Photographer & Filmmaker
"To give a voice to families who live in constant danger, often in uninhabitable houses, is, I believe, a compelling way of showing what is actually happening to the fabric, the infrastructure and the people of Newburgh." — Dmitri Kasterine
"Sometimes stars align. An upcoming concert in Peekskill, N.Y., with my group 'America', presented the perfect opportunity to sit down with my dear friend, photographer Dmitri Kasterine, to catch up, reminisce & hear the latest on his documentary regarding the town of Newburgh." — Gerry Beckley
Photos by Dmitri Kasterine
Interview by Gerry Beckley
Lifestyle photos by Kate Orne
GERRY BECKLEY: I was looking at photographer portfolios for a publicity shoot for America and I thought, “these are all way too clever.” So, a few years ago we reached out to you.
DMITRI KASTERINE: You said, “We’re coming to Peekskill to play; that’s near you.” I found a nice landscape to put you and Dewey against. It worked out great, and we’ve kept in touch. I look forward to seeing the pictures you post almost every day. You’re branching out — people, street scenes.
GB: I know, God forbid! But let’s not talk about my photos! Let’s talk about yours. You said what first brought you to New York was an accidental meeting with Salvador Dalí.
DK: I’d mailed Mick Jagger, “Look, this is the first time I’ve been to America.” I asked him where to stay, “Well, the only place that’ll have us”— referring to the Rolling Stones —“is the St. Regis.” So I took him up on that. This was 1975. I walked into the St. Regis, checked in, and there’s Salvador Dalí standing in a corner. That was a good start! Fifth Avenue, and the sidewalk seemed to go on forever. It was all so big; I had a wonderful time. I just kept coming and going, and one day I said, “I’m going to stay.”
GB: You were based in London at the time?
DK: Yes, I grew up in a dreary village called Westerham in the UK. We got bombed and had to leave, during the war, to a safer place. My mother was a stalwart figure; she drove ambulances during the war, trying to raise two children. My parents were divorced, and my father died when I was four. He was a refugee from the Russian Revolution. He landed in England with an uncut diamond that his mother gave him. He sold the diamond and bought a suit and a car. After having fought for eight years in wars, he was killed in a car accident. My mother was a tough woman; she died when I was 15.
GB: Once in New York, how long did it take you to discover upstate?
DK: I had friends who rented a cottage up here in the summer, so when my wife, Caroline, and I thought we’d move out of New York, this was the only place we knew. We found this cottage 25 years ago. I felt that, rather than struggle in the city, we can live here and enjoy the countryside.
GB: I went back to your earliest work: for example, the shot of the thoroughbred from Karachi, in 1955. You were flying for Sir Freddie Laker’s Air Charter company at that time?
DK: Oh, yes. And I hated flying for Freddie Laker! We were always breaking down because we were flying very old converted warplanes. In Karachi there was nothing but desert and a few huts and stables. And that’s one of the pictures I took. I was seeing the world, and I always loved horses. Norwegian Air put a picture I did of Freddie on the tail of their airplane not long ago.
GB: Were you using a Rolleiflex then?
DK: Yes, the loveliest camera there’s ever been. I remember photographing in the Cocos Keeling Islands, slap in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We had to stop there, because we couldn’t reach Perth without stopping for fuel. It was a different time then.
GB: And no doubt scraping the landing gear on the trees as you came in.
DK: Well, there was an occasion. The captain thrust the throttle levers forward, and we ran up the runway, and nothing much was happening, but he decided he’d better try and take off. It was a very short runway. And, indeed, when we got to Perth, several trees were in the undercarriage housing!
GB: You can laugh about this now.
DK: [Laughter] That was my early youth. I tried many things. I was quite good at racing cars for Lotus. But a friend said, “Why don’t you try flying? It’s safer.” What I loved was taking off from the local grass airport in a single-engine, twin-winged plane.
GB: A Tiger Moth?
DK: Yes, a Tiger Moth.
GB: Since my father was a reconnaissance pilot, I always felt a connection with you. The very first picture you took as a kid was of a bird feeder in the backyard. But you switched to cows…
DK: Well, unless you’ve got a long lens, you can’t shoot birds. But as 12-year old, I thought you could. And of course, they were specks when I developed the pictures. But then I tried cows; they were much, much more satisfying, they fill the frame. [Laughter]
GB: Then you got onto portraiture?
DK: Yes, I liked photographing my friends. And then I realized that if I was going to make a living, I had to shoot engagements and weddings. I wanted to record the hopeless pomposity of people, which they still were in the ‘60s. They were stiff and full of self-satisfying attitude.
GB: I’ve noticed your subjects are often sitting.
DK: Well, I like that. David Hockney’s actually better at it than I am. I thought his series of portraits of people sitting in the same chair against the same background was just absolutely marvelous.
DK: I was trying to earn a living. One day I went to see Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. It left me completely shattered. I said to a magazine, “Look, Stanley Kubrick is here.” “Who’s that?” they said. “Well, just go and see Paths of Glory.” Having sold the idea to the magazine, I went to the set of Dr. Strangelove. And I stayed around, and Stanley said, “Would you like to come and work for me? You stand in the right place.” I don’t know what the hell the right place was, but sure, “That’s fine, I’d love to.”
Day after day, I was photographing the same damn thing, and I began to not enjoy it. But him I loved; he taught me about patience, persistence, silence, and listening to people. He was very friendly towards me. We used to have dinner and play Ping-Pong.
GB: And then there’s all the artists you’ve photographed.
DK: Really, that started with writers because I had met a lot of them working with magazines. Paul Theroux, Graham Greene… sometimes I used to photograph out of hero worship, other times I photographed people because they looked good. I had an assistant who knew New York and said I should photograph some artists. I didn’t altogether want to, but generally, they were more interesting than the writers, and I got in to it. But I didn’t learn anything from them except how to take photographs.
GB: Were they assignments?
DK: No, I’d laboriously wrote to them all, or rung them up.
GB: Far out! I didn’t know that. Like, for example Samuel Beckett?
DK: Well, funnily enough, Beckett was an assignment. It was 1965, so it was one of the early ones, and I liked him a lot. He just sat there looking. And then we broke for lunch at the pub, and he had a lot of Guinness. He won every game of snooker. He was very good.
GB: It’s a wonderful shot. It’s on my wall at home. What about Francis Bacon?
DK: Bacon I got through a girlfriend who knew two of his boyfriends. He fell asleep while I was taking the photograph. You can’t go wrong with that face.
GB: Anybody that stands out?
DK: Michael Caine, I really liked him. He was so genuine, and at that time, not actor-ish at all. I took Cathy, my nine-year-old daughter, with me. He loved her, and kept saying, “What do you think about that, darling?” And she remembers that to this day.
GB: And you shoot the Queen!
DK: Yes. A BBC magazine wanted to have a portrait of the Queen in her garden, so they sent her some very nice prints of mine, and it was approved. The Queen was easy! I had to find a spot, and the best was by the lake, but the whole area was covered in duck shit. So I said to the lady-in-waiting, “I’d really like to do it here, but we’d have to walk across all this.” “Don’t worry, the Queen doesn’t clean her own shoes.”
GB: Now, let's talk about Newburgh, a town you've been photographing for over a decade and now the subject of your documentary. What drew you to this place and its people?
DK: Well, this is really why I went into films, because I missed not being able to record what people said when I was taking pictures. I got to Newburgh, and started shooting these overlooked and neglected humans, who, in essence, are right on our doorstep. That’s what really made me feel that I’ve got to make a film about this place, because what they had to say was so powerful and revealing. I fell in love with these people. Eventually the locals started to talk to me, particularly when I gave them a photograph afterwards. As a photographer, you cannot help but be affected by what’s going on around you politically.
GB: I love the Eggleston anecdote about how he shoots just one frame of everything. What’s your approach?
DK: I do a lot of walking around so people are wondering what on Earth I am doing, and it makes them move. And when somebody moves, they put on a different expression, a different position, and then you may have something. Take the guy with no shirt [on the cover of Newburgh: Portrait of a City], he strung me along by being funny, and darting around like an idiot, pretending he was not interested in having his picture taken. But of course he was. And I said, “Look, you’ve got to stop this. I want you to stand in the middle of Broadway looking terrific.” And he did.
GB: It’s a wonderful new body of work and I’m pretty sure it was not the reason you moved up here, but sometimes one thing leads to another.
DK: Oh I know, exactly.