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Prince of pinups still reigns

Glamour photographer Peter Gowland, who began his career in WWII, keeps reinventing himself.

April 13, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

First he invented his own brand of glamour photography. Then he built a canyon studio as a backdrop for his pictures. And finally he designed his own camera to snap them with. No wonder photographer Peter Gowland developed into what many consider the prince of pinups.

Hundreds of beautiful women have posed in front of his Gowlandflex camera wearing little more than smiles. Generations of photographers have tried to imitate the exuberance and fun depicted in sun-drenched Gowland glamour shots. It was Gowland, they say, who took the cheesiness out of cheesecake by giving swimsuit and figure photography a distinctive Southern California look.

Starting with the casual recruitment of pretty women at the beach, Gowland spent more than half a century turning cute girls into calendar models. And he has done it with his wife of 62 years at his side for every click of the shutter.

"Women like working with us because of Alice," Gowland says, grinning at his wife as he swivels a huge overhead umbrella light reflector that is built into the ceiling of his airy photo studio.

But now, with a shrinking demand for pinup girls, Peter Gowland is reinventing himself at age 88.

With the usual help of his wife, he has set up to showcase and market some of their past work. (They have more than 100,000 negatives cataloged in office cabinets.)

He still manufactures his Gowlandflex cameras in his home workshop. Resembling a supersized Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, the camera uses 4-by-5-inch sheet film and, at 8 pounds, is light enough to handhold in the surf. But it produces high-resolution negatives and color transparencies that generally satisfy the pickiest magazine cover printer.

Gowland has made about 1,500 cameras -- including aerial and 8-by-10-inch studio models. Most have gone for governmental and advertising work and to large-format photographers such as Yousuf Karsh and Annie Leibovitz.

He is also creating two new cameras. "I'm making things other people don't make. These are going to be the world's lightest 5-by-7 and 8-by-10 cameras. They'll be 3 pounds and 4 1/2 pounds," he says. "They'll be perfect for backpackers who want to get out and hike and take the kind of pictures Ansel Adams took."

The workshop and sun-drenched studio are off the living room of the Pacific Palisades home that the couple built in 1955 in Rustic Canyon. A small stream flows year-round out front. In back, the studio's glass wall opens to a swimming pool nestled against a woodsy hillside.

Rustic Canyon Creek has been used as the setting for hundreds of magazine and calendar photos by the Gowlands. So have the pool and the whitewashed studio -- whose main wall seamlessly curves from a white terrazzo floor into a high, white-plaster ceiling.

Few readers or calendar gazers have probably paid much notice, though. If they weren't admiring unknown models, they were enjoying Gowland pictures of emerging actresses Ann-Margret, Joey Heatherton, Anna Kashfi, Tina Louise, Yvette Mimieux and Julie Newmar.

The Gowlands were among the first to photograph Jayne Mansfield, who sent the pair thank-you notes after her sessions with them. Actress Joan Collins patiently posed for them at the beach, in their studio and finally on their pool patio. A young Raquel Welch remained good-natured as she attracted a crowd while posing at Will Rogers State Beach.

As their fame grew, celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Deborah Kerr, Rhonda Fleming and Robert Wagner passed through the Gowlands' studio. Book publishers came calling too, commissioning what would eventually total 25 photography books written by Alice and illustrated by Peter.

In the '50s and '60s, the Gowlands shot 10 photo layouts and four covers for Playboy magazine. They calculate their photos have been used on more than 1,000 other magazine covers as well.

Whirlwind romance

The Gowlands started in glamour photography by accident.

Peter, the son of character actor Gibson Gowland, was working as a movie extra and stand-in when he met Alice in 1941. He was 25 and was focusing on becoming a cinematographer. But in the meantime, he was sneaking a Rolleiflex still camera into the studio in his lunch bag and snapping portfolio shots of fellow actors during production breaks.

Alice Adams, 21, was a Lockheed Aircraft secretary. She and Peter hit it off when one of her boyfriends asked him to take a picture of her.

"Our first date was Dec. 7, 1941, the day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor," Peter says. "It was a date that lived in infamy." Alice made it clear from the start that any real intimate relationship would have to be based on marriage. So on their second date two weeks later they eloped to a Las Vegas wedding chapel called the Hitching Post.

"We didn't know each other very long, but I could see he was inventive," recounts Alice.

"She married me because she thought I'd last a long time because I never really worked. I don't figure I've ever worked a day in my life," he retorts. "Everything I do is fun."

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