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Signet Bank AS
Antonijas street 3,
Riga, LV 1010, Latvia
Phone: +371 67 080 000
Fax: +371 67 080 001
E-mail: [email protected]
Monday to Friday
9:00 a.m. – 17:30 p.m
In cooperation Birkenfelds Gallery and Toms Zvirbulis
Ulvis Alberts is the only photographer of Latvian descent who shot portraits of global legends from David Bowie to Andy Warhol, from Paul McCartney to Steven Spielberg, from Charles Bukowski to Cher and Tina Turner. The list speaks for itself. But it begs the question: how did a boy who immigrated to America from a German refugee camp in 1949 become one of the most sought-after celebrity portrait photographers? Our conversation is filled with American candour, the spirit of freedom and a passion for photography, but Ulvis Alberts is best described by a phrase he himself uses often: one of a kind.
You received you bachelor’s degree in radio and television at the Washington University in Seattle, with further studies at the American Film Institute, but you never studied photography professionally. What drew you to the photographic art?I had no luck obtaining support from the American Film Institute. The people I met kept encouraging me to take a broader view. One of these people was Jack Nicholson. So I moved into celebrity photography. My aim was not to make famous friends but to see how these people lived. The first thing I would do whenever I came into their homes was look around and think about the technical aspects of producing my stills – where the windows were, how the light fell, that sort of thing. So I did not have much time to chat with them. Still, I made a lot of new acquaintances.
So photography was in some ways an unconscious choice. I know the artistic gene runs in your family – your father Uga Alberts was a painter and architect. Did that have an effect perhaps?You could say so. My father painted a lot, but Latvians were not enthusiastic buyers of paintings, so he would give away more than he sold. I recall seeing one of his pieces on a wall in a Stockholm home. I have no idea how it got there but he would give them away as gifts, or even draw on location. In addition to painting, father worked as an architect in Seattle – that was the job that fed him. Unfortunately, I only have a few of his paintings remaining. I did not appreciate him enough as an artist before he left this world.
You are referred to as a celebrity photographer. Did many 70s celebrities fear photographers like they do today?That’s a good question. I called my book Camera as Passport because my camera was what provided me access to an individual. It was my reason for meeting them. I doubt that anyone would have let me into their home otherwise. Would you invite me in if I just came up to your doors and knocked?
I doubt that taking photographs like this in our time would be feasible. You would have to contact their manager, receive credentials, pass security checks…I don’t think you could do something like that in our time. People are much more fearful, for logical reasons. This year even more so, as the whole world is reeling from the virus.
In the 1970s, you started taking photos of poker players at worldwide tournaments, including the World Series of Poker held at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. Can you tell us more about this series of stills?The casino was owned by the Binion family, which held the World Series of Poker. They offered me the job of shooting these games, and I thought to myself – why not? I agreed and went to Las Vegas. I spent a lot of time there, at least one month, sleeping in a hotel… I was no poker player myself, I had no means to play at the time. Most of the players there were very wealthy. I learned my lesson – I recall selling small-sized photos from the previous series every year. The amount I charged, however, was way too small. Poker players were too inconvenienced looking for change, so I just raised the price per picture to 100 dollars. Everyone was satisfied, myself included (laughs).
The Signet Bank Art Collection includes the shot you took of Ken Smith, also known as TopHat. Smith is a player cloaked in legend. Can you tell me a little bit about him?Yes, he was quite a character. Some say that the silk top hat you see in that shot came from the theatre where Lincoln had been assassinated. Smith allegedly had a certificate saying it was so. But I doubt it really was.
What does poker mean to you today – as a player and as a photographer?I have no desire to come back to poker today. It has changed a lot – moving from small dimly-lit spaces to worldwide casinos, where everyone thinks they can play. The poker players of today fail to understand that poker is a mental game. You cannot just play to win – everything counts, even where you sit at the table…
What was poker like in your time, then?It was more of a friends and family affair. That’s why I loved the place that held the World Series. As a photographer, I was drawn to the cigarette smoke that streamed in curved lines reminiscent of Picasso… It gave the players character.
Icebox is another project of yours worth mentioning here – you would visit celebrities and take photos of their fridges. “Tell me the contents of your freezer and I’ll tell you who you are” is a way of describing it. How did the idea for this cycle come about?Icebox was a project where I took photographs of people. The people came first, then came their fridge. It was interesting to see how each of them would prepare, if at all. Bukowski’s fridge was so understocked I just had him stand next to it.
Your photography portfolio also includes a lot of stills taken in Soviet times and the 1990s. What was the reason for your first trip to Riga?I met photographer Jānis Kreicbergs while I still lived in the U.S. I was surprised to find out there were many photographers like him in Latvia. Jānis helped make the travelling arrangements with the Committee for Cultural Ties. Times were different then, and so were the rules of the game. I could go where I was allowed. As a foreigner in the streets, I would stick out like a sore thumb with my “Western” things that others did not have access to. I might give a beautiful model a tube of lipstick as gratitude, for instance (we laugh).
What impression did you have from our environment at the time?Oh, Riga was completely different then. I remember a small café with large windows in Soviet Old Riga. I sat down at a table overlooking the street, and when I saw someone I know pass by, I invited them to join. That was a way of getting to know people and talk to them. Riga was very beautiful then as it is now. Very special. The architecture is just fantastic, the Art Nouveau masterpieces especially. Really, just wow.
You had a project called Riga Young. How did that series occur to you?Yes, I took photos of young people in the streets of Riga, I photographed many beautiful girls in Riga and Jūrmala (laughs). It was a good project, even though it was never really finished.
What do you think of the age of digitalisation in photography? Does it affect the work you do?I only work with analogue photography, but I do have digital cameras as well. I prefer film because I am used to it. 36 exposures, 36 unique shots. Seems simple enough, but there is nothing simple about it.
Our love of film is fading. While looking at your stills, I get the feeling they are documenting a bygone age. Do you get nostalgic around them?You are close! Most probably, you are exactly right. I have an archive of shots made over 40 years ago – in colour as well as black-and-white. I understand that, by looking at them today, I can recall things I have forgotten. The projects I created then could no longer be done today.
One more question before we finish. What do you think separates one “true” photograph from ten other shots that are similar, almost identical?I do not ascribe qualities such as “good” or “bad” to photography – everybody takes photos nowadays. But I think what you describe would be a shot that catches the eye, that makes you fixate on it for a moment.
Signet Bank is thankful to Birkenfelds Gallery director Toms Zvirbulisand photography artist Ulvis Alberts for making this interview happen
Ulvis Alberts was born in Riga but would emigrate to the United States of America from Ravensburg (Germany) as a child in 1949. He graduated from the University of Washington. The first few photos he published portray US celebrities. When Alberts moved to Los Angeles in 1973 to start his employment with the American Film Institute, he became the de facto “celebrity photographer”. In 1977, Alberts was a photographer at a world poker tournament, which was followed by the issue of his book called Poker Face – a rare collectible commanding up to 2500 dollars for a single copy.
The Signet Bank Art Collection has a copy of Poker Face – a photograph taken of Ken Smith by Ulvis Alberts for his poker tournament series.