Celebrity Portraitist Gerard Malanga

An associate of Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga reflects on his subjects and his career as a photographer

Gerard Malanga, c. 1970s. (Gerard Malanga)

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GM: It wasn't the music per se that inspired me, or the imagery behind it that factored into my photography. In fact, it was the last thing on my mind. I just felt it was important to at least document the milieu that I was a part of because what was happening was important. Photographing musicians was like photographing anyone else, especially if the person liked being photographed...In my approach I try to photograph someone who is obviously conscious of being photographed while reaching a moment where it's all the more natural without seeming conscious. That's the best I can describe it and that's the best kind of portrait. Dick Avedon, a good friend, and I shared a similar approach, though in the end he was a more controlled photographer and more controlling of his subject whereas I try to ease my subject into a more relaxed situation where the kind of effect I'm looking for has a better chance of succeeding. I try to be kind without being too kind. What's to be gained if the subject you photograph comes away from the encounter with a bad feeling about it? Art should be fun if it's to be art at all.

Do you think there's a special quality about your personality that makes people feel comfortable about letting their defenses down for the camera?

Yes and no. First rule of thumb: In whatever the photo encounter presents I have to convey a sense of confidence, otherwise I can be off my mark. It's an interesting thing about photography. All the talent in the world is not going to produce what I feel is an artistic success. I've learned from experience that what has to click is the rapport between the subject and the photographer, even if it's only for a few minutes or an entire afternoon. I could be photographing an amazing subject and easily come away with a failure; whereas with someone not in the limelight the result could be totally dramatic. There's no telling what will result. If the person shows the slightest hint of impatience, then I've lost it!

Ben Maddow, a very dear friend and clearly one of the great photo historians, once said of my work, that I have the uncanny ability to make famous people look anonymous and anonymous people look famous… I've always believed the person gave me their portrait. In a sense, each of us carries a photo within us waiting to emerge. It takes the right set of circumstances to bring it about. That's the magic of photography for me. It's totally unpredictable. I don’t really think how my personality is going to make people feel comfortable about letting their defenses down in front of my lens and that’s never been a tactic for me. That was certainly Diane Arbus’ technique and Dick Avedon’s to some extent, but not mine. It’s always been the picture between the pictures for me, where something else takes over and hopefully I can find it on the contact sheet.

Of the photographs you've taken over the years, which ones stand out in your mind or would you consider favorites? Why?

My favorite ones are always the ones yet to be taken. I guess that's because I can never know the result. Or it's always the photo encounter that almost didn't happen or in thinking about it, wish that it had… I can't for the likes of me recall the psychic energy that went into getting a certain picture, to capture a particular moment. I'm grateful for the friends and strangers alike who allowed me into their world and to encapsulate a moment or two on film. For in the end, that’s all we have. Each face, each person has a story to tell and these portraits are really a reminder that they exist for the telling.

The majority of your photography that I've seen is portraiture. What do you think draws you to this style, as opposed to other styles?

First off, the source for all my work in portraiture began with the shot I made of Charles Olson back in '69, and I didn't even know that was what I'd be doing for the rest of my life! I guess you could say it was kind of an awakening. Something touches your soul and you know it's right. I realized I could do it well and when I look back at some of the early work a lot of divine accidents pop up. Secondly, there's a tradition in what I do so I feel comfortable with that, knowing I'm giving something back hopefully. The best way I can describe the feeling is that portrait photography challenges you to be the best that you can be.


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