Scrolling through Lawrence Schiller's photographic archive is like viewing the subconscious tickertape of America in the middle of the 20th Century. There's Marilyn Monroe, nude, in a swimming pool; there's the National Guard rolling into Los Angeles during the Watts riots; there's Robert F. Kennedy sleeping on the floor of his private jet during his final campaign.
There are dozens of luminous subjects: Muhammad Ali, Clint Eastwood, the Jackson Five. By glimpsing cataclysmic moments in the cultural and countercultural life of the American 1960s, the photographs contain pockets of energy that live within us even if we weren't alive at the time. Like many of the great artists of that era, Schiller examined the apocalyptic tremors within every ecstatic scene.
Working in the vein of warped documentary realism that came into focus in the 60s, Schiller published work in major publications like Life, Time and the Saturday Evening Post. In the 1980s Schiller moved into film, and his work provided direct inspiration and research for Norman Mailer to write his famous books on Marilyn Monroe and killer Gary Gilmore. Schiller had photographed and been close with both figures leading up to their deaths.
The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is featuring Schiller's photography in an exhibit, "Lawrence Schiller: A Life in Photojournalism," that will run until May 2014. Open to the public during school hours, the photographs in the exhibit are mounted on walls in the Geoffrey Cowan Forum and West Lobby Gallery at the USC Annenberg building on the USC campus. They include photos ranging from scenes of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 to a photo of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei taken in 2008.
I talked with Schiller over the phone while he was in New York City preparing to come to L.A. for a documentary he was making for National Geographic.
Even though he admits to coming from the old school of photojournalism, Schiller has created ideas for digital apps as a consultant for corporations all around the world. He developed an iPad app about his own work featuring a timeline of his career as a photographer that is featured in the USC Annenberg exhibit.
Lawrence Schiller: The photojournalist today is no longer given the opportunity to interpret. There are exceptions to what I'm saying now -- I'm talking about generally. There was a watershed experience that I had when digital photography came in. When the Pope died in 1978, Carlo Bavagnoli, a great photographer for Life, was sent to photograph the death of the Pope. He was given the assignment to interpret this event, and he went out like an artist. His camera was the tip of a paint brush, and he told a story. When the last Pope died, virtually every single street corner had a photographer working. The Associated Press may have had 40 guys. So it became a 50-yard dash at the Millrose Games. Everybody was competing for who could be out there first, who could be on the social media. The art was no longer there. It was, "how quick can you get there." With the onset of social media, the camera as it is being used has lost its position as being the tip of the paint brush. It is now a sponge that absorbs what's there.
Now, there are still great photographers, like Alex Webb of Magnum, and various people that understand photojournalism at its best, but their roots are still from 30 years ago. They're in their 50s and 60s. There are very few photographers now in their 20s and their 30s that -- even though they may have studied W. Eugene Smith, [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, Carl Mydans, Ralph Morse, or whoever -- they are inundated by the word "competition," and therefore the camera has lost its position as being the tip of a painter's brush.
The people that are in charge are themselves part of the competition. They can't rely on somebody creating a work. It's six o'clock news, nine o'clock, eleven o'clock. For CNN, it's one o'clock in the morning. It's every moment. The whole thing is entirely different. Now, what is the advantage of what we have now? Ah, the advantage of it is the public's right to know immediately, the public's right to know from more than one point of view. Like with an automobile accident: everybody on a different street corner has a different point of view. If somebody jumped off the Empire State Building and committed suicide -- in 1947 there was this great picture in Life magazine of a woman who lands on a car and a photographer shot it and just one image stole the whole story -- now there would be 30 cell phones and on CNN you'd see it from the right side, the left side. There's a different type of photojournalism today. And there's nothing wrong with that type of photojournalism. It's a different era, a different time, a different place. Technology steals time from you.
LS: Yesterday I was with 24 of the world's finest photographers who have worked for National Geographic in D.C. and they all are these great, great guys who went all over the world and captured images and they were the educators of the world. They were the ones that opened up the secrets for us. Now every single tourist is in essence preserving it like a sponge. So there's less art, more information. It's probably more honest information today because it doesn't have the artist interpretation. I could really get into a big debate about it with three or four young photographers and three or four guys that come from the 60s like me, and I think it'd be an interesting debate. What serves the public's right to know better? And maybe today's digital does serve the public's right to know.
LS: You have to pass on the good and the bad of your life and let history decide what it wants to preserve of what you experienced.
LS: A company came to me and wanted to get in the app business and they said, "Would you help us create a photographic app?" I wasn't even interested in it. So that's what I did. I've never done anything with it. You're seeing the first version that was done almost three and a half years ago, five weeks after the iPad came out. And I hoped that that would be a building block for other people to really create great things and apps.
I was playing around with the idea. The idea was to look at history. You see my picture, you hear me tell about the story, even though there are some historical, factual mistakes in it, and then you can go and see the actual event on video besides the way I interpreted it. That was my idea, whether it would work or not. See what Schiller did and then see the real event. Like Oswald holding the gun.
Did you look at the video of Oswald holding the gun [featured at USC Annenberg exhibit]? You can actually see me in the video taking the picture. What I was playing around with there was "here's the picture I did, here's the real event, now do you see me in the real event?"
But there's never been an update to that app since the day it came out. The minute the second model of the iPad came out, my app wouldn't even work on it, to be frank with you. I had to go to Apple and get them to fix it for me. It was a model of what you could do. What could your mind want to do? You can move that video of me around [on the screen] and make it bigger and smaller. You can hear the voice without the picture, you can actually read it and hear the voice, or you could read it without the voice. There are five different modes there but they're not really as good as they could be. I'm being honest with you. There's no money to be made in apps, it's only good for branding. And, you know, Larry Schiller's not a brand but I was just experimenting around. I sold basic ideas to a lot of people off of that app.
LS: Let me say this: I look at my photography, quite honestly, as not being anything exceptional. I don't consider myself to be one of the great or really fine photojournalists of the 60s. I consider myself to be a working guy. I went out and I did my job. History made my pictures important, not me. I lived in a fast and furious time; America was going through trauma. Three assassinations in a decade.
Let me give an example of what I wanted to do originally with my 2007 exhibit called "Marilyn Monroe and America in the 60s." This was my idea and I was never able to realize it. This exhibit of my pictures -- and you're only seeing 30 of them out of about 80 -- I had them all on one wall in Beijing at the Millennium Museum with little newspaper articles that talked about what America was saying about China, and on the other wall was supposed to be all the pictures of the 60s from China, the famine, the cultural revolution and so forth, with little stories telling what China was saying about America. The Chinese government agreed to do that, and three days before the exhibit opened they changed their mind.
Now that would've been a groundbreaking idea, where you see America in the 60s and then you see China simultaneously in the 60s, and my idea was to move that to Russia and do the same thing. And the idea kind of died because the Chinese government, the only thing they allowed me to do was put Nixon at the beginning and Nixon at the end because Nixon was a god in China. He still is. Kissinger and Nixon are gods there as much as Mao Zedong. Nixon opened up China to the west.
LS: Basically what I'm saying is that I'm an idea man, I create ideas, and my pictures sometimes show those ideas. And then the other thing is I don't do what everyone else does in photography. I don't like to be monkey see, monkey do. Of all the photographers photographing [Oswald's] gun, I go around behind the gun. If everybody is shooting Oswald in the hallway with flash to make sure they get it and it's sharp, I'm the one who's using the wide-angle lens coming close, allowing for distortion, allowing for the blur, because I want the life in the picture, I want to feel the pores in his skin, I want to know what he's all about, and you don't get that with flash. [This image can be seen at the USC Annenberg exhibit.]
So I always think momentarily, what do I do to make myself a little different? I've never worked as an employee for a corporation. I've been under contract for Life and the Saturday Evening Post, but I never had a boss. I get up in the morning and decide what I'm going to do, even now. Now there's liability in that. There's insecurity in a family. You're not always coming home with a weekly paycheck; you can't have a family budget, so there are people that do suffer.
I'm not saying it made me an artist or a better photographer, but I certainly got bored. I was like a tennis player; by the time I got to be a certain age, quite honestly, it was like different heads on the same body. I went onto making documentary films. I won an Oscar. And then I went on to directing and producing movies for television. My films won seven Emmys and I won best mini-series of the year, and then I got bored doing that after 15 to 20 years and I started to write books. So, you know, maybe I'm just a frustrated kid.