Gerald Wortman a Life in Photography

I left school at 15 and began working as a messenger boy for the publishing company George Newnes in Covent Garden (London) in the late 1950’s.

Attached to my work station was their  ‘in house’ photographic studios and this was my introduction to photography. One of their photographers told me that the famous fashion photographer John French (whose work is permanently archived at the V&A) was advertising for an assistant for their studios.

I managed to get an interview and it proved to be a major turning point in my life. During this interview John French, who was extremely impressive and charismatic, came in to give directions to his darkroom printer on the quality he wanted for a black and white print.

I will never forget seeing this print in a very large 20×16 tray and I became very aware of the control and totally individual look this image held. It was a John French photograph and it could be recognised immediately as such. I knew from that moment that photography was an art form and something I wanted to be involved in.

I was first employed as an assistant to photographer Brien Kirley who was under contract to John French studios. What followed was the first professional photograph I had ever taken. I was only 16. Brien was booked to photograph a young up and coming French actress for Woman’s Own Magazine. She was in the UK to promote the film ‘Doctor at Sea’ with Dirk Bogarde.

Brien got sick the night before this shoot and asked me to do the shoot. So I was suddenly plunged into taking this photograph. The lighting had been set up and was ready. He asked me to just shoot of a couple of rolls of film. It was to be a simple portrait shot.

I was very nervous throughout that night and then, when I arrived in the studio I found there was total panic as the young actress refused to be photographed as Woman’s Own insisted she wear a lipstick by Max Factor that was their major advertiser that month. Apparently she only wore the absolute minimum make up and never lipstick particularly! I was already very on edge, but I plucked up all my courage and went into the dressing room explaining to her that it was my very first professional photograph and could she please help me…

She was absolutely stunning, beautiful and so wonderful. She took one look at me and told everyone in the studio that it was only for me that she agreed to be photographed wearing this lipstick. I was so young and proud of myself!

The actress in question was Brigitte Bardot, no less! Incredible the things we can do when we are young and naïve!

A few months later, alongside David Bailey, I became assistant to John French himself. We both worked together for French for about two years. Towards the end of this period we were approached by Practical Photography Magazine to photograph people we knew and some of our friends for an article (The Friendly Eye), featuring the work of young photographers in the UK. I believe it was the first published photographs by both David and myself.

I then moved to New York and was fortunate to become assistant to the world famous photographer Bert Stern. This was just before those iconic Marilyn Monroe photographs he shot for Esquire Magazine. I also had the chance to meet and observe photographic sessions with Irving Penn.

I opened my own studio on Park Avenue South and struggled for about a year, doing tests and shooting young models for their portfolios. During this period I also took a Director Observer course with Lee and Paula Strasberg at their famous drama school (the Method), which influenced my photographic development.

I was also constantly sending my photographs around to all the magazines. Then, in 1962, I got a response from Marvin Israel who was Art Director at Harper’s Bazaar Magazine – and I started working for them on a regular basis. It launched me in New York. I moved and built another studio on Fifth Avenue and began working in Fashion, beauty and advertising.

I moved to Paris in the late 1960’s and worked in beauty and fashion for Elle Magazine and various other magazines and advertising agencies in Europe.

I firmly believe you must have a very close relationship with whatever subject you photograph. This is of prime importance.

I got married and when my son was born I began to photograph him and, for my sins, this started my move towards children photography. Most photographers are reluctant to work with children and animals, but I found it was a question of casting and primarily to be able to bring humour to the subject.

I worked for many magazines across Europe, particularly for Italian VOGUE Bambini in Milan, where anecdotally an entire day’s shoot was stolen from our bus, under the eyes of an entire crew of clients, models, myself and assistant!

I have always loved photojournalism but would get very embarrassed when carrying around a camera and all the lenses. People tend to just freeze up when they see all this equipment.

So now, in the last few months and with the advent of the small digital cameras which are so unobtrusive, I’ve found a freedom and enjoyment taking photographs of what I see in the streets, trains, tubes etc..

It has opened another branch of photography for me.

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