Interview of photographer Karen Bystedt (maiden name Karen Hardy), in her home in Los Angeles, June 6, 2013
Meg FitzRoy: Where were you born?
Karen Bystedt: I was born in Israel. I spent the first year of my life there with my mother and Father. Then we moved to London where they divorced soon after. Very shortly after that we moved to San Francisco. I spent most of my childhood in San Francisco and then moved to Los Angeles.
MF: Was there any particular influence in your early years that inspired you artistically at a young age?
KB: My father, who remained in London, went through a modeling stint. He wore all the latest fashions. He drove a red sports car. He was a very glamorous figure in my early life. My mother was incredibly beautiful and loved all things culture. I grew up going to the Opera, going to camp in Switzerland, I traveled very often from a young age I was exposed to art, beauty, glamour, culture.
MF: Do you remember ever having an ah-ha moment when you realized art was going to be a permanent part of your life?
KB: I think I realized from an early age that I was a little different from other people. I really relished that difference, I think having to “fit in” while feeling different was an art in itself.
I graduated from high school when I was 16, and then went to Paris where I spent the first month just living in all the museums and going to French films.
MF: Is it true that your formal education is in film?
KB: Yes, so after I graduated from high school, I took a few months off and then went to the American College in Paris, and then I transferred to NYU film school.
MF: When you first started to take photographs what drew you to portraiture in particular?
KB: A boyfriend of mine who was into fashion and had a Leica camera took me to Paris. He asked me to photograph him in all the outfits he had purchased and I just sort of fell in love with it. I started looking at all the magazines, French and Italian Vouge, Hommes. I particularly loved the photography of Guy Bourdin, Toscani, and Helmut Newton. I fell in love with fashion photography as an art form, so I started photographing all my friends when I lived in Paris. When I returned to NYU I signed up for photography classes, and I was basically living in the dark room for a couple of year.
Word about my photography got around, and a model from Click [modeling agency] heard about me and asked me if I’d take some pictures of him. I was summoned by Click to see if I would test with models. The agents there told me I was especially good at photographing men.
MF: That was actually my next question – you feel you had had a natural disposition towards working with male models early on, and people noticed? They were sort of handing male models to you?
KB: They were! They would pay for the three rolls of film, I would shoot test shot, and then develop the film in the dark room at NYU –
MF: You were still in school the whole time?
Yes. Then I got an apprenticeship with a well-known fashion photographer named Marco Glaviano. He shot for Harper’s Bazaar, and Italian Vouge. All the top models – male and female – came through his studio. That’s when I got the idea for my book MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE. We spend so much time in modern culture looking at beauty in regards to something feminine, but I always thought there was beauty in the masculine. Even as a child, when my family traveled to Florence, I was so enamored with Michelangelo’s David. I’ve always found beauty in men.
MF: How do you go about determining which men have beauty, or how do you pull it out of your subjects?
KB: Photography is about lighting and angles, but it’s also about engaging with your subject which I think is my strong point as an artist. I allow my models the freedom to be who they are. Perhaps that’s the determining factor between a photograph that is technically successful and a photograph that really grabs you. Of course, coming from such a strong fashion background, my instinct is to make my subjects look beautiful.
MF: How did you get the chance to photograph Andy Warhol?
KB: While I was working at Marco Glaviano’s studio, I boldly asked all these male models – these were the biggest male models in America – if they’d be willing to shoot with me for a book concept I had. And most of them agreed to do it. At the same time, I saw Andy Warhol in a Barney’s ad wearing one of his perfect white wigs. I was a club kid and went to art openings so I had seen him around. I called up Interview Magazine, Andy’s last factory at Union Square in New york, and as crazy as it was, Andy himself answered the phone! Obviously, I was taken aback, but I quickly pulled my head together, and said “Hi I’m a photographer working on a book of male models, I saw you in the Barney’s ad and I’d love to photograph you as a model.”
He sort of said “oh – really?” Andy spoke very slowly! And he asked, “well, who else do you have?”
So I told him Jeff Aquilon, Michael Ives, Marcus Abel, all the names of the day. He recognized all the names – he actually knew most of them from the club scene – and he agreed. We set up his shoot for two weeks later.
I was photographing all the other models outside, mostly at sunset, and often on the beach without their shirts on – because they were all jock athletes. But with Andy I knew I had to photograph him inside. So I got an amazing lighting assistant and rented a Hasslbald and we arrived at the Factory. We went up to the conference room where Andy himself greeted us wearing this incredibly dapper, brand new Perry Ellis suite. It was an exciting experience! I had been to the museums and seen all his Campbell soup cans, so I knew he was an art legend. But at the same time, I don’t think I was in awe because I was very determined. I was on a mission – I was there to shoot Andy as a model, not as an artist.
It was an extraordinary opportunity to shoot Andy. I ended up publishing the book NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE (NAL) in 1983, and there was a publishing party, and Andy came to it!
MF: Did he like the idea of being photographed as a model?
KB: He loved the idea! I mean he must have loved [the idea] to say yes to me because I was a complete unknown. So he said yes, never looking at any of my work, just knowing that I had these other male models who agreed to it.
MF: You recorded the photo session?
KB: Yes, but unfortunately the original tape is gone. I still have the transcript of the interview, but not the recording.
MF: Oh, no! I was actually going to ask if you planned on exhibiting the work and playing the recording along with it…?
KB: I know, wouldn’t it be fabulous! But all we have is the transcript. I’m pretty sure the recording went missing from my apartment during one of my moves.
MF: Is this one of the moves you made from New York to LA?
KB: Yes. I could have been a fashion photographer but I decided that world wasn’t for me. I’ve always been a very independent person and I don’t like to fit in to groups, so I decided to continue on with my passion, which originally was film, and that’s how I came up with THE NEW BREED: ACTORS COMING OF AGE. Part of my goal going back to my film roots was to photograph young actors. There was this whole thing in the 80s with the Brat Pack and I decided I didn’t like that; I wanted to do a book about actors who couldn’t be so easily grouped. The actors I photographed all seemed to defy categorization. I tried to find actors who I thought would have longevity in their careers, and passion, and who were in it for the right reason (the actual art of acting, not just the search for fame) and put them all into a new book.
MF: That’s an incredible book THE NEW BREED: ACTORS COMING OF AGE – who all is in it?
KB: Let’s see: Robert Downy Jr, Stephen Baldwin, Willem Defoe, Keanue Reeves, Laurence Fishbourne, of course he had already done Apocalypse Now so he was a little more established than some of the others I was photographing….[pause]… Oh, Johnny Depp, Courtney Cox, Laura Dern, it’s a long list.
MF: Did you keep photographing actors after that?
KB: In the 90s I photographed Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Josh Brolin, and just a slew of other actors who were working but not famous yet. And then I published those pictures in BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS (GPG) in 1994.
MF: Going back to the Warhol portraits, the whole story with The Lost Warhols is that they were actually lost. So these images were hidden for decades and you re-found them?
KB: I was very young when I photographed Andy, and when you’re young you’re a little careless. I moved around a lot, I traveled, I put things in storage, and I lost track of what was where. I published NOT JUST ANOTHER PRETTY FACE in 1983, then I came back to LA in 1989 to publish my other book THE NEW BREED, and I was photographing a slew of actors on the brink of making it, and all the while I couldn’t figure out where the negatives of Andy had gone.
MF: When did the Lost Warhols stop being lost?
KB: They stopped being lost in 2011. That’s the time when I stopped watching the news because the world seemed too depressing, so I just read about art and culture instead, and in everything I read there seemed to be this huge trend to revisit Warhol’s work. At the same time I started going to a Tibetan healer and he told me that I needed to be reawakened, so I took that to mean an artistic reawakening. Between that and reading about so much of Andy’s work I thought, “I have to find those negatives!” So I spent days going through old boxes of negatives in my garage, and I found ten of them.
MF: What were you feeling when you found them?
KB: It was like finding lost treasure! I was elated! And I knew that this work could mean something, and I had the chance to bring these portraits back to the world.
Of course the negatives are old and they’re fragile, and some dust had got on them. I had to have them digitally scanned by a conservation expert to protect them. But it’s not easy to be reawakened; it’s not easy to go from being lost, to putting yourself out there in the world. But these were his model portraits, and I hope they were important to him. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like this would have mattered to Andy.
MF: I don’t think it sounds crazy, I think that ties in to a lot of the work you’ve done and the power of portraiture… You said – “it’s not easy to go from being lost to putting yourself out there in the world” – so that makes me think about portraiture in terms of vulnerability.
When you’re working with young up and coming actors, or when you’re dealing with an artist who’s whole persona deals with the celebrity title, there is so much vulnerability towards the camera – even people who are beautiful people can get intimidated when there’s a camera pointing at them. Portraiture has the chance to either expose those vulnerabilities, or conversely, to build up personas. I guess I was interested in how you take the vulnerable and give it confidence?
KB: That’s a really interesting question; I hope I do that with all my subjects. I think I managed to do it with Andy who was generally insecure about being in front of the camera. There are thousands of pictures of Andy and most of the time he looks like a deer in headlights, just so uncomfortable. But I think – maybe because of my crazy world-traveling-childhood – I now have the gift to see the beauty in people and so there’s a symbiotic exchange when I’m photographing them so they have the comfort to actually engage with me. I think Andy is very engaged in my photos. He’s looking right at me, he really played out his modeling fantasy, and I allowed him the space to be comfortable in that.
MF: Can you tell me about any projects you have coming up, or are they under wraps?
KB: I just finished a show at the Robert Berman Gallery at Bergamot Station and am currently planning on shows in New York, Moscow, and Tokyo. A new creative project is meeting with and photographing a lot of talented passionate contemporary artists who remind me a lot of young actors in a way. They all love Andy and my portraits of him. I’m thinking about doing a full series on artists. Artists are the hip celebrities of today.
Karen Bystedt is living and working in Los Angeles. Works from her series The Lost Warhols are currently in the collections of the Prince of Monaco, The Hearst Museum, and the Warhol Museum. Bystedt has also done collaborations of her Warhol portrait’s with artists Peter Tunney and Speedy Graphito.