The first time I met Peter Basch was in his cavernous upper Westside New York City apartment, facing the Hudson river. I had discovered that, among his many nude torso studies, he had shot Bettie Page. This was circa 1985 and Bettie hadn’t resurfaced yet. In the deep shadows of his sunlit living room, I explained that I had developed a market for signed contemporary prints made from vintage negatives shot by Miami Beach pin-up photographer, Bunny Yeager of Bettie Page. I had done the same with Weegee the famous’ photographs of Bettie Page shot at several Cass Carr camera club shoots. These prints were signed and numbered by his paramour, ninety two year old, Wilma Wilcox.
Like many photographers who worked successfully in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, I found Peter Basch by looking in the Manhattan phone book! As a youngster growing up in Westchester county I would devour the “how to” digest books put out by Whitestone and Fawcett. This was my early exposure to Andre de Dienes, Bunny Yeager, Peter Gowland and Peter Basch. Lightly hidden behind `technique’, the viewer could enjoy a naked woman outside `porn’, inside `art’.
When I pointed out his shots of Bettie Page taken 3 decades earlier he had no memory or recognition of who she was.
More than twenty years later I got a “facebook” contact from Irvin Gelb asking me to phone him. He and his partner, Peter Koch, were handling the extensive Peter Basch archive and it was now in Irvin’s livingroom. The two made a habit of rescuing photo collections and had done the same for the work of Wallace Seawell, 1950’s glamour photographer. Would I come down and help them understand and market the Bettie Page material?
When I walked into Irv’s Beverly Hills apartment I found what I never found from Peter B. in New York. An openness. Peter was, at best, smug, formal, stubborn. He had a laugh that made one feel that maybe he thought you were a fool. But his work…his archive, was spectacular in its depth. After a while Peter would deal me out what he needed me to print for him. He acted like he was doing me a favor and he was. He let me take home his Jayne Mansfield negatives which were many and intimate. His Julie Newmar photographs. Had there been a love affair? His Brigitte Bardot on the set with Roger Vadim. Peter shot ALL the major stars and starlets at the APEX of their careers. In other words…when they were young.
Did I leave out Jane Fonda, nude on a bed; Ursula Andress on the beach looking illegally young and beautiful. Tuesday Weld, my teenage crush. Or Warhol in his Factory with Baby Jane Holzer about to be photographed by Andy’s unique lighting system. ( I want that print). Or a nineteen year old, with gap, Lauren Hutton NAKED and laughing. ( I want those vintage contacts)
I had a major French collector who would fly me to Paris to develop various archive collections and introduced me to Catherine Deneuve while I tasted my crème brulée in a fine French restaurant ( I will never forget that pairing). When Fellini died on Halloween 1993, Peter called me to tell me he had a set of vintage prints he had shot on the set of “8 1/2”. Could I sell them. Is the world round? I sold them to my French collector. I found, he bought.
Once, in the years we worked together, Peter took me down to the basement to a storage locker that looked like it belonged in a high school gym. Inside were transparencies in disarray. On the top were shots of Claudia Cardinale, Candice Bergen, Sean Connery, and Lee Marvin. The pile was bottomless. Peter shot everyone.
But when I met Peter he was no longer an active portrait photographer. When I mentioned the money I could get from his signed Bettie Page images, he scoffed. He had become a book agent and had just made a deal with Grove press for Mary Brave Bird’s “Lakota Woman” and it had become a huge success.
The irony is the only prints I saw in Irv Gelb’s apartment of Bettie Page were signed by him BUT printed by me. Perhaps Peter was using me as his printer, not as a dealer. No problem.
In the mid 1990’s I became a `picker’ for my friend, Benedikt Taschen. I brought him Elmer Batters, the great foot photographer, Eric Stanton, the brilliant kinky water colorist, the twenty year old Natacha Merritt (Digital Diaries) and Peter Basch. Even early on Benedikt didn’t care for attitude and Peter had attitude and no deal was made.
But now this fabulous work is archived and available to collectors. Irvin Gelb and Peter Koch are selling select transparencies, vintage prints and contact sheets on ebay but the archive is huge and the price runs from $300 to $3,000. There are over 10,000 items! Please email Irvin and Peter at [email protected]
I remember how jealous I was that Dennis Hopper had `known’ Natalie Wood when they were both young. Maybe Peter’s smugness came from being a (rumored) ladies man. Maybe it came from being an only child. Or from assisting the great Laszlo Willinger in Hollywood when Basch was a young man. Maybe…just maybe it came from knowing how good his photographs were that he had seen and recorded through the viewfinder of his rolleiflex so many years ago.
Ps I work for spare change and stories about the photo past. Peter Basch pointed out a spectacular nude model and told me her name was Shirley Levitt and that she lived nearby. I recognized her as the only Jewish model for Irving and Paula Klaw and from the cover of NUS magazine from a shoot by Andre de Dienes. Peter laughed and told me how Andre picked her up at a party in Greenwich village. She had arrived on the arm of Marlon Brando and left with Andre. He took her to a beach in Mexico and probably did (in my mind) the greatest nude session ever done except for what Bunny Yeager did of Bettie Page on the back of a boat in the Florida Keys at sunset but that’s another story. When I went to Shirley’s building several days later, I rang the buzzer and she told me to “come up to 6m like “mistress”’.
Thanks Peter…see ya in the past.