Neal Barr produced some of the most iconic celebrity and fashion images of the 1960s and ‘70s. He worked with a who’s who of industry giants, and chronicled Paris haute couture in its heyday. But before NYC and the Palace of Versailles, Neal Barr was shooting fashion pictures in the lobby of the Ventura Theater, where he worked as a teen.
Like so many other local aspiring photographers, he benefited from the tutelage of Denning “Mac” McArthur, a former Ventura High School teacher now in his 90s. “Mac was the first to teach us technical awareness, and he really let us run free with our ideas,” Barr explains. “He had a great creative eye. Even now, he still does.”
After 43 years in New York City—where his work has graced the illustrious exhibit halls of The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Staley-Wise Gallery, to name a few—Neal Barr is back in his hometown and working on a book based on his own sizzling collection of 1920s couture. His studio off Telephone Road is a fantasy of vintage fashion, with stacks of archival materials lining the walls and relics of self-made vogue history at every turn.
But success in the cutthroat world of high fashion didn’t come easy. Consider the circular path he has traveled: a family-owned bakery (Barr’s Bakery) on Thompson Boulevard during the Great Depression; rationing of essential ingredients like butter, sugar, and shortening during World War II; a stint in the U.S. Army (“the first time I got to travel outside of Ventura”); years of grunt work assisting some of the top fashion editors and photographers of the day—Irving Penn, Ray Kellman, Wilhela Cushman. His tenure with Cushman in the late ‘50s led to Paris, where they shot the collections in the most celebrated corners of Versailles, including the gardens, the hall of mirrors, and the petit hameau of Marie Antoinette.
Most eager young photographers return home with the stars in their eyes dulled by rejection. Ventura’s Neal Barr is the exception. “I went to New York to work for a fashion magazine, either Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar,” he says, laughing at his own naivety. “Looking back, I was really quite fortunate to succeed.”
WARREN BEATTY: “He was a very nice guy, not at all ‘precious.’ He said he was considering making a movie about Bonnie and Clyde, and asked what I thought about shooting a gangster movie in color… We worked around a little bit for this shot. He had on a white shirt and a tie. I had a black sweater in the dressing room, and asked if he’d put that on. Well, first I asked if he’d take his shirt off, but he said no (laughs). I just wanted to get some edge—something interesting, rather a tie and white shirt. So he came back in and I said, ‘Instead of sitting in a chair, why don’t you get down on the floor.’ And I got down on the floor and started shooting these pictures with available light. He got very comfortable with that, and started working with his hands around the face to prop himself up. Something clicks when you know you’re onto something. When I got to this, I knew it was happening. And that’s the excitement of an assignment. It’s something you can’t plan. It’s something you just work with, and work and work and work until it happens—in that little frame.”
LEE REMICK: “This was the same shoot as the Sharon Tate picture, for the fur coat article in Harper’s. We just got in the car and drove up to Central Park. The whole thing is orchestrated: the hair dresser comes on, the makeup people come on… This wasn’t any part of her actual world or how she lived. I doubt she ever dressed this way or made her hair this way. The art director suggested the back of a car, and I thought up the idea using dogs and the chauffer. It just makes it more interesting.”
DIANE KEATON: “Diane was just a real charming girl, lots of fun, with a good sense of humor. She thought the whole thing—getting her picture taken in this leopard thing, which was selected by the editors—was kind of a gas… Here, she’s on a big sheet of plexiglass. I thought it would be a great idea, just a prop. I used that plexiglass for several years. It had a bend in it, and when I put a spotlight on it interesting things happened. It would reflect up on the wall and make different designs. Girls would sit on it, on the curve of it, and it just opened up a whole new thing. In New York City, you’re exposed to all these specialized stores. There’s this place on Canal Street called Industrial Plastics, and I ordered a four-by-eight piece of bent plastic. That’s the nice thing about New York City: you’re exposed to so many ideas. There are so many things you can draw from, and ideas just come to you.”