I hope to exhibit prints and complete my books “My Walk through the 60’s” and “Europe on $5 a day” in the very near future.
JS: How can people learn more about you and your work?