WGBH’s midday news anchor Henry Santoro … the host of Henry In The Hub… sat down with well-known Boston Celebrity Photographer Roger Farrington to discuss his upcoming photography exhibit, Roger Farrington: Celebrity in Boston, 1976-1996. To listen to the extended audio interview, click on the audio file above.
Henry Santoro: Opening at Boston's Panopticon photographic Gallery and the Commonwealth hotel, is a one man show featuring the work of Roger Farrington. Who's Roger Farrington, you ask? Well he's been taking photos of Bostonians and internationally-known celebrities since the mid 70s. He's one of those guys who seems to be everywhere capturing some unique moments in time. And it's my pleasure to welcome Roger to Henry and the Hub to Weekend Edition. Morning!
Roger Farrington: Morning, great to see you again Henry.
HS: Great to see you, Roger. Always a pleasure. This exhibit features 50 photographs from the hundreds of thousands of negatives that you have. How do you winnow it down?
RF: Well that's the big question and it's taken us a little bit a little while, but I've been working with Jason Landry from the gallery and Jim Fits, who's a former curator of the photographic Resource Center in Boston, literally for a full year. But we go back five years before, that when I had an exhibit of my John Lennon photos that I took in New York, and they helped me put that together after a book came out explaining how the Double Fantasy record was made. And I said, ‘well, you know, I probably have a few other shots of celebrities, and we started the process of going through the negatives.
HS: And you must have come across probably hundreds of photographs that you forgot you even had!
RF: I printed about 97 different images and we went out it down to about 50, 51.
HS: How did you get started in photography?
RF: Well I think college… photographing various things ,shows, entertainment things that were happening on campuses. I even did high school yearbook stuff; kind of self-taught. I picked up classes, workshops in college and in the summertime I even took a course in NESOP when it started in Kenmore Square; great place still there. And I just started shooting people more than anything else. And I did my fair share of weddings, certainly, after college, but it was when I was started to work at the Charles Playhouse in 1976 that it became apparent to me that I should bring my camera with me everyday to work-
HS: Because big time celebrities were coming through there.
RF: Yes. And the comedy connection was just opening up in there. That was one of the very beginnings of comedy in Boston which as you know went on to be the same. And so a lot was happening in Boston at the time and I think I was sort of there as everything kind of began. And as I say, the Charles Playhouse was a very cool place to be in the early mid 70s early 80s.
HS: You and I actually were fixtures on the scene for a while.
HS: Is it the job of the photographer to blend in with the background and sort of not let anybody know you're there?
RF: Completely. And I think that's certainly the tact I took when I was starting out, is that you just try to be invisible, be part of the gang, fit in as best you can, and whatever, whatever the feeling in the room is …sometimes there's tension in the room. Sometimes they see a camera, so you don't take a picture at that time you wait for the appropriate moment. And that's an instinct that I think has held me in good stead.
HS: How do you know when you've got the shot?
F: Well that's a great question, Henry, because when we were shooting film course you never knew, you never knew. And that's been part of the fun. I mean really that's been the real joy of putting this together because most of the shots I took were for certain press purposes, and I would get those shots, those might be posed and that I might keep shooting. And I never printed those little gems of that person while they were leaving the room. Raquel Welch was the last shot on the roll leaving the press conference. She has a beautiful smile and it was the only genuine moment that I saw.
HS: Back in the late 70s, Beatle John Lennon took five years off from making music so that he could raise his son, Sean. Then, in 1980 when he was ready to go back the recording studio and record what would be his final album, Double Fantasy, you got a call asking you to be the official photographer for the project. How did that all happen? I mean, why you?
RF: Well that's a big question too, Henry. I guess I've never told you the whole story but I think secrecy was the number one issue at that time.
HS: They didn't want a New York photographer.
RF: Right. What I heard was that everything was sort of being outsourced. What I've learned since is remarkable, when Ken Sharp did the book that I was involved in…that was six, seven years ago now. He interviewed every single person involved. And suddenly I really figured it out for the first time. But we were all vetted for things, like our birthdates, when we were born. We had to pass the astrology test for Yoko and John, which I had.
HS: You had to be a cosmically good fit!
RF: Absolutely. That was true. And if you want the answer, that could be the answer! But yes, they wanted a photographer who was not connected to any media outlets. They wanted a photographer who could shoot and get the stuff out to the world because I'd had a photo in Time Magazine early on, too. So I had the chops but it was a job that I'm sure other people might not have wanted because there was no guarantee I was going to get in the door. There was no guarantee that I could say “oh, I'm with John Lennon. I'm his photographer.” That was not part of the arrangement. So it was it was pretty tricky.
HS: Those shots are absolutely stunning. And in part because John Lennon was as handsome, probably the most handsomest he's ever been, in that setting. He was just dressed in black. He had this really cool hat. And of course the John Lennon glasses. And you just captured every moment.
RF: Well thank you. It's really nice to hear. He was great. He was so energized and, again, when the book came out. More of that information made it clear, what my thinking was at the time, that he was really ready to go. He was so excited, the band jelled and and they had a really exciting first day. And I remember like ‘well I got enough shots and they want these to be used to announce that they're in the recording studio. I better leave right now!’ Because I felt responsible to get the message out. And when I was leaving, I probably could have stayed longer, I probably could listen to the whole session. So I kind of regret that today.
HS: And then in 1985, Andy Warhol came to Boston. I know this because I was one of only three people who got to interview him, but you got to photograph him on Boston's Newbury Street, no less, and that photo is in the show. How did that photo come to be?
RF: Well again, I probably have a picture of you somewhere in the background there, Henry, I better go take a look. It was one of those things that, as best I recall, it was a that last minute thing I heard. I didn't know he was coming well in advance. I think I may have only had a few hours notice, and I know because I brought with me a roll of film that was already in the camera that had another job on it. So, I remember arriving right at the moment when he was coming in. So, I was able to get a couple of shots on the straight that are absolutely out of focus, and then get just ahead of him as he came into the gallery. And it was packed, and I just happened to be very close up front, that when he came in he was literally five, six feet in front of me so my recollection was that, you know, I got one shot that I could use for the newspaper. But I really didn't get that really quintessential Andy Warhol photo. But looking back at the negatives, I found a couple of em’. Yeah, there it was. And after all these years it was great to print it.
HS: Who else are you excited to see in this exhibit?
RF: Well, so many of them really were surprises… the Richard Pryor shot when he came to Boston in 1978. I'm sort of proud of that shot because the tension in the room was really intense. This white kid with a camera during a very difficult time in Boston history, and Richard Pryor was great but it was tense and I'm glad that's in the show. I have to give a shout out to Liza Minnelli and Mark Gero because I went to college with Mark Gero, and when he married Liza Minnelli, we were all very impressed. So it was fun to put that in the show too. So many shots you know, Richard Avedon. I was absolutely in awe of his work long before I met him and he came to the CIA for his in the ‘American West Show,’ which was only I think in three galleries in the United States. It was a pleasure to meet him and spend some time with him. The Wang Center film Series, that was a wonderful opportunity Boston had so many great celebrities came to Boston. Lee Remick, Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston. It was so much fun in those days.
HS: Do you have get yourself in a certain frame of mind when photographing celebrities as opposed to just going out and getting those candid shots?
RF: I think you do. But I think everything seemed so connected and fast paced. I was definitely on a roll for a long long time.
HS: You were everywhere.
RF: I just kept going! I was like the energizer bunny! And I would shoot, you know, something during the day, I would shoot something at night, or two things at night, and it would be, you know, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or you know, I would not really have a day off. And I'd be printing because we you had to develop the film. So I'd be up early developing printing, making deadlines. It was amazing, and it went on for 20 years.
HS: Very cool. Well Roger Farrington’s one-man show opens at Boston's Panopticon Gallery in the Commonwealth Hotel. You do not want to miss this show, you absolutely want to see these celebrities in Boston up close and right there on the wall; the show is up until April. And yes, limited prints are available correct?
RF: Yes they are. Thank you.
HS: So, Roger thanks so much great to see you.
RF: Great to see you, see you at the opening!