By Bill Dobbins
Back in the 1980s, there were three celebrity photographers in Los Angeles who were colleagues, collaborators and friends: Herb Ritts, Greg Gorman and Matthew Rolston. “Although we were technically competitors,” Rolston explains, “our styles and areas of interest were different enough that this wasn’t really an issue. So there was no problem with our being good friends.”
Along with these friends Rolston was a member of an influential group of photographers (including Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz and Steven Meisel) to emerge from the 1980’s magazine scene. Rolston’s early photographs from this era are notable for their distinctive and glamorous lighting style, surrealistic tableaux, and detail-rich sets. His imagery has helped define the contemporary aesthetics of American portrait photography and truly embodies modern glamour.
Rolston and his LA colleagues helped to further the culture of Hollywood glamour, a movement designated The School of Los Angeles by art director and author Charles Churchward.
Matthew Rolston is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA – and remains an energetic supporter of that institution. But he recalls that he had already started photographic commissions even while he was still at the school. “Actually,” he says, “some of the class assignments I handed in were from editorial work I had done.”
At Art Center, the emphasis was on the use of view cameras, so Rolston was well schooled in traditional photography and darkroom techniques. He continued to use large format equipment through much of his career. Nowadays, he has fully embraced digital photography, relying primarily on Phase One cameras. “I don’t care if I never see another piece of film again in my life,” he says with a laugh.
Rolston is a student of the history of photography and images of the great photographers of the past continue to inform his work. He points out that the tradition of glamour photography of movie stars and celebrities gave way in the 1950s to a more informal, lifestyle approach. But his career started at a time when there was a rebirth of interest in glamour, activated to a degree by the work of artists and photographers like Andy Warhol and Helmut Newton.
“If you look back to the 20s and 30s,” says Rolston, “movie stars were portrayed in photos as highly glamorous, almost gods and goddesses. Larger than life. I particularly admire the work of Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, whose images are the epitome of classic glamour photography.”
In the 1980s there was a revival of interest in glamour photography and Rolston was at the forefront of that movement.
“I’m not the creator of the ‘80s glamour revival,” Rolston explains, “although I’m a part of it. It was really started by three men: Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton, and George Hurrell.
“There’s a kind of figure-eight relationship between these three. Both Andy and Helmut were responsible, in different ways, for putting the original and greatest Hollywood glamour photographer, George Hurrell, back into play in the late 1970s. The next generation of LA-based photographers, such as myself, Herb Ritts, Greg Gorman, Firooz Zahedi, and many others, were influenced by this move.”
From the beginning, Matthew Rolston’s work became associated with Hollywood glamour, celebrities and movie stars. But with his knowledge of the photographic work of the past, he describes his approach to photography as “post modernist” – the appropriation, recycling of past styles and themes in a modern-day context. Post modernism also involved removal of the barrier between fine and high arts and low art and popular culture. This is an attitude he shared with Andy Warhol, publisher of the magazine Interview – and shooting photos for Interview helped kick-start Rolston’s career.
Warhol himself was an enthusiastic advocate of appropriation and ignored the distinctions between high art and contemporary culture. He was also hugely interested in the idea of celebrity, movie stars and popular culture in general, all of which also became areas of interest for Matthew Rolston as well.
Rolston has had one of the major photographic careers in the recent past. In addition to editorial and commercial work, his photographs have also been exhibited at museums and institutions. Selected group shows include Beauty CULTure (with Lauren Greenfield, Herb Ritts, Andres Serrano, and Carrie Mae Weems, 2011), The Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles, California; The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion (curated by Mark Francis and Margery King), The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1997); and Fashion and Surrealism, FIT Gallery, New York, 1987 (traveled to the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK, 1988). His photographs are in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery (Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at The Smithsonian, Washington D.C.).
Four monographs have been published of Rolston’s work. Big Pictures, A Book of Photographs (1991) is a collection of early photographs (introduction by Tim Burton) published by Bullfinch Press, New York; beautyLIGHT, Pictures at a Magazine (2008) is a survey of twenty years of Rolston’s celebrity portrait photographs, published by teNeues, Germany; and Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits (2012) a fine art series, published by Pointed Leaf Press, New York.
Rolston’s latest book and gallery exhibition is a retrospective of his photos from 1977 to 1993. Edited by long-time Los Angeles–based gallerist and curator David Fahey, this project, HOLLYWOOD ROYALE: Out of the School of Los Angeles — which includes Rolston’s fourth monograph, as well as a traveling exhibition — presents an array of portraits that beautifully and succinctly capture the decade and its myriad talents. From Michael Jackson and Madonna, to Prince, George Michael and Cyndi Lauper, the selection of images reflects a seamless blend of style and imagination.
The project features over one hundred photographs selected from Rolston’s extensive body of work, centering on his portraits of the era’s most famous personalities. The book includes essays by authors Pat Hackett, Andy Warhol’s longtime collaborator and diarist; Colin Westerbeck, noted photographic curator and expert on legendary American photographer Irving Penn; and Charles Churchward, longtime design director of both Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines and author of The Golden Hour, a definitive biography of photographer Herb Ritts.
Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles, paints a memorable picture of an indelible imagemaker and the film stars, models, and artists he immortalized during the 1980s.
In 1998, Rolston endowed the “Matthew Rolston Scholarship for Photography and Film,” at Art Center College of Design. He remains actively involved in this program, as a mentor and guest lecturer.
Matthew Rolston has continued to form lasting relationships with celebrities and magazines, such as his long association with Oprah Winfrey. Rolston has had the unique distinction of photographing Oprah for more than 40 covers of O, The Oprah Magazine. Rolston has shot Oprah for her magazine more than any other photographer.
Matthew Rolston is also a filmmaker who works in video. Known for his distinctive lighting techniques, Rolston has helmed award-winning music videos for artists as diverse as Madonna, Janet Jackson, Beyoncé Knowles and even Marilyn Manson, as well as both print and television campaigns for a wide variety of internationally recognized brands including Campari, Bacardi, L’Oreal, Revlon, Esteé Lauder, Clairol, Pantene, Elizabeth Arden, Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren and Burberry.
“I want to point out that the photographs from Hollywood Royale represent the work I was making at that point in my career,” says Rolston. “My more recent photographs embody a somewhat different approach and style.”
For example, Rolston’s exhibition and book Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits is comprised of monumental color portraits of dummies chosen from a collection of nearly seven hundred ventriloquial figures (dating from 1820 – 1980) housed at the tiny Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
This exhibition created a sensation in the art and design worlds. The book was selected for many top ten art book lists and received favorable reviews from such outlets as the New York Times, Vogue, CNN, CBS, ARTnews and many others. The monumentally scaled ‘portraits’ of ventriloquist dummies drew comparisons to the works of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn when the work was exhibited at Diane Rosenstein Fine Art in Los Angeles.
More recently, Matthew Rolston has mounted an exhibition of his groundbreaking series, Art People: The Pageant Portraits, that furthers his investigations into the nature of portraiture and the methods by which society and the human condition are mediated through artwork and art creation. This exhibition, comprised of emotionally-intimate portraits of participants in “Pageant of the Masters”, an annual arts festival held in Laguna Beach, California, features dramatically-scaled color prints; one installation alone is over thirty feet wide.
Another new series of photographic experiments by Matthew Rolston, dramatic portraits of the mummies housed in the Capuchin Catacombs of Sicily, is called Vanitas: The Palermo Portraits. This project has not yet been published or exhibited but represents Rolston’s continuing evolution as a photographer and increasingly wide-ranging areas of interest.
Responding to ever changing client needs, in 2012 Rolston established a new production unit he calls ‘R-ROLL’. Its mission is to provide his clients with behind-the-scenes documentaries of his photo, film and creative direction assignments. According to Rolston, “It’s clear to me that there’s an overwhelming demand for filmed content, as clients expand their reach beyond traditional media.”
Rolston’s representatives for his commercial photography work include Michelle Sack of foureleven, New York and Kathrin Hohberg, Munich. In the areas of environmental and product design as well as creative direction and brand creation, he is represented by Culture + Commerce, New York. Rolston’s fine art photography is represented by the Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, and Camera Work Photogalerie, Berlin. Rolston’s touring fine art shows are represented by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, and ECHO INTERNATIONAL, Paris.
Matthew Rolston’s website is Matthew Rolston Creative, Inc.
Rolston’s production offices are locatedin Beverly Hills, California. He continues to divide his professional time between photography, filmmaking and creative direction, traveling frequently between Los Angeles and New York City. Rolston resides in Beverly Hills.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: