Long before the era of TMZ, there was a sophistication to covering celebrity culture that seems nearly impossible by today’s standards. And at the center of it all was Oscar Abolafia, known simply as Oscar. Now in his eighties, this famed photographer captured icons from Liz Taylor and Frank Sinatra to Cher and Mick Jagger, his work gracing the pages of People, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and the like. The latest edition of his coffee-table tome, Icons by Oscar, was released earlier this year and features 150+ stunning celebrity shots. We chatted with him about his decades-long career photographing these Hollywood legends in their element.
Your career spans 50 years and hundreds of thousands of photos. Looking back, what moments stand out the most?
Well, that’s quite a task! Like you said, 50 years and hundreds of thousands of images! There are so many vivid memories that it’s hard to mention only a few. I will tell you some of the most meaningful ones, though.
Very early on, I met the producer of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Rudy Tellez. He was very interested in photography, so there was almost an instant connection. He invited me to come backstage into the green room before the show was taped. With that kind of access and introduction, a world opened up for me. That was big!
I met Bette Davis backstage at City Center as she was becoming nervous before going on stage — not as the actress, but as herself. I felt compelled to talk to her and make her feel less nervous. I introduced myself, and her eyes lit up when she heard my name. I could see the name meant a lot to her, and she began telling me about her first husband, whose middle name was Oscar. She continued to relate the story that when the Oscar (the award for actors) was being talked about and the sculpture was shown to her for the first time, she noticed the back cheeks of this beautiful sculpture and cried out, “Just like my Oscar’s ass!” That’s why they named the award Oscar! Telling me this story put her in a different frame of mind. The performance and the telling of her story were animated, lively and a huge success.
I think meeting Elvis Presley was the most memorable for me. I was so in awe of him, and to tell you the truth, I never thought I would actually meet him. It happened almost by accident — or should I call it fate? While I was with The Tonight Show in Los Angeles, I was invited to go to Las Vegas to see the closing night performance of Barbra Streisand. I arrived a bit early to get a feel for the theater, and I happened to see Colonel Parker, Elvis’s lifelong manager in a seat. I went over to him, introduced myself and asked if there was any chance to photograph Elvis on his opening night. The colonel was kind of nonchalant, pointed to the exit door and said, “Young man, I don’t care who you work for or where you come from. Go through that door and you’ll see Elvis!” Sure enough, there was Elvis with his bodyguards — kind, generous and smiling! This is one of my most favorite shots.
What was it like to develop close relationships with stars like Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and the Kennedys?
I wouldn’t call my relationships with my favorite subjects very close. I strongly believe, at least for me, that a bit of distance creates a more magical and respectful relationship. The relationships were at least close enough that they knew my name and felt comfortable around me.
What trademark characteristic defines your work?
I think my gift is that I capture the moment — the moment when their eyes or their body language tell their stories.
How has covering celebrity culture changed over the years?
Unfortunately, not only covering the celebrity world has changed — everything has changed! I was so fortunate to start my career when I did in the fifties. Looking back now, it all seems so simple, and it really was. A telephone call using a dime, a meeting then sending a bouquet of flowers — it was so personal and harmless. No police tape, no circle of personal assistants, no PR people. Many times, I would make an appointment for a photo shoot just between the celebrity and me.
What are your thoughts on celebrity Instagram culture?
I really have no opinion about it.
What do you want your enduring legacy to be?
When I talk to young people at my photo exhibitions or in a bookshop signing my book, I’m always surprised by their knowledge and curiosity about the celebrities, their personalities and the timespan of when the photos were taken. I hope my images, files and journals will inspire people and preserve these for future generations.