The Young American:
A conversation with Eric Stephen Jacobs
Roger Griffin • August 2018
Did you use the same studio for both of the photo sessions you did with Bowie for Young Americans?
Eric Stephen Jacobs: The Young Americans shoot was done at some movie studio sound stage in L.A. The second session with the flag was done in my studio in New York City on Central Park West in the Upper West Side a few months later.
David found me through a cover I did for pseudo gay nightlife entertainment magazine called After Dark who had sent me Toni Basil, who was his choreographer at the time, and David saw the cover photo and said ‘that's what I want for my next album cover’.
Cover photograph © Eric Stephen Jacobs 1974
I was in my studio one day and the phone rang and when I picked it up, the boy said “Is this Eric? This is David Bowie” and I said “Oh, come on, who's playing a joke on me?” he said “No, really it's David Bowie”. He actually called me himself – he didn't have his people call me, which I thought was a little unusual.
From what I’ve read, that seems to be the way he conducted business.
ESJ: He couldn't have been nicer. So he was on the Diamond Dogs tour in L.A. at the time and they flew me out there. And I got off the plane and they drove me immediately to this sound stage with all the strange equipment that I never used before. And there was this little 22 year-old green kid who didn't know anything, and was actually quite nervous and afraid to speak up. So we actually had no time to hang out and really discuss, or talk about the picture before the session. Had I had more balls then, I never would have let him wear that awful shirt in the picture.
What was the original colour of that shirt?
ESJ: It was pretty close to as I portrayed it in the hand coloured version. Horrible shirt.
Did you take some test Polaroids to show him first?
ESJ: I must have taken some Polaroids but I don't think – if they exist – I have them anymore.
Perhaps Bowie hung onto them.. he seems to have kept everything and put it in the archive, as you might have seen in the recent exhibition [David Bowie Is in New York].
ESJ: I don't even want to discuss that exhibition – my representation in it was so poor. The Young Americans cover wasn't even included anywhere in the exhibition.
That’s a terrible oversight. What about the jumpsuit session – was that in there?
ESJ: One large photograph – after you exited the exhibition and the gift shop – of him in the paratrooper outfit holding up a glass of milk. They did give me credit, but said the photo was shot in Philadelphia! Can you imagine – Philadelphia?! Then there was some video included – a video session he did with Herb Ritts – and behind David were huge blow ups of my flag photographs, and of course I was uncredited.
Can we go back to the soundstage in Los Angeles?
ESJ: Roger, it was large, cavernous and dark and, as I remember, very empty. The only things present were the lights, a table top and a stool, and that's about it. I think he did have his hair people – that was a guy named – Jesus, I can't remember his name – and I had a mad passionate affair with him. Shame on me… I remember – Jac Collelo.
He’s in the Cracked Actor documentary… Did David only want to shoot that pose or was there a backup idea?
ESJ: I think I did a few different set ups, some without the backlight. I've been looking for those proof sheets and negatives in my archives and haven't been able to locate them as yet.
Contact sheet from Young Americans photo session, August 1974.
© Eric Stephen Jacobs 1974
How long do you think the session lasted?
ESJ: I have no idea, but it wasn't as long as I would have liked. If only I had developed my style better in those early days as I had later on in my career, my approach to photographing him would have been very different.
How would you have done it?
ESJ: It's hard to say, however I realise we were going for an ‘old Hollywood’ look at the time and it was sort of a nostalgic type of thing, however I am not happy that I used all that backlighting. And again, I would have insisted he changed his shirt. I just would have approached it all differently – a different visual style. I would like to find the negs and revisit the images at this point and see what else I could do with them in Photoshop.
The airbrushing you did was magnificent.
ESJ: It actually wasn't airbrushing, it was an application with Q-tips of a translucent oil colour. And by the way, there was no smoke in the picture. I totally painted that in.
You made smoking look very glamorous! When did you show him the retouched version – was it back in New York?
ESJ: Yes, I did all the tinting in New York City – uptown on my Upper West Side studio at the time, and I actually brought it into MainMan and dropped it off. So I wasn't present when David first looked at it. I might have even sent it over by messenger – I really can't remember.
Knowing MainMan, they probably sent somebody over in a limousine to pick it up.
ESJ: Very possibly so! (laughs). David called me directly and said he loved it, and was definitely proud of it, and was using it on the cover.
Promotion for Young Americans album, March 1975
Cover photograph © Eric Stephen Jacobs
Is this what led him to commission the jumpsuit photos with the milk?
ESJ: I really can't remember, but I was hanging out with David in New York a bit and even went down to his place in Chelsea that he had at the time. I was very close with his right hand gal Corinne and I don't know how those photos came about, but I think David wanted to do something very American-looking as a promo for the Young Americans album. And regarding that session, I just wish I knew about lighting then what I know now, or later learned to know. I was just starting out, I was very green. But I have to say the Young Americans cover did put me on the map.
It certainly did, it was very eye-catching.
Did you ever see the movie The Man Who Fell To Earth?
ESJ: Yes, I have it on DVD.
Have you ever watched the record shop scene very closely?
ESJ: Haven't watched it in years but I will watch it again soon just to see.
Rip Torn is walking through what looks like Tower Records, and as he walks down the aisle, we see behind him a display of Young Americans covers, and there’s your photo. It’s a very post-modern moment.
ESJ: How cool is that? I can't believe I never noticed that before. Well, it has been years…
Still from The Man Who Fell To Earth with Rip Torn
Easy to miss in the cinema and easy to miss on the VHS tape. What do you recall of the jumpsuit photo session?
ESJ: I remember the shoot went well into the night. And of course, David had the best cocaine available and we indulged. And we spent most of the night discussing art history and British architecture – that was my major in school – and David seemed to know everything about everything. He was quite brilliant and knowledgeable. He’d arrived with some people, but I don't think they stuck around for the session. I do remember Corinne hanging around... but not for the actual photo shoot.
© Eric Stephen Jacobs 1975
Did the ideas start flowing once you were alone with him?
ESJ: Absolutely, but David had some pretty preset ideas about the session. The milk was his idea and I was not so crazy about but who was I to argue with David Bowie?
If I had to do it again I would have found a larger flag and had it hanging flat, not draped behind him. I guess I'm never satisfied. Or rarely.
Wish I had the foresight to wrap David in the American flag – although I believe that would have been a bit sacrilegious or unpatriotic or something like that.
I had totally forgotten about the photos of David under the newspaper using his shoes as a pillow – to represent the Depression years in the States – until that surfaced when they did that huge box set [Who Can I Be Now? 1974-1976] of him a few years ago that had a few of my photos in it.
The Gouster, part of the 2016 box set Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976]
Cover photograph © Eric Stephen Jacobs
Did his people get in contact with you for that?
ESJ: Yes they did, and they were the best people, and it was the best run company, and they paid me very well … and I actually had become very close friends with many of the MainMan guys. I'm still in touch with Tony Zanetta these days.
© Eric Stephen Jacobs 1975
Was the handcuffs David’s idea that he brought to the session?
ESJ: That actually was my idea and the handcuffs are actually my very own. They were the fastening mechanism of a thick leather belt that I had at the time, but I thought it would be really cool to use them in the session. David loved the idea.
He must have liked it – that photo became a foldout poster in the fan club kit.
ESJ: Jeez... I knew nothing about this... not asked permission or compensation... and probably got no credit.
Did the Bowie commissions lead to a lot of work?
ESJ: I suppose they did. I began to do a lot of sessions with rock people. Ironically, I was not even a fan of that genre of music.
Did your commissions around this time come with specific ideas or concepts?
ESJ: Almost all the following commissions I got were totally left up to my creative process. Actually, not almost all – all.
Was it mainly music or did you also work in fashion?
ESJ: No, never did any fashion it was always people in the performing arts – all sorts of performing arts... dance, jazz, cabaret. Did many, many CD covers for jazz singers, which just happens to be my favourite genre of music! (laughs).
Thanks so much for chatting about your work today, Eric.
ESJ: It was totally my pleasure – thank you for your interest.