Bianca Bova: This is Bianca Bova for 10011 Magazine. I'm here with singer, songwriter, and musician Natalie Moses. Welcome Natalie.
Natalie Moses: Thank you.
BB: We are thrilled to have you. I understand your new single No More debuted recently, along with a hauntingly beautiful music video. It's available now on Spotify and other major streaming platforms. Natalie, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, how you came to being a musician, how you got started on that path?
NM: I started singing at a young age, when I was about 8 or 9. It was at private Jewish school in New York. I actually have a vivid first memory of singing at a Passover play rehearsal in class, discovering that I could hold a note and that it made me feel passionate. I remember receiving significant attention from the other kids after, which was a big deal for me. I was a really shy kid... From that moment, I decided on music. I asked my parents for singing lessons, I became a lead singer in school productions and later got accepted to a performing arts high school in Queens, called Frank Sinatra, founded by Tony Bennet. That’s when I began performing around the city, through the school, and started writing songs in my journal every chance I could get, obsessively practicing to get it right. I did try deviating from music after high school but it kept calling me back. Eventually, I transferred from the college I was at, and went on to pursue degrees in Vocal Jazz Performance and English Literature & Writing. I have been making music in my room all this time.
BB: So having that long standing relationship with the craft, that connection to cultural heritage and your childhood, all these factors that have contributed to your becoming the musician you are now, what made you decide that this was the moment to begin producing and releasing your own music?
NM: This was the moment that I felt ready. I've been working on my craft and sound for many years and finally arrived at a place where I’m willing to share myself. I felt that I’m beginning to find the sound that integrates a lot of what I love and a lot of what makes me who I am. I've had many different phases of exploration, teetering between extremes, in my life and at a certain point the music started to embody and infuse all the distinct elements and experiences into one. I started to feel more whole with it only recently. I'm very shy and hard on myself. It took me years of searching and working behind closed doors to finally feel good enough to come out, take space and share.
BB: I think that's something that a lot of artists go through, that developmental phase, getting to the point of being ready to share, or having something that they know they want to share. For you, was part of that process realizing that there was something missing from the current music scene? Or something you hoped to contribute to it?
NM: Sure. I'm inspired a lot by the current scene. But I also find that femininity and vulnerability is becoming less and less exposed on the forefront of art and music. The trend is for artists to be expressing themselves as infallible, which on one hand is really necessary, because there’s a lot of suffering and we all need that to feel empowered. But on the other hand there’s a multitude not being portrayed in other kinds of ways. Such as deep yearning, loneliness, complexity or anything quirky and raw... Those elements of being a person are not as exposed in music anymore. They’re found to be embarrassing. Those are the very things that really drive me and that I want to talk about in the music.
BB: You mentioned you hold a degree in Jazz Vocal Performance. Do you think studying in a tradition has informed the way you draw on these elements that haven't been as prominent in contemporary music?
NM: Definitely. I think the lament of letting yourself speak freely in the moment through the music--which is the driving force in Jazz-- is definitely something I've taken with me from my studies. That, Music Theory, and an appreciation for Ballads. Singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, they were singing ballads, which you don't find much anymore. Everything nowadays is fast paced. Ballads are my favorite and are all I make right now.
BB: You're originally from Queens, correct? And you're back there now?
BB: What drew you back to the area, has the neighborhood or the culture had an influence on your work in the final moments of production and release?
NM: Moving back to Queens is a homecoming I was in need of. I tried moving to Israel last year, and it was very difficult for me. At the same time that I moved there, my family left the house I grew up in and a lot changed in my life, all at once. It left me pining for “home.” That brought me back to New York. Growing up in Queens, and my cultural background, are behind everything I do. I'm a first generation New Yorker. All of my expression lies in my experience of being a first-generation child here and growing up with New York as a sonic influence. Hip-Hop was my first love as an individual. My parents raised me on Middle Eastern music and pop artists like Julio Iglesias, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion. Being raised Jewish with several languages being spoken around me--my father being Romanian and my mother, Israeli with Afghani roots-- was normalcy at home and it all plays a big part in my existence and art.
BB: Looking at your background, obviously your family has been very supportive in your decision to be a musician, to pursue something in the cultural realm, which I know there's of course a rich tradition of in the Jewish Culture. Has that, and starting out singing in school, singing in a religious context, informed the way in which you approach your practice.
NM: My family has been truly supportive. But it hasn’t always been easy. I stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop I come from. Being Jewish and from New York, and especially the daughter of immigrants, there's an expectation that I create a stable, lucrative career and life for myself. Being a musician doesn't necessarily always grant or guarantee that. Also, in the Jewish religion, if you're orthodox and keeping the “Halacha” (traditional Jewish law), there’s a rule that forbiddens Jewish women to sing in public, so as not to seduce men and to better create a sacredness for marriage and family-- those being the only structures for a woman to be able to sing.
BB: Is that something you consider in your work?
NM: Oh yeah. I ponder over these subjects constantly and I think that's totally motivated me to create even more so. Being a singer, identifying as a Jewish woman, keeping with tradition while trying to find my place in the world, and staying true to me, and my rights in 2020... These are all dichotomies that I’m questioning and that influence my work and my life.
BB: Thinking about that, and, as you put it, your recent homecoming, the video for No More was shot in Cunningham Park in Queens, and in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. What made you decide on these locations for the shoot?
NM: Cunningham Park is a quiet, magical place no one really knows of, unless you grew up in the area I come from. It's tucked away in Suburbia, Queens, where I grew up. It holds a lot of sentimental value for me. I have many beautiful memories there. It was important for me to have my first video shot somewhere that is meaningful and familiar for me. Prospect Park has also come to be one of my favorite spots in the city after living in Brooklyn for the last decade. I wanted to pay them homage.
BB: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you styled the video?
NM: No More is meant to depict a happy ending, like the ones we see in Disney Princess movies, only convoluted. Because that’s the feeling of the song. I wanted to look like a Disney Princess in a desolate forest, in her castle, having a lush picnic to herself, after she chucked away her phone into the river, and left society in order to protect herself from abuse. Only now she has a drinking problem and is secluded.
BB: I understand you worked with Xavier Portillo and Hailey Heaton on the making of the video. What was it like to collaborate with them, and bring them into your vision and process?
NM: It was just me and Xavier and his friend on the set. It was very straightforward and natural. No equipment, no budget. We got together and in pretty much one day, shot everything. He shoots beautifully. Hailey really tied it all together in editing. It was really important to me to have a comic element and I feel she was really able to capture that through the edit.
BB: Was this the first time you've worked with other professionals to produce your work?
NM: It's not the first collaborative work for me. But it is the first time I'm putting something out.
BB: There is this really beautiful moment in the video, when you're lying in the grass, and you have this princess, or almost wedding dress on, and we see this pedestrian--this man--enter the frame behind you, walking on a footpath. I loved that moment. He almost seems anachronistic, it almost seems like it breaks into this world you've created. It happens far enough into the video that we've subsumed ourselves in your vision, and it has this humour, but also this intrusiveness. Can you talk about the decision to keep that in? How it fits into these existing aspects of the work?
NM: It’s a moment to make the viewer laugh.
BB: What was that experience like, going out and shooting in public parks? I assume this was kind of a lo-fi, no permits situation?
NM: Definitely was. We got into some trouble in Prospect Park. We did it all in less than half an hour there.” My favorite moments in the video are the ones from there.
BB: Was this your first time trying to pull something like this off?
NM: Yes, the other videos I've done so far are indoors. No dealing with bureaucracy on those.
BB: You mentioned you have other songs coming out. Are we looking at a full album release in 2020?
NM: EP is coming out in 2020, God Willing.
BB: Being that we are all in pretty unique circumstances right now, being in quarantine, or under a shelter-in-place order, is it something you're using for work right now? Or is it just a disruption?
NM: Needless to say, the performance aspect has been impacted. Meetings with people who are part of the project have come to halt. But it’s also teaching me a lot and it's given the music a new and different meaning. I did my first “live” show the other day and it was different.
BB: I think a lot of artists right are dealing with this, with the fact that things that were nearing completion, or have been in process, for, as you said with yourself, for a couple of years, that these things were created in a very different moment. And even if they're not released now, even if they're released after this has passed, they'll be released in a time that is indelibly different than the one they were conceived of and produced in. I think there's some concern, on the critical level, but also by artists themselves that some of these things won't quite land, or that they'll come off tone deaf, that they won't relate in the same way they might have.
NM: For sure. There’s an element of guilt in putting out music and in taking space at a time so crucial, when everyone’s lives are at stake. I definitely carry feelings of dissonance and I’m sure it may seem weird to some people seeing me post about No More. Everything not having to do with the virus stands as trivial right now. But then I've also received messages from people, thanking me for putting something out, particularly now.
BB: We all need it right now.
NM: Right. It lies between those two paradoxical entities, for sure. It's interesting coming out while being in Quarantine. I think it's helped me connect and reach out to people more in a way, with the song, but from being in isolation and being limited with contact, at the same time. It's a beautiful juxtaposition.
BB: Do you have plans when things settle back down, to do a physical record release, or a tour?
NM: I would love to do both. The plans are up in the air as of now. First let’s get through.
BB: You have so much agency in this--you're the singer and the songwriter, you're the one who directed and produced your own video, you have all of these channels for distribution at your fingertips. And especially now that we're all in isolation, it seems like those become increasingly important tools. Is the way you've released your work the way you would prefer to?
NM: I'm not sure if it's a preference, but the situation has left me with no other choice, which is quite interesting to work within. In a way, it focuses me more, in that, this is the only way to share music now. It humbles the whole process. It's crystallized, even more, the desire to just give someone a good feeling.
BB: Is there anything you would recommend, things that are helping you through this period, things that you think are deserving of time and attention now that we all have it to give?
NM: I recommend using this as a time of introspection. I hope it pushes myself and everyone to take better care of themselves, to better appreciate themselves, their lives, and in that, to better care for and appreciate others. This situation is bringing empathy to the forefront. By not leaving our homes, we are also saving the lives of others. We're taking responsibility for the whole. We are re-evaluating what’s important. I would love for this moment in history to serve as a transforming agent and lesson in doing more of that... Things that are helping me through this time are music, movies, astrology, cooking, and speaking with loved ones.
BB: What do you see for yourself, as a musician, as an artist, on the other side of all this? Do you see a change in your role?
NM: I don’t know. I think, in general, music and the arts, will change and be less ego-driven. If you ask me, clout has made artists more crazy, confused and sad than before. More isolated than ever. I think this moment is altering that shit. Ironically, it’s lessening the isolation brought by individualistic mentality. Bigger than that, I think it’s going to transform hierarchies and social systems. The world is being reminded of it’s mortality right now and priorities are shifting. For me, on a personal level, this moment is redefining how I view time and how I love-- others, myself... I will carry this with me as I continue.
B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?
G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career
one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.
B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?
G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.
B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?
G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.
B: What made you start work on that series?
G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.
B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.
G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.
B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.
G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.
B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?
G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.
B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.
G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.
B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?
G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.
B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?
G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.
B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.
G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.
B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?
G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.
B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?
G: Yes, around forty years.
B: Companion volumes.
G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.
B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.
G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.
B: What else is on deck for you?
G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.
B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.
G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.
B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.
G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.
B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.
G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.