Julian Wasser, resident photographer of LA’s icons, dies at 89

Julian Wasser raised the saying “right place, right time” to an art form. As a photographer for Time magazine in Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s, he knew what to do with his luck.

Wasser, 89, died of natural causes on February 8, according to his daughter Alexi Celine Wasser, leaving behind a legacy of historically important images created through a combination of timing, cleverness and personal charisma. He was something of a legend for his sleek, stylish looks and hard-nosed wit that appealed to celebrities, musicians, and artists. And he himself became something of a celebrity with his infamous 1963 staged picture of the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp Playing chess with the completely naked writer Eva Babetz at the Pasadena Art Museum. This image inspired last year’s KCET documentary, “Duchamp is coming to Pasadena.”

For the record:

4:16 p.m. Feb 12, 2023A previous version of this story included a caption citing Linda McCartney’s first name as Stella.

Babitz’s sister Mirandi BabitzHe, who remained a close friend of Wasser, recalled that he was “really smart and funny and very, very connected to everything, so he was like a good addition to the scene.” He was always obviously and inappropriately flirtatious with everyone, but that didn’t particularly bother me. When shooting, he switched to this other mode and was just absolutely professional.”

A photo of (from left, seated) Linda and Paul McCartney, Greg Allman, Cher, Bob Dylan and (standing) Sara Dylan at an LA party for Rod Stewart by Zelig-like photographer Julian Wasser.

(Julian Wasser / From the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica)

Driving to Jobs in his black Mustang convertible, Wasser had a gift for getting up close and personal with even the most distant of personalities. A look at his website julianwasser.com reveals what appear to be informal photos of young people Paul McCartney and Elton John, Hugh Hefner Roller skating with playmates Joan Didion posing in front of her Corvette Stingray. He photographed Robert F. Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel just before he was shot and asked by Roman Polanski to document it Cielo drive Scene of the Manson murders. How many chances can a man get?

Craig Krull represents Wasser’s work in his gallery and has known him well for more than 20 years. “Everything in his photos and in his conversation was pretty direct and to the point,” Krull said. “He wasn’t concerned with nuances. I think that kind of unabashed factual directness is evident in his work. He didn’t embellish anything. You get a lot of social context in your work that makes it more vital rather than just making it an image.”

In a 2014 monograph of his work, The Way We Were, published by Damiani, Wasser wrote, “Whether I’m photographing beautiful people or doing social documentaries, my intention as a photographer has never changed: to be where things are happening, to help people meet who were responsible for the world we live in and to evoke through my images in the viewer what I saw and felt at the moment I pressed the shutter button.”

People line up at Whiskey a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in 1964

Whiskey a Go-Go on Sunset Strip, 1964, the year it opened.

(Julian Wasser / From the Craig Krull Gallery, Sana Monica)

With his Nikon in tow, Wasser used his considerable gift to cajole, cajole and delight his subjects. His photographs of even the most exalted celebrities show this vitality. He treated them like friends, once brought Zubin Mehtathen director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to which Whiskey a Go Go. “I thought he’d enjoy it,” Wasser said to W Magazine. “He hated it, ‘Oh, my ears.'”

He was born on April 26, 1933 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to lawyer Leo Wasser and schoolteacher Frances (Roth) Wasser. He was raised in the Bronx before attending the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC

Even as a little boy, Wasser filmed small news programs there. He remembered later“Every night I got out my bedroom window and stole my dad’s car when I was 12 and took pictures and they were on the front page of the Washington Post. My father would say, ‘Look, there’s another Julian Wasser in Washington.’ I said, ‘Yes, dad.’”

His idol was the energetic one Weegee, notorious for his ruthless photographs of crime scenes. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, Wasser decided to focus on photojournalism for magazines. After graduating in 1956, he decided to enlist in the Navy in the face of draft orders and was assigned to a photographic reconnaissance unit in San Diego. He learned aerial photography and served in post-war Japan. However, his frequent visits to LA led him to settle in the city, which became his home after he left the service in 1961. “The glamor of old Hollywood was still intact, but at the same time everyone was accessible,” he wrote his monograph. “There were no reserved VIP areas in clubs, no bodyguards or security guards, no hordes of paparazzi.”

Julian Wasser in 2022 sits and signs a print of his famous photo of Marcel Duchamp and a naked Eve Babitz playing chess.

Julian Wasser in 2022 sits and signs a print of his famous photo of Marcel Duchamp and a naked Eve Babitz playing chess. Standing with him from left: John Weldon, Craig Krull and Robert Berman.

(From the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica)

Wasser continued to be active in LA throughout the ’80s and ’90s, working freelance for LA in mind and other TV shows as well as magazines. He also settled down Leslie Knauer, singer of the rock bands Promises and Precious Metal. In addition to his daughter Alexi, a writer and actress in New York, he is survived by a son, James Wasser, from a previous relationship.

Wasser continued to spend time in Paris and Berlin as Getty brought his images back into the public eye through his 2011 initiative Pacific Standard Time. His images of the LA counterculture, particularly the photography of Duchamp and Babitz, have been widely exhibited and published. He’s been celebrated for capturing a special time in the city – and he’s been as forthright about his happiness as he is about his work. “Everything you may have heard about life in Los Angeles in the early ’60s,” he insisted, “is really true.”

Drohojowska-Philp is a journalist, art critic, and author of Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s.

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