In Michael Montfort's photographs, L.A.'s late poet laureate of the gutter gets bent and knocks the bejesus out of literary decorum
by Stephen Lemons
Originally published in Salon.com, June 15, 2000
Photographer Michael Montfort sucks on a dime-store cigar with that perpetual hangdog expression of his and begs off taking a swig from the gallon jug of cheap bourbon his gallery owner has brought forth.
"Too early," he says in his German accent. "And besides, my doctor would kill me. I'm not supposed to touch the stuff."
Granted, it's only a little after 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon -- and the bourbon is on the low end, with a name like Kentucky Gold or some such. Still, the subject before us is Charles Bukowski, one of the many patron saints of literary dipsomania (along with Faulkner, Hemingway, Chandler and all the rest). A shot or two of rotgut ought to be just what the doctor ordered.
Montfort, 59, eyes the brown juice like he's tempted to say to hell with it and break out a straw. "No, I better not," he says, finally. "You go ahead."
No one has to tell me twice. As I baptize my tonsils in firewater, Montfort recalls the first time he met Bukowski, the poet and novelist who died in 1994 with dozens of books to his name and a rabid international following. We're sitting at a round, wooden table just outside of the Coagula Projects art gallery, in a converted brewery downtown with a mess of Montfort's Bukowski photos spread out before us.
"It was a 1977 cover story for a German literary magazine named Rogners," explains Montfort, who strangely looks a little like Bukowski, save for the glasses he has on. "That's when he was just starting to take off in Germany. I was scared shitless to meet the guy because of his image. I thought I'd never get out alive. So I brought a case of beer or wine, and that impressed him for the next 20 years."
This shrewd move on Montfort's part was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Bukowski didn't like having his photo taken, according to Montfort, and he didn't like new faces. So when Bukowski, who was German-born, got along with this young, easygoing shutterbug from the homeland, Montfort became the official photographer of sorts for the hard-bitten American Rabelais whose legend was on the rise. It also helped that Montfort, after reading a ton of Buk's poetry, became a fan.
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