When I interviewed Julian Wasser last summer for my book The World According to Joan Didion, he couldn’t remember exactly how his iconic photos of the writer with her Corvette Stingray came about. He didn’t think it was his idea. “A woman like that, you don’t tell her what to do,” said the legendary photographer, who died Feb. 8. “I want to get her as she is. I want to get what she’s wearing.”
She was wearing a full-length long-sleeved dress that covered her from head to sandaled toe and of course, had a cigarette in her right hand. Images from the 1968 shoot were his most lucrative and among his most famous. “They’re the ones that sell the most. Every upwardly mobile young woman in Europe and America wants those pictures,” he told me over the phone.
As it happens, one will be on the cover of my book. I admit that I had mixed feelings about the predictability of this. But now, I see it as a tribute to Wasser, who gave me an insightful if prickly interview in July – I’m guessing it was one of his last. He was full of piss and vinegar, though I could tell his memory had faded somewhat. He understood and admired Didion, whom he photographed a couple of times. “She was very nice, lowkey. What I liked about her is she listened, she soaked it up like a sponge. She presented herself and I shot.”
When I reached him again in December, I could barely understand him. He got out a few words – “Call John Weldon” it sounded like – and hung up. Weldon told me Wasser had suffered a stroke. The Los Angeles Times reported he died of natural causes.
Wasser photographed a who’s who of politicians, musicians, actors, artists, etc., including Robert F. Kennedy the day he was shot. He is most famous for two shots: his image of Joan’s friend Eve Babitz, naked, playing chess with a clothed Marcel Duchamp, and Joan and her Stingray. The brainy nude, the Mennonite speed racer.
During the shoot for my author photo, photographer Jon Rou and I made our own joking homage to Julian’s legendary Joan. Needless to say, I don’t have nearly as cool of a car.