Julian Wasser, Famed L.A. Photojournalist, Dies at 89

Wasser’s iconic photographs of the 1960s and 1970s L.A. demimonde captured the city and its popular culture at a moment of reinvention.

Photographer Julian Wasser, who captured multiple shades of light and dark during the cultural upheaval in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 70s, died on Wednesday night. He was 89.

As a teenager, Wasser began photographing crime scenes in Washington, DC, borrowing his father’s Contax 35mm camera. His striking skills in composition led to his recruitment as a West Coast contract photographer for Time magazine, among other major publications of the era. Along the way, he captured iconic images of Steve McQueen, the Fondas, Hugh Hefner, Joan Didion posing with her Corvette Stingray, and a closeup of a still-glowing Marilyn Monroe applauding at the Golden Globes in 1962.

SEX AND RAGE: Babitz and Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. The now-famous photo was her revenge on the museum’s married director, with whom she was having an affair. (JULIAN WASSER, PASADENA ART MUSEUM, 1963)

In 1963, assigned by Time to cover the landmark Marcel Duchamp exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, Wasser shot the conceptual artist playing chess with a nude woman. As Duchamp’s naked opponent, Wasser recruited 19-year-old Eve Babitz, later an acclaimed L.A. writer, who happened to be dating the married curator of the show, Walter Hopps.

“Well, [Duchamp] was into chess and he did the Nude Descending a Staircase. So you get a nude, chess, a girl with giant tits. Why not?” Wasser told Los Angeles last year as part of an exclusive oral history of Babitz. “I photographed Eve before. She was a total exhibitionist, so anything could happen.”

Julian Wasser in the mid-1970s
Julian Wasser in the mid-1970s BRAD ELTERMAN

The image became one of Wasser’s most famous photos, but it was just one of many assignments over the decades that captured moments of high pop culture with style and skill at a highly competitive time in photojournalism. The 60s in particular was a special time in Los Angeles, long before TMZ and an army of paparazzo commandos descended. Celebrities were more accessible then, Wasser recalled, and the pictures were better because of it.

He was as comfortable on movie sets with Jack Nicholson and Alfred Hitchcock as he was visiting Rodney’s English Disco on Sunset Blvd. for a fiery performance by Iggy and the Stooges. He captured now-classic portraits on sound stages for Charlie’s Angels to Rosemary’s Baby and mingled easily with the pop stars of the moment: the Beatles, Beach Boys and Byrds in the 1960s; Bowie, the Jackson 5 and the New York Dolls in the 1970s.

For years, Wasser worked out of a pair of apartments (across the hall from Leslie Caron) on Young Drive in Beverly Hills, surrounded by police scanners to alert him to scoops, and owned one of the first mobile phones in Los Angeles.

“He was one of the most unique individuals I ever met: brilliant, funny, charming, charismatic, educated, self-taught,” says photographer Brad Elterman, who met Wasser in 1976.

“My father lived life on his own terms. He was a very interesting, talented, funny, character. I’m very grateful to be his daughter,” artist-actress Alexi Wasser posted of his death on Instagram. “Whether in L.A., New York, Paris, Berlin, or London, he lived to hang out! He loved meeting people, making wisecracks, flirting, being inappropriate, taking photos, watching movies.”


In 2014, Didion told Vogue that Wasser’s photograph of her with baby daughter Quintana Roo in 1968 was “my favorite picture ever. Julian took beautiful pictures. Anybody who had their picture taken by Julian felt blessed.”

Wasser is survived by his daughter, Alexi, and son, James.