"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It was Hollywood, 1958. Roman film goddess Sophia Loren had just breezed into town hoping to conquer America. One night, the actress was fêted at the swanky restaurant Romanoff’s. Her unlikely dinner companion was Jayne Mansfield, the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe. A roving photographer named Joe Shere swooped by their table and took a shot of the pair.
In the resulting photo, Mansfield smiles up at the camera while Sophia Loren is captured staring at Mansfield’s Grand Canyon dicolleti as if there are poisonous snakes down there. Australian-born photographer Daniela Federici created an homage to that shot using model Anna Nicole Smith (as Mansfield) and New York City DJ Sky Nellor (as Loren). This picture represents Federici’s aesthetic in a nutshell — Italian neorealist cinema circa 1950/1960s meets Hollywood glamour. Federici’s sexy photographs are as self-referential as any Godard film from the 1960s, which makes sense since Federici digs the French Nouvell Vague as well.
She, herself, went to Australian film school in the 1980s, before abandoning movies to conquer America with commercial photography. The Australian’s first success was the 1992 Guess Jeans campaign featuring Federici’s retro-gangster images of Anna Nicole Smith (“gangster” as in Paul Muni in Scarface (1933), as opposed to gangsta rap). Since those days, Federici has shot women like Heidi Klum and Cindy Crawford and Catherine Zeta-Jones for clients such as La Perla and Fra Angelico and Nike. She has collected these images in a new book, “8 1/2,” the title being a reference to the number of years she’s worked in the United States as well as an homage to the famous Frederico Fellini film of the same name.
It’s Saturday night and I’m having drinks with Ms. Federici in New York (where we both live) in a downtown nightclub called Fez. It’s still early so we have most of the joint to ourselves. Federici is slender enough, dressed in jeans and unbuttoned open pullover with her long dark hair pulled back. She’s just gotten off a flight from Los Angeles and has had only three hours sleep. In the morning, she plans to fly to London where she’s doing a Reebok campaign shoot and a lingerie commercial, as well as shooting a celebrity.
“Who?” I ask. “Who’s the celebrity?”
She frowns. “I can’t remember.” Jet lag gives the woman a look of lazy dishevelment — she’s simultaneously provocative and innocent, a little more Mary Magdalene than Joan of Arc.
She orders an Absolut with Rose’s Lime Juice and soda, saying, “It’s really light. It’s very Australian. It’s quite hot there and I don’t drink beer.” She talks very quickly, moving from subjects such as drinking wine in Capri to how she was brought up with food — “I love eating!” — to the poverty of Australian cuisine and to how aghast her Italian-born chef father became when Australians came into his espresso bar ordering “spaghetti bolognese, half a meat pie with ketchup, and a cappuccino all at once.” Talking with Federici is both exhilarating and exhausting. She talks a mile a minute from subject to subject. She goes on to say, “I’m a sixth-generation Australian on my mother’s side — first generation Italian. I went to photography and film school. I was lucky when I was in third year in college, I was already shooting for prominent magazines.”
David Bowman: So how did the mock Sophia Loren/Jayne Mansfield photo come about?
Daniela Federici: We shot in Jayne Mansfield’s actual house — it was owned by Englebert Humperdinck, and still had her pink shag carpet and heart-shaped pool. [Pause.] That original photo of her and Sophia Loren was wonderful. Those dresses back then — a woman’s nipples were just tucked under. Like when Marilyn Monroe sang for the president — her dress was just sewn on to her. It was just her nude body underneath. [Pause.] You know I used to live in the Jim Goldstein house in L.A. There was an older guy there. He was very wealthy and very nice. I could never figure him out — older guy, loves women. One day I saw some proof-sheet photos of Jayne Mansfield with this young handsome man. “That’s me,” he said. “I used to go out with Jayne Mansfield.” I love all that connection to old Hollywood.
Bowman: So you’ve shot photos of every supermodel there is. Let’s talk about the concept of sexiness. Is sexiness constant even though it seems to superficially change from decade to decade?
Federici: There are differences. There is sexiness which is put everything out there. It’s like Anna [Nicole Smith]. She’s bodacious. She has her breasts out there. She has this come-hither blonde retro look. I think sexy is about beautiful necks and lovely arms and gestures. It is that internal thing that comes through. Sexy women are quite confident, and still gracious and quite lovely. I’m not a big fan of that Pamela Anderson look. I think that’s a bit gross. I think she herself is lovely, but the projection that is put out there — I love when she was photographed by Jane magazine just looking natural. She looked pretty good. [Pause.] What is sexy? I don’t know any more. It’s pretty easy for a woman to put on a tight dress and get big hair. That’s what the masses think is sexy.
Bowman: Do your advertising clients ever dictate to you what sexy is supposed to be?
Federici: No. I try to always keep the women elegant and more sensual. There’s nothing overtly sexy. Probably Anna was the sexiest thing I did, and I started to get typecast so I did different things. I met a lot of actresses who don’t have these bodies that are so great. It’s the way they dress and the way they are shot. I think it is their inner happiness and vitality which is sexy. And not getting bitter and jaded.
Bowman: What about men?
Federici: My favorite man is Marcello Mastroianni. My dad comes from that postwar era. My dad came to Australia in ’56. That was a time in Italy when a lot of Europeans emigrated to Australia. My mum studied architecture and loved neorealist films from late 1950s. During the late 1950s, Italian design and architecture were fantastic. I used to watch Marcello Mastroianni films and Monica Vitti. Sophia Loren not so much. But Antonioni. Plus Fellini’s “8 1/2.” I love that surreal look. That kooky ’60s feel. All my college work was inspired by that. My favorite man has always been Marcello Mastroianni. I wrote a film treatment called “Searching for Marcello” — how to find romance by searching for Marcello. It’s a comedy. His ghost comes and visits [the female protagonist]. I saw him in person at Cannes six years ago when he sat in front of me — which was one of the highlights of my life. I think he died four years ago. [Mastroianni died in December 1996.] He has such a wonderful childlike sensibility. He was such a lovely man. There is something so endearing. Even when he is a scoundrel we like him. I think Fellini and him were a fantastic mix. I don’t love Fellini’s later films. I think they got indulgent when he based them on his dreams. I think “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2″ are great. I love [Antonioni's] “La Notte,” which is Mastroianni, real stylized. The bourgeois being really bored and not knowing what to do with themselves.
Bowman: Who is Mastroianni’s replacement?
Federici: No one. Marcello is so cool without being cool. There’s something really unassuming and humble. He’s quite generous. His spirit is quite generous.
Bowman: How influential is the gay aesthetic to images of male beauty?
Federici: Very influential in advertising. Like Calvin Klein — it’s all about built-up pecks. Women like that, too. Boys running around semi-naked.
Bowman: I’m a man who buys things like suits, but I never respond to a fashion ad if the model is some 22-year-old kid.
Federici: Those fashions are selling to 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds. Those ads are inspirational to them. They want to have those bodies so they can get the girls. I don’t know if I want to continue in advertising and dealing with images where people feel imperfect if they don’t look like this.
Bowman: So what are supermodels really like?
Federici: I started when it was Naomi and Christy. And Cindy Crawford — who moves so beautifully and is so professional. I think Christy [Turlington] is so unaffected and so a generous spirit to everyone. Gisele [Bundchen] is delightful. She’s hysterical. The girls now are so much more down-to-earth. Gisele sort of brought on the supermodels — all the girls in George Michael videos. So it was Linda [Evangelista], Naomi, Christy, Cindy. They camped it up and acted like divas because it was expected. I think Linda said, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000.” I think actresses have become supermodels now. Actresses doing campaigns. Look at Gwyneth Paltrow and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They’re all doing campaigns. People aspire to be actresses more than models.
Bowman: How much of each shot is a collaboration between you and the model? How much is them? How much is you?
Federici: I storyboard everything. I tell them how to stand. Is that what you mean? It’s all set up. None of my fashion work is spontaneous. It’s all contrived. I think fashion is contrived. No one looks like that. You’re selling an image and a product. It’s kind of scary that so many people are going in for cosmetic surgery in the United States. All the botox and surgery and stuff. You have to understand, all these [models and actresses] have been being wearing makeup for hours. The photos are printed and retouched. People are always telling me, “She doesn’t look so good.” Of course “she” doesn’t. No one could. It’s make-believe. It’s all just a big makeup game.
Bowman: The professional life span of most actresses is so short.
Federici: I love a lot of Joan Crawford films, and Bette Davis. They took it upon themselves to play young girls. And then bitchy wives. Hollywood dictates that you have to be beautiful and you have to be young. But so many producers are women. I’m amazed that there aren’t more interesting roles. [Pause.] I love [the photos of Richard] Avdeon. He is a genius. Even when he did a portrait, he caught something vulnerable about people. I try to create this fantasy world. I love those old Hollywood movies. When I was 5 years old I had scarlet fever and I used to watch all those old Ginger Rodgers/Fred Astaire movies. That’s what got me hooked in this world where everything is glamorous and beautiful. It’s happy. No one looks like that.
Bowman: It’s almost like the Elizabethan era when men and women went around wearing theatrical makeup.
Federici: Understand in that era they didn’t wash that much, so they had to wear all that perfume to cover their stench. And the wigs — they had lice in their hair.
Bowman: Now breast surgery is this era’s theatrical gesture.
Federici: In Brazil, they have reductions. In Brazil it’s small breasts and big bottoms.
Bowman: You haven’t been surgically …?
Federici: No. I’ve always been big hips and big boobs. I eat. I’m not skinny. I like a little belly on a woman. Once you get older you can look a little gaunt. [Pause.] But models and actress have to protect themselves. Actresses have to stay so slim to get the roles. It is an industry of beautiful people. Models are their bodies. It’s their career. I’m a photographer and have to take care of my eyes.
Bowman: Have you done many nudes?
Federici: Not a lot. So much has already been done. I’d like to do them differently. I’d love to go to Utah with all those rock formations and contrast them with the texture of skins. [Pause.] I did a lot nudes when I was in college — my dancer friends. I’ve done so many [photos of] pregnant actresses for friends. I did Catherine Zeta-Jones. Mimi Rogers. I think women get kind of cocky and look sweet when they’re pregnant. I do it for private for them.
Bowman: Who was the first pregnant naked actress, Demi Moore? Nude pregnancy has really permutated our culture. I see pregnant women on the streets with bare midriffs all the time. I grew up in 1960s suburbia where pregnancy was considered ugly and something to hide.
Federici: It was never like that in Australia or Europe. Women get this lovely glow when they are pregnant. But America’s got a weird value system — no offense. About nudity too. They have the biggest porno industry in the world, yet they are weird about women showing their breasts on a beach. In Brazil they wear the tiniest bikinis but they always cover the breasts. I think modesty is quite sweet. [With my pregnancy photos] I’m just trying to capture their lovely glow. All the women I’ve shot are quite sexy.
Bowman: Are “pregnancy vanity nudes” a whole sub-industry?
Federici: Well, if I was pregnant, it would be quite nice to have a portrait, I think its quite lovely to have a big belly before the baby is there.
Bowman: You have any plans for motherhood?
Federici: I’d love to. [Pause.] I broke up with someone about three years ago. I go out a bit, but nothing serious. I’d like to find someone but … I’m just playing it by ear. [Pause.] I have seven godchildren. I’ve become Auntie Mame. Take them off to the zoo. Take them off to the museum.
Bowman: When you take a picture of a movie star do they have final approval?
Federici: Years ago when I started out, they wouldn’t even have release forms. Now every shoot is a 10-page contract.
Bowman: How did the book come about?
Federici: Editions Stemmle approached me. They basically wanted me to do a retrospective of celebrities. I said “No. I’m too young. I haven’t done that much.” Then I went to my archives and pulled stuff and I had so much. If you saw the list of people I’ve shot! I tried to choose stuff that was classic and timeless, like in 10 years if you saw the photo you would cringe and say, “Oh that’s too faddish. The hairstyle too much of one period.” I tried to choose stuff that was romantic and elegant.
Bowman: Is there anything you’d rather do than take photographs of supermodels?
Federici: It would be nice to take piano lessons. Or take tap dance. I danced when I was a child. I’d like to do things for my own pleasure. It’s a little harrowing. I’m on a plane twice a week. I would like to have my own house. I love gardening. I haven’t had an animal in 15 years. Or a plant. Life is about not thinking about what you don’t have, just appreciating what you do. I have an amazing life. I come from a middle-class family and I’ve been able to live this incredible lifestyle and travel all around the world. No complaints. It gets a little bit lonely, that’s all. As I said, don’t think about what you don’t have — just what you do have. And be grateful. [Pause.] Otherwise you’ll be very sad. [She laughs.]
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)