Thursday, May 6, 2010

Photographing Alex Toth for "The Artist Within"

To be honest, I can't for the life of me remember who gave me Alex Toth's phone number, but I do remember that it came with the caveat that he almost never answered his phone, so I should try to call at various times of the day and night until he did. I also remember being told that it most likely would be a waste of time to even call him to ask if he would be a part of my photo project, because he was now a recluse. Pretty much avoiding everyone that he had known or been friends with. It seems like another person may have mentioned in passing that Toth hadn't actually left his house in several years. So of course I was intrigued.
At the time I think I had been working on my project, photographing artists in their studios, for maybe 4 years , still traveling back and forth from Las Vegas to L.A., and other places, to shoot when I could find the time. Now I had seen Alex's art over the years in various comic books, "Zorro", "Creepy" and "Eerie" etc., and had always enjoyed the stark quality of his work. I knew that he had designed Space Ghost for Hanna Barbera, which was cool, but that was about it. I hadn't been a huge fan, and I really didn't know much more than that. But as I did a little research, and began to discuss the possibility of photographing him with some of the people who knew him, it turned out that almost everyone I spoke with loved, loved, loved his work, and that he was considered by his peers and fans alike to be one of the most influential comic book artists and designers in the business. I also heard a few tales of his fabled hot temper. Which made me a little nervous. The story that sticks in my mind is about the time Alex Toth backed a famous editor up to a open window in a very tall building, with the only thing keeping the editor from dropping to his doom was the clutch Toth had on his coat. To be fair, I don't how true that was, as stories that become folk lore tend to grow greater with each telling, but I bet no editors from that point forward ever tried to stiff Toth on a job again!. But again, stories like this just seemed to hone in the reality that he was a genius and a legend in the industry. My job was to find out first whether he was still with us, as a couple of people I had talked to were sure that Alex had passed away because no one had seen him in out in public for a quite a long time.
So, I was a little nervous when I finally decided to make the call, but I remember thinking what's the worst that could happen, he could just say no, right? (I had certainly had that happen more than a few times.) I came up with this plan that I would just call every hour or so for a couple days, just to see if I could even get him to pick up his phone. It turned out that I didn't have to work too hard, as he picked up on the first try. It's funny, but I was so shocked at he actually answered that I almost hung up. I felt like a kid doing a prank call. But instead, I went into my schpeal that I had come up with when making cold calls like these: " Hi my name is Greg Preston and I am a photographer In Las Vegas, and I have been working on this project photographing Comic book artists and Cartoonists..." yada yada yada. My goal was to say this so fast that the person on the other end of the line really didn't have a chance to say no or hang up, kind of like a telemarketer, and by the end of the speech I would always throw in, "and I've got Jack Kirby". That last line would invariably get one of two responses. Either the artist would say "no thanks" and hang up, or as happened more often than not, they would say "Oh yeah, you got Kirby?, and I knew that I had 'em" .
Alex was very casual and at first he wasn't really interested, but as we talked for a few minutes, he finally agreed (to my surprise) to let me come up to the house and take his portrait. What I remember him saying was " bring the cheapest camera that you can find, no lights, don't make a big deal, and I'll just step out on the porch and you can take a shot". The porch? After hanging up, I remember thinking what the heck does that mean "The cheapest camera that you can find"? So I came up with the idea to photograph Alex with one of my then recently acquired "Diana" cameras.
I had been experimenting with taking photographs with toy cameras then, and I had recently been able to find a couple of original "Dianas" at our local camera repair shop. The "Diana" was a very cheaply produced novelty camera that had been made in the 1960's, originally pricing out at $1.99. It was like a plastic pinhole camera, and more recently it had emerged as a sort of an art camera. The images from a "Diana" have a very appealing soft, grainy, dreamlike quality due to the plastic lens, and you would sometimes get an amazing shot if you were lucky. At the same time it had a few problems, the worst being that it leaked light like a sieve and had to be taped all over with black gaffers tape so as not to expose and ruin the film. Also you couldn't exactly tell where the frame started by looking through the view finder so you might occasionally crop off your subjects head; little things like that. So my brilliant idea was to show up at his house, pull out my cheap little camera, have a few laughs about it, and then run back to the car and get the real camera and do the shoot. In hind-sight this was probably not one of my best ideas.
Alex lived in Hollywood in a rambling Craftsman style house, up behind the Hollywood Bowl.. We had arranged to meet at 9:00 am. on a Saturday morning. I remember he met me at the front door. He was dressed in a crumpled blue shirt and khaki pants, no shoes. He was a big bear of a guy, but not really menacing; he kind of reminded me of Ernest Hemingway in that he had a sort of cool sense about him. He stepped out on the porch and said, "Lets do this". Just like that, no discussion, no laughs, nothing. So, luckily I had loaded some really fast film in the Diana (3200 ISO rated at 12,800 ISO) and started shooting. It was kind of dark where we were standing, but it had a northern exposure so the light had a nice quality. I shot about 30 frames when Alex turned and said "Ya got it?" I had no idea, but said "yeah, I got it". I mean it was so quick. As I started to step off the porch, he asked, "Would you like some iced tea?". Then he did something I hadn't expected: he invited me in.
The inside of the house was cluttered with magazines, stacks of video tapes, art books, lots of stuff. He mentioned that he didn't go out of the house anymore since his wife had passed away several years before. He just didn't see a reason; that made me a little sad. I asked how he got his food and he told me that a friend sent him a package of food every couple of weeks by mail. After chatting for about 40 minutes, I finally built up the courage to ask if I could photograph him in his studio. He told me the studio was upstairs, but that he didn't go up there any more either. We talked a little about cameras, and he mentioned that he would like to get a hold of an old manual Nikon (a few years later I had the pleasure of sending him a FM2 that I had found at a yard sale.) He gave me a copy of the book written about him, "Alex Toth" by Manual Auad, and graciously signed it to me. After a few more minutes we said our goodbyes, as I had planned another shoot for that afternoon, and had to get going. He mentioned that he wanted to see the proofs, and to keep in touch. I left feeling pretty positive about the shoot, and we had gotten along well enough that I thought that I might have another chance if the whole idea of shooting with a toy camera turned out to be a dicey choice.
Two days later I was back at the studio, and eager to get the film processed. I have to be honest, I was disappointed when I first looked at the proofs. I didn't think that I had gotten the shot I was hoping for. However, My wife, Sharon took one look at the proofs and said, "I think this is the best shot you've done so far!" At the time I just figured she was being supportive. I sent Alex the proofs, but because I wasn't convinced I had a great shot, I did try to call Alex and set up another shoot. He promptly said, "No thanks, I don't want to talk to you again" and hung up. Really depressed about the opportunity I had most certainly missed, I put the negatives in a drawer, and forgot about it for 6 months. It was Sharon who found the envelope of negatives while searching my messy desk for some lost paperwork. She went into the darkroom and made a print of one of the negatives. It looked much better than I had remembered. Even though I didn't get to photograph Alex in his actual studio, this shot for me really does encompass the person I met and the experience that I'd had. I have come to love this shot.

In the years since I have had quite a few people say that this image is their favorite from the book as well.
Let me know what you think.

The Book "The Artist Within" published by Dark Horse has 101 photographs of your favorite artists and is great for collecting sketches and autographs at conventions. It is available through Amazon, for cheap, and makes a great gift.

Here are a few out takes from the session.

Alex Toth Passed away in 2006.


  1. "It never hurts to ask"
    My parents always told me that when I was a child and truthfully it has always improved my life by following it.
    I feel that nerves always get the best of us, wheather we show it or not. The greatest feeling is overcoming those nerves.
    Thank you Greg for sharing that story. Hearing the experiences that a photographer goes through is a great way to show other photographers that the smallest jobs are always the biggest.

  2. Hey Greg! This is Evan Shaner, I "run" the Toth page on facebook, thanks for pointing this out to me. I love your book, and this behind the scenes story about your shoot with Alex is great. I love the photos as well.

  3. Great story and great photo! Thanks for sharing the outtakes too.

  4. That is awesome. I had tears in my eyes the day he passed.

  5. One of my biggest inspirations and all time hero.
    Really great shots.....I agree. very Hemmingway-esk!
    Fabulous... you had an opportunity of a lifetime to meet a Genius.