Wednesday, August 21, 2013

MadonnaTribe with Curtis Knapp

MadonnaTribe had the chance to talk to Curtis Knapp, the award-winning portrait and fashion photographer who has portraied some of the most influential musicians, actors, writers, artists and celebrities of our times, including Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Brian Eno, Dennis Hopper, Lou Reed, and REM, and signing the photoshoot for Madonna's first magazine cover ever.
Back in new York City after spending two decades in Japan, Curtis has recently been featured in two exhibitions about Andy Warhol in Washington and New York City, showing the portraits of Warhol he shot in 1983 that are among the last images of the artist in his last Factory.

MadonnaTribe: Hello Mr. Knapp and welcome to MadonnaTribe. Madonna fans are most familiar with your work for the amazing "early years" photo portraits of Madonna. You happen to be the photographer of the first magazine cover Madonna ever had back at the beginning of her road to stardom.
But you started your career as a graphic designer and you went on painting and doing illustrations in the '70s. When did you discover that being a photographer was going to be the job of your life?

Curtis Knapp: There was a transition somewhere in the later '70s. I had been living in Athens GA. My friends, The B52s needed photographs for some gigs. We took some photos as I dabbled in it at the time. Later in NYC, I photographed many Athens bands - Pylon, OH-OK, Love Tractor and REM’s cover for CHRONIC TOWN.

MadonnaTribe: As mentioned earlier, you are the photographer of Madonna's first magazine cover ever, hundreds covers came after that for her. But what does it feel to be the photographer of that first cover, "Island" is a part of music history now.

Curtis Knapp: I do not think just on Madonna. Perhaps someday (I have been told) my archives will be or help in some small way some sort of history on many of the people or subjects in my files.

MadonnaTribe: That number of Island is very rare now and collectors from around the world are always looking for a copy.
For those who have never had the chance to see a copy, what kind of magazine was Island and how did they get in touch with you to do the Madonna photo shoot?

Curtis Knapp: Arnold and the staff planned it. And they where very excited about it. And they did plan it around the time of her First record (remember records?) release. They had parties etc... She lived on the next block. She came over to the ‘Apartment’ to pick from my contact sheets. My Daughter Rei-re just asked when she could use the living room and watch TV. Ah kids.

MadonnaTribe: What do you recall of that young and fresh Madonna on the set? did you feel she would have achieved so much in the music business and become such an iconic figure?

Curtis Knapp: Honestly, she was very focused on her idea of HER. But at that time, that day, we just had fun and worked on taking good pics.

MadonnaTribe: How many photos did you take that day? Just a few were published and there must be many outtakes...

Curtis Knapp: Yes and fans can contact me direct for gallery prints, which I sell on my site. But between moving here and there many negatives had gone by the wayside and lost.

MadonnaTribe: Recently a slightly different pose of that photo appeared on the cover of a special number of Black & White Magazine for an interesting article. It was a great treat for fans and magazine collector who don't own the original Island cover. Did you personally choose that outtake for that cover?

Curtis Knapp: "Hands" are placed a bit different and the balance is better. I also used on the book Goddess (Italian version). It is my personal choice.

MadonnaTribe: Did you shoot the Madonna session in Black and White? From what we know it
requires a whole different lighting right?

Curtis Knapp: I work mostly in B&W. I did shoot some color.

MadonnaTribe: What do you think is the quality you have that makes your photos unique?

Curtis Knapp: Simple is best. Focus on the face / person. Not the cloths or the background. But that is different thinking when I shoot for advertising or products. Simple was my main thing when I taught at the Smithsonian Institute in DC a few years back.

MadonnaTribe: In your years shooting for magazines such as Interview and Esquire you went on photographing other rock and pop stars and actors. Which was the most easy person to work with and the most difficult?

Curtis Knapp: To answer that, who would I end up offending someone? I usually shoot (for my personal shootings) only two or four rolls of film. If one does not get it in the first rolls, they are looking for that exposure called in Japan "Lucky Hit". That's not photography.
In dealing with sitters, I always would rush over to them and try and befriend them... can I get you tea, have seat etc...
Irving Penn told me, "stop that. Let the assistant or editor do that. Stay aloof and make a space between you and the sitter. It leads to a better connection later on the set". It took a few years for me to see what he meant. It is like, 40 can’t tell 20 what 40 is like till 20 becomes 40?!
Never been set off. One day Jim Carroll (for whom I did a record cover and had photographed three or four times), brought Lou Reed to the studio. I was nervous. And why? I don't know why.

MadonnaTribe: When we have a chance to meet photographers that have worked with Madonna in the early stage of her career we like to ask them how would they photograph her today. So what setting, what ideas would you like to try in a ipotetich new Madonna shoot?

Curtis Knapp: I think one of these day she and I might re-create that image again. It would not be the same with another photographer. But note MY black turtle neck has been on a lot of people before and since.

MadonnaTribe: In 1984 you moved from New York to Japan. Why did you take this decision? There are huge differences among the two cultures...

Curtis Knapp: That is a huge Q. And the answer could fill a book. It was time for my Daughter Rei-re to start First grade in Tokyo.

MadonnaTribe: Working in Japan you also focused on local artist. What's the difference between working with American artists and Japanese ones?

Curtis Knapp: In America / NYC, people just come over to my studio. [I can remember Madonna shoot ending late and all of us walking down the back dark stairway to exit the building]. Where as Japan is a rental studio system and the sitter (talent) shows up with managers, make-up etc... It's just their style and it works there. Here I like it when I can say 75% of my portraits are private for my art.
In Japan they use the word "Talent-to" to discribe an actor or musician etc... Which does not mean they are talented in many cases. And that is not to say many people really do have talent. Such as Ryu Murakami, Yoko-o Tadanori, Toshiro Mifune (the real 7th Samurai). I have many stories about Japan. Some good some bad some funny. My world there was a Japanese one and not very Foreigner connected at all. In a word "I love it there". Toki-doki sami-shi, for Japan

MadonnaTribe: You recently went back living in the USA, did you find the country changed since you left for Japan?

Curtis Knapp: WOW! Of course. I was frozen in time (I feel like). Used to be I could go up town, walk in, go to a friends office. Now days you get searched at the front door, cameras in the elevators, reception desk on that floor you get out on... Everyone is excepting this paranoia. Along with moving so fast in the electronic world... Humanism is completely gone. It's very sad. But people are wonderful and I love photographing them.

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