Collection: Jerry Schatzberg


Jerry Schatzberg was born in the Bronx, New York.  He attended the University of Miami, worked as assistant to Bill Helburn (1954-1956); then started his career as a freelance photographer. His Fashion photography has been published in magazines such as Vogue, McCalls, Esquire, Glamour, Town & Country, and LIFE.  After directing some TV commercials, he made his debut as a film director in 1970 with “Puzzle of a Downfall Child”, the story of a fashion model. Schatzberg scored with his second directorial effort, the gripping, finely acted “The Panic in Needle Park”(1971), a bleak study of heroin addiction starring Al Pacino. Pacino co-starred with Gene Hackman in his next film, “Scarecrow” (1973), a moody tale of two drifters which in many ways is an apotheosis of 70's alienation and confusion.  Perhaps significantly, Schatzberg’s critical following in the United States rose and fell with the 70s; after 1979's “Seduction of Joe Tynan”, the trend in Hollywood shifted from small introspective films to the Spielberg/Lucas blockbuster mentality. But Jerry Schatzberg never lost his European devotees, as witness the international success of 1989’s “Reunion”. Schatzberg won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival with “Scarecrow.”

It was his portrait photography that taught him how to deal with actors. He realized that most people feared the photographer’s lens. To relax them he would spend as much time with them as possible. Not only to know them better but to see beyond the surface and discover their true self, the one they hid from the outside world.  Most of his great portraits of the sixties - Bob Dylan, Francis Coppola, Andy Warhol, Arlo Guthrie, Roman Polanski, Fidel Castro, Milos Forman, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Rolling Stones and many more - reveal these moments of truth.

By not giving specific directions to his photographic models Schatzberg gave them rein to find the moment.  It is the same way he gets actors to reach inside. In many ways his photographic style is much closer to that of Andre Kertesz or Henri Cartier-Bresson, than to the contemporary Irving Penn or Richard Avedon.  Instead of the self-contained space of the frame he looks for the space beyond.  His Photographs are narrative; they tell a story.  In an instant they recognize an action, a gesture, an emotion while at the same time they have a rigorous formal pattern that expresses their meaning.  The style however, never manifests itself ostentatiously and never encroaches the fluidity of life.

All these qualities may be found in Schatzberg’s films. His focus has always remained on human relationships which made it more difficult for him to work in an industry devoted in the late seventies, the eighties and the nineties to special effects, car chases and adolescent comedies. His acute sense of people and places lend authenticity to the background in his films, as his actors work to create characters you think you know. Alan Alda has never been as good as in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan”, near-beginners like Stockard Channing in “Dandy, the All American Girl” and Kitty Winn In “The Panic in Needle Park'' did not find roles again of the same dimension.  Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman have been at the top of their form in his films.  Asked about his favorite performance Gene Hackman answered in Film Comment: “Scarecrow, it’s the only film I’ve ever made in absolute continuity and I was allowed me to take all kinds of chances and really build my character.”

In more than forty years of photography and cinema, Schatzberg has achieved a delicate balance between refined form of mise-en-scene and the rendering of true moments. He has a particular gift to restrain the emotions only  to make their release more powerful and to avoid the obvious by suggesting rather than by underlining.  He makes us feel something that is too often missing in contemporary American cinema: an adult and mature artist, dealing with adult and mature themes and characters. 

-Michel Ciment

Photo credit: Nicolas Spiess
Jerry Schatzberg