Monday, March 07, 2011

Johnny Rozsa Touches on the 'Untouched'

It isn't every day you get invited to interview a legend, so it was with equal parts excitement and anxiety that I met recently with celebrity photographer Johnny Rozsa at his East Village apartment, where he opened up about his career-retrospective book, "Untouched," recently published by Glitterati Inc.

My invite came by way of our mutual friend Scooter LaForge, who collaborated with Rozsa on a limited-edition T-shirt featuring a classic Rozsa snap of Boy George for the opening reception of a corresponding exhibition of photos from the book at the Christopher Henry Gallery downtown.

Scooter and I were bumming around SoHo when he got the idea to get Johnny and me together, knowing how much I grew up admiring his photos of Debbie Harry, Sade, Bananarama, Leigh Bowery, Steve Strange, Limahl and Marilyn, to name a few.

In the 30 years since, Rozsa has also become a sought-after shutterbug of high fashion, with his work appearing countless publications, including Vogue, The Face, The New York Times, People, The Sunday Times, i-D, Maxim, Newsweek and New York magazine, to name a few. His portraits of Ian Charleson (the late "Chariots of Fire" star who was also his best friend), Sade, Marilyn and Martin Degville (of Sigue Sigue Sputnik fame) are now part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Upon our arrival, we were attacked greeted by Rozsa's three small dogs -- two hairless (Chinese Cresteds), one with (Chihuahua-Poodle mix) -- who came flying out into the hall ahead of their master. After catching up with Scooter for a bit -- they hadn't seen each in 24 whole hours -- Johnny began to warm up to me, giving me a tour of his eclectic flat, which he explained he's had for 10 years but could easily pass for 30. The sun room and huge backyard were divine, but it was his Buddhist altar in the main living area that caught my eye first, and foreshadowed what was to come later.

As Johnny and I began to chat, Scooter whipped out his sketch pad and started to document the meeting of two figures defined by the '80s, one who took photos of the era that will live on forever, one with a dated CD collection who somehow manages to be proud to own music by The Flirts.

After flipping through the pages of his beautifully made book and a few off-the-record tales, I decided a quick game of word association would be fun.

Johnny, who is as witty as he is charming, was rarely able to keep it down to a single word -- maybe the game is played differently in his birthplace of Kenya, I'll have to ask our president -- but not unlike his photographs, Rozsa's responses were just as colorful and revealing:

Kelly LeBrock: "Fucked her." For real? I asked. Yes, he said. "If you're gonna fuck a woman, you might as well fuck the most beautiful one in the world."

Molly Ringwald, whom he shot twice: "Lovely. I remember she came guiding her blind father."

Anjelica Huston: "Heavenly."

Jane Russell, who died shortly after our talk: "I enjoyed photographing her at her home in the hills above Carpinteria. She was married to a charming man and seemed very Christian/Republican. A good person and behaved like an old Hollywood star with grace and a cheeky sense of fun! The favorite photo I took of her was in her bedroom. She put on a diaphanous cheetah-print muumuu, and posed coquettishly on her bed! Above her was a painting of a prowling leopard."

Farrah Fawcett: "My one regret is that I never photographed her with long hair." I told Johnny this was without question the sexiest photo I had ever seen of Ryan O'Neal -- that back, that beard! -- and we instantly bonded as he agrees that O'Neal is one of Hollywood's all-time hottest men -- and then he chastised me for never having seen "Barry Lyndon," which was promptly added to my Netflix queue. (Didn't even know that was Stanley Kubrick.)

Scooter documented the evening well, but neglected to draw a picture of me with my foot in my mouth after I (randomly) made a reference to Sandy Duncan having a glass eye. Johnny then informed me that he, too, had one -- which I assumed was a joke to make me feel like I had just put my foot in my mouth -- until he popped it out of his head and all but handed it to me.

A young Jason Bateman, and an even younger Stephen Dorf

David Duchovny: "Huge c--k. I remember he couldn't get a job but he was riddled with ambition. Just lovely."

Martin Sheen: "Pass."

Hugh Grant: "Gentleman. But I really was more interested in photographing (his 'Maurice' costar) Rupert Graves."

Julie Walters: "Legend."

Leigh Bowery: "For the short time that she lived, she was a major, major force." Anything else? "Cottage queen. She's sucked more cocks than I've had hot dinners."

Jean-Claue Van Damme: "Most incredible ass I've ever seen."

Jennifer Coolidge: "Generous."

As we finished our tea -- Johnny moved to London in the early '60s, after all -- and began to make plans for dinner, I had to know about the celebrity he selected to be on the cover of his book. That's when he pointed to the Buddhist altar I had noticed earlier in the evening and told me about Tina, the woman who forever changed his life when she introduced him to the religion back in 1982, just before her comeback that made her an even bigger star than she had been in the Ike days. He had photographed her at his studio in Silverlake and then gone to her house a few days later to show her the contacts. It was there that he noticed a little room with an "ornate altar" so he asked her about it as he was leaving. That's when she knelt down in front of it and he followed her lead: "Here I was, next to my heroine, kneeling beside someone who held the key to everything I wanted: compassion, energy, success, fun and courage. This was my first introduction to Buddhism -- and now I have been a Nichiren Buddhist for over 25 years." (He was turned on to Buddhism by Tina!!!!)

Next up for Rozsa? He's working on Michael Wolff's relaunch of Adweek and writing a Grandma-a-clef about the Holocaust, using a newly discovered cache of old letters written by his survivor grandmother. (Learn more about the project HERE.)

When the chat was over, Michael joined us for a fun dinner at a dive Mexican joint on First Avenue, where Johnny put his one eye to good use taking pictures of us.

I, in turn, returned the favor with my two lasiked peepers.

Afterward, as we spilled out into the cold and said our goodbyes, I thanked Johnny for the opportunity to interview him -- which, in a word, can only be described as legendary.

Visit Johnny Rozsa on the Web HERE -- and order your copy of "Untouched" HERE.


Adam said...

Delightful write-up. And that Ryan O'Neal photo is to die for. Let me be the next to chastise you for not having seen Barry Lyndon.

nojarama said...

Again, another moment to say that I am jealous is an understatement. I HATE you! He-he!

nojarama said...

Again; another moment of you life that to say that I am jealous is an understatement. I HATE you!. Just kidding...

Anonymous said...

amazing write up !!!! I LOVE ALL THE DIRT! xxoxoxoxo love you.

Marc said...

See? Even the legends need an editor. (Farrah Faucet?)

Anonymous said...


I didn't know who Johnny is, thanks for sharing this delightful interview and photos.



AJ said...

I've seen another photo from the David Duchovny shoot and always wondered where it came from. Nice to see this one ... and I love Mr. Rozsa's comments, and his work. Much more intense and gifted than Avedon, in my opinion.

Lovely interview, too. Thank you!