NK: So basically you went straight from the Navy to being a New York fashion photographer.
FL: I wasn’t very good at it. Penn and Avedon weren’t worried, and I knew both of them. But the models were fantastic, they had worked for all the great photographers and would help me out. There was this one scrawny girl, she was one of Avedon’s early models, and I kept booking her for jobs. I thought she was great, but I knew she would go out to dinner with millionaires and I was too shy to do anything about it. Years later her mother told me the girl said to her, “I know he likes me, why doesn’t he do something about it already!” Eventually, we got married, so it all worked out. We had a big wedding in New York in 1951, the guest list was all photographers and editors from fashion and magazines.
The first darkroom man I had there was a very serious man who was much older than I. After I had been there about a month he presented himself to me and said: “I’ve been making a survey of all your exposures and I find that they fall into different categories.” I said, “Yes, yes!?” he says “Yes, there is underexposure, overexposure, double exposure and no exposure at all!” He wasn’t with me for very long. I did not like his attitude. But at that time we hadn’t even gotten the first Weston exposure meter. Up until then you just had to know what the exposure was, and bracket to be safe. But this period taught me three important things: play it safe; treat your clients very well; and wear comfortable shoes at all costs.
NK: You moved back to The Bay at the end of the 40s and established your own studio. By that point you were shooting more than just fashion, you were doing editorial, food, travel, a little bit of everything.
FL: I have photographed everything except combat, and I don’t feel bad about that because I still have arms and legs. But I have aerials and underwaters, sports, did a million architectural things and interiors, like I did pretty good coverage of the old Fox movie theater before they replaced it, both interiors and exteriors.
NK: And this was the time period when you photographed the San Francisco work that has gotten so much attention recently. Even though we’re now viewing these images through the lens of “Art” a lot of this work was shot for commercial assignments, right?
FL: Exactly. I’d call New York and try to sell a story on San Francisco and there’d be young picture editors asking, “Well, what do you got out there?” “Oh, we’ve got cable cars and steep hills and fog and Chinatown and Herb Caen.” And they’d say, ok, I guess you can do a story for us. So I’d call Herb and say, “Ok Herb, we’ve got to do it again!” He was a staple.
Herb was marvelous, he’s someone I really miss. But, of course, he was one of a kind. He was one of the last really witty people that I knew in this town. I knew him all the time that he was in San Francisco. We weren’t really tight buddies like he was with some of his other friends but we were constantly in each other’s lives. And I liked going around with him because he knew everybody, which was marvelous. There were a number of people who loved to have fun along with doing real work, and he was one of them. We both had a taste for jazz, and there was a fantastic jazz scene in the Fillmore district at that time. The music was just terrific; the drinks were awful.