The Legendary Photographer: Julian Wasser
Looking into the eyes of the renowned photographer Julian Wasser, one is immediately captivated by his penetrating gaze. A wealth of experience and opinions seems to resonate within him. Julian, despite being in his later years, remains tight-lipped about his age, adding an air of mystery to his persona. With a career that began in the Washington bureau of the Associated Press news service, Julian Wasser has gone on to create some of the most iconic and memorable images of the twentieth century. His photographs have graced the covers and pages of esteemed publications such as Time, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Vogue, solidifying his position as one of the industry’s greats. Julian Wasser possesses an uncanny ability to find himself in the right place at the right time, resulting in captivating photographs that have left an indelible mark.
Marcel Duchamp and the Groundbreaking Photo Session
One of Julian Wasser’s most notorious photo sessions took place in 1963 at the Pasadena Museum of Art during groundbreaking artist Marcel Duchamp’s first retrospective. Curated by Walter Hopps, this exhibition was a comprehensive survey of Duchamp’s storied career, which began in 1911 at the legendary Armory show in New York. Duchamp, having revolutionized the modern art world with his unconventional concepts, was already considered the most influential artist globally. By this time, he had turned his attention from being an artist to pursuing his passion for chess.
The retrospective, showcasing Duchamp’s numerous works for the first time as a collective, remains a significant milestone in the art world. Its opening night attracted the most highly regarded artists and collectors of the era, effectively inaugurating the establishment of the Pop art movement. Notable attendees included the likes of Andy Warhol, Billy Al Bengston, and Ed Ruscha, among others. It was against this backdrop that Julian Wasser found himself immersed in the iconic photo session.
Recreating Duchamp’s Works: A Journey into the Artist’s Mind
In collaboration with art dealer Robert Berman, I embarked on a journey to recreate Duchamp’s various works from the seminal 1963 show. As part of an exhibition featuring Julian Wasser’s photographs, the replicas were showcased in San Francisco last May and are scheduled to head to Los Angeles in early 2016. This immersive experience provided a unique opportunity to delve into the artist’s mind and explore his dynamic working process. A faithful recreation of some of Duchamp’s most famous artworks, including “Nude Descending a Staircase,” “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” and a urinal resembling his scandalous sculpture “Fountain,” added depth and context to the exhibition. To bring the show full circle, an installation featuring silhouette cutouts depicting Duchamp and Eve Babitz, captured in Wasser’s famous photograph, was also included.
An Interview with Julian Wasser
An intriguing discussion with Julian Wasser, held at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica, shed further light on the upcoming survey titled “Duchamp in Pasadena Redux.” Wasser emphasized the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle while sharing anecdotes about his most famous photograph. The interview shed light on how Wasser found himself in the position to photograph the Duchamp retrospective in 1963.
Gregg Gibbs: How did you end up photographing the Duchamp retrospective in 1963?
Julian Wasser: Time magazine kept assigning me to photograph famous artists. During that period, it was artists like Ed Ruscha, who later gained even more fame. It was the start of the Pop art movement. They sent me on a plane to photograph this artist named Marcel Duchamp, who was finally receiving a retrospective. Walter Hopps, a respected figure in the art world and the chief curator at the time, was the perfect person for this period.
Gregg Gibbs: Tell me about the opening night reception for the exhibition.
Julian Wasser: It was incredible, full of electric energy. Artists from the East Coast to the West Coast, the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of the art world, were in attendance. You knew you were witnessing something uniqueâ€”something that would never be replicated. It was a pivotal moment for Duchamp, as he hadn’t received much attention until then. The fact that Time magazine was present, which held great importance for an artist, added to the significance of the occasion. I stayed close to Duchamp throughout the evening, as he put himself at my disposal.
Gregg Gibbs: As an underground figure, Duchamp wasn’t necessarily popular with the general public. He emphasized that the idea was more important than the object, often challenging traditional notions of art. Did you know much about Duchamp’s ideas at the time?
Julian Wasser: Not particularly. Duchamp held immense prestige in the art world at that time. However, I wasn’t aware that he was considered the father of Pop art in the United States. He was a Dadaist who inspired the new art movement. I recalled his piece, “Nude Descending a Staircase,” from the 1913 Armory show. So, when I photographed him, I thought he preferred posing with women who had prominent features, as that always captures men’s attention. Hence, I invited Eve Babitz to pose with him.
The Enigmatic Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz, considered an icon of the liberated ideas about sexuality of her era, became an integral part of the infamous photo session. Wasser elaborated on the qualities that made Babitz an ideal subject and her subsequent life experiences.
Julian Wasser: Just look at her body; she resembled a woman you might find in a painting at the Louvre. She possessed such natural beauty. Her social life revolved around being everyone’s girlfriendâ€”a trendy girl. There’s an incident I would like to share that occurred later in her life. At an event, she inadvertently set her rayon dress on fire with a cigarillo. The accident resulted in severe burns, affecting nearly 80% of her body. Today, she lives alone in her 70s, bearing the physical scars of that incident.
Gregg Gibbs: How did you persuade Eve Babitz to participate in your photo shoot?
Julian Wasser: I asked her, “Eve, I need to photograph this artist. Would you be willing to model for me during this shoot?” She was well-acquainted with Duchamp’s work, and the opportunity excited herâ€”it was a momentous occasion in her life. She gladly accepted my proposition, and together we arrived at the museum early in the morning before it opened. We entered the space to find Duchamp, an elderly gentleman, seated opposite an entirely nude goddess-like figure. Their interaction simulated a chess match, with Duchamp’s artwork displayed behind them. He couldn’t take his eyes off her, though I initially failed to notice what was happening. I focused solely on capturing the photographs.
Gregg Gibbs: Rumor has it that Eve Babitz was having an affair with Walter Hopps and deliberately chose not to invite her to the opening night reception. Is there any truth to that?
Julian Wasser: She wasn’t invited to the opening, so she thought it would be amusing to shock Walter by posing naked. Once again, my focus remained on capturing the pictures.
Gregg Gibbs: The idea of photographing Duchamp playing chess with a nude model was unconventional. How did Time magazine react to this concept?
Julian Wasser: Time magazine was never clear about what they wanted. Asking too many questions would have ruined the essence of the assignment. They hired me to use my imagination and deliver something different. So, I decided to photograph Duchamp playing chess with a nude. It just worked out that way. Although that image became incredibly popular, it never appeared in the magazine. Fortunately, I retained all the rights to the photograph. Every artist in the world knows that pictureâ€”it strikes a chord.
The meeting with Julian Wasser provided valuable insights into his iconic photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz during the Pasadena retrospective in 1963. Wasser’s impeccable timing and ability to capture the essence of a moment have solidified his place among the great photographers of our time. His collaboration with Robert Berman to recreate Duchamp’s works further exemplifies his desire to