michael childers exhibit

A Lens Into Life

On the eve of his illuminating new photography exhibit at Palm Springs Cultural Center, photographer Michael Childers opens up about capturing the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, and a bevy of other famous souls who defined an era.

GREG ARCHER Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

michael childers exhibit
Henry Rollins, who fronted the punk band Black Flag in the early 1980s and then formed his own band, captured the lens of desert photographer Michael Childers.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY MICHAEL CHILDERS

It’s not often that Cher, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Bette Midler, Patti Lupone and John Travolta all cavort with each other in a room. Thanks to celebrated photographer, Michael Childers, that is about to happen in Palm Springs.

At least on the walls.

In “Rockin’ Hollywood,” a new exhibit gracing the Palm Springs Cultural Center starting Feb. 29, 40 of Childers’ classic images of rock, pop, disco and music legends will be displayed. They span 40 years of the film, dance, and theater photographer’s work. Following an opening-night reception, actress/singer Beverly D’Angelo will moderate a discussion with Childers onstage.

Expect Childers to reveal little-known facts and behind-the-scenes moments about some of the icons he has worked with. Not to be left out: Signed, non-editioned prints of the photos will be available for purchase by special order, with proceeds benefitting the Palm Springs Cultural Center.

Childers shared more details with Palm Springs Life.

You’ve photographed many singers, including Elton John, whose life was just featured on the big screen in Rocket Man.

Elton John and Linda Ronstadt. It’s been a big year for both of them. The documentary about Linda [Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice] was superb and I loved Rocket Man. I loved working with Linda and I had done a beautiful portrait of her backstage on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I also worked with her on her album, What’s New. And Elton … we go back to 1970. I was brought in to work on Elton’s [fifth] album, Honky Château, and came in to photograph him at the first house he ever owned.

That must have went well.

The photos I took there out at his house in Richmond, a suburb of London, turned out great. I also shot Elton a couple of times in London with platform shoes, five inches high. Such fun. Those will also be in the Palm Springs show. At the time, Elton’s manager, Dick James, liked the photos I had done and hired me to photograph new singers. He said, “I have a funny, cockatoo-looking guy and he’s very nice.” I asked him what his name was and he said, “Rod Stewart.” Another time he told me, “I have this other great kid and I think he’s changing his name to something sweet and lyrical — it’s Stevens something-something. Turned out to be Cat Stevens. That’s how one thing led to another.

eltonjohn

Michael Childers says of Elton John, “I loved his energy and his focus. He was wired with ambition and talent.”

What was the most inspiring thing about working with Elton?

I loved his energy and his focus. He was wired with ambition and talent. It’s nice to have the talent to back everything up. To see him evolve has been fascinating and I felt the film, Rocket Man, was very accurate. Some of things depicted in the film, I witnessed. Elton is a great survivor. One of the other things I love about him, which many people might not know, is that he has one of the world’s greatest collections of classic photography. He’s been collecting photography seriously for 30 years and it’s museum quality. I imagine he’s going to create some kind of museum at some point or at least a wing in an existing museum. People should know that he has great taste.

What do you love most about capturing people through photos?

Well, I love people. I started photography by capturing people. At UCLA, a lot of my classmates were young actors, musicians, and up-and-coming movie directors. A lot of them became famous. Francis Ford Coppola. There was also Jim Morrison. The first jobs I ever got were photographing the poets and the singers. Even Kaye Ballard, who lived in Palm Springs and who was a Broadway actress at the time. In fact, I met my partner John Schlesinger through Kaye. She set me up on a blind date to meet him at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It became a 37-year partnership.

What have you learned about people by photographing them for so many years?

The camera reveals the soul. You can tell a lot about people through the camera in observing their eyes and especially their mouths — whether they’re happy people or sad. Most photographers dealing with people over the years learn that. It’s nearly 90 percent accurate that I can tell what people are really like through looking into their eyes or at their mouth. I’m so lucky to have photographed these people.

“I started photography by capturing people. At UCLA, a lot of my classmates were young actors, musicians, and up-and-coming movie directors. A lot of them became famous.”

Is there anyone you have not photographed but would love?

There are few that got away. I love Joni Mitchell and her music so much. I used to see her in Laurel Canyon, but I never photographed her. I met Grace Kelly briefly in Monaco — so classic and gracious. Audrey Hepburn was charming and delightful. I love the faces of some these “kids” today. Adam Driver has one of the most extraordinary faces I’ve ever seen. It’s nice to look at Matt Bomer. Scarlett Johansson would be sensational. Margot Robbie, too. And Timothée Chalamat. He looks like a very young Tony Perkins. Great actor. You know, my favorite movie in years is Baby Driver — I’ve seen it 15 times. Brilliantly directed. The actor that starred in it, Ansel Elgort, will be a huge star. He just finished West Side Story — he has the lead in it — with Steven Spielberg, so that’s a great way to start at the top of your musical career, doing West Side Story. He has the talent and the guts and the look. Those are some of the few souls I would love to photograph. But I’m so lucky to have been able to photograph so many fascinating people.

“Rockin’ Hollywood” debuts at 6 p.m. Feb. 29 at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2100 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. Actress/singer Beverly D’Angelo moderates a discussion with Michael Childers at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $25. Visit psculturalcenter.org or call 760-325-6565 for more information.