George Holz, Photographer
12.19.15 Phoenicia, NY
"I consciously avoid regarding anyone as a star. If I do, I lose the freshness of the person. Stars have their own camera faces. They know their best angles and tend to just pose automatically. That can kill the authenticity of a portrait. My job is to go deeper, to find the person right in front of me."
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
KO: You’ve got such a cool place!
GH: The house used to be a tiny cabin in the woods. We renovated it 20 years ago, but kept the original style and classic wavy-edge Hemlock siding.
The barn is a very romantic story. My wife Jen fell in love with an old barn from the early 1800s in Halcott Center. It had grand cupolas and elaborate stick work, just beautiful. When we drove up to see it, we found it demolished. So I found the owners, bought the pieces — old hand-hewn chestnut beams — hauled them back here, and used them to build her a barn.
I designed that style into all the buildings: very Catskill, which I would describe as a rustic version of Adirondack with some Japanese and Craftsman influences — and also some kitsch. It's kind of a quirky, surprising style, very inventive. If you live up here you develop an eye for it.
Years later I found a 1950s 4H cabin marked for demolition and did the same thing, buying it in pieces, but I was able to reassemble it intact. It’s really stunning. The patina on the aged hemlock siding is incredible. The camp graffiti from the ‘50s and ‘60s is still inside the cabin.
I use a lot of wood, both in and outside of the buildings, much of it cut and milled on the property. That is what my namesake “Holz” means in German — wood.
We’ve accumulated more parcels of land over the years, it’s now 25 and completely surrounded by “forever wild” state land. As far as the livestock go, we have a trout pond, sheep, chickens, and a lot of visitors… (Laugh)
"I lugged my gigantic 11x14 Deardorff view camera outside for this shot as he explained to me that I should really hurry, as someone had been shot in a drive-by shooting just around the corner the week before. I later called this photo 'Drive-by Shooting'."
"As a photographer, Hopper appreciated photography and had a kind of creative impulsiveness that made him surprising and fascinating to work with. At one point he insisted on vacuuming a room as I photographed him."
"I was shooting Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for Entertainment Weekly magazine. I shot them together, and then I asked him if I could do a personal shot. He said, “OK, one roll.” So I shot one roll of film — ten exposures — and he said “OK, you got it” and walked off set. That was it! There was one shot of him smoking a cigarette in profile that became very iconic."
KO: Looking back, what are some of the most powerful lessons or experiences you took from assisting Helmut Newton?
GH: Learn the rules of light and composition. And then don’t be afraid to break them! Assisting Helmut was like being a voyeur on his set. I learned a lot by watching how he directed his subjects, maneuvered a location, and dealt with art directors and clients. I learned that strong and simple is sometimes the best.
KO: What was the most valuable advice he gave you?
GH: 'Money is easy and time is short. Your best images begin after 50. Up to that point, you are just learning'.
KO: Was there a particular subject matter that caused you to be obsessed with photography?
GH: Cheerleaders, beautiful women, models, girls in nature… It was a pretty basic attraction. Fortunately, I grew up a little… or perhaps I never grew up. (Laughs)
KO: Is it important to you that the subject trusts you or can their bad mood or lack of engagement be helpful at times?
GH: Trust is everything. But then, define trust! It’s not a Disney movie. It's sometimes dramatic, sometimes difficult. You have to engage your subject, follow them, interact with their moods, and find the beauty in whatever comes up. Dark moods and unexpected emotions are rich and beautiful, but you have to be ready for them. It’s my job to do that. There are so many twists and turns to a person’s soul.
KO: A friend once told me that he had 30 minutes to do a 6-page spread of Tom Cruise. What’s the shortest amount of time you were given, and how did it work out?
GH: I was shooting Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for Entertainment Weekly magazine. I shot them together, and then I asked him if I could do a personal shot. I had already set up alternative lighting off to the side in anticipation that he might do it. He said, “OK, one roll.” So I shot one roll of film — ten exposures — and he said “OK, you got it” and walked off set. That was it! There was one shot of him smoking a cigarette in profile that became very iconic.
KO: Which do you prefer, trying to learn as much as possible about a subject prior to shooting, or just going in without any preconceived ideas?
GH: It’s really important to see a person with fresh eyes. Otherwise, I’m just a photojournalist. I'm not here to report. I’m a portraitist. I dig deep. I try not to look at a lot of photos of somebody before I shoot them. I don’t want to be too influenced or jaded by what has been done before.
KO: Have you found that a subject’s level of talent has had an influence on your portrait?
GH: Yes, sometimes. I find that if I am shooting someone incredibly talented, whom I admire, it makes me up my game. I once photographed Steven Spielberg. Here I was one-on-one with this great director who knows everything about lighting and direction. That definitely made me up my game.
KO: Herb Ritts used to fly celebrities in a helicopter to locations while the rest of the crew took the location van. How did you manage to get so many celebs up to the Catskills?
GH: I ply them with liquor, Jen’s cooking, and debauchery — Ha!
I think people are also a little tired of the Page 6 mentality. They really want to get away to a place outside the bubble of fame. Celebrity can be very self-conscious. The farm is its own world — very healing — no one cares who you are. There’s room to breathe, to be creative, to reinvent. I think they like the adventure of it. They love to kick back, sit by the campfire, swim in the pond, or just hang out. They never want to leave once they get here. (laughs)
KO: Your farm has become an in-demand location for still & film shoots. Have the visual interpretations and new angles created by others sometimes surprised you?
GH: Yes. I love seeing the farm through fresh eyes. It amazes me to see this land, which I know so well, through someone else’s lens. Of course most of the time, I’m shooting somewhere else, so Jen and Josh take care of everything.
KO: Can you describe what you love about the light upstate, in the Catskills?
GH: It's a different world every season, every day, every minute. The light is always changing. I never ever get tired of it. It's like a beautiful woman who never ages, never gets tired of you. She continually surprises. I have traveled the world on shoots but there is nothing as beautiful, enticing, or moody as the light in these mountains. I love to shoot my personal work here. When you look at the images they are undeniably “Catskills.” I think it is the same unique light that possessed the artists of the Hudson River School.
We live according to light and seasons. In the New Year, we’re moving snow, hauling firewood, and pruning the apple trees. In the early spring, we’re tapping the maple trees and making syrup. In late spring, we’re sheep shearing, turkey hunting, trout fishing, and planting. In the summer, we’re fishing, swimming in the pond, and picking peaches. And in the fall, we’re picking apples, making cider, putting up food, cutting firewood, and finally, deer hunting for the venison that will last the whole year. We’re incredibly self-sufficient. We like it that way.
Purchase Holz book "30 Years of Portraits"
Learn more about the book here
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