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Interview by Lisa Perry | Photo: Becker portrait by Ralph Gibson; all other photos courtesy of Jonathan Becker | July 18, 2014
From the British royals and Hollywood royalty to society grande dames and larger-than-life eccentrics, Jonathan Becker has captured all elements of the social set throughout his storied career. Designer Lisa Perry—who will host Becker for a book signing at her new East Hampton store (67 Main St., lisaperrystyle.com) on July 20—talks to the celebrated photographer, who got his start as a 12-year-old shutterbug snapping portraits of old-guard families in Southampton, about the re-release of his eye-opening tome, 30 Years at Vanity Fair.
Lisa Perry: In 30 years, who were the most memorable people that you photographed?
Jonathan Becker: I don’t know why, but I always think of Dr. Kevorkian. There were two assignments. The first was when he had his first so-called patient, who had a terrible disease, and I photographed him with her just before her demise. The second time I went back to Detroit when he was getting in real trouble, and he had done some strange things, like staying in the van where he’d performed a ‘procedure’ for what was said to be an extra two or three hours afterward. He took me out to his house to see his paintings, which were the most ghoulish, necrophiliac things you’d ever seen.
Oh, my gosh.
He was an interesting, unique, original creature who had done his best to turn a seeming preoccupation with the morbid—what might have been a shortcoming—into an advantage. Then there was Mrs. Wildenstein...
The plastic surgery cat woman?
I suppose that’s how she’s seen, but I really enjoy these people who’ve gone far out on their own tangent. It’s interesting to discover their worlds. There’s no press agent; they’re making their own act.
Tell me about the image, from the book, of Martha Graham sandwiched between Madonna and Calvin Klein at City Center in NYC.
Martha was my godmother, and so I thought this would be an easy assignment: I’d just call her up and we’d do it. I kept trying to reach her, but at the time, she was overprotected by a certain fella. Finally, I got through when she answered her own phone. And she said, ‘No, I’m not in control of my own time, and the only thing to do is for you to meet me backstage at City Center after the performance.’ It was the last time she actually went on stage and bowed. She didn’t have much longer. Backstage, there was a rope for photographers, and I was put behind it with a phallanx of them. I thought, I’ll have to be Houdini to pull this one off. Then the most amazing thing happened. Everybody was flashing their cameras but she looked and found me. She was surrounded by all kinds of celebrities, and she posed. There’s something about that picture—it’s really a portrait of Martha Graham posing for me, and no one else got that picture because she locked her eyes on my camera, and it was the last time I saw her. The picture has a lot of power because of that. It was as if no one else were in the room.
That’s beautiful. Have you ever maintained friendships with your subjects?
Many. I think half my friends were subjects at one time. You can’t help making friends with people because you’ve got to get to know them to take their portrait properly. There’s a friendly rapport that develops, usually. Even with Dr. Kevorkian.