Master of a fantasy world
Sam Haskins was a photographer from very humble roots in South Africa who created one of the greatest bodies of work of the last century. In the 60s, Haskins’ golden decade, he produced a timeless trilogy of figure photo books: Five Girls (1962), Cowboy Kate and Other Stories (1964), and November Girl (1967). These works revolutionized nude photography with totally fresh images of female charisma. Haskins’ use of fictional narratives, exacting attention to composition, and innovative photographic techniques allowed these books to reach a new level of emotion and sensitivity.
Seen here are rare, and in some cases never before released images from November Girl. Their depth and beauty shows Haskins’ ability to fearlessly capture his subjects with skill and originality. Haskins influence is undeniable in art and particularly fashion photography. Tiziano Magni, Fabien Baron, Ellen von Unwerth, Philippe Garner and Platon attest to Haskins’ powerful legacy. Despite his great impact on the fashion world, Haskins didn’t work with the industry until he was 75.
His only true fashion book, Fashion Etcetera, was released in September 2009. Sadly Sam Haskins passed away nine weeks later.Haskins career canvased the gamut of styles, he did commercial work, shot 15 Pentax calendars, and completed two landscape books: African Image (1967), an homage to his native South Africa, and Sam Haskins á Bologna (1984). He created a much coveted collection of graphic prints, Haskins Posters (1973), as well as a definitive collection of film manipulation with Photo Graphics (1980). His varied career makes it impossible to pigeon-hole Sam Haskins into a single genre, however his original trilogy of female nudes remains Haskins most iconic work. He pioneered a new way to view women.
"My dad was a nut about classical music."
Five Girls, Cowboy Kate, and November Girl were all completed after-hours in Haskins Johannesburg studio without the help of famous magazines, stylists, or models. His wife Alida Haskins managed his studio and his sons Ludwig and Konrad grew up amidst the sawdust of Sam’s sets and bright lights where Alida would to the models make-up.
South Africa nurtured Haskins work with the time and freedom to construct his fantasies outside of industry expectations. It also created a challenge for managing his legacy when so much of his career was spent outside of the cultural-production capitals. Uncredited-appropriation of Sam Haskins’ visual ideas has threatened his place in history but his images speak for themselves and the copies will never come close. Ludwig Haskins, now the manager of his father’s estate, shares the triumphs, struggles, and photographic magic in Sam Haskins’ work.
Who is Sam Haskins the photographer?
Sam created an idealized world of beauty with his mind, hands, camera, and darkroom. He was a defining photographer of the sixties who conceived and produced one of the most popular photographic books of all time: Cowboy Kate & Other Stories. He was probably the best photographer of nudes in the sixties and one of the all time greats of that genre.
Why did Sam release his images as books?
It came from three things. First, the movies, Sam loved The Third Man and was deeply into old black and white films. It also came from magazine design, Alexey Brodovitch was a hallowed name in the house. The final thing was classical music. My dad was a nut about classical music. He became particularly knowledgeable about chamber music, especially Mozart, he had an incredible collection. He said a photo-book should read like a piece of classical music. It should be full of charm and power and change of tempo.
How did the concept for Cowboy Kate arise?
It was a time of Spaghetti Westerns. South Africa had no TV until 1976, so people would go to the cinema, the circus, the theater. External forms of entertainment were very well patronized. As a family we would go to the drive-in every Saturday, it was often Westerns. Many years later we learned that Sergio Leone kept a copy of Cowboy Kate on his desk, which is an ironic full-circle. It was in the context of all of that, and we were riding horses all the time. A lot of South African landscape looks very much like Texas. So quite organically my mom and dad devised Cowboy Kate. Then they asked Desmond Skirrow to write a text. It’s a very thin story, let’s face it, but in retrospect, you can see why it’s so popular with women these days. Kate was a very cool woman who was treated unjustly, got herself out of trouble, and delivered justice, - all without the help of a man.
"These pictures are part of the sexual revolution."
Cowboy Kate is also the only book in photo history where an unknown model was turned into an iconic fictional character. You have to stop for a moment and think how incredible that is. Most photographers are focused on shooting famous models. Sam took an unknown model and made her into a famous fictional character, a timeless heroine. It is totally unique.
There are no men photographed in Cowboy Kate, only a few silhouettes.
Yeah, my dad was a celebrant of female beauty, so that doesn’t surprise me. However, the fact that Kate is so self-determining is something I really enjoy. No need for male heroes!
I appreciate that too, she has a fun-loving confidence.
These images are a part of the 60s, part of the emergence of feminism, part of the sexual revolution. Sam’s work is considered amongst the art that defined the sexual revolution. There’s a fundamental visual message coming from Sam’s nudes, ‘Look, here I am, sexy and beautiful. It’s up to you to deal with it.’
Did people receive it this way?
Sam’s work is more challenging than people realize. I remember reading the very first articles about November Girl and feeling frustrated that the journalists kept talking about the nudity and Sam’s fame following Cowboy Kate. Most didn’t understand the strikingly original photography. I said, ‘One day I am going to fix this problem’. I was eleven when I had that thought. Now I’m managing Sam’s legacy.
"Look, this is me. I’m sexually potent."
Before Five Girls you’ve said nude images really only fell into two categories, classical or explicitly erotic. Sam liberated nudes, created a way to view them as real women?
That’s generally acknowledged by leading art historians Five Girls (1962) was a seminal book in the history of figure photography. Sam brought a combination to the genre of tenderness combined with very powerful creative photography and he had the historical context of the sixties to fuel the mix. I personally love the revolutionary gender confrontation, which is clearly evident in November Girl, ‘Look, this is me. I’m sexually potent. I’m beautiful. I’m self-contained. Any issues that you’ve got with it are your issues, not mine.’ My dad was not a conscious feminist. I consider myself a feminist, but he wasn’t, he was just making art in an instinctive way and he was a caring guy. It was part of his artistic mission to naturalize the nude in photography, that was central to what he was trying to do, and he realized his goal.
Can you speak more about the themes in November Girl?
It was the book Sam made immediately after Cowboy Kate and all the publishers said to Sam, Cowboy Kate is such an incredible best seller you have to come out with a sequel. That simplistic commercial reaction is a Hollywood formula, but Sam kept the imperative to always do something original. So he said ‘No, there will be no Cowboy Kate sequel, I have a different book in mind and it’s a sad love story. It’s about a girl who’s lost her love and he’s not coming back.’ And that was November Girl which was published in 1967.
It was bold, to follow up Cowboy Kate with these sensitive images of longing, it’s an emotional range that most people are scared of.
Well today there is no emotional spectrum. Modern fashion photography has lost it. You don’t see laugher, you don’t see sadness, there’s no curiosity or joy. You just see the same bland expression over and over again. That in itself says something about our times.
"A master of creating a fantasy world."
Ha! It’s true! With some exceptions. But November Girl is quite unique.
I think that there was a kind of a deeper sadness too, it wasn’t simply a sad love story where Sam could explore images of a girl pining for her lost lover. There was actually a deeper sadness in him at the time. He was working very hard. He was up against human limitations the way we all are, up against the limit of our own happiness or our own possibility, and the challenge of it. And I think that he was expressing some of his own difficulties.
It’s interesting to think that Sam mirrored the sadness of losing a loved one with a personal tension between who we are and who we want to be, like maybe the death of her lover stands for a changing sense of self?
He had become a master of creating a fantasy world but he couldn’t step through the looking glass. It’s hard to say definitively, these are just the reflections of a son.
So you think November Girl offered both an escape and a type of introspection?
He worked unbelievably hard, I can’t stress that enough. And right from the beginning. He was a kid from a humble, poor family. His dad worked on the railways, they lived in a small nowhere town. The winters there were bitterly cold. He hated the cold for the rest of his life. Sam basically decided to escape the strictures of his childhood with art.
Did he start with photography?
No, he took up photography in college. As a kid he was drawing, he was making kites, he learned magic tricks, and then, the big influence was the circus. He was besotted with it. Circuses in Africa were really well funded, they had all the fabulous acts. It was a very creative influence on him. First of all there were sexy girls in incredible costumes doing incredible things, and celebrating their physical talents. He got into the trapeze and he developed a high wire act. But the big influence was that the circus taught him the importance of originality. There was a sense of pride with all the acts every year. They were always coming up with something fresh and enthralling. Sam took that to heart, he wanted to explore fresh ground with his photography.
"He was freeing photography from its strictures."
Did your father believe in magic?
He did magic tricks as a kid, he built drawers with all these secret compartments, but it wasn’t magic like witchcraft, it was illusion. Of course that became a big part of his later career. In the 70s he got into pre-Photoshop montage. He was freeing photography from its strictures, creating a kind of photographic magic, he was having fun with surrealism as opposed to be a serious surrealist.
So in addition to this pioneering a new way of viewing women, Sam also engineered a lot of photographic techniques, can you explain some?
He would do very complex shots where the model would be jumping and then he would illuminate it with tungsten and with flash, so you would get a blur and a sharp image all in one exposure because he was mixing up the lights. Or he would do a physical montage with color negatives, or he would do a montage in the darkroom by exposing two different negatives on the same piece of paper. It was this constant narrative between different elements in the photographs. He loved the idea of tension and dialogue between elements in an image and between separate images in book layouts.
I’ve read Sam was inspired by illustration.
He had a wide range of influences and illustration was one of them. It informed his use of montage greatly. It gave him the creative freedom illustrators enjoy, to play with multiple elements. Sam incorporated the psychedelic movement in graphic art and surrealist influence into his personal photographic language.
Sam had a traditional fine art education and learned to draw and paint from the figure, you can really see this in his use of grain.
He became a master of grain, Sam had so much control over it. Cowboy Kate is the first photo book in history where instead of fighting the grain Sam actually amplified it tremendously. In November Girl and African Image he pushed the creative use of grain even further. He made it look like charcoal, this rich texture on the paper. You’re aware of the grain on the surface of the print, and then your brain pops into the actual image and the content. There’s a lovely tension in the perceptual process, the physicality of the photographs, and the actual art itself, similar to the pleasure of viewing paintings.
"Sam was a visceral image maker."
November Girl certainly shows a wide range of techniques.
For sure. November Girl is the forgotten masterpiece, the final book of the figure trilogy and the best. There’s a great image in there that most people don’t have the eyes to see. It’s a shot of a pigeon sitting on a rope and November Girl is behind the pigeon. Technically it’s exactly the opposite of what a contemporary photographer would do. There’s a foreground element and a background element, so most contemporary photographers would only shoot it in one of three ways: with the pigeon in focus and the model’s face out of focus, or the reverse, or they would shoot wide angel with both elements in focus. And what does Sam do? He shoots them both out of focus, but with the face much more out of focus than the bird. And it’s so powerful. I love that. This is one of the signature talents in his work - breaking the rules in a masterful way, with craft and vision.
And not just technical rules, the styling in November Girl is unusual and beautiful in its consistency, what’s the story behind the black coat?
It was a rubberized black raincoat that my mom bought at a Macy’s sale in New York and she brought it back to Johannesburg. Sam used that one prop brilliantly throughout the work. Sometimes it was a symbol of absolute joy, like with her dancing, and sometimes it offered a kind of introspection and sadness, like when she’s standing in the mist next to a tree. Other times it was an emotional and erotic confrontational, like where she’s just holding it against her tummy. So the prop morphed into multiple emotive roles in the course of the book, which I find impressive. Today if a photographer wants to change the mood, he totally changes what the model is wearing.
What was your mother, Alida Haskins’, role in the studio?
My mom developed a reputation of being a tough manager of the studio. She was also more involved in the creativity than was generally acknowledged. She did a lot of scouting for models off the street, there were no model agencies in Johannesburg in those days. She also did makeup and a was a very skilled stylist. Right until the end of her life she had an amazing aesthetic eye. She was an outstanding picture editor. She could look at a contact sheet and instantly put her finger right on the best shot - Bang! Every time, spot on.
Sounds like a great team! I understand Sam preferred to work with small groups?
Sam was a visceral image maker. Hands on, very hard working, very often there were no assistants at all. I remember Sam giving a lecture about how he shot a whole Pentax calendar, on location, in a week, with just himself, the model and one assistant. It was typical of Sam. I heard an audience member say, ‘that will never ever happen again’. Nowadays when you go and shoot a calendar for a major client there’s a whole coach-load of people. And I thought to myself, ‘No, it can happen again if you make it happen!’ In other words, photographers today have the challenge of taking back creative ownership of their profession.
"Sam was the pioneer and Paine followed."
Photography is being usurped by too many people involved?
Fashion photography has been totally diluted. It’s a conveyer belt. With a few masterful exceptions, there is no time to think and consider and create something truly fresh and original. It’s just a machine. Notwithstanding the importance of collaboration to the modern creative process, photographers need to take back ownership of their creative leadership – by being extraordinary artists.
I know non-credited copying of Sam’s work has been an issue for his legacy, do you think this fashion photography ‘machine’ promotes copying rather than true creation?
I think the world is full of infinite ideas and I just can’t understand why people are compelled to literally copy. Just go out and do your own work, raw inspiration abounds. I don’t want to bang too heavily on that drum. Some people produce intelligent and creative referenced work and others make crude rip-offs. It’s going to continue, it’s just the way the art world works. It’s sad when people don’t give credit, like when Herb Ritts did a cover shoot with Nicole Kidman referencing Cowboy Kate, [in Rolling Stone July 1999] and then Kidman said it was all her idea. Influence is one thing, it’s part of the creative process, but credit should be given where it’s due.
I read your article comparing Wingate Paine and Jean Loup Sieff’s influence from Sam’s work, showing how Paine blatantly copied Sam without credit but Sieff transforms the inspiration into something new.
That’s where it gets serious. Wingate Paine was American photographer and he was highly celebrated when he released Mirror of Venus in ’67, five years after Five Girls. If you look at Mirror of Venus it’s so heavily dependent on Sam’s work. The cover is literally the first image in Five Girls. And the thing about the art photo establishment in America, the galleries and booksellers and so on, is that they actually talk about Paine as being a 60s pioneer: the founder of 60s black and white natural girl sexiness. All these accolades belong to Sam! But they get dumped on Paine. If you look at Sam’s work next to Paine, the copying is just blatantly obvious, and frankly it’s uncomfortable. Sam was very gracious about Wingate Paine, he said that Mirror of Venus is a good book and Paine is a good photographer. But I feel much more strongly. Sure, Paine was a skilled photographer, he made very skilled copies, but he owes a tremendous debt to Sam. It has to be acknowledged that Sam was the pioneer and Paine followed.
"His images captured a zeitgeist."
Which photographers are you inspired by?
A lot of the work with national geographic is extraordinary. Wildlife and landscape photographers are doing some very creative things. And of course sports photography has been liberated by small cameras that kids are strapping to their helmets and their ski poles. Photography is a ubiquities discipline like writing. Exciting images are happening in all sorts of unexpected places. It’s wonderful. I love it.
Any fashion photographers?
It’s important to remember that Sam’s photo books of the sixties were nothing to do with fashion photography, they were pure visual explorations. Sam just gets lumped into the ‘fashion photographer’ pigeon hole because they don’t know where else to put him, and he’s had such an influence on fashion image makers. The only thing that makes the categorization legitimate is that fashion photography is constantly searching for beauty, celebration of life, erotic identity, and fresh photographic ideas. All of which are true of Sam’s sixties books. That said, some contemporary fashion photographers that I love are Frank Horvat, he brings humanity and humor to fashion images. Sarah Moon, Sam also loved her work, he recommended her to Pentax for a calendar. Also Tim Walker, Patrick Demarchelier, Herb Ritts, Peter Lindbergh, and Steve Meisel. Most of the superstars have sadly passed away, Penn, Avedon, Bassman, there are many others.
I’m surprised Herb Ritts is on the list considering the Rolling Stone incident?
Just because Herb Ritts shot a Cowboy Kate editorial without crediting Sam is no reason not to acknowledge and love his outstanding photography. Photographers steal ideas like normal people have croissant and coffee in the morning! It doesn't make it right, everything may be a mashup but gentlemen interpret, rather than appropriate, and give credit.
How would you describe Sam’s cultural impact?
Sam produced a body of photography that has been intensely referenced for over 50 years. Great timeless work with a global audience seeds its genetic creative code into a constantly evolving wave of visual and cultural thinking. The extent of Sam’s influence grows over time, he has clearly had an impact. That is a simple fact. His images captured a zeitgeist, they were emotionally compelling in a unique way, and he brought a fresh set of creative ideas to photography itself. In my view iconic images go a step further, they give permission, they open the doors to new ways of thinking, they are a release.
"Sam’s work constantly transcended the simple nudity."
Sam invested true freedom into his work.
Sam’s nudes celebrated a range of universal passions in a natural charming way. The photography was viscerally exciting, highly graphic, and strikingly original. The work speaks to a big audience, of both genders, beyond visual professionals. Sam’s work constantly transcended the simple nudity of the subject matter, it was infused with confidence, celebration, heartbreak, melancholia, love, finely crafted aesthetics, and wry humor. Sam worked very spontaneously with models but also brought meticulous planning and strong graphic thinking to each shot. That’s a pretty tough recipe to emulate.