Dustin Pittman is an incredible lensman who has covered the edgier and more intriguing pockets of the fashion and music scene since the late 1960s, and as you would imagine, his photo archive is absolutely immense. He has shot rock stars like Iggy, Hendrix, The New York Dolls and fashion icons like Halston, Calvin Klein, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. He’s made movies with members of Andy Warhol’s factory, and been the major photographer for editorial powerhouses like W, WWD and Life magazine. And the amazing thing is, to this day, he keeps plying his craft with the same vim, energy and brave creativity.
We caught up with Dustin on the set of a fashion shoot in the Adirondack Mountains and he spoke to us for more than an hour about he came to be one of the most talented camera-wielders of recent times.
MAX’S KANSAS CITY: I was going through your website and online portfolio and it’s just mind-boggling to me how much you’ve captured and recorded of popular culture. Congratulations. That’s a lifetime and a half of work. Kudos to you on that.
Dustin Pittman: Well thank you, thank you so much, that’s very kind of you.
MKC: How does it feel to be one of the most respected chroniclers of popular culture? Do you ever wake up sometimes and just think, “wow!” – and you’re still doing it too!
DP: It’s really kind of amazing that I am still doing it. I’m grateful, you know. They’re still shooting the same way I shot before, you know, traditional cameras, and now I’m shooting of course digital and traditional and the thing is, you know, the same way I kind of operate the is still the same in all areas. I’ve always been like that.
I’ve never been stuck with one thing. Just music, or just fashion, or just celebrities, you know whatever it is. I always have been grateful in that I was able to do what I felt like shooting. It’s been really great. And also, I guess a lot of it, I was above radar, but a lot of it stayed below radar too. It was really kind of great. My career’s been really steady and very fulfilling. As you already know, my archive is pretty immense
MKC: Did you always intend for your life to sort of unfold this way? Or did it just happen? Sort of being at the right place at the right time?
DP: You know it just happened. It’s so funny, the way things work. I remember at 9-years-old trying to get into shows and concerts with my camera.
MKC: Where were you living?
DP: Upstate New York. I was outside of Utica. And all these girl bands and all these great bands would come and play, right? I didn’t have tickets or anything, so at that time there were no roadies, I used to tell the guys, “oh let me carry your guitar in.” So I would carry their stuff, but I would be backstage the whole time shooting. It was amazing. We’re talking about early, early stuff. It was crazy; I was able to mingle and get around and get all access. And at that time, of course it was years before the word paparazzi or anything that prevented people from having more and more security, so it was great, there was no such thing as security at that times. It was all loose. It was like that all the way up until the late ‘70s. In the ‘80s it started getting kind of crazy. But you know, those days, that kind of freedom was not only myself as a photographer, but also as a person – everybody was wonderful, I was able to mingle and just sit down and smoke a joint, you know what I mean?
MKC: Right, I totally understand,
DP: Danny Fields who was a very good friend of mine was Iggy’s manager. Iggy used to come to New York, and he had an incredible reputation for smashing photographers’ cameras. No way could a photographer shoot Iggy in concert. He would smash the camera in two seconds. But Iggy and I were friends. He used to stay over at Danny’s place over on 20th or 21st street, a couple of blocks from Max’s. I used to go to Danny’s all the time, and we used to do our thing and hang out. And Iggy and I always had a pact. That I would be able to photograph him the way I wanted to photograph him, in concert, and he wouldn’t smash my camera. It was fantastic. And I got incredible, incredible pictures. Everyone was always totally frightened to death to get close to him.
MXC: How is Iggy in person? All the images you see of him are so strong, is he that intense?
DP: Incredibly intense. Iggy then is a different Iggy from now. He’s an incredible guy of course a great personality. But he’s an incredible together businessperson. You know, Iggy’s a show.
MKC: Right …
DP: And that’s what’s amazing about it. Now, he’ll go out and give it his all, but it’s a show. I’m not trying to demean it, but it’s like Iggy and the Stooges’ regular style. Whereas before, Iggy was rock n’ roll, it was raw. And I mean raw. At that time when Iggy first came around, he was hated by the press. They couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t stand what him and The Stooges were all about, they thought it was all noise. Like anything else in new directions. But the thing is it was really crazy because he was able to come around with this personality and it was fantastic, nothing was like that. At this time you had this boring, monotonous, arena rock. It was disgusting. This huge pomp, and it was all props and show biz. And when Iggy came, it was this kid in torn jeans and bare-chested with his dog collar on his neck, cutting himself with glass, and doing all this stuff for the audience. The people, their mouths were wide open just gasping for breath.
MKC: Wow ….
DP: Yeah I mean that’s what it was. It wasn’t anything that had come around like that. Those times were incredible. I mean to witness that, especially those few early ones. When he was just getting his feet wet. It was amazing, man. Truly amazing. It turned my life around.
MKC: What about the fashion aspect? How did you get into that? I saw all the pictures of Yves Saint Laurent and André Leon Talley, Calvin Klein and Iman etc on your website – that was so amazing to me.
DP: It’s really nice that you appreciate that, man. That’s just a little teeny fingernail of what I have. It’s a little taste. But yeah, I did eight and a half years with W and WWD. Then I did another 5 or 6 years with the fashion of the New York Times Magazine. I started in W in 1976 or 77, around there. So at that time, things were flying in fashion. Not only in New York, in Europe also, not to say that it wasn’t before then, of course it was, I mean there was a lot of stuff going on.
I started doing fashion in 1970-71. I was shooting Vivienne Westwood’s Let It Rock. Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood, all that stuff in 1973-74. My studio was underneath 23rd street in Manhattan. It was this raw crazy studio underneath the street, like this old subway place. It was amazing and it had all these old incredible turn-of-the-century electrical power outlet units, almost looked like The Bride of Frankenstein. I would shoot a lot of trans-sexuals around there, way before Rocky Horror. That kind of stuff was amazing, man. It was such a great studio to use because everybody used to come here and you’d have to take this freight elevator down about 3 floors. The freight elevator was manually operated. When you got down there, it was these catacombs of rooms after rooms and these old wine cellars. And people loved it man. We would have parties in there, it was unbelievable. And shoot all night. It was great man, it was really great. That was my factory underground. I mean it was really underground.
MKC: So how is it like working the editorial side? Did you find that they gave you a carte blanche to do whatever you wanted, or did they try and control you a little bit more?
DP: Well I was lucky. I came into W in 76 so I wasn’t seasoned, I thought I was seasoned for fashion, but when I got to W, I mean that was fashion with a capital F. I worked there with John Fairchild, who was the man. W and Women’s Wear Daily at that time - they were called the bible of fashion. It was revered. You didn’t fuck with Women’s Wear Daily. So my working for W was really great. They respected me because I worked really hard. It was a rough job. That was my Army Seal Basic training of Fashion. I really learned the realest stuff that you don’t really know about, behind the scenes. I was working with the best. I mean André Leon Talley and I, we worked practically every day together. And Ben Brantley who is now the theatre critic of the New York Times. We worked every day together. I worked with incredible people. Incredible editors. I worked with 84 different editors who were amazing people, man, the fashion would dictate what kind of mood or something or style that you do. I’d say, “Oh I wanna shoot Norma Kamali in the subway,” so I’d go down into the subway with a whole crew, all these people…
MKC: I love it.
DP: Yeah, that kind of stuff. If I wanted to shoot in the meat market with slabs of beef coming through, they’d let me do it. Anything I wanted to do was really brave. So it really kind of worked out that way, that I was able to kind of massage my whole creativity with them. As long as I delivered, they gave me the ball and let me run with it. They were really nice with it. And I tell you they were incredible. They really treated me well. I went on tons of trips with them and you’ve everywhere. And I went everywhere. Rome, Tokyo, Paris, Milan, London, everywhere.
MKC: That sounds fantastic.
DP: I’m not going to lie to you, and it was tons of work. I had no assistants, so I had to use the editors – they’d hold refractors and the lights and all that. And I had to shoot with three different formats of cameras at the time. Pentax 67 is what I was using. People used to say to me at the camera stores, “Why are you using that big clunky camera.” The 67′s a great camera, you know it’s a 6 by 7 format. It’s fantastic. It’s a great negative. And we used to use it because it was the format vertically of W – it was the cover. You know I shot tons and tons of covers for W. And then working for them was great because it was like having the top American express gold card. I had all access to anything. Like Studio 54, I was there every night shooting, man. After that, I would head down to CBGB’s or some place. It was amazing. And then I’d come to work. No sleep. And then work again. And then go out and then work again. Sleep wasn’t in the agenda.
MKC: Sleep wasn’t part of the equation at all ….
DP: Yeah, you didn’t need sleep. It’s funny now, about sleep, you know. Those days you didn’t need sleep. Weird.
MKC: Tell me about Max’s Kansas City, and the vibe there. Did you know Mickey personally?
DP: Well I met Ingrid Superstar in Central Park in 1968. And Ingrid was one of the Warhol factory people. And she immediately brought me to the factory to introduce me to Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. And then we kind of all hit it off. And this is when the factory was just moving again, 68’, 69’ – they were moving down to Union Square. But we started hanging out, and everybody said let’s go to Max’s – everybody was hanging out at Max’s then.
My first foray into Max’s was with the art crowd. Everybody was there; Andy, Paul, Taylor Mead, Candy Darling and Andrea whips and Eric Emerson and Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlorn. It was the crowd. You name it, that’s the people that were hanging out there. It was like one big family.
The reason we used to go to Max’s was to hang out and trade ideas and it used to be this big collaborative theater thing going. Because when you hung out at Max’s, and you wanted to shoot a movie, you’d shoot a movie at night. We’d go to Max’s and we’d start get there around 4:30 – 5:00 in the afternoon for the hors d’oeuvres. You got a drink. The drinks were cheap; people usually bought you a drink and Mickey used to put out hors d’oeuvres. He used to put out chicken wings and chickpeas, all kinds of stuff, and that was your dinner – the early, early dinner. And then from there, you just hung out in the Back Room. Because it was all happening in the Back Room then, that’s where I hung out.
MKC: And then later it transitioned into the concert venue, right?
DP: Yeah. The concert venue, that’s when it was different; In the beginning it was artsy, very artsy. It was theater, you went to Max’s in the backroom and you sat there and you ate, and you drank, and it was theater. Andrea Whips used to get up on the table and do her thing, and Eric Emerson, and it was theater. And everybody would discuss what they were doing, and what they’d be doing next, and you’d take somebody home and take pictures, or make a film. Taylor and Jackie and I – I’d make films with all these people … my other thing is, that I’m a filmmaker. I have a ton of 16 mm films, and Super 8 films that I shot of these people. We just made films. That’s what it was, you were able to do that. It was cheap enough. And at that time, I was going to the School of Visual Arts, majoring in film. I did 4 years there. And while I was at visual arts it was really great because I was able to use all the equipment there. Just grab all the equipment there and use it, and you know that was my thing.
MKC: After the original incarnation of Max’s where Mickey and that whole artsy thing to when it became more of a concert place, was there any sort of back and forth rivalry between Max’s and CBGB’s as to what was the cool place to go see music?
DP: First of all, you know what the thing is, there were very few venues. Now the thing is Max’s, the people there were like Debbie Harry early stuff, and of course Iggy. I mean I shot Iggy in Max’s around ’69 or ‘70. The Velvet Underground played all summer long – every night at Max’s. In 1970, the Velvet Underground played an eight-week commitment gig upstairs at Max’s. And the way they played it, it was precious.
And I have pictures. I’m the only person to have pictures of the last Velvet Underground concert. There were no more than 30 people there each night. It wasn’t like this hysteria today where you have to scalp tickets. There weren’t any tickets, you just went in. The space was incredibly tight and small, and there was a little teeny platform. And Lou and the Velvets used to play right there, and the audience would be right there. It was more like a cabaret. People weren’t sitting there in awe watching Lou Reed. People would dance, Lou would play and people would dance, and they would dance to the Velvet Underground every night for the whole summer. And Lou Reed would play you his stuff like “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” but he would play it improv every night, differently. He would do two long sets a night, I mean huge. He’d play for hours. Sometimes “Heroin” used to go on for fucking 45 minutes. It was amazing, it was absolutely phenomenal.
Stay Tuned for Part Two…