Christopher Makos: The Artist’s Photographer

By:  Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra

Legendary photographer of the eighties New York scene, Christopher Makos trained with masters Andrew Warhol and Man Ray. His photographs, as well as his Polaroids, have an inner vision and a particular sense. His works are exhibited worldwide at the best art galleries. He has become a master, the best among the best.  

In this exclusive interview, a version of which first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA MagazineMakos opens his heart in a unique interview.

Q: Do you remember your interests as a child growing up in California?

A: I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts and I lived there when I was a child until I was thirteen, and then I moved with my mom to Southern Eastern California. I spent my formative years in California, as a young man person moving from boyhood to manhood. That was exciting, and then going to high school and getting a car, because in Los Angeles you have to have a car. I remember first discovering my sexuality in Los Angeles too, that was a very confusing time for me. I loved being in the warm weather though, and having a car and driving to Hollywood. This was also the first time that I smoked marijuana. After I graduated from high school, the first thing I wanted to do was leave and go back East. Somehow I didn’t feel like I was a Californian, so I ended up going to New York City and that’s where I met Andy Warhol and started getting into the New York art scene.

Q: How did your interest in photography start?

A: I remember I was dating the actor Anthony Perkins and for my birthday he gave me a camera and that’s basically how I started. My first paid and published pictures came from Jan Wenner at Rolling Stone Magazine.

Q: There was any defining moment when you realized that your passion for photography could become a job to earn your living?

A: I always realized that if I wanted to take pictures, I had to make money out of it. It was expensive at the time, because you had to buy film and get it developed. Today, it is very different. If you want to be a photographer it is much simpler, because everything is digital. You can get a cheap camera, take pictures and process them at home on a computer. My motivation to be a photographer was much deeper than it is for most young people today. I realized that I had to figure out how to make money doing it, because if I couldn’t make money doing it, I couldn’t be a photographer.

Q: I’d say that your photographic work is somehow a visual manifesto of a specific time. When you take a picture, would you say that you want to document a specific moment or do you believe that every picture is always a lie or at least, a way of beautifying reality?

A: My pictures are more about being there in the moment and they don’t really lie, they are telling my truth at that moment. Pictures do lie of course, especially when you look at pictures in today’s world because people manufacture things and they change things and all that, but all of my pictures tell my own story. My pictures are more about a sort of dialogue that I am having with myself and the outside world around me. They are an auto-biography of my life: what I am doing, where I have been, how I live my life, who I meet and the people who I surrounded myself with.

Q: Which artists or photographers do you identify with, in the way they approach and understand photography?

A: I would say I identify more with photographers of the past like Man Ray, because not only did he take pictures, but he also enjoyed painting and drawing. I like artists and photographers that use the camera as a vehicle to express themselves in all kinds of different ways and not just necessarily through photography and social media as it is today. There are some contemporary photographers I love too, like what Paul Solberg does, he is the other half of The Hilton Brothers.

Q: One of my favorites is your portrait of Man Ray. Many people mistakenly claim that you were his apprentice, when in fact your time together was brief. Was there any conversation or intervention with Man Ray that had an impact on the way you see your life and work?

A: When I describe all of that and I talk to people, they say “Oh, you studied with Man Ray?”. Yes… well, I mean some people need four years to study, they think about a formal education at school… For me, I met someone for a few hours or 24 hours and I can learn a lot because I know how to absorb information. It is the same when I say that I studied architecture in Paris, I mean I walked around and looked at all the buildings. You don’t need to go to school to study something, you could come to New York City for one week and study the city, and look at all the buildings and people. You can get so much more from that real experience than you can by only looking at a book or having someone talk to you about it.

Q: What motivated you and Paul Solberg to start working together as the artistic duo The Hilton Brothers?

A: We both have the same mindset. I have been collaborating with other people my entire life; whether Andy Warhol or Calvin Klein, etc. When you are a writer you have to do it completely by yourself, you have to sit alone and write or type. For me, I was looking to find someone that speaks the same language as me, then explore that relationship and see how far we can go with our dialogue. Paul is one of those people that is easy to be around, easy to travel with, is good for bouncing ideas off and working together. Also the most interesting part of a collaboration for most people is the end result. While I am always proud of the end result, what I really enjoy is the process of creating. It is not about the destination, is about the journey. For me the journey to getting to the end is the most interesting part of all of this.

Q: I know that you are close to Calvin Klein. I’d like to ask you if you think that in the past there was a more genuine relation between the art world and the fashion world. I have the feeling that the collaborations between fashion and art today are more about corporate marketing than an honest exchange of creativity.

A: Yes, for sure. All the collaborations that you see today with these big companies, they are very over studied. I don’t want to criticize and say that they are not real or genuine, because I think once the collaboration begins, then they are real. But sometimes when you have so much money involved, it often corrupts the creative process… just because you have two big names and money, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Maybe the process for them was really great but they have to be aware that the final result may not be what they hoped for. Perhaps in the past, collaborations between figures in the art world and fashion world were more fun and real. My collaborations were not related to money or fame. I have to know the people I do collaborations with personally. Now for example, fashion brands need to be mixed with artists and music-rappers.

Q: You taught Andy how to use his camera. What would you say is the most valuable thing you learned from him over the 10 years you both were together?

A: The thing I learnt most from Andy is how to run a business. It was such a mutual exchange… I wouldn’t say opposite attract though. If you both do the same thing, you are not learning anything new. Andy was a very famous painter and I was an emerging photographer. It was important for me to be involved in the world of art. I learnt a lot from him and I he learned from me . He travelled a lot and I did too, so we ended up travelling together all the time.

Q: You were present in many events that happened in The Factory. However, you are not considered a Warhol acolyte or a member of The Factory. Could you please explain this point?

A: It was because I met Andy separately. I had a genuine friendship with Andy. I didn’t pursue his friendship. I met Andy in a Whitney Museum exhibition and he asked me to go to Kansas City, later we met in his studio ,and this is how we started collaborating. We were both very lucky to be friends and to collaborate together.

Q: Personalities like Lou Reed, John Cale, David Bowie or Debbie Harry have dedicated songs to Andy. As Andy’s close friend, what characteristicsdo you think make him interesting, even today?

Christopher Makos at the awarding of the Oscars (takes in his  Instagram  feed)

Christopher Makos at the awarding of the Oscars (takes in his Instagram feed)

A: Andy’s work was uniquely American. Many artists from the last century and from 1950s, or even before, were inspired by Europe. They looked at Europe, for their reference point. It was European art and architecture, etc., but Warhol and so many artists like Roy Lichtenstein looked around for inspiration in America… Andy’s references were Elvis Presley, the electric chair, the Coca Cola bottle, the Campbell’s soup cans. These things were so uniquely attributed to the American iconography, and their ubiquitous presence represented American power and influence around the world.

Q: What do you think about people being so obsessed with celebrity culture? How would you say the perception of fame has changed since the 70’s? I’d dare to say that nowadays, it is unusual to find authenticity in any celebrity.

A: It is sad to be obsessed celebrity. People have to stop putting people on such a pedestal. There’s an artificial world created by the managers as a means for making money. Actually, there’s no privacy. People are very accessible in NY, but in LA it is different… distance keep you separate there, while in NY you can approach people very easily at the same level and find out that most are authentic. NY is a big equalizer, LA is not quite the same. Consistency is what will make you famous. Just be who you are.

Q: Do you think that the underground scene still exists?

A: No. To have an underground you have to have situations that are kind of funky or poor or places where you have to have some kind of a movement. All major cities are rich now, there are no poor cities anymore, Madrid is a rich city, Barcelona is a rich city… you have to have poor neighborhoods where artists can go and have a club because onl those places are inexpensive to have a club. The only place maybe you can have an underground is on Internet, where anyone can see them, there people can get together, and the neighborhood on the Internet is free.