Written by Samuel Anderson
Hollywood could be considered a kind of real-life Neverland in which half the population suffers from arrested development and wrinkles don’t exist. Celebrity photographer Matthew Rolston spent the first part of his 40-year career capturing that Neverland’s most famous inhabitants—even befriending ultimate Neverland-ian Michael Jackson—and heightening them in stylized, high-gloss portraits.
But to look at the photos of Rolston’s new exhibit, “Hollywood Royale: Out of the School of Los Angeles,” comprised of portraits taken between the late ’70s and early ’90s for magazines like Interview and Harper’s Bazaar, is to realize that even in tinsel town, time slowly but surely crawls on. While many ran in major fashion magazines, his Old Hollywood-inspired snapshots have the look of forgotten negatives, casting everyone from Jackson to Drew Barrymore in the glow-y, whimsical light of youth.
In explaining his unique style—defined by dramatic chiaroscuro and humorous set-ups—Rolston cites the work of Golden Age studio portraitists like George Hurell and Laszlo Willinger, whom he discovered under rather humorless circumstances: the doctors office run by his grandfather, an internist who catered to the stars. “He was a well-known doctor here in L.A. whose private patients were all Metro Goldwyn Mayer stars in the ’30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” Rolston explains. “In those days if you had a client like that, they would gift you an elaborate, framed print of themselves. I was fascinated by all these photos of famous people on his walls. You could say my first real introduction to the entertainment world.”
As a student at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, Rolston was gimlet-eyed and precocious, juggling schoolwork and professional assignments. His big break came while visiting his brother Dean, the late gallerist behind 56 Bleecker Gallery, in New York. Frequenting spots like Studio 54, Rolston rubbed shoulders with editors of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, who asked if he would shoot a young Steven Spielberg last minute upon returning to L.A. “I think I turned that in as an assignment for one of my classes,” recalls Rolston. Shortly after, Rolston quit school to pursue photography full time, fomenting the ‘80s portraiture revival along with then-emerging photogs Annie Liebowitz, Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel.
Distinguishing Rolston’s career are several “firsts.” In 1986, he became the first photographer to cross-dress Madonna, and to compare her to proto-drag king Marlene Dietrich. “It was a sort of groundbreaking photo. And I think she picked up on that when she made the Vogue video with David Fincher,” he says, referring to the singer’s ode to Old Hollywood four years later.
He was also the first to anoint the King of Pop. After the pair became friends at Jackson’s first Interview cover shoot, Jackson asked Rolston to photograph him in full regalia. “This was many years before Elizabeth Taylor called him ‘the King,’” says Rolston. “He just called me up and said, ‘Matthew. I want you to dress me up like a king.’”
As the industry evolved, Rolston pivoted from celebrity subjects to less mainstream actors—namely, the tableaux vivant or “living picture” performers of Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters, the subject of Rolston’s other current solo exhibition at L.A.’s Ralph Pucci gallery. And while his celebrity photos may evoke nostalgia, Rolston doesn’t wax poetic on his early career. “I came up in the time before Hollywood stylists and publicists,” he says. “[These] moments are small but significant moments and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”