Catalysed by the rise of Hollywood and the emergence of rock and roll, the latter half of the 20th century marked a potent period in pop culture history swarmed with icon worship. By the 1970s, newspapers and magazines worldwide were spattered by an avalanche of eminent actors and rockstars, an alien breed of untouchable high achievers. To mere mortal civilians, beholding the lavish life of fame and fortune can feel like peering down the wrong end of a telescope. Thankfully, Carinthia West, today’s featured photographer, removes this telescope to bring these stars down to Earth.
West, born in 1951, emerged from school artistically curious. A pivotal moment came for her when, at 16 years of age, she was found standing at a bus stop on the King’s Road by Beatles photographer Robert Whitaker. The esteemed photographer shared a flat with Eric Clapton at the time, and as West made her first foray into the world of acting and modelling, he opened the velvet curtain to the world of celebrity.
Approaching her 20s, West was absorbed into London’s beau monde. Throughout the 1970s and beyond, West befriended some of the biggest names in music and cinema as she embarked on a journey that led to the sunny shores of Los Angeles.
Intriguingly, West never quite considered photography to be a major front in her multi-faceted career, and yet, we behold this remarkable collection of photographs, including shots of George Harrison, Helen Mirren, Carly Simon, David Bowie, Anjelica Huston, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Robin Williams, Neil Young and more. This begs the question: “How did she meet and photograph all of these famous faces?”
Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to spend some time talking to West about her breathtaking ‘Hanging Out’ collection. First of all, I wanted to understand how West picked up photography as a hobby. “I suppose I was always creative in the sense that I was modelling,” she explained. “After I left drama school, I wanted to be an actress, and that was the main reason I went to the East 15 Acting School. But I was modelling because I was tall and blonde, you know? And modelling is pretty boring in itself. Even if you’re acting, there’s a lot of downtime on films and commercials and hanging about waiting for the makeup people. So I started taking my camera. I’ve always loved taking pictures.”
Later, West revealed that, for her, photography became a tool for social interaction. “I’ve always been really interested in people and watching how they interact with each other. A lot of the photographs I take are not of famous people; a lot of them were extras on a film set or something. I think it hides a natural shyness, which sounds odd because I’ve been an actress and a model and a journalist. But I think something about photography masks your shyness. I didn’t like to push myself forward. And when I did decide to show the pictures [publically], I did something which is apparently unusual for photographers: I went to everybody in my pictures and asked for permission. I showed them to David Bowie, I showed them to George [Harrison], and Olivia [Harrison], and Mick [Jagger], etc, which you don’t have to do as the photographer.”
Noticing a strong Rolling Stones presence in her collection, I asked West if the band was her primary social link to all of the other famous names. While her close friendship with Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood was undoubtedly pivotal in her photographic journey, West revealed that, earlier still, was her friendship with Eric Idle.
West remembered first meeting the legendary comedy actor in the mid-1970s, stating: “Eric Idle picked me to play some of the women in his Rutland Weekend Television, which was a spinoff after they’d done Monty Python,” West remembered. “And then from that came his idea to do a spoof on The Beatles, which was called The Rutles. In the meantime, we became really good friends.”
“He was divorcing his first wife, [Lyn Ashley, in 1975], and had nowhere to live while he moved house,” she divulged. “I had a spare basement area in my Paddington flat, and so he moved into my downstairs flat. In his book, he says he dated most of my girlfriends; he didn’t date me, but we did become great friends. And through that – Eric was by that time very sought after and well known, and he became great friends with George Harrison.”
Like a social skeleton key, Idle also initiated West’s friendship with Jagger and Wood. “Ronnie Wood… his first wife, Krissy Wood, and I became friends because they came to stay with Eric in the South of France. And I was staying at Eric’s while they were playing at some festival. Krissy Wood and I became friends, and Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you come and stay with us? I’ve just rented a house in Malibu. We’re recording some Stones stuff.’ Then Mick came to stay there – and so did everybody else, as far as I can see – and we all got on really well and had a lot of laughs.”
After moving to California in the late 1970s, West took on occasional acting work but didn’t begin her foray into journalism straight away. It was during this period of her life that she befriended Neil Young. “I’m a huge fan of Neil Young,” West said as we looked at the photograph of the Canadian singer-songwriter seen below. “I went, with Ronnie, Krissy and the baby [Jesse Wood] after he was born, up to Broken Arrow Ranch, which is Neil’s ranch, because Ronnie was doing some recording with him. And so I was riding on Neil’s horses and having a great time up there. I wasn’t really working in LA at that time. I was just hanging out but later became the editor at the LA Weekly.”
Today, we explore a small sample of West’s gargantuan archive of photos from such a fondly remembered period in pop culture history. As a retrospective outsider, the media has raised some of these icons to a divine level. Those who have sadly passed are still so present to us thanks to the immortality of music and films. But exploring these photographs, the tinted specs fall, and we can finally put a relatable human life behind the familiar faces.
“I see these people only as friends,” West told me. “I’m always amazed when I see them on stage because they’re different personalities from the people I’ve sat around a table with and had a laugh with. I suppose that’s why people are surprised when they see all these pictures.”
This intensely real, amiable side to celebrity that we’re so often deprived of is recovered through West’s unique lens. As Ronnie Wood once said, “Carinthia took photos while we were getting on with life…”
Some of the photos seen below have contributed towards West’s new exhibition at the American Museum & Gardens in Bath, Somerset. On March 11th, the museum reopened its café as the American Garden Deli. The walls of the Deli are adorned with a permanent collection of West’s finest prints.