Cary News

Cary photographer reflects on stories behind famous shots

Gordon Munro took this photo in 1983 of singer Grace Jones with $3 million of diamonds. It was on the cover of Interview Magazine the same year.
Gordon Munro took this photo in 1983 of singer Grace Jones with $3 million of diamonds. It was on the cover of Interview Magazine the same year. GORDON MUNRO

From a photo of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in nothing but a towel to singer Grace Jones with $3 million worth of diamonds perched in her teeth, Gordon Munro’s photography portfolio is vast and exciting.

Munro, a British-born and New York-trained photographer, spent his career photographing celebrities and high fashion. Now 78, he is retired in Cary and only works if a former client calls.

But he selected 38 of his favorite photos for an exhibit at the Cary Visual Art Gallery at The Cary News. The portraits include such names as Susan Sarandon, Shirley MacLaine, Liz Taylor and Magic Johnson, most taken in the 1970s and ’80s. There also are still lifes of flowers in ice and food.

The exhibit of mostly black-and-white photos is on display through Aug. 26. An opening reception is Friday, July 29, in the gallery, which is on the second floor of The Cary theater, as part of the Final Friday events.

Munro’s photos have a thousand words behind them. He reflected on the stories shortly after the collection was hung in the gallery, including the 1983 photo of Jones for Interview magazine – the one with the mouthful of precious stones.

“They came down with a guard, who was packing a gun, and he sat at a table in my studio,” he said, describing what it was like to use the pricey jewels in a shoot. “The guard didn’t know what to do. I think he thought she was going to swallow them.”

He said he ended up enjoying photographing celebrities almost more than he enjoyed fashion photography, which is what made him want to be a photographer in the first place.

“They were all so enthusiastic,” Munro said, “They came in wanting to work, and sometimes they’d work their butts off, like Shirley MacLaine. When I finished shooting her, for a half day, I was exhausted.”

The royal effect

Growing up, Munro said he never thought of photography as a career, but was inspired to pursue it by an unlikely influence: the Royals.

When Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister, married an aristocratic and famous fashion photographer, Antony Armstrong-Jones, Munro bought magazines with the couple plastered on the cover and Armstrong-Jones’ photographs inside.

“I was just flabbergasted by the pictures in there,” he said. “I realized there was a whole career out there that really would be exciting.”

After he spent a few years as an assistant in London, a friend told him, “Go to New York. That’s where they all are.”

Munro soon found himself in New York City chasing a dream.

“All of my heroes were in New York,” he said.

He got a job with famous fashion photographer Irving Penn, who Munro said was “the most influential photographer in New York at that time.”

Munro eventually opened his own studio on Fifth Avenue, where he shot for fashion designer Bill Blass, among other high-profile clients.

The photos he took for Blass are among his favorites in the gallery, which features three of them. He said they have to do more with the memories behind the photos than their content.

“That was really exciting to work for someone like Bill,” he said. “It was sort of like an exciting transition for me, so they’re my favorite pictures just because they remind me of that time, and also they’re very elegant.”

He also photographed for Interview and Harper’s Bazaar, and worked with many different pop-culture personalities.

Six portraits in the gallery reflect the time period they were taken. After actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, actress Elizabeth Taylor became part of the effort to create amFAR, the foundation for AIDS research. Munro was invited to photograph Taylor and other celebrities at a charity event for the organization in 1986.

“Instead of the 30 or 40 different celebrities we thought would come, we had 144,” Munro said. “It was just extraordinary.”

The result is a series of six group photos of Taylor surrounded by famous friends and donors.

Munro laughed about how Grace Jones managed to sneak herself into the two photos with Taylor and Calvin Klein.

But he became serious in talking about how the cause is close to his heart as well, with many of his friends and colleagues affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s.

“So many hairdressers and make-up artists and stylists I knew,” he said. “My studio manager, he died of AIDS. He was with me for 14 years.”

Moving south

After spending most of his career in the Big Apple, he said he settled down in North Carolina after he fell in love with the state – and his wife – while boarding his horse in Southern Pines.

“I started to slow down a little bit, and we decided we didn’t want to go on living in New York,” he said. “We just thought of North Carolina, because we loved it.”

He and his wife, Aileen, who works as a nurse, found a house in Cary.

He got involved with Cary Visual Art after he briefly owned a gallery a few years ago. He said he likes that CVA now has a new space in downtown Cary to showcase art.

“The idea of having a new artist every month or two is really going to generate interest,” he said.

Most of his photos in the gallery are from a time when photography required a lot of equipment and precision. The art of photography has changed drastically over the years, Munro said, but he added that he embraces the emergence of digital cameras and photographs, even though his career was based around film.

“I hated digital when it first happened, because it was very primitive and it was very hard to work with,” he said. “However, it has become so perfect now that I prefer it to film.”

With the presence of digital and smartphone photography, Munro said it makes photography more convenient, but it doesn’t make photography, and art, any less important.

“I think art, any kind of art, whether it be music or ballet, or theater or really good movies, or books, it’s all important,” he said. “Because it expands people’s view of the world and learning about the world, to see things, appreciate things, have a feeling about things.”

Paige Connelly: 919-460-2609; @pconnellly

Want more?

“The Photographs of Gordon Munro” will be on display through Aug. 26 at the CVA Gallery at The Cary News on the second floor of The Cary Theater, 122 E. Chatham St. An opening reception is Friday, July 29, from 6 to 9 p.m. Limited edition prints will be sold. The gallery is open Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 6 p.m.; Friday, noon to 8 p.m., and by appointment. Call 919-531-2821 or email cva@caryvisualart.org.

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