CC: Where are you from?
Ulvis: I was born in Riga, Latvia in 1942. When it was clear the Russian occupation of Latvia and the other two Baltic States of Estonia and Lithuania was imminent in 1944, my family fled to Ravensburg, Germany on the last boat out. We became stateless and homeless and lived in a "displaced person's camp" for four years while searching for a country that would take us. My sister, Maira, was born in Germany.
CC: How did you make your way to the United States?
Ulvis: My father was a fine arts painter. He sent samples of his work to America looking for a "sponsor" that would house us for a short period of time till we could get on our feet. In 1949, we found someone in the Pacific Northwest and took a ship to New York and a train to Seattle. By that time, I spoke not only Latvian but also German. I had a "Beatles style" haircut and German leather shorts. In my first grade class, I was promptly sent home to get a haircut and dress properly in white t-shirt and blue jeans. My parents spoke Latvian and struggled to learn English. Afraid of being called a "foreigner," I tagged along several feet behind them whenever we were out in public places. My mother scrubbed floors to earn a living and my father eventually renewed his architecture diploma from Latvia. His oil, watercolor, and pastel paintings were impressionistic and reflected his Latvian roots. He worked in his home studio in Tacoma, Washington with Mario Lanza singing opera at full volume and drinking vermouth. His paintings he gave largely to Latvian friends and organizations and his "renderings" for commercial architectural projects were our main source of income for the family. My mother, Mirdza, opened a small two-chair beauty shop in the corner of our house. He died much too young in 1974, and never saw a free Latvia. My mother died eight years ago. My sister lives with her two children in West Seattle. Today, I divide my time now between a small house at Haven Lake Washington, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, and an apartment in Riga.
CC: How did you get started in photography?
Ulvis: My father gave me a $100 Pentax camera with a 50mm lens. My first photographs were in the streets of Seattle in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I photographed Bob Dylan at a Seattle concert in 1966. I photographed Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead at an outdoor "free" concert two years after the band was formed. But mainly my first claim to fame was to photograph Jimi Hendrix backstage at a "Welcome Home Jimi" concert in Seattle after he became famous in London. That was 1968. I didn't own a flash so many of the frames were seriously underexposed.
I admit I didn't take any of these early photographs too seriously: a few frames on Dylan, a roll of black and white film on the Dead, a couple of rolls on Hendrix. In fact, almost 70% of the Hendrix negatives I burned in my fireplace. I clipped out 24 frames and set them aside in my archives. How could I know years later, Paul Allen (Co-founder of Microsoft) would build the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle and my Hendrix photographs would have a huge value? Allen was a fan of Hendrix and a garage band musician. Hendrix was born in Seattle and is buried in Renton just a few miles away. After Paul helped Jimi's stepsister, Janie get back all the music rights and all other rights, her "Experience Hendrix" company has earned millions of dollars. And I found myself in the middle with the only exclusive photographs of Janie and Jimi, eyeing each other affectionately and dad, Al nearby. Both Paul's people from the multi-million dollar museum side and Janie from her newly acquired wealth and power status wanted the "rights" to my photographs. Many months later I sold the "rights" to the Museum. It bought me a new Honda Accord and I got lucky and acquired the license plates AREUEXP (ARE YOU EXPERIENCED) Jimi's first album!
CC: Independent filmmaking is a big business now with many avenues to distribute work, but in 1971 it must have been a very different experience. What is the American Film Institute, and what was your experience there like?
Ulvis: Independent filmmaking in the early 1970's was called "underground filmmaking" at the time. There were filmmaker co-ops in San Francisco and New York that distributed these films for midnight showings at theatres. Many of the films were quite controversial in their content, and numerous visual artists built reputations on their short films. "Light shows" along with music concerts were the events of the day.
Andy Warhol was an independent filmmaker at the time along with running his infamous "The Factory" in New York. Two films that come to mind were "Empire", a 24 hour study of the Empire State Building and "Sleep" an uninterrupted look at a man sleeping. I met Andy briefly in Hollywood and photographed him at one of his feature film premieres "Heat" starring Sylvia Miles.
I didn't have any money, so almost all of my films were short. I shot in 16mm on my wind-up Bolex camera. The joy back then was to edit and sync a soundtrack to a film. It sounds absurd today with a sound video camera owned by almost everyone, but it was a hard job back then. Apparently, someone at the American Film Institute liked my work enough to invite me to be an "auditor" at the Beverly Hills estate. Only a dozen or so filmmakers were fellowship residents. I remember director David Lynch, wandering around in a straw hat while working on "Eraserhead" his first film which took about three years to complete and is now a cult classic. "The Elephant Man" solidified his career and was his second film. I just hung out, and worked on a number of fellow films as cinematographer, art director and still photographer.
CC: Some of your best known subjects are Hollywood celebrities in the 1970's. How did you move into this area?
Ulvis: I had planned on returning to Seattle, but Hollywood doors opened up a bit with my still camera as a "visit card." I stayed on for some seventeen years and photographed many of the actors and celebrities of the 1970's and the first half of the 1980's. My criteria for photographing the "stars" was to visit their house for the shoot. I even remember my first night in Hollywood, I stayed overnight at Peter Fonda's small production house. And his "Easy Rider" had just been released. It doesn't get any better than that for a kid from Seattle. I went on to photograph dozens of prominent celebrities. Some were for magazine assignments others because I just happen to be there or wanted to meet them.
CC: Who are some of your favorite subjects?
Ulvis: In 1978, I tagged along with an Australian journalist and he interviewed and I photographed almost all of the people involved in "Superman," from the creators, to the TV series (minus, of course George Reeves) to Christopher Reeve. Chris was one of the best people I met. My photograph of him healthy and strong on the edge of a swimming pool in Beverly Hills is a favorite.
Another was Peter Sellers, at an outdoor party to premiere "The Pink Panther" I gave Peter one of my Nikons and we both merrily danced and photographed each other. I should also include, Groucho Marx who I photographed at home in Beverly Hills. Grouch died soon after and my great shot of him in bed with his shoes on and feeding the goldfish at a pool near the Beverly Hills Hotel are classics. But I learned a new lesson with the Groucho photographs. In 1977, another celebrity died. "The King" - Elvis Presley died, and I could not sell my Groucho photographs to anyone. Finally, "Paris-Match" bought my Groucho in bed shot and ran it across two pages as a lead photograph in a 12 page tribute to the Marx Brothers. At this moment, after all these years, I am scanning the best and most interesting images from the Hollywood years and my musicians series here in Riga, Latvia for a forthcoming book due out before the end of this year.
Continued in Part II