The Legendary Photographer Mr Paul Jasmin Reminisces With MR PORTER

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The Legendary Photographer Mr Paul Jasmin Reminisces With MR PORTER

Words by Mr Chris Wallace

3 April 2020

Viewed from our manic, exasperated present (and maybe even especially when seen from a frenzied, uncertain isolation), the photographs of Mr Paul Jasmin have an unbelievably alluring, lazy decadence about them: all that emptiness, all that golden Californian sunshine so wonderfully squandered; all of those gorgeous, laconic bodies in no kind of rush to do anything much other than one another. Mr Jasmin’s Los Angeles, which he has been photographing for nearly 40 years – since he moved west to escape New York, where he worked as an illustrator for fashion advertisements, much like his friend Mr Andy Warhol – is a kind of a dreamscape. And, as in a dream, the “real” world and its concerns appear in his pictures only as abstractions (if at all) – a distant ribbon of smog and sandpaper plaster architecture in the background of a portrait of a dolorous youth.

In many of the photographs that were to be a part of his show, Lost Angeles, at Fahey/Klein in Los Angeles (which was, somehow, to be his first big show in town, but has of course been postponed to a date yet to be announced), LA is itself in conversation with his subjects: lavender hills in the sunset, a shoulder for a golden-haired girl to cry on; a canyon of palms, down the slope from Whitley Heights, calling you down from your safe perch into the dense thickets of sin. But like so many of the pictures that have been collected in his books, Hollywood Cowboy, Lost Angeles and California Dreaming, it is the mood of the people, their matinee-idol faces, that is so enchanting.

Here, for example, is Ms Anjelica Huston in profile, a blossom behind her ear, flat crown hat tilted jauntily to the side, looking impressively majestic, a rural queen up above a Californian landscape; there Ms Sofia Coppola, topless but for her hair hanging down to her heavily charmed sarong, a 1970s Cleopatra, ready to ruin the life of her interlocutor. If they are in fact quite regal figures (and what else would you call actual Hollywood royalty?), these images make of their subjects something else, something more like icons. In her photograph, Ms Huston could be an actor of her father’s generation, maybe Ms Rita Hayworth, in a romantic caper set on the Costa Brava. Mr Jasmin closes one eye, cocks his head and squints with the other. “Yeah,” he says in his raspy voice, “you’re right, that picture is not today at all.” He is sitting at his living room table, appraising a series of prints for the show. “It could be a picture from the 1940s or 1950s. But basically, it's what I see now. That's how I want the people to be. Innocence with a little bit of an edge.” Ms Coppola does look innocent in her photo, as if she maybe ran away with the wrong band. But there is edge there, too, like she might be some sort of belly-dancing assassin.

Screenshot 2019-09-03 at 17.17.00
Screenshot 2019-09-03 at 17.17.00

Ms Coppola was, of course, one of Mr Jasmin’s students, if informally – she didn’t regularly attend his beloved photography class at ArtCenter in Pasadena (as did Mr Dewey Nicks, Ms Melodie McDaniel and a slew of other wildly accomplished photographers from the last 30-odd years), which he still teaches every Friday afternoon – she just dropped in on him at his apartment, between her own classes at CalArts, to sit around his table as I am doing now to talk about pictures, about the worlds those images hint at.

The world that Mr Jasmin’s pictures point to is very specific – and obviously somewhat autobiographical. There is, about his subjects, a bit of the 1950s silver-screen grandeur of the movies (starring, say, Ms Elizabeth Taylor and Mr Montgomery Clift) he grew up watching every week in his hometown of Helena, Montana. And then there is the longing, the windswept, desert light lonesomeness of, say, the stories of Mr Paul Bowles – the writer who Mr Jasmin sought out and met in Tangier on one of his flights from art school in Paris, where he’d gone to study painting. Like Mr Bowles’ characters, Mr Jasmin’s have a kind of idyllic isolation, a romantic remove.

In addition to France and Morocco, a young Mr Jasmin wandered his way into Cairo, to Taormina, Sicily, and then, ultimately, to New York in the late 1950s. As he describes it, New York was then still a hopeful place, where everyone knew everyone (or at least slept with them) and you could kind of make yourself up of whole cloth.

“The 1960s were fabulous for young people,” he says now. “Central Park. Every weekend, when the weather was nice, every young person would go to Central Park and it was Be-Ins. That term doesn't even translate into the 21st century. Be-In, love-in. Acid… But today you wouldn't dare take those kinds of drugs because the world isn't kind.”

This gauzy, mythical sort of innocence – subsequently lost – could be said to be the primary subject of Mr Jasmin’s photography. It is in the illustrations that he made working in advertising, it is in his paintings. And it is, in addition to his own aspirations to become an actor (his is one of the voices synthesised into a slurry that became Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho), what drew him to LA. “LA is filled with dreamers,” he says. “It's filled with people that came maybe to be movie stars. And this building,” he says, “Los Altos,” the 1925 building in Koreatown, where he has lived for the past 18 years, “is filled with a lot of people who came with a dream and ended up doing something else.”

And that something else, that fall from the cloudy dreams that brought them west is how one enters the seedy Los Angeles of noir. There was recently a murder in this building – the same building in which the great early movie stars Mses Clara Bow and Mae West lived, where it is also rumoured that Mr William Randolf Hearst kept his mistress. In recent years, it has fallen into a kind of garish Norma Desmond disrepair: fake filigree fading from the mission revival columns in the lobby, red plush carpet sprouting some sort of stuffing. Mr Jasmin has heard through the grapevine that the murder, a shooting, was drug-related, but this interplay of glamour and gossip, of desperation (or, in his words, “dreaming”), with myth and mayhem is essential to both Los Angeles and Mr Jasmin’s pictures.

I think of it as some sort of poetry that Mr Jasmin’s first big break as a photographer in Los Angeles was shooting the stills on the set of American Gigolo, a film about hustling and about beauty corrupted, starring Mr Richard Gere. I remember first experiencing his pictures much later, in my own Angeleno youth – when, at the time, he was shooting frequently for magazines including L’Uomo Vogue and doing ads for brands such as A.P.C. I remember the seductive maturity they contained. All of his subjects seemed to possess a sophistication that only comes by way of hard experience – they knew something about life that I’d never understand. They’d had their hearts broken, dramatically, they’d run away, run around, been there and back – and you saw the miles they’d covered in their eyes. To my then adolescent mind, it seemed as though the figures in Mr Jasmin’s pictures all occupied the same milieu – a kind of debauched aristocracy, directly descended from the jet set, who’d moved out to LA on a vision quest or some such and become marooned there at the end of the world (at a house in Whitley Terrace probably), only because there was nowhere further for them to go.

“In LA, there is nothing to do,” Mr Jasmin says. “LA allows you time and space to reflect.” And Mr Jasmin, who will turn 85 this month, has taken full advantage. Apart from driving out to Pasadena to teach his class on Fridays, he remains close to his little hermitage here at Los Altos, with his cats, and his pictures. He runs Turner Classic movies around the clock, and reads – magazines, yes, but mostly biographies of figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He has, however consciously, created for himself a buffer from the real world so as to live more fully in his own dream. And I wonder if that, in fact, isn’t his actual art, his masterpiece – a world of his own creation, a perfect dream world, unfettered by reality – a dreamworld he gives us a little glimpse of, and an opportunity to visit, in his photographs.

Paul Jasmin: Lost Angeles** will be on at Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles**

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