CC: The music scene was also a focus of yours. You've captured everyone from The Beatles to Kiss, Tina Turner to Elton John. Can you give us a couple of your most memorable shoots or any that surprised you?
Ulvis: I guess there were several situations photographing musicians that surprised me. In 1975, at a "Tommy" film premiere party in Beverly Hills, I approached the table of Paul McCartney and his wife Linda. The drummer for the group "The Who," Keith Moon and a member of the L.A. band "The Bluesbreakers" were sitting on each side of the famous couple. I hate flash, but I thought when else would I get a chance to photograph Paul and Linda in an intimate setting? I shot my first frame which got the attention of Linda. She scowled back at me in huge, full moon-like eyes at the intrusion. That was my second and last frame. Today, the two photographs together are marvelous. I've sold some signed and mounted black and white prints of the moment, but they have never been published.
In the early 1970's I went to the music club the Troubador regularly in West Hollywood. There one night was the first appearance in America of Elton John playing solo piano. I had no camera with me. But in 1978, he and Cher appeared at an awards show which I did photograph. My shot of the two of them together is a good photograph. But even better, while I was in Riga some years back, Elton did a one-night concert here. I had a friend present the photograph to him backstage and requested that he sign several other prints of the same shot. He did. And the president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga with her husband, and designer Santo Versache looked on. That moment was captured on film by the president's photographer! I have these images in my archives today.
I should also mention a more recent event which can steer us into my poker photography and my two books "Poker Face 1" (1981) and "Poker Face 2"(2006) I was invited to Las Vegas in 2005 for the filming of "Lucky You" with Drew Barrymore. In the time frame of the film 2003, I was at Binion's Horseshoe Casino photographing and selling some of my original, signed and mounted black and white photography from the early years of the WSOP. So the filmmakers needed my perspective on the exterior lobby from Benny's Bullpen, the poker room.
In 1973, I photographed John Drew Barrymore and his girlfriend, Ildiko. John, in flowing long, silver hair, was fascinating to watch doing a bit part of acting in an episode of David Carradine's "Kung-Fu" TV series. In John's role as a Scottish sculptor was so dynamic in its improvisation, the crew applauded the performance at its conclusion. I talked to John and Ildiko off the set, and he agreed to wander around with me on the back-lot of the studio for some photographs. It was an amazing experience. John spontaneously tied himself in knots, like a Houdini, for a number of shots. And a memorable frame is of John sitting on a fence like a crow on a wire. It's one of my favorite images. We stayed in touch and I got to know this eccentric, some thought crazy Barrymore, a bit more at follow-up photo adventures in Hollywood.
What I didn't know was Ildiko was pregnant with Drew at the time, and that this girl would from childhood grow up to be one of Hollywood's premiere actresses. And three decades later on the poker film set of "Lucky You" at the Horseshoe, I presented Drew with my favorite photograph of her dad. I was a little apprehensive because the photograph of John is a bit "edgy" and I knew John had abandoned Drew as a baby. Thankfully, I didn't know that her dad had died a few months earlier, and that Drew was on the cover of People magazine that very week telling the abuse she suffered around John as a child.
I gave Drew the framed photograph. I wasn't prepared for the emotion she expressed when she saw it. A big hug later, she said she would put it up in the living room of her new house. A happy ending for the both of us.
CC: And to the poker world. How did you become introduced to poker?
Ulvis: I first heard about the WSOP at the Horseshoe in 1977. Since I was living in Los Angeles at the time, it was easy to drive to Las Vegas. I decided to stay for the entire month of May, and credit for the hospitality goes to Jack Binion. The Binion's picked up the tab for a nearby hotel and meals at the Horseshoe. There is no one from the press or poker player who will not say these were the best years.
As a photographer, I was able to hover around the poker tables and players for hours waiting for just the right moments. It was a delicate situation to be next to someone's arm pit as they shoved several hundred thousand dollars "all-in." But my photographs of Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, "Sailor" Roberts," Amarillo Slim" Preston, Bobby Baldwin, and many others look so good because I had this freedom to pick my locations in the poker room. Also there were many spontaneous cash games that I could photograph discreetly in available light. The TV crews from CBS and I had a mutual dance of respect in relatively small spaces. It all worked. Of course, there were not the crowds of poker players or spectators on the rail you see today.
Smoking cigarettes during the game also gave many of my poker faces an added bit of character. Benny, the founder of the game, would hold court with his buddies in the Sombrero Room, a Mexican restaurant. My photographs the following year found a small audience of potential clients. My shots of winners were also prominently on the walls of the Horseshoe, courtesy of Jack.
CC: How did Poker Face come about?
Ulvis: I was already quoted in Al Alvarez's great book "The Biggest Game in Town" (and my writer in "Poker Face 2," two decades later) that my first encounters with photography print sales were a bit awkward. For a small 8X10 black and white print I was charging $75.00. It was difficult to make change for a poker player in a hurry with a $100 bill and a huge wad of only hundreds held together by a rubber band. In 1978, I bumped up my price to $100 and everyone was happy. Today, the same images, I sell for up to $1,000. And each is still printed in a traditional darkroom. I'm from the "old school" and no technology break thru will change that.
I published "Poker Face" in 1981 with the black and white images I had taken every year starting in 1977. It was the size of a vinyl music album and I sold it at the WSOP in 1982. In a hardcover with "slipsleeve" edition, signed and numbered to 500, it was priced at $125.00. I understand, today if you can find a copy, it sells on EBay for up to 2K. I donated my last copy to the Janis Rozenthal Art School, here in Riga along with 350 other fine art photography books I had collected over almost four decades. I figure it's better for the next generation of photographers to have access to these books than to have them sitting on my shelf at home.
Continued in Part III - View Part I