A Phenomenal Partnership: Remembering Stathis Orphanos and Ralph Sylvester
Author: Elisa Rolle
February 27, 2018
In January 2018, we lost two vital members of our literary community: Stathis Orphanos and Ralph Sylvester.
If you are familiar with literary portraits of the 20th century, you have probably seen some of Stathis Orphanos’ work. His portraits have been used on numerous book jackets: Gore Vidal (for Point To Point Navigation), Erskine Caldwell, Jim Carroll, John Cheever, Mart Crowley, Graham Greene, Thom Gunn, John Irving, Christopher Isherwood, Gavin Lambert, Norman Mailer, James Merrill, Reynolds Price, Edouard Roditi, Philip Roth, May Sarton (“I had a great photo session with May Sarton in Maine, and she wrote about it in her autobiography, After the Stroke.”–Stathis Orphanos), Sir Stephen Spender, John Updike, Malcolm Boyd, Mark Thompson, poet James Dickey (for his ambitious second novel Alnilam), William Styron (for Darkness Visible), Donald Barthelme and many more, passed behind his lens. Reynolds Price said that Orphanos’ portraits are “by far the best being taken by anyone.” John Updike said he felt that Orphanos was “giving (him) the definitive personality (he) always lacked.”
His portraits of famous artists and photographers include Don Bachardy, Leonard Baskin, Paul Cadmus, Horst P. Horst, David Hockney (one of Orphanos’ favorite portraits shot on a bleak day with little light), Elaine De Kooning, Larry Rivers, Greek painter and designer Yannis Tsarouchis, and couturier James Galanos.
His show business portraits feature directors George Cukor, Jules Dassin, Costa Gavras, Jose Quintero, John Schlesinger, Roger Vadim, James Bridges and his partner Jack Larson with their dog Max (“The dog’s name was Max. He was very protective, and would not allow anyone to come within ten feet of either of Jack or James. He would not bark or bite–just kept nudging you further and further away. For this photo, however, he plopped down between them and posed!” Stathis Orphanos), actors Claire Bloom, Julie Harris, Mamie Van Doren, and “New Breed” actors of the 1980s such as Maxwell Caulfield and Esai Morales.
Stathis Orphanos said: “All final judgments are made in the darkroom. To be able to work on your own processing is a great advantage. Most of the celebrated photographers of today do not work on their own prints.”
His portraits also graced the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Lear’s Magazine and literary journals such as Antaeus and The Ontario Review. Orphanos’ style is very distinctive, black and white, focus on the face, which comes out from a completely dark background. As Orphanos said, “before black a face glows.”
Other than portraits, Orphanos also conducted a series of spontaneous photographs of the locker room activities of a professional soccer team and a series on sailors and marines taken in a San Diego naval base and at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where he photographed over one thousand U.S. Marines in one day. He was also the only photographer allowed to enter the private quarters of the Evzones, the historical elite light infantry and mountain units of the Greek Army, and nowaday members of the Presidential Guard. Of these series, featuring young, and mostly straight men, Reynolds Price observed that these pictures “go well past the usual hurly-burly to the core of male bonding that’s so mysterious, so threatful to women, yet so necessary to men’s continuance as whole upright and unconsumed creatures.” Orphanos said, “Young men love to be photographed. Young men crave attention. When it is finally bestowed on them through the intensity of a photo shoot, they are almost mesmerized by it. This results in vulnerable, uninhibited moments where I am able to capture their rare male grace.”
Orphanos also took portraits of same-sex partners (the aforementioned Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson, Jack Larson and James Bridges, but also Paul Cadmus and Jon Andersson, Horst P. Horst and Valentine Lawford, José Quintero and Nicholas Tsacrios), and it was due to one of these portraits that I had the chance to personally know Stathis. I was researching same-sex couples for a project of mine, and in particular, I was looking for public domain works. I found one portrait by Stathis Orphanos, and that was strange, since unless the author donates their body of work, copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the artist. I decided to write to Stathis and the reply was of course what I already knew: the portrait was not in public domain, and whoever uploaded it had infringed Stathis’ copyright. I simply expressed my regret, since the portrait was beautiful and fitting my project. Stathis asked what the project was. I explained I wanted to highlight long-term LGBT couples, in a joyous way, and he not only donated the portrait, but gave me the courtesy for many more, including one of Ralph and him in their twenties, right after they met and started a life and business partnership that was to last 58 years.
In June 2015, when Stathis donated the Stathis Orphanos Christopher Isherwood Collection and the Sylvester and Orphanos Archives to the Library of Congress, I flew from Italy to be there with him. That was the first and last time I met him face to face. We talked, he told me he was worried about his partner Ralph, who indeed was not well enough to be in Washington, D.C., with him, and he said I had to go to California and visit them. Recently I wrote to him and I did not receive a reply. That was strange since Stathis was always very polite. I started to worry, and I was searching the news and then on February 9 I received an email from Mark Manivong, the curator of the LGBT Special Collections at the Library of Congress: Stathis passed away on January 13, Ralph followed soon on January 23. Their memorial service was on February 2. That day many friends at the memorial service expressed surprise that their passing had not appeared in any newspapers. The common feeling of those friends was that it was a shame their passing went unnoticed.
Stathis Orphanos was born on October 12, 1940, in Greensboro, North Carolina, of Greek parents from the island of Samos. He spent part of his youth in Greece when the outbreak of the civil war trapped his family there between 1946 and 1949. They then moved to Connecticut and Stathis attended Cheshire Academy from 1952 to 1958. It was at Cheshire Academy that simultaneously Stathis had his first same-sex romantic encounters and began his intrest in photography, joining the school’s photographic club. “I remember having my first Rolleiflex back then,” Orphanos recalled, referring to a box camera that was popular at the time. “I am completely self-taught, and learned what mistakes to avoid with the results of my first roll of film.”
He attended Dennison University from 1958 to 1959, where he had his first serious love affair, and California State University, Los Angeles, from 1960 to 1962, where he studied with, among others, Dorothy Parker. She praised both his photographs and his written essays about Greece, but said, “You’ll have to choose, honey, between photography and writing.” Stathis’ first visit to California, from Connecticut in 1959, was to visit a prep school friend. His mother was a celebrity press agent, and the first telephone call Stathis answered at the Bel Air home was from Joan Crawford.
Stathis once told me how those in the LA scene tried to make an actor out of him, apparently he was too beautiful not to be an actor and they did not care when he stated that he had no interest in acting. He acquired a very good agent, the same one as Jack Nicholson; they appeared in the same actor booklet, since O of Orphanos was soon after the N of Nicholson. His agent managed to land Stathis an audition for the role of the young Elia Kazan in one of his autobiographical movies, and Stathis was so nervous he was overcome with nausea in front of Kazan… and that was the end of his career as an actor.
Ralph Sylvester was born on January 13, 1934, in Derry, Pennsylvania, of Italian descent. In 1956, he moved west when the army drafted him. He was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey. He immediately fell in love with California. In 1960, Stathis attended a summer course at the University of California, Los Angeles, and met Ralph; they were together ever since. Ralph initially worked for Decca Records in Hollywood. Eventually, Sylvester and Stathis became book scouts for legendary bookseller Peggy Christian. At the same time, Stathis also continued to pursue photography. His first literary subject was Christopher Isherwood. Over a hundred prominent authors followed in quick succession.
Ralph Sylvester turned their scouting into a successful book publishing business, Sylvester & Orphanos, first in 1972 with a common friend, George Fisher, and then later as a duo when Fisher moved to New York, where he established his own successful business in 1976. Sylvester & Orphanos eventually established itself as a publishing firm specialized in limited-signed press books. Christopher Isherwood helped launch their new venture by allowing them to publish a deluxe edition of his autobiography, Christopher and His Kind, with original artwork by Don Bachardy. In 1978, Isherwood introduced Sylvester & Orphanos to Gore Vidal. Stathis would remember, “I first photographed Gore Vidal in 1978 at his home in the Hollywood Hills, and many times thereafter, the last being in 2006.” In 1979, Sylvester & Orphanos published Vidal’s Sex Is Politics and Vice Versa.
Sylvester & Orphanos published in total 25 limited editions, including works by William Styron (Shadrach), Graham Greene (How Father Quixote Became a Monsignor, A Quick Look Behind: Footnotes to an Autobiography and A Weed Among the Flowers), John Cheever (The Leaves, The Lion-fish, and the Bear, The National Pastime and Expelled), Nadine Gordimer (Town and Country Lovers), V. S. Naipau (A Congo Diary), James Merrill (Samos), Donald Barthelme (The Emerald), Philip Roth (Novotny’s Pain), James Purdy (Scrap of Paper & The Berry-Picker: Two Plays), Tennessee Williams (It Happened the Day the Sun Rose), Paul Bowles (In the Red Room), and John Updike (Impressions).
Sylvester and Orphanos collaborated on the art direction of their publications, with careful, masterful curation of paper stock, cover papers, and blind stamping to complement the texts themselves. According to Dan Luckenbill, curator of a 1990 exhibition of their works at UCLA, Sylvester & Orphanos realized that the deckled edges of the paper would be lost if the sheets were folded and trimmed by an automated machine. Sylvester inspected and hand-folded the sheets for each book. He used a light table to align the box of print when folding the miniatures. For miniatures, printers left extra margins which must be trimmed. Each edition of a miniature required approximately 20,000 hand cuts by Sylvester. He also learned the craft of making slipcases. He made mounted cases, whereas the more usual commercial case was scored and folded board. Sylvester & Orphanos designed the labels or the stamps for the spines and also affixed all the labels. They also affixed the printed covers for the Cheever and Gordimer stories so that the patterns would meet the edges correctly. James Merrill wrote to them “My taste, whatever that is–or was–runs to the serviceable and compact; but what you’ve produced simply rises above & beyond such humdrum standards into a dream-world of gorgeousness. Thank you!” Paul Bowles said their volumes were “a delight to the eye and hand, a proof that the making of fine books is still within the realm of the possible.”
One of Sylvester & Orphanos most elaborate publications was Tsarouchis, the Face of Modern Greece, devoted to gay Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis. It included thirty-two color plates as well as tributes by major world figures in the arts: Melina Mercouri (preface), Odysseus Elytis, Yannis Ritsos, Alekos Fassianos, Michael Cacoyannis, Costa Gavras, Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis, Vangelis, Stavros Xarhakos, James Merrill, Reynolds Price, John Updike, Paul Cadmus, David Hockney, Sir Stephen Spender, Franco Zeffirelli, Jules Dassin, and the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Horst. The book was limited to 350 copies, signed by all the contributors.
Digby Diehl in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner said they were “the elite craftsmen of book publishing.” Charles Champlin in the Los Angeles Times said that their books were “exemplary works of fine printing and an impressive homage to their authors.” The Los Angeles Magazine wrote that theirs was “a unique example of the bookmaker’s art.” The California Magazine wrote that their production was an “exceptionally elegant examples of fine printing, binding, and design by a new California firm.” Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis talking about Expelled by John Cheever wrote to them “it is an exquisite, beautifully produced volume, as delightful in its form as in its content.”
In 1990, the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections displayed a combined exhibition curated by Dan Luckenbill of Orphanos photographs and limited-edition books, published with Ralph Sylvester. After the exhibition, UCLA established a Stathis Orphanos Photographic Archive at their University Research Library’s Special Collections Department. The collection consists of copies of portraits, reproductions of portraits in various literary magazines, lists of publications and exhibits, ephemera relating to publications and exhibits, memoirs, correspondence with David Zeidberg, and a copy of a letter about his short fiction piece, “Bathyllus,” from Colin Wilson.
In 1996, the Beverly Hills Civic Center exhibited a retrospective of Stathis Orphanos’ photographs curated by Stefan Klima. Other exhibitions includes The Benaki Museum in Athens, The Oceanside Museum of Art, as well at several art galleries, including New York’s Midtown and Charles Cowles galleries.
Stathis Orphanos was also an author of fiction, including stories set in Greece, and non-fiction, including tales of his photographing sessions. 2006 saw the release of Orphanos’ first photography book, My Cavafy, with images relating to the poetry of Greece’s greatest modern poet, Constantine Cavafy. The preface was by Gore Vidal. The exhibition My Cavafy opened in West Hollywood on July 24, 2010.
Beginning of 2015 Orphanos’ photographs and publications were on display at The Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles and in June 2015 The Library of Congress hosted an exhibition of the same photographs and publications, which are now part of the Stathis Orphanos Christopher Isherwood Collection and the Sylvester and Orphanos Archives at the Library of Congress.
When I asked Stathis about his relationship with Ralph, he told me, “by becoming business partners as well as mates, we have broadened our relationship, with increasing interests and dedication, twice fold. I am convinced that it why this relationship remains as vital today as on that fateful day when we first met.”
Late in 2017 friends, speaking with Stathis, said he was worried about Ralph. Ralph had been in a hospice for a while and moved from hospital to his home with round the clock care. Stathis and those near him had all begun to prepare for Ralph’s passing. Talking with a friend, Stathis prophetically said that when one gay partner dies, often the second follows soon after. He then said he had lots to accomplish and didn’t plan to do that. He joked that straight widows live on forever. Almost to answer to his prophecy, Stathis was diagnosed with throat cancer but was told that the recovery rate was very good, 85%. Juli Veee took him to all of his appointments and as it became necessary, handled his tube feeding five times each day. Unfortunately, Stathis developed a temperature and they took him to the ER where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was in the ICU for four days and was beginning to show signs of improvement but then had a stroke. Things rapidly deteriorated from there and he passed away on January 13, at 77 years old, tragically coincidentally on Ralph’s 84th birthday. Ralph passed away ten days later.
Stathis Orphanos (October 12, 1940 – January 13, 2018)
Ralph Sylvester (January 13, 1934 – January 23, 2018)
Featured photo Ralph Sylvester (right) and Stathis Orphanos (left) Courtesy of Stathis Orphanos for Days of Love, Elisa Rolle