Gary James' Interview With
Artist / Painter / Photographer
He photographed Michael Jackson for the "Thriller" album. In fact, it doesn't end there. Michael Jackson is actually wearing his suit! That's right, the white suit belonged to the photographer, Mr. Dick Zimmerman.
Mr. Zimmerman talked with us about that photo shoot, how he got started in the business, who he's met along the way, and his career as an artist and painter.
Q - Mr. Zimmerman, when you were just seven years old, you were painting portraits of people or were you taking photos?
A - I started as a painter at seven. I financed my way through my education. I had this idea which worked very well for me. Not at seven. (laughs) When I got into college and art school and all that, I financed my way through by cutting out these little wedding announcements from the New York Times, little black and white photographs. I would do these paintings on speculation. First, I'd contact the groom. If he wasn't interested, I would contact the bride. If she wasn't interested, I'd go to the parents. I sold every one back then. I paid my way, ten years of study actually, while I was painting.
Q - What were you studying in college?
A - My first school was Parsons School Of Design and of course I was studying painting basically, painting and drawing. Then I transferred over to Julliard's. This is Manhattan. All Manhattan. I studied painting and drawing, photography, art direction, all of that. Then I got my Bachelor Of Arts at New York University, fourth year. Then after that I studied for five years at the Brooklyn Museum with two of the best portrait artists at the time, the Soyer Brothers. Then after that I left and studied in Paris. It totaled ten years of study.
Q - Did you really need ten years of study? You were already talented. What could they teach you that you didn't already know?
A - (laughs) You have to realize that when you're studying painting, you're always getting better and you can always be picking up things from other artists. These two people that I learned more from, the Soyer brothers, I didn't think five years was too much because at the same time, you're not just learning, you're painting. So, you're applying your craft while you're learning and also I was selling my portraits at the time. I was making commissions all over Manhattan. So, it was not like I was just studying.
Q - Were your parents into the Arts at all?
A - My father was very heavily into poetry and Classical music. Very educated. He was the one who basically turned me on to the Arts. When I was five years old he took me to all the museums he could take me to. The Metropolitan Museum was the first museum he took me to. He would take me about once a month to the museum and we'd spend a whole day. What's interesting in retrospect is the first painting I was turned on to was a huge painting by Salvador Dali. It was a Crucifixion. Later on, when I got a little older, I would go to the museum and stare at this piece. I was mesmerized by if for some reason. I didn't know why. So, we go back to 1973 and I'm commissioned by Salvador Dali to do his 50th wedding anniversary portrait. So, here I am spending five days with Dali. It's interesting how these things happen.
Q - Did you tell him you used to stare at his painting?
A - Sure.
Q - What did he say about that?
A - (laughs) Well, speaking to Dali is not exactly like speaking to somebody like I'm speaking to you. The answer doesn't really come out the same way. It comes out in symbols. I don't actually remember the exact words, but obviously he was excited. He had a very heavy Spanish accent. He also was a little bit difficult to understand.
Q - It must've been very exciting for you to meet Dali.
A - It was tremendously exciting for me. It was the most exciting five days of my life.
Q - How did you get this reputation as a celebrity photographer?
A - I started painting. You put on canvas what you're copying, and for the most part I was copying photographs of others or I was copying photographs of my own. Somebody would commission me of course. I'd go to their home and take photographs, but I realized at a certain point that my basics in photography were not really there. I wanted my paintings to be a little more mysterious, more depth, the lighting better, a lot of aspects, even wanting to learn how to get more out of subjects. I painted exactly what I got on my film. I had some friends who were photographers and I hung out with them and watched them do some shoots. It looked fairly simple. Once I learned how to operate some equipment, I started shooting. I got to a point, and this was in London by the way, where I was getting really good at it and I got myself an agent there. I thought this is fun. I'll take a little breather from some of my commissions and get into photography. I was getting jobs and just stayed with it. As the jobs started rolling in, I couldn't really get away from it. I was making pretty good money. I worked a really interesting deal with Conde Nast in London. Before I left for London, I was working in New York. While I was painting, I was hired because I had done graphics, by seven magazines in a short career of I would say seven years, of art directing magazines. I was the youngest Art Director of McColl's magazine. When I started to study photography, I started to moonlight in New York. I used my friend's studio, a pretty well known photographer, to do some commissions, some jobs. They started to roll in a little bit. So I would take long lunches. Because I was art directing the magazines, I couldn't have my name on the photographs. I actually published them in McColl's magazine. So I used my name backwards on my photographs and then I left for London and I started to get a lot of work in London, as well as studying painting in Paris at the museum.
Q - Was it important for you to go to London? Is that how you furthered your career?
A - In 1968 in New York, photography went into a really dull period. Advertising before that was very creative, amazingly creative, the most creative time for photography was in the '60s. In the late '60s it became very dull. It was very product oriented, where they would just show a photograph of an apple. It wasn't really exciting, but London was happening. So I said I'm going to go to London for a year and do photography and so some painting. I loved London. I ended up staying six years. I loved Paris. I was working there as well. It was great. A very creative time for me.
Q - Who was the first celebrity you photographed in London?
A - I think it was David Bowie.
Q - That's pretty good!
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you meet anybody in The Stones or The Beatles?
A - Yeah. I just happened to bump into Mick Jagger, who had an office right across the street from Conde Nest, where I was working. When I went to London I was contacted by Conde Nest and asked if I would re-design their brides magazines. They had British Brides, British Vogue. So I took that gig on. I said "I'll only do it if I can publish sixteen pages of fashions of mine." They agreed. I was doing that and right across the street was The Rolling Stones' offices. It was called Hanover Square. That was the location. I bumped into Jagger. He was coming down his steps. I just happened to be walking across there. I actually, literally bumped into him, which was really strange. We got to talking and he said "What are you doing?" I said "I'm across the street. I'm an Art Director." He said "Oh, you're an art director. Would you mind if you take a few minutes out and give me your opinion on something?" So I said "Sure. What?" He took me up to the offices and spread all over the floor about, I'm guessing, fifty album covers of "Sticky Fingers". One of their best albums, if not the best. He asked my opinion on which cover I liked best. This is one when they had the fly, the zippered fly.
Q - The Andy Warhol design.
A - Yeah. I chose that one out of the fifty. I wasn't the only one who chose it, obviously. He was getting opinions of the other people I guess. All the Stones were there at the time. We got to talking and one thing led to another. They were going to San Tropez for awhile and asked me if I would come over and do some photographs, spend a few days, and do some photographs, which I did. That was, I guessing, 1972. I know the Stones pretty well. Mick Taylor was in the group at the time. I got friendly with Mick. And also Jagger. I got to know him pretty well. Those were the days when they were pretty heavy into drugs and those were the days when I had stopped taking drugs.
Q - What drugs were they taking?
A - Well, I don't want to mention what they were taking. They're still performing. It was no secret they were into drugs at the time.
Q - Bumping into Jagger and having him ask your opinion on an album cover and then asking you to take some photos of the band, that kind of thing wouldn't happen today.
A - That didn't just happen. He contacted me. When I told him I was working across the street, designing this magazine, and I was also publishing sixteen pages of fashion in a magazine every month, he saw that and called me. So, it didn't happen that particular day. He's a very interesting guy. My first impression of him was what a business guy he was, as opposed to a performer. You'd never even know it was the same person. He was behind his desk up there. He just talked like a business man. He didn't talk like a Rock guy. He was very, very straight. He's the glue that kept the Stones together all these years.
Q - And not Keith Richards?
A - I think it was Mick mainly. When I met them for the first time when I was selecting the album cover, they were all there, but Mick was the only one that I saw that had an office, really. All the other guys were just kind of standing around. Maybe they did have offices there, but he never gave me a tour of the office. I mean really small. If it was five hundred square feet I'd be surprised.
Q - Did you meet The Beatles?
A - My best friend was the hairdresser for The Beatles. His name was Leslie Cavendish. He's doing tours now about his association with The Beatles. He started on the Magical Mystery Tour with them. He created the new hairstyles for them when they went from the mop tops to the look they had on say "Sgt. Pepper". Actually he styled them based on his hairstyle. That's the way he wore his hair. The first one he did I think was Lennon and then the others kind of wanted him. Then they started doing their own things. After they broke up, he was still doing McCartney's hair on a steady basis. He brought me over one or two times to McCartney's house. I met Paul and hung out there for a little while.
Q - Who was the first celebrity you ever photographed?
A - Barbra Walters in New York in 1966.
Q - Is it important that you like the person you're photographing?
A - I don't do anymore commercial photography. For the last twenty-one years I've been doing painting only. And of course when I do a commission for a celebrity, a painting, I have to first photograph them. So, I'm still doing photography, but I'm not doing commercial photography anymore. So, I don't want to promote myself as a photographer per se.
Q - So, we should promote you as an artist?
A - Yes, Artist / Painter / Photographer.
Q - Back to the original question, is it important that you like the person who you are photographing?
A - No, not at all. I've photographed many people I've dis-liked. If you're going to be a commercial photographer and hired for shoots, you do it. There are times when I've actually thrown celebrities out of my studio for various reasons. The main reason was I didn't want to photograph anybody that was taking drugs. The way I operate, the way I deal with people and communicate to people that I'm photographing is I really need the person to be cognizant. So, that was very important to me. I can probably name some celebs I asked to leave. I can tell you one of them was The Pointer Sisters. Billy Idol was another one.
Q - I would think Billy Idol would also be a businessman offstage. The Pointer Sisters? That's a surprise!
A - In those days, nothing was a surprise to me. The height of my career as a photographer was in the '80s. I started doing photography in Los Angeles in 1975 and left L.A. in '91, but I kept my studio there and continued to go back and forth while I was painting. I started painting again full-time in '91. But I still went back to L.A. doing various photography. I kept that studio for twenty-seven years.
Q - You photographed Michael Jackson.
A - Right. I worked with Michael three times, back in the '80s. The first session was "Thriller" in '82. Then I did, for Spielberg, the album cover of his ET story. Michael narrated his ET story. You can find that album online. A big poster inside is my photograph as well. I had worked many times with Priscilla Presley. The first time I photographed Priscilla was like the mid '80s somewhere. Lisa was a young girl and so she knew me for all those years. When she married Michael, Michael knew me. I had worked twice before with him. Lisa knew me through her mother. So, they asked me if I would do the exclusive wedding portraits of them. If you look back at that time, there was not one photograph released back then. They wanted me to do it because they also wanted to work a deal where some of the proceeds went to Michael's children's hospital. A certain percentage I would keep. They wanted me to take the photographs and sell them all over the world, exclusive rights. No photographs were out there of the two of them. I made an exclusive deal with thirty-four countries for those exclusive rights. Back then, I can give you an idea of what the magazines were paying; not as much as they pay now for those big releases of photographs. But The Esquire, that magazine in Europe, gave me a check for $100,000 just to publish five photographs.
Q - There's more money in photography than I realized!
A - The deals in thirty-four countries came to about $2,000,000 for a week's negotiation. I don't remember the exact figures. I just read something where Beyonce, the magazine was offering $5,000,000 for first photos. I don't remember the magazine. Things have changed now. Celebrities are a major issue now. But back then, $100,000 was a pretty good check from The Esquire magazine.
Q - Am I to understand that Michael Jackson was talking to you about all his frustrations while you were photographing him?
A - Not while I photographed him. While I was photographing him, he was very subdued, very tuned in to how he wanted to present himself. But I did spend a lot of time talking to him outside of the three photo sessions we had. My best time and the most intimate time I spent with Michael was the night I delivered, or, not delivered, but went up to meet him and show him the photographs and go over them with him. It was just me and Michael until three o'clock in the morning, just talking about life over a bottle of wine. It was a very intimate time.
Q - Can you talk to me about what frustrations he might have had?
A - Two months ago, (November 2011) I went on the Dr. Drew Show. They wanted to interview me about Michael and the trial. I basically wound up defending Michael on that show. They tried to cut me off on that show. I was very adamant that I wanted to mention that the media was basically what killed Michael. If I go back in retrospect when Michael spoke to me, one of the things that really bothered him was the fact that he had just finished an interview with Diane Sawyer. He took her for a tour around Neverland. He spoke very candidly to her. He was very honest. He poured his heart out. The media, the next day, kind of twisted it around as much as they could. One of the things he said to me, and he actually had tears in his eyes, "I just don't know what to do anymore or what to say. They'll just twist everything around." Basically what I said on Dr. Drew was I was pretty pissed off at the media because in my opinion they killed Michael. The guy didn't know what to do anymore. One thing led to another and he started taking drugs to handle his life and the drugs escalated and finally killed him. That was his major frustration. The other frustration in his life which was very big was the future generation. He was really very concerned with the environment and what the planet was coming to with perhaps nuclear war. He was concerned with the deterioration of the ozone situation, which he felt the truth was being held from the public. He was concerned with drugs for the kids like crazy. He was really pissed off about that. His big desire was to build a protective children's hospital where they didn't give drugs to children, they'd give them alternative medicine. So, that's what he wanted to build. So what I'm currently doing is designing a website on funding Michael Jackson's hospital. I did two basic paintings for Michael. When he died, I did a tribute painting, which is a montage that incorporates my three photo sessions with Michael and then I re-painted the "Thriller" album. I turned the "Thriller" album into a painting. I'm going to be selling those on this website world-wide. I'm selling posters. I'm selling hand-signed prints on water color paper, in limited amounts. A large percentage of the monies that come in for that is a separate account that's going for Michael's hospital.
Q - Latoya Jackson appears on Dr. Drew's show. Dr. Drew maintains that Michael was an addict. In those last few days of his life, Michael Jackson was looking for something to give him some sleep. That's not an addict. He just wanted a good night's sleep.
A - You're totally right. Think about it this way and this is what I said on the show. Think about the average person in show business. Show business is an enormous amount of pressure. Then multiply that by maybe ten and you're Michael Jackson and you're creating a show, a world-wide tour show and you're creating every aspect of it. You're there all day rehearsing. You're organizing and you're a businessman as well. How do you sleep at night? How can you turn off and sleep at night? Plus, you've got the media you're trying to handle. How can you sleep? It's almost impossible to turn off. Just take your own life and you get a little stress. How can you turn it off?
Q - I always believed that Michael should have had his family more closely involved in the business of Michael Jackson.
A - Well, you don't know what Michael was personally going through with his family. You have no idea. It could've been pretty chaotic. Who knows? You gotta realize that anything Michael created, he controlled. How do you control things if you have other people trying to help you control? Then you have to listen to other people's advice. You don't know people's motivations. I don't listen to anybody else when I create a painting. I don't want anybody to say I think you should do that or that. There's no way. When I do a painting, no one even sees it until it's finished. But think of how his life could have been. So yeah, I agree with you 100%. He was not an addict. He needed to sleep.
Q - You said about Michael, "His problem was that he had too many bodyguards around him. Too many people pushing him in all different directions with ulterior motives."
A - Yeah. That's exactly what I noticed when I did the photo session with Michael and Lisa that day that was done up in Donald Trump's suite in Manhattan at Trump Tower. There were in the apartment I would say maybe six heavy duty bodyguards. I must tell you, they weren't the nicest guys in the world. As a matter of fact, they were very difficult to even speak to.
Q - I would ask, who hired those bodyguards, Michael Jackson?
A - Yeah, Michael probably personally hired them.
Q - Which to me means he had control of his life! And he could've changed those bodyguards if he had wanted to.
A - You don't know the motivation behind anybody working for somebody like Michael. You don't know if their motivation was to make a lot of money. You don't know the amount of love that's involved or dedication. Mostly I imagine these people wanted to make money and be associated with this dynamic personality.
Q - Dr. Conrad Murray is a good example of that.
A - Yeah. Exactly. If you go back to a guy like Elvis, I'm good friends with this Country recording artist, T.G. Sheppard. He's one of my good buddies. He was working with Elvis through that whole time and he told me how many leeches used to be around Elvis constantly and I'm sure it was the same with Michael. It's not a normal situation to be able to judge anybody associated with anybody as dynamic as that, their motivation. You can't imagine whether the loyalty comes in to the picture or not.
Q - Michael Jackson would probably be at the top of the list of people you have ever associated with, wouldn't he?
A - I would say so. My second one would be Salvador Dali. Salvador Dali was not known by everyone, but in my stature it was almost like being involved with somebody like Rembrandt. If I had to pick the two, I was awed mostly by Dali. I was raised on him. He was a legend when I met him. Michael was a legend too. When I originally met Michael for the "Thriller" cover, he wasn't a legend at that time.
Q - At that point, he'd had "Off The Wall" and along with his brothers had sold 100 million records.
A - Yeah. But he wasn't a superstar. He was a big star, but it wasn't anywhere near when he died. When "Thriller" was released, Michael was able to walk around and be a regular guy. I bumped into him, I guess two months after "Thriller" was released, as we were going to a particular restaurant, a health food restaurant. Michael was standing in line just like everybody else. When he was a super, super superstar, he couldn't stand in that line anymore.
Q - The white suit that Michael Jackson is wearing on the cover of "Thriller" is your suit. And you sold that suit?
A - I got $27,000 for it. It was auctioned on Sotheby's. That was probably the biggest mistake of my life. I recently found out the black and red jacket he wore in the "Thriller" video sold for $1.8 million dollars or $2.8 million dollars. One of those two. The reason I auctioned off the jacket at the time is that I had it encased in plastic, hanging on my wall for a number of years. I was going out of town quite often and my wife would be home alone. It occurred to me one day that I moved into this big house with a hundred ways to break in, French doors all over the place. In retrospect, if I looked at it, I probably should have put it in storage somewhere. But you've got to realize when I sold it maybe ten years ago (2002), Michael was alive and whoever thought of him dying? They weren't getting big prices back then. I got $27,000 back then. People thought that was pretty good, "you got pretty good money for it." But it wasn't really. Stuff wasn't really selling for that high of a price back then.
Q - Who bought the suit?
A - His (Michael Jackson's) attorney bought it.
Q - John Brown?
A - Yeah. I have a feeling he bought it on Michael's advice. I think Michael really wanted the suit. Right now it's in the Grammy Museum. They purchased it.
Q - What do you think that suit is worth today?
A - If I were to have that suit today, I could probably get $5,000,000 for it.
Q - I guess the lesson learned there is never loan your suits out to anybody.
A - (laughs) I guess that's one way to look at it. The other way is you never know what's going to happen in life