"W Magazine" - August 2001
Tate Gallery by Julie L. Belcove
Walter Chappell photographed Sharon Tate in Big Sur 37 years ago. The portrait series has never before been published, but it still astounds today.
One photo is cropped close, revealing a large eye rimmed in thick liquid liner gazing out from a mass of tangled, teased blond hair. In another shot, sunlight floods the room, kissing the blonde's reedy body and delicate features and setting a vase of dandelions aglow In yet another picture, the woman, dressed in a caftan, is seen from the other side of a window, her palms pressed together over her head in a quasi-Eastern-meditative pose. The images are pure Sixties. For its aesthetic value alone, the series, shot by a photographer named Walter Chappell over the course of two or three days in Big Sur, California, in 1964 and never before published, is a rare find.
But look more closely. The stunning blonde is Sharon Tate. Now the photographs take on a power of a different dimension, for if any photograph captures a single moment in time, these freeze Tate as she has already been frozen by fate: The archetypal tragic heroine who will be forever young, forever on the cusp of stardom. Would we be mesmerized by these photos if Tate were alive and well and living in the Hollywood Hills, a long retired B-movie starlet pushing 60 and going on her third facelift? Quite frankly, no. For what defines Tate as an icon is her death. And not just the fact of it—that she died young and beautiful and eight months pregnant—but the very brutality of it, that she was stabbed repeatedly by members of Charles Manson's "Family" on a rampage that terrorized Hollywood in the summer of ‘69.
In September Chappell's photographs of Tate will be exhibited for the first time, as the inaugural show of the Roth Horowitz Anderson gallery on Melrose Place in Los Angeles. Dealer Andrew Roth has been determined to put the work on display since he met Chappell more than two years ago. Chappell was a onetime student of Minor White, who founded the photography journal Aperture. Though known and respected by other photographers, Chappell worked in relative obscurity for most of his life, which came to an end after 75 years last summer.
Roth was interested in Chappell's work, and the photographer Adam Fuss, a mutual friend, offered to make an introduction. The two flew to New Mexico in July of 1999 and drove to Chappell's remote homestead. Fuss had warned Roth about the elder photographer's unusual lifestyle, but the dealer was startled nonetheless when Chappell greeted them completely naked. "He was a very tall guy," recalls Roth. "He had long white hair, like an old hippie. The flesh was just sort of hanging on his skeleton—he was at that age. And he had a big, sort of woman's butt, kind of funny, and the only thing he wore were these cock rings, and little slippers when he went out into the woods."
Linda Piedra, Chappell's companion of the last several years and a fellow nudist, says in a telephone conversation that he loved being without clothes from the time he was a child but that it was during his stint in the Army, when he was placed in solitary confinement at the age of 19, naked, with only a blanket, that he discovered "the altered states of consciousness that are possible to achieve directly through the skin."
The altered states Chappell sought were natural, not chemically induced. A resolute hippie, he preferred meditation, during which he frequently made self-portraits in, as Piedra delicately puts it, "varying states of his lingam." (One photo, Father and Son, 1962, shows a seated Chappell nude, erect and holding his toddler child. The picture was confiscated in California and again in Maine and made the subject of obscenity trials, both of which prosecutors lost. Another photograph from the same period is a close-up of his wife's vagina just after childbirth.) When Chappell lived in environments that were not conducive to nudity, such as Rochester, New York, where he served as curator of the George Eastman House for a brief time, he wore clothes. But during winter, Piedra says, "every morning Walter would take off his clothes and dive into the snow and have a snow bath."
For four days Roth, Fuss, Chappell and Piedra looked through the photographer's archives. All but a few dozen of his negatives and prints made prior to 1961 were destroyed in a fire that year. Still, Roth was easily able to put together a show of Chappell's vintage prints for his Upper East Side gallery, Roth Horowitz, which ran last year. (Though a European collector bought several of the Chappells, Roth calls the works "hard sells.") Toward the end of his visit, Roth asked if there was anything else left to see. "I turned to Walter," Piedra recalls, "and said, ‘Well, there are the pictures of Sharon. Would it be all right?'"
"I guess so," was Chappell's reply.
For 35 years Chappell had guarded his photographs of Tate as if he were protecting Tate herself. The two, photographer and subject, had formed a bond in Big Sur in 1964, which for Chappell outlasted Tate's death. Instead of cashing in on the public fascination with her gruesome demise, he put the photos in a box and showed them to almost no one.
Despite Chappell's obvious unease with the commercial world, the photographs were taken for purely commercial reasons. To pay the bills, Chappell occasionally accepted assignments in Hollywood. He made early head shots (circa 1968) of Harrison Ford and photographed Dennis Hopper while he was editing Easy Rider In 1964 he was working as a still photographer on the set of The Sandpiper, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Tate, then 21, had an uncredited, bit part, and the movie's producer, Martin Ransohoff, who had signed her to a contract and was determined to make her a star, hired Chappell to shoot a publicity portfolio for her. (Ransohoff, reached in Beverly Hills, says he does not recall the details of the deal.)
Tate had won her first beauty contest at the age of six months. An Army brat, she had finished high school in Verona, Italy, where she was hired as an extra on the set of Barabbas. Even amid the masses in the swords-and-sandals movie, her jaw-dropping beauty stood out. Soon the actors, including Jack Palance, became rivals in her pursuit. The actor Richard Beymer, who made another movie in Verona, gave her his agent's card, and when her family moved to San Pedro, California, at the end of 1961, she used it. Tate made one commercial for cigars, another for Chevrolet.
Eventually, she came to see Ransohoff, then the powerful head of Filmways Inc. "She was just absolutely gorgeous," Ransohoff gushes. One look at these pictures, and it's easy to believe him—but how many equally beautiful girls, prom queens and cheerleaders all, have come and gone in Hollywood?
When Tate arrived for her shoot with Chappell, they made an instant connection, according to Piedra, who, though not around at the time, is the repository for all things Chappell. "It was very immediate," says Piedra, her voice gentle and serene. "Something about her, from what Walter said, was tender and sweet. He had an immediate response of love and even concern for her. In making those pictures, they established a rapport she'd never had with a photographer before. He even got her to take off her clothes." (She isn't certain whether Chappell, too, removed his clothes.) Chappell thought the pictures revealed not just her surface beauty, but "evidence of deeper qualities in her."
"My sense is that Walter loved her—not an erotic love, but a gentle, lasting love," adds Piedra, who shared his belief in the teachings of a philosopher and spiritual leader named Gurdjieff. "We all have a connection together because we all inhabit the earth together."
After the photographs were made, Ransohoff demanded that Chappell turn over the chromes, or negatives, Piedra says. Chappell refused. Possibly in anger, Ransohoff never used the photos, extraordinary as they are. Chappell made just three editions of the full portfolio, says Roth: One for the film company, another that is now in the possession of Roman Polanski and the one that will be on view at Roth Horowitz Anderson. (The photographs will be priced from $5,000 to $15,000 for individual prints and $70,000 to $90,000 for a single portfolio of 14 images.)
In the five years that followed the Big Sur shoot, Tate met Polanski when he cast her—bowing to pressure from executive producer Ransohoff—in The Fearless Vampire Killers. Reported hostility between director and star quickly turned to passion, and in 1968 the couple married. Tate wore a mini. Despite her indisputable beauty, her career never really did take off, though Valley of the Dolls did well at the box office in 1967. Around that time, Ransohoff recalls, she asked to be released from her contract. "She told me she really wanted to have kids and didn't want to continue her movie career," he says, having obliged her request.
Piedra is not certain how closely Chappell and Tate kept in touch, but at least two pieces of correspondence survive: a letter Tate wrote in November 1964 asking for some prints, and his response, which ended, "I hope you are lovelier than ever, as you have every possibility always to be." In February 1969, shortly after Tate learned she was pregnant, she called Chappell and asked him to photograph her again. "She very much wanted to show her happiness with her life and this baby she was carrying," Piedra says. "She wanted pictures to mark this particular passage in her life."
Chappell obliged, but there's not much to the photographs. Roth puts the onus on Tate. "It's like she's turning into a star, and she's posing," he says. "She's controlling how she wants to be seen, so he couldn't make good pictures."
Within a few days of her murder, Hollywood was rereleasing her movies. The myth-making machine had been fired up.
Thirty-two years later, after much wrestling with the issue, Chappell's six children and other survivors, including Piedra, agreed to let Roth exhibit and sell the photos. Roth admits Chappell never would have sold them. "What it represents to some degree is letting go," says Piedra, who considers the work "a physical vestige of Walter."
"Whatever took place between Walter and Sharon Tate," she adds, "and whatever remorse or sadness he felt after Sharon's death, those facts have been purified through death."
Note: Some of the above photos are not in the actual W magazine but are known photographs taken by Chappell.
Additional Note: Do not use any images without permission from Chappell's children. They now own the rights to these. (So No Ebay copying!)
There is a blog claiming that Sharon's voice was dubbed in Eye of the Devil ??? I thought she had a voice coach on this and did it herself?
Polanski now at his chalet:
A full profile of Roman Polanski: