Carly Simon with Twin Towers reflected in sunglasses (1980)
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Anjelica Huston in pearls on a beach (1983)
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Mick Jagger (1976)
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Pink Floyd's pig floats above the Battersea Power Station (1976)
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Onlookers watching a soccer game organized by Rod Stewart (1976)
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Neil Young (1976)
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Almost everyone takes candid photos of their friends, but most of them don't end up in photography exhibitions. But then again, most people aren't actress and model turned journalist Carinthia West—and most people don't have her circle of friends. Her shots, mostly from the late 70s and early 80s, include ones of Mick Jagger just waking up, Rod Stewart's weekend football matches, and Anjelica Huston strolling along the beach in pearls. We recently sat down with West at the San Francisco Art Exchange, where the exhibition, An Affectionate Archive, is currently showing. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
San Francisco: That picture of Anjelica Huston is just striking.
Carinthia West: She is one of my best friends. We did a disastrous play together in downtown LA. It was a seedy theater and the script was pretty much rubbish. We had to go down armed with meat cleavers in case we were attacked from the car to the theater.
Fab. Actually, it was great. You can’t call yourself an actor or actress unless you do that kind of work. One night, down came her father and Jack [Nicholson, her boyfriend at the time] with some other quite well known people. She was quite nervous. We had captions for the hard of hearing, so that they could see the script up on televisions. The script was quite circular. It was just a couple of chicks getting drunk in a Hong Kong bar. She comes upstage at me—she had completely forgotten her lines. This was the first time her dad and Jack had seen her on stage. I think the idea was to see if she was serious, and then maybe offer her Prizzi’s Honor.
Did you give her the line?
I remembered a line, but we had skipped a page. Suddenly, all the deaf people who were watching the screen thought something was wrong with it, because it didn’t tally. They all got up to trump to the other screen on the other side of the theater. And there was a grim-faced Jack and a grim-faced John in the front row watching intently. The good news is that she got Prizzi’s Honor. I was there the night she got the Oscar.
It’s wonderfully striking collection of musicians—George Harrison, Carly Simon, and Mick Jagger, but there are almost no stage shots.
Almost none. It’s not my specialty. I think my strength is capturing the relationship.
How did you know all these people?
It was completely natural in those days. It was just a small group in London. I was modeling and acting. I was on Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television, which was his series after Monty Python. I played all the female parts that he didn’t want to play. I think I was good to have around. I became everybody’s landlady. Eric moved into my basement. Half of Hawkwind too. I have to be quick to say, they were not all my boyfriends. Friendship was more important. That’s why the Affectionate Archive was such a nice name.
Not many people have candid photos of Mick Jagger just lying around.
I thought everyone had taken pictures like mine! You’d be amazed at how many people either threw away their negatives or just weren’t there at the right time. Although I became a journalist, I wasn’t doing that at the time. I was an actress and model. If you really wanted me to be honest, I was there because I was quite attractive. I was nice to have around. It helps to be very young, and a tall blonde.
It must be hard to expose the private sides of these people, who are celebrities, sure, but also are your friends, right?
I worried a lot when I started in England about exposing the people I love in a way that they might not want to be shown. But the weird thing is that as time passes what was a personal moment becomes a part of social history. Every photo ever taken was at one point someone’s immediate present—and now it’s the long past.
You pick up a real sense of the times from the photos.
A young person said to me when she saw the Carly Simon shot—you know the Twin Towers are reflected in her sunglasses?
Really? I hadn't noticed that when I looked at it.
Yes. She’s laughing in 1980 in a Brooklyn restaurant. I didn’t know the Twin Towers were there either. They weren’t a symbol—they were just a backdrop. I’ve had young people say, that’s so smart, did you Photoshop it in?
What did you shoot with?
Cannon mostly. Canon A-1 and EF. By the way, if they are reading this, I am looking for a sponsor. But I never did use any photo tricks. Well, except when I wanted to take a picture of myself, I would… What do you call it?
Like a picture of yourself. A selfie?
No, no, no, the click, click, click, click?
Oh, a delay?
Right, a delay. Sometimes I used those.
I love the shot of Pink Floyd's pig mascot floating above the smokestacks.
In London there’s a gallery that sells my work. It has the Pink Floyd photo in the window. The Battersea Power Station is becoming iconic. They’re pulling down the chimneys and turning them into apartments. So these guys walk into the gallery and they are serious about buying the photos, since they figure that everybody who buys an apartment will want one. The gallery says great. But we have one problem. What’s that? Can you do the picture without the pig? Apparently they were Malaysian Muslims, and a pig is not a good idea. So the gallery was like, isn’t the whole point the pig? They say, yes we know, but we love the photograph anyway. We just need to get rid of the pig.
Are you going to get rid of the pig?
What we think we’re going to do is to make a special digital image for them without the pig, exclusive to them. I haven’t wrapped my head around it yet.
It’s a fantastic to show these publicly, rather than letting them just hang out on your kitchen table, isn’t it?
Sometimes I think, is this a real job? Or am I fooling myself. Have I answered everything you wanted to know?
So now do you want to know the dirt?