Curtis Knapp is an experienced photographer responsible for some of the best known celebrity portraits of the last forty years. Upon our first conception of a Photography Issue of New Orleans Canvas Magazine, it was shocking to discover that the man behind the camera of so many iconic portraits lives right here in New Orleans. Equally exciting was when Curtis graciously replied to our first request for an interview.
Curtis has a very warm and friendly personality, certainly a big asset when he works with his many high profile clients. Celebrity portrait photographers can have a tremendous impact on the way the world sees their clients, and Curtis Knapp is no exception. He has built a trustworthy reputation in the industry and many of his subjects have also become his friends. Included amongst the A-List celebrities he has worked with are Tina Turner, Dennis Hopper, Timothy Leary, The B-52s, and even Andy Warhol. This entire profile could have been filled alone with a list of more celebrities, but we probed further.
NCM: Where are you originally from, Curtis?
Curtis: I grew up on Long Island and lived in New York before I moved to Japan.
NCM: Japan?! When?
Curtis: I had a Japanese wife and around 1983 or 1984. She told me she wanted to move back to Tokyo to raise our family. I lived in Japan for many years and worked with many celebrities over there.
NCM: Why did you choose to move to New Orleans after being so successful internationally?
Curtis: The architecture really drew me to New Orleans. The bubble burst in the Japanese economy in the late eighties and Japanese creative directors weren’t spending as freely on photography. In the nineties , I chose to focus on book publishing which brought me to Los Angeles for two years. After that I returned to my home in Japan. And in 2002, I was asked to teach at the Smithsonian in DC. I said, “Screw it! I might as well move home.” Which is what I did.
When I finished that, I moved home to New York. But NYU owns the East Village now. And it sucks! So I packed my bags (after less than two years) and I moved here.
I fell for a commercial that said, “Come to New Orleans! We need creative types!” Except there wasn’t any decent work here. I had a lot of doors shut in my face. So I decided to focus on work that matters to me. I’m doing a lot of museum work right now, which I love. I am also doing a lot of portraiture.
I also spend a lot of time with my galleries in Europe and Japan doing exhibitions and things like that. That takes up at least 50 percent of my time.
NCM: When did you first realize you were compelled to shoot photographs?
Curtis: I moved from Children’s Illustration to Photography around 1980. I started making studio photos right away. I never really changed my lighting or backdrops unless it was for advertising. Within the first four or five months I worked for GQ and Esquire. I took portraits of Stephen King, Perry Ellis, Johnathan Demme, George Romero, and Nile Rogers.
It was much more interesting meeting all of these people than sitting home alone with my watercolors. The photography was bringing in a lot more money too.
NCM: Did you have any formal artistic training?
Curtis: I went to Parsons School of Design in New York to become a graphic designer. I took a photography class and my lady at the time was a still-life photographer for Conde’ Nast. She had a studio with lighting available. The first roll of film ended up being used for a 45 for the musical group The Method Actors. Art Direction Magazine listed it as one of the best 45 covers of the year. I kept winning awards within the first year.
NCM: You seem to have a lot of interesting stories from your years of working with celebrities.
Curtis: Well, I guess it goes with the territory! Once I was recording an interview I did with Andy Warhol using an audio cassette and I realized after a while that the tape wasn’t working. That was embarrassing!
But the longer I’m out of New York, the more I get young editors looking for a news story about some dead celebrity, looking for that new piece of untold information. For the last 10 years they’ve been able to find me here in the New Orleans. Way back when, Warhol’s studio was across the street from me and we would wave to each other occasionally. But 10 years from now, I can start telling people, “Oh, I had sex with Warhol for six months!”
And there’ll be no one alive to dispute it!
NCM: Is anyone else in your family an artist?
Curtis: My mother was a very good New England watercolorist. She taught me watercolor. My great grandfather had the largest lithography factory and school in America in New Jersey. I think I got the methodicalness of using a mechanical device to create art from him.
NCM: Do you upgrade equipment and software/hardware often? What are your favorite tools, including hardware, software and camera?
Curtis: I have changed to F-ing digital! Capital F! I hate it! And I especially hate digital printing. And someday in the future I will probably not make any digital prints. I will make silkscreens and quality lithographs. Something that feels more like art.
A digital file is too clean. When I shoot with Hasselblad, I use Plus-X film only. Spotting a negative is the biggest pain in the butt. When you scan a large film, negative (with my Hasselblad 2.25 or 4 by 5) You’re spotting for like two days to make it perfect on one image. It’s not like you can press a Photoshop button. There is something about the grain of film that Photoshop can’t replace. Film is fantastic and digital is too clean.
NCM: As a photographer, do you fell like you have become obsolete? Or do you feel like you have become more of a fine artist because fewer people can actually do it?
Curtis: I’m not a complainer. I accept that digital is part of our world. I understand if a client doesn’t want to pay for the development of film. Everything I’ve shot since I moved to New Orleans 10 years ago has been digital.
NCM: If you could trade your current camera bodies and lenses for the newest thing out there, would you? What brand and why?
Curtis: A Hasselblad Digital would be nice. But no equipment really matters if you don’t know about good composition. I go for the sharpest picture.
There was a new book coming out in the next month commemorating Madonna’s first 60 years and it’s my polaroid on the cover. That’s a polaroid, that’s two inches square, so it doesn’t matter what camera you use. It’s how you compose the photo.
NCM: If you could shoot whatever you want and not have to worry about your bank account what would be your dream?
Curtis: I would shoot flowers. I take pictures of flowers with black and white. I move them because they are living things. It’s sort of a hobby and it’s the only book I physically haven’t published yet.
NCM: Where do you think photography will be in 10, 25 years?
Curtis: It might become three dimensional. I’d say if you look back 25 years at the incredible advances in photography and computers as an example of what is possible. The camera will become like a hologram or even three dimensional at some level. Or they’ll figure out a way where it actually isn’t a Hologram, but it looks three dimensional.
NCM: Two pieces of advice to the newbies out there thinking about becoming pros.
Curtis: You can give me a crayon or a polaroid tourist’s camera. It’s all in your composition. I can’t stress that enough. And also, know your market and your audience. Know your target group. It could be 18 to 26 year old women. It could be men over 50 for a whiskey ad – the hardest market in the world is changing a man’s whiskey when he’s over 50. I’ve had those problems. Know your audience and create the visual look that will sell to them, whether it’s in the French market or you have a gallery.
NCM: Who inspired you along the way, possibly influenced your style?
Curtis: I have studied the work of other photographers. I had met a few times with THE Man, Irving Penn and he did focus me on my work. I studied and I knew what I wanted to see in my images. I went directly to that in the beginning and I haven’t changed since.
NCM: If you could photograph anyone living or dead who would it be and why?
Curtis: Max Von Sidow , Willem Dafoe, and Joni Mitchell would be great living subjects to photograph. The late British actor Paul Scofield would have been a great subject.
Men are much easier to photograph. They sit down in front of the camera and it’s finished. With women, I have to wait for them to have their hair and makeup done.
NCM: Who was you favorite subject, and why?
Curtis: I don’t have one favorite because people are so interesting.
To see Curtis Knapp’s complete portfolio or order prints, please visit http://www.curtisknappstudio.com