Most of you will know Russ Meyer as the auteur of sleaze, the most successful and iconic filmmaker in the sexploitation genre. His films are love letters to hypersexual, highly empowered and incredibly curvaceous women. Meyer turned his breast fetish into a profitable career and, whether or not it floats your own boat (which becomes more debatable as his subjects get more exaggerated in his later films), he managed to capture on celluloid a bevy of lovelies in their unique beauty. One cannot deny that Meyer’s camera adored the women it was pointed at. Each of his shots were composed and lit with a knowledge and understanding of photographing the female form that many directors now struggle to achieve, even with good cinematographers behind them. Russ Meyer was so successful because of his extensive experience and career in photography which preceded his filmmaking. Not many people know that Meyer started out as a combat photographer during WWII before moving on to the world of glamour photography.
Evelyn ‘Treasure Chest’ West
Like many men returning from the War, Meyer found nothing but rejection when it came to finding work back home in America. After doing the rounds in Hollywood trying to find film work, Meyer eventually bought himself a Speed Graphic camera and set about photographing the women that he desired the most. The future director started out taking photographs of stripper Evelyn ‘Treasure Chest’ West, doing a deal with the Oakland night club she was appearing in which saw him supply them with free stills in exchange for time taking pictures of her. After continuing to photograph various strippers that came into town (developing his stills in the family bathtub, much to Mother Meyer’s delight), a fellow combat buddy of Meyer’s persuaded him to try to take advantage of the recent boom in girlie mags and become a pin-up photographer. Russ signed up with the Globe agency and found himself shooting pictorial’s for Gent, Fling, Frolic and Escapade amongst a number of other publications.
It was an encounter with one particular stripper that would kick-start the ambition in Meyer to become a filmmaker. Through photographing strippers, Russ met Tempest Storm who was performing at the El Rey Burlesk Theatre, owned by Pete DeCenzie. After doing some stills work which the two men would sell at the theatre, Meyer decided to shoot a short reel of film of Tempest doing her stuff. After smuggling the reel into Kodak to be developed, Meyer showed the it to DeCenzie who loved it and invited Russ to film a show at the El Rey. That reel of film became Meyer’s first short film, The French Peep Show (1950), which is now presumed lost.
Although bitten by the filmmaking bug, Meyer’s enthusiasm and talent for glamour photography never died. During the 1950s he shot numerous photographs of his second wife Eve Meyer, including her pictorial when she became June’s Playboy Playmate in 1955. Eve was probably the only woman to have lingered for any significant time in front of Meyer’s camera and his pictures of her are undeniably is best. All the women he shot look beautiful, well poised and immaculate. Eve just looks something else, stellar almost. The chemistry between her and Meyer is evident in every shot he took. It’s an understatement to say that they just don’t make women like that anymore. Alongside Eve’s Playboy gatefold, Meyer only shot another two; Marguerite Empey and Yvette Vickers.
Meyer would go on to shoot many famous models and actresses during the 50s establishing him as one of the prominent pin-up photographers of the decade. Throughout his life, Russ would snap away at his paramour’s, actresses and muses. Some would appear in publications like Playboy, for instance his pictorial of then-wife Edy Williams to publicise the never made Viva Foxy!, whilst others appear on every other page of his autobiography A Clean Breast like a catalogue of conquests. Clearly a huge influence on his filmmaking career, everything Meyer learnt about exposing and exhibiting the female form he learnt from his stills career and for those who haven’t seen much of it, it’s worth checking out. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.