Carl in action at a Penthouse Photoshoot

From Porn to Food: The Tantalizing Effect of Carl Kravats' Lens

Carl Kravats, the famous nude pictorial photographer of the 1970s, has moved on to new subjects

Carl in action at a Penthouse Photoshoot

I first met Carl Kravats over lunch in Baja, Mexico. The food was mediocre, but the setting was breathtaking. Outside we were treated to a view of lush rolling hills, lined with grape vines, part of a sleek and uber-modern new resort. I was there to cover its recent opening. Carl was there to take photos of the food. Bored senseless, I asked him about his work as a photographer. Out of the blue he reveals, “I mostly shoot food now, but I used to shoot all the hottest porn stars in the 1970s.” When it came to shooting nude photos for men’s magazines, he was the go-to photographer during the decade. “The mensch in the middle of all of it,” he says.

My interest was beyond piqued. I was a kid in the ‘70s, before porn was online and ubiquitous. My fascination drove me to convince a very reluctant, former adult men’s magazine photographer to talk about himself for a story in Playboy.

It took weeks of finagling, multiple calls and several emails, before I would eventually convince Carl to sit down and let me interview him. It’s not that he didn’t want his story told, it’s that he didn’t think it was worth telling – even though a retrospective of his work, at a yet to be determined gallery in New York, is slated for next year to celebrate his career, which has spanned fifty years.
Carl, now 72, took most of the photographs of the era’s biggest adult stars for all the important men’s magazines of the time -- High Society, Cheri, Swank and Penthouse. The NY exhibit will include nudes of big names such as Ron Jeremy and Bambi Woods, famous for her role in Debbie Does Dallas fame, as well as tons of nude pictorials shot during the “Golden Age of Porn” – the era of natural boobs, big bush, feathered or permed hair, free love and bountiful blow.

At the time, there were only a handful of photographers shooting nudes. Carl was a freelancer, so the magazines took the pictures they wanted, and he kept the rest for himself, leaving him, 40 years later, with the rights to thousands of rare and unpublished photos.

One model Kravats shot multiple times was “Long” Jeanne Silver, a legend in the world of ‘70s fetish porn. She was a high school dropout, who hitchhiked across the country to New York City from her home in Tempe, Arizona.

When I call Silver at her home in Arizona, she tells me she narrowly avoided prostitution, opting to model nude and star in adult movies instead. Her career catapulted her to become the first amputee centerfold for Cheri, and in 2015 she was inducted into the Legends of Erotica Hall of Fame. “I was best known for my 1977 film, Long Jeanne Silver. I used my leg as a dildo to fuck both girls and boys. The film was banned in the U.S. The same year, in my film Water Power, I was given an enema, while a guy watched and jerked off.”

In a memorable “Sex in the Psycho Ward” pictorial for High Society, Carl shot her, just as her movie star career began to hit it’s full stride. “My ideal scenario back then wasn’t really to focus on the leg, but to focus on being sexy and desirable even with a disability, and Carl understood that. He was also a lot of fun. He was totally upbeat to work with and he had a lot of patience. And the big thing was that his lighting was not as harsh as a lot of people’s back then.”
He wanted to make you look really good. And even if it was a kind of a schlocky scene in a cheesy men’s magazine, he had a professional standard and he was always respectful with the models...He didn’t treat you like the proverbial piece of meat.
Alexandra was another one of Kravats’ favorite models. She worked under many names, but was known in the industry for her thin frame and circus-like flexibility. She appeared in almost every men’s magazine of the era, including one spread with Nancy Spungen, the then-girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ lead singer Sid Vicious, according to The Rialto Report.

“I moved to New York in 1974. I was 19 years old, and I came with my husband,” Alexandra says. “I got a job dancing in a burlesque show, and tried to resist doing porn for a while, but people kept asking me. My first film was Temptations. It was shot in 1975. I think I did about eight feature films, and bits. Bits are when they take a sex act or scene and splice it into other films. You never knew what film you’d turn up in. You’d see yourself in one of those booths in an adult bookstore in Times Square,” she says.
  
Alexandra says Kravats was her favorite photographer to work with because he was “artistic,” and his “lighting was beautiful.” “He wanted to make you look really good. And even if it was a kind of a schlocky scene in a cheesy men’s magazine, he had a professional standard and he was always respectful with the models. He wasn’t a slime-ball, and he would collaborate with us,” she says. “He didn’t treat you like the proverbial piece of meat.”

 

Finally, the day came to get Carl’s perspective. Pulling up to his Temecula residence, I noticed a throng of nondescript ranch-style houses that all look like they could be the set of The Brady Bunch -- a show that ironically aired at the same time Carl was shooting nude pictorials in his Upper West Side studio in Manhattan.

The first thing I see when I walk in is that all the curtains are drawn, casting a subtle glow on the photos that line the walls -- great photos from his travels to Ethiopia, of his ex-girlfriend, landscapes of a local farm, and beauty shots of food. There’s wall-to-wall carpeting and a plastic runner in the hallway leading from the living room to his office.
Situated in his office, Carl tells me that when he first arrived in New York in 1968, from his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, he was a budding art student enrolled at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). In his second year at SVA, he transferred into the film school and discovered he had a natural talent for visual storytelling.

As he neared the end of his studies, he decided to try to stick around longer in order to avoid being drafted for Vietnam. “I begged the school to allow me to take another year of classes. They told me there was a school of photography opening up. I jumped in and enrolled and I found the thing I was meant to be. I studied with legends like photojournalist Bob Adelman,” he says. Adelman, known for his iconic Civil Rights photo-coverage, would go on to hire Carl as his printer. 
The thing about still photography is you have to tell a story about the subject you're photographing...We don't have words. We don't have sound. We don't have music or video. It comes down to composition, design and lighting.
When Carl left SVA he trudged along in his career shooting brochures and portfolios for models. A fluke meeting in 1976, at O’Neill’s Irish Bar in Manhattan, would alter Carl’s career. Fellow photographer and friend, Martin Schreiber, who would go on to publish nudes of a then-unknown 20-year-old named Madonna in the September 1985 edition of Playboy, showed up with Sue Richards, a.k.a. Bree Anthony.

Richards was an amateur model, adult film actress, and the editor of High Society magazine. She needed a headshot for the masthead of the magazine, and since Schreiber was traveling to Europe, she decided to ask Carl. Richards told him it was the best photo she’d ever seen of herself. Richards and her husband at the time, Tony, would go on to be featured in many of Carl’s pictorials.

“She asked me if I’d ever shot for a ‘girlie mag,’ I said, ‘no,’ but I was a straight male, so I jumped at the chance to look at nude women all day. She gave me a chance and they really liked my photos. It snowballed from there,” he says. He continued to shoot porn stars and models for the next eight years, mostly in his basement studio on West 67th Street, where he also had a darkroom to process the pictures.
Sardi Klein, one of Carl’s SVA classmates and a current SVA professor, worked as Kravats’ assistant in the adult mag days. She says what made Carl stand out back then, and what makes him a great food photographer today, is his innate understanding of the essence of shooting a still life. “The thing about still photography is you have to tell a story about the subject you're photographing,” Klein says. “We don't have words. We don't have sound. We don't have music or video. It comes down to composition, design and lighting. These help tell the story in an understandable way, but lighting creates an emotional mood in the photograph,” she says.

Carl’s best friend and another SVA graduate, Michael Lichtenstein, concurs. “The thing that distinguished Carl from a lot of the stuff I used to see in magazines in those days was that Carl is a simply a great photographer. He has an eye for it. His stuff was always more artistic than pornographic. There was always a style to it, and some of the nude models he shot with cars, out in California – I mean those are beautiful shots. They were just great shots, regardless of whether there was a nude model there or not.”

Lichtenstein goes on to describe the era as gleefully “uncomplicated.” “Living in New York and shooting nude models was fun and easy work,” Lichtenstein says. “New York was cheap and I lived in the Village. Jobs were easy to find. When I wasn’t working with Carl, I drove a cab. But, my first job was running the spotlight for the strippers in between the hardcore films at the Pilgrim Theater in Times Square. Remember, this was before AIDS, and women and drugs were everywhere,” he says.
I’m a heterosexual man. No bones about it. I wanted to fuck them all, but I’m a professional. I’d say, ‘This is my job. And this is your job.’ That was my attitude.
I admit to Carl that I picture his life to look a lot like the Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 art-house feature Blow Up  -- the sexy fashion photographer played by David Hemmings, surrounded by beautiful women posing provocatively, whose photoshoots culminate in hot threesomes.

He is adamant that he never fucked any of the models. “Seriously, I was not that kind of photographer,” he says. “I’m a heterosexual man. No bones about it. I wanted to fuck them all, but I’m a professional. I’d say, ‘This is my job. And this is your job.’ That was my attitude,” he insists.

It would take me several phone calls and visits before Carl finally came clean about the one time he broke that cardinal rule. In 1976, on the night of the “Miss Nude America Contest,” Carl stumbled across a subject who he couldn’t resist. “I was hired to shoot the contest and then shoot the girls at my studio after it was over. This contest was held every year at the Beekman Theater in New York. The women would go on stage and do a sex act,” he says. “One girl did a phone sex thing while she played with herself. It blew my mind. So on this night, I had the moment every photographer who does this work imagines in his head. I waited for that girl to be the last to shoot that night. I made everyone leave. And we got it on,” Carl says with a big grin. 

 

Carl left the business in 1981, when he became “bored” and “coked out,” and started “fucking up” shoots. He was spending way too much money taking friends on trips to the Caribbean, and playing the part of porn industry insider, complete with a long leather jacket and hat cocked to the side. His photos started to show his lack of professionalism. Carl had also become disillusioned with the way the adult film industry was pushing porn actors into doing more and more compromising things sexually. “It got pretty disrespectful,” he says.

With a wife and a young son on the way, he decided it was time for a steady paycheck. So he did what good Jewish boys from Connecticut do to take care of their families: he put down his camera, and he went into sales. He bought an ice-cream company and for most of the 1980’s and ‘90’s that’s what he did. His wife died of breast cancer in 1995, and nine years later he moved to Temecula with his teenage son.
Being a photographer is all about being a voyeur. Food needs to appear mouth watering, and nude scenes should get you wet
It wasn’t until 2007 that Carl picked up a camera to shoot professionally once again. This time it was to shoot the menu for his friend’s new restaurant.

“People think if you’re a photographer you can shoot anything. At first I used natural lighting to shoot a few dishes, but when I printed the photos, I thought they sucked — even though the restaurant owners loved them. I knew I needed to get better,” he says.
  
Just like his days at SVA, he began studying, only now it was how to style and shoot food. He took some classes on food styling and set up a studio in his garage. Through trial and error, his work started to improve.
It didn’t take long for Carl to begin making his living styling and shooting food. From steaming bowls of pasta and juicy prime rib, to perfectly grilled peaches and Jenny Craig dishes, he swears he is as happy now creating food porn as he was shooting sex scenes, and in many ways, he finds it much more challenging.

“Everyone thinks they’re a goddamn food photographer/blogger today just because they post pictures of their food on Instagram,” he says. “But this stuff takes a lot of work.”

When he’s not traveling to shoot at renowned restaurants, he spends his time at home, surrounded by the various faces he has captured throughout his career. There’s plenty of adult film stars, Adelman’s Civil Rights images, savory food photos and now, photos of his granddaughter. Kravats’ work continues to morph with each new chapter of his life, but they all continue to provoke a reaction. “Being a photographer is all about being a voyeur. Food needs to appear mouth watering, and nude scenes should get you wet.”

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