Art & Photography / Culture Talks

The LA Photographer Who Redefined Glamour for the 1980s

Hollywood native Matthew Rolston injected a dose of grandeur into image-making in the late 1970s, and his impact can still be felt today

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Sade, With Cocktails, Los Angeles, 1988Matthew Rolston © MRPI, Courtesy Fahey/Klein Los Angeles

The magical grandeur of Hollywood glamour first came into vogue when Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich fled their native Germany in the 1930s and brought the aesthetics of the Weimar Republic stateside. Together they made six films at Paramount Studios, and introduced an innovative look using the spotlight on the face to create a luminous mask that stood in sharp contrast to the dark shadows it cast, emulating the aesthetic of 1920s Berlin. 

By the early 1960s, the look had run its course and faded away, until Andy Warhol and Helmut Newton resurrected it in the late 1970s. Los Angeles native Matthew Rolston got his start at this time, shooting for Interview before rising to the heights of celebrity photography as a new Golden Age of Hollywood photography took shape. Working for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Esquire, Rolston embraced the aesthetics of George Hurrell and Irving Penn, creating timeless portraits of the era’s greatest icons from Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna to Christian Lacroix, Yohji Yamamoto, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In celebration, Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles opens tomorrow at Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, in conjunction with the recent publication of a magnificent monograph by the same name from teNeues featuring works made between 1977 and 1993. Here, Rolston speaks with us about the timeless allure of the glamour photo.

On the revival of Hollywood glamour photography...
“Fashion is reactionary. People need novelty and they need different-ness. It’s hard to predict what the cycle will bring but it will be in marked contrast. In the 70s, pop culture photography reflected the disco era. Disco was chrome, metal, and shiny black plastic with an Afrocentric feeling; it couldn’t be more different than the Hollywood glamour look. 

“Andy Warhol and Helmut Newton were the architects of the postmodern revival of Hollywood glamour. Both brought George Hurrell back into play. That led to the reanimation of glamour in the late-70s and the next wave of photographers including myself, Herb Ritts, Greg Gorman, Annie Leibovitz, and Bruce Weber.” 

On the influence of gender fluidity...
“There were a host of new pop stars who had a very different point of view and a big part of that was the display of gender fluidity – just like the cross-dressing of the Weimar Republic. We had artists like Annie Lennox wearing a man’s suit; Boy George wearing full women’s make-up with male and female clothes; Madonna with her ever-changing persona; Prince on stage wearing women’s lingerie and singing about sexuality in a new way. The supposed decadence couldn’t have been more appropriate for time.”

On the power of large-format photography...
“These are very considered, set up photographs. It’s hard to be extremely spontaneous when you’re shooting with an 8x10 view camera or a 4x5, which a lot of these images were made with. Even though my shots have a lot of visual richness, the progression of each sitting is a reductive process where I honed in on the relationship between the subject, the environment, and my impulses.”

On the relationship between the subject and the self...
“For me, every portrait is a self-portrait. I am identifying something in the subject that is part of me. Whether they are a man or a woman, a different racial type, or a different age didn’t matter. There is something in that person’s essence and that’s the guiding principle between not only the shoot but the editing process afterwards where you say, ‘That’s the one.’ And you know it’s the one because it resonates inside.”