Friday, November 22, 2019

Capturing Old Hollywood by Way of “Western Portraits”


Cowboy hats. Bolo ties. Natty vests and fringed jackets. Silver belt buckles studded with turquoise. This was the garb of choice last Tuesday at the Autry Museum of the American West. In my everyday street clothes, I certainly felt underdressed.

We were all there to honor Steve Carver, whom I’ve known since he directed Big Bad Mama for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures back in 1974. After racking up more than a dozen feature film directing credits, Steve returned to his first love: still photography. Just in time for holiday gift-giving, he has published Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes and Villains of the Silver Screen. It’s a carefully curated book of art photography, featuring well-known character actors from Steve’s Hollywood days decked out in western regalia. The cover is emblazoned with an unforgettable portrait of Steve’s longtime friend, the late David Carradine, complete with cigar and Stetson. Carradine solemnly stares out at the viewer with a tough-guy look that won’t be denied.

The power of Steve’s portraits grew out of his fascination with nineteenth-century photographic techniques. The pioneering work of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) in chronicling the Old West has influenced Steve’s own methodology. He uses slow speed film that requires his subjects to hold a pose for a long few seconds. And—actors all—they are given the opportunity (through a series of conversations with Steve) to chose their characters and settings, within a wide range of Western environments. Buddy Hackett, for instance, is depicted with part of his collection of antique firearms. As Steve puts it, for his subjects this was “not just a snapshot. This was an experience.” He also insists that the stillness required for his very special photographs results in the subjects’ sharing of themselves. These are, he says, “pictures of their souls.”

To round out the volume, there’s a detailed filmography of all the western movies in which these actors have appeared. And Steve’s close friend, the novelist and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, has contributed essays based on his interviews with those of Steve’s subjects who are still with us. A sad number of those who have posed for Steve’s camera over the years are gone now, including R.G. Armstrong, Horst Buchholz (best known for The Magnificent Seven), Karl Malden, and—within the past year—both Morgan Woodward and Robert Forster.

What I hadn’t quite realized when Steve first mentioned this project to me, many years back, was how many enthusiasts there are for anything connected with the Old West. I saw that enthusiasm for myself at the Autry, where Western Portraits was the featured attraction of Rob Word’s long-running interview show, A Word on Westerns. Decked out in a jacket designed by the famous Nudie, Word was on hand to interview both Steve and Courtney with cameras rolling. And many of the book’s still-living subjects (actors like Bo Svenson, L.Q. Jones, Jesse Vint, and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson) came forward to pose for a group photo, as the audience in the packed auditorium cheered them on.

Clearly, it’s a tight-knit community. Attendees, hugging copies of Steve’s book, sought autographs from their favorites. And even some TV western stars who weren’t included in the book showed up for this very special occasion. Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman fame was there, now (alas) in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. Tommy Nolan, who once starred as Jody O’Connell on a series called Buckskin., reminisced about his long-ago showbiz past.  Nolan, now a biographer-friend of mine, had left his Stetson at home. But not his passion for the Old West, as seen through Hollywood eyes. 

 Dedicated to the memory of Indiana




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