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Conversations with Photographer Ron Harris – 9/24/2008

Ron Harris, is a photographer. Possibly the greatest softcore glamour photographer alive or ever.

People like Hugh Hefner say that about Harris, and you’re not inclined to argue with such astute judgments. In fact Hefner, one time approached Harris about running the Playboy photography studio in Chicago.

“He flew me out there, and I saw the whole scene,” Harris relates.

“I saw the girls and the pool and said this is not for me. I had mainstream clients and I would have lost them. But still I thought Playboy was great. The girls were fresh, young and sweet. They were adorable girls. That’s what I do. I only shoot when I can find great girls.”

Harris has contacts all over the place for finding them.

I confess to Harris that I’m not up on him as much as, say, a Ron Vogel, a Keith Bernard or a Peter Gowland. Harris tells me that Gowland’s a neighbor of his and lives around the corner. Harris describes the fact that he, himself, lives in Malibu in a location that can only be described as very wealthy and majestic.

“I see Gowland and his wife every once in awhile,” he says.

Judging by Harris’ neighborhood, this glamour photography business evidently pays very well, and I’m kicking myself even more in hindsight. Because as a kid, guys like Vogel, Bernard and Gowland were to me the gods who strode an earth inhabited by pretty, naked women with soft lips, incredible curves and natural breasts.

And I wanted to be just like them- by finding some blonde in tight shorts with a beehive hairdo, taking her to the woods and returning her all in one piece. For professional purposes of photography, of course.

These guys who did that were my Mickey Mantles. So, instead of putting my ten year-old nose into the statistics section of Sporting News like I should have been doing, I went leafing through nudie photography mags at the local candy store. They sold for 75 cents, were composed of smoky, pulp pages, and Fawcett Publications put out a ton of ‘em.

I remember the first time I met Ron Vogel telling him this story and how I got to know his work. Vogel was frankly surprised that anyone recognized his name beyond the adult video business. Me, when it all came down to it, though, I dropped the ball. Instead of a Minolta, I picked up a pencil and began writing. Boy am I ever saddled with a sense of regret.

Obviously, I’m still writing and Gowland, at age 92, according to Harris, is still making his patented camera, The Gowlandflex. I know trivial shit like this – like all of Gowland’s early models by name. The first one I ever whacked off to was a dish with dimples named Shirley Bonne, and I still have an 8 by 10 of her in a glass frame somewhere.

So this is why I’m a little ashamed and embarrassed in talking to Harris, because to hear his story, Harris over the years has branded his name in a manner of a Ben Cartwright with a fiery Ponderosa ranch insignia stamped eternally on a cow’s ass. Just recently, I got a press release announcing Harris’ latest venture, and this is what prompted me to tell his PR firm, Black & Blue Media that I wanted to talk to him.

On another note, before Jane Fonda, before Richard Simmons, Harris hit upon the idea of aerobics exercise and how it could be mass marketed. In 1982, Harris created and directed Aerobicise featuring girls on rotating white turntables; and :20 Minute Workout, both aerobics-based television programs.

With those videos, he made a mint out of the $25,000 he owed his creditors. His attorney at the time was the noted Bombastic [Henry] Bushkin who was also Johnny Carson’s attorney. Bushkin asked Harris how he kept so trim. Harris explained that it was aerobics.

“I showed him the video,” Harris relates.

“He said I’m having dinner with the president of Viacom, mind if I show it to him? That year I made $4 million. That show [95 half hour episodes for Orion] did $24 million in sales. People Magazine called it the sexiest show on television and it became the pre-eminent exercise show in the world.”

Harris also wrote a book for Simon & Schuster called Aerobicise: 20 Minutes a Day.

Harris at 68 still works out five days a week, saying he’d have been dead by now if not for the fact. I gather from his portfolio that this panoply of pretty faces might have something to do with the comment. Harris, who doesn’t do drugs, and neither smokes nor drinks, relates a story about him and a young Gloria Steinem back in New York.

Harris was just getting started in his own business and Steinem was his first client.

In the course of human relations, Harris did his manly duty and turned that into a profitable business venture. After my assignations, I’d usually have to check my pocket to see if my money was still there. Which is probably the difference, right there, between a writer and a photographer.

Harris says Steinem is probably the smartest woman he ever met.

“And she hired me because she wanted to shag me.”

Harris and Steinem wound up working together for three years, and when she started up Ms., Harris shot all the covers.

In our phone chat, Harris tells me that I sound like someone he knows. I just about tell Harris he laughs exactly the same way as Karl The Birdman in my AdultFYI football pool does. Instead, I tell Harris how I get that comment or reasonable facsimile all the time from good looking women who now generally compare me to their grandfathers. Which, of course, depresses me no end.

“I have the same problem!” Harris roars.

Another little fact about Harris, totally unexpected, is that he was a child actor. He spent 12 years on Broadway in the New York theatre before he was 18 years old. Do the math.

“And you survived that,” I say.

“This is true,” says Harris. “But in those days we didn’t do drugs.”

“Then, again, you had guys like Fatty Arbuckle waiting in the wings with olive oil and a smile,” I remind Harris who attended the Actors Studio with Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen.

Harris was the one who taught McQueen how to ride a motorcycle. The lessons of which were put to good use in The Great Escape, I believe. And Harris, himself, studied acting under Sydney Lumet.

At the age of 19, Harris worked for the late fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo and, later, Richard Avedon. Scavullo paid him $37.50 a week plus meals.

“And all the ass he thought he could grab- which he couldn’t – with me,” Harris recalls, roaring again.

“Scavullo was probably THE best fashion photographer in New York,” Harris continues.

“And I was an assistant to his assistant but he tried to grab me too many times, and I punched him.”

[This is the kind of stuff you won’t find in Harris’ Wikipedia file, ladies and gents.]

I gently remind Harris that perhaps he should have been honored with that attempted reach around. Except Harris doesn’t think so. With the fact that most fashion photographers were gay, and Harris was straight, you could see a rich sexual life looming ahead of him. Fact is, if you listen to what Harris says, his life was basically stepping in the right kinds of shit over and over.

“It was the perfect spot for me,” Harris concedes. Harris continued in fashion photography for the next 40 years and has received over 3000 awards. Harris admits that during the Sixties all he cared about was winning awards and becoming a name.

During some point in all this, Harris along with his then wife, went to San Luis Obispo and bought a ranch with the thought of breeding Arabian horses. He also learned to fly. After a divorce and custody battle, Harris came to Los Angeles with his daughter and basically started afresh. He worked out of the Tom Kelly studio at Sunset near La Cienega.

“He shot the Marilyn Monroe picture that was the first cover of Playboy,” Harris explains. “He was a dirty old man.” One would imagine.

After his ex-wife sued him, it was then that Harris retained the Bombastic Bushkin and wound up with the Johnny Carson account as a result. Harris remembers photographing all of Carson’s wives and that Johnny was attracted to psycho broads.

Which pretty much brings us to the nows. Harris became a man about town but had trouble landing dates. Invariably he’d be asked what he did for a living and Harris would mention the Aerobicise tape.

“They’d tell me, oh, that’s pornography,” says Harris. “Anything sexy in this society is considered pornography. We’re the most puritanical society on earth which is probably good for pornography because everybody needs it and no one’s getting it.”

But no girl would date him because they saw Harris as this porno sleaze guy.

“I said fuck this. I went to Playboy and walked out with a contract for $172,000 to do a one hour show called Ron Harris’ Camera Up Close & Dangerous.”

Harris then got another contract for six one-hour specials called Naturals because he didn’t like shooting girls with fake tits. When the Internet boom hit, Harris then made another deal with Playboy to use all the shows on the ‘Net.

“They didn’t know what the Internet was,” Harris laughs.

“So I put up my first site, which I finally switched over to

And for the last 12 years, Harris has been building a site which he feels is “classier and slicker” than any in the world.

Masturbation videos are about the strongest that Harris shoots and he won’t even consider hardcore.

“And it’s probably the cleanest site on the Internet,” adds Harris who keeps doing better, financially, with it than the year previous.

Harris also has to laugh with how well-intentioned advisors kept telling him that he had to go more and more hardcore if he wanted to make money. I always heard the same comments – probably from a lot of the same people who have since gone out of business.

Harris has another site, which is a non-sexual, softcore site.

“It has the best photographs that I know how to do,” he says.

One of Harris’ truly great finds is a throwback to the girl-next-door models of the Fifties, named Kara Duhe, [pictured] with whom he has an exclusive contract.

“I call it a virtual girlfriend site because if you met this girl you’d want to have her as a girlfriend,” explains Harris.

“She’s not a slut. She’s a student. She’s adorable. She’s sweet. She’s smart. She goes to college and is a serious student. Any guy who gets her as a girlfriend would be lucky. And I know women. I’ve been around them my entire life.”

Asked if there was one girl who stood out in his mind from all his years, Harris will say, unequivocally, that it’s Duhe.

Harris has another intriguing site in the works called and subscribes to the theory that you can predict a woman’s choice of men based on the architecture of her own body.

“Women are the ones who do the choosing,” he lectures.

“Like female horses do the choosing of the male horse. What they’re looking for is balance. By that I mean if you got a girl with a big ass she’s always going to get fake tits to balance out her body. If she’s got a big ass, she wants a guy with a little ass. She doesn’t want to have children with a big ass. So you can actually put it into a mathematical formula. Show me the girl and I’ll show you what kind of guy she really wants. You can actually turn what we used to call chemistry into mathematics.”

Of course I don’t even counter with the argument that chicks, especially porn chicks who are built like boys are the ones generally getting the fake tits to begin with, thus putting a serious dent in Harris’ theory.

But Harris has done over 3,000 makeovers for Glamour magazine where the subject of, horse faces, big asses and fake tits, I gather, is common occurrence, town meeting material.

“I’ve spent my whole life doing this,” states Harris, noting that he comes into the glamour business from a completely different angle. Harris also laughs at today’s approach to porn.

“It’s all plastic, and the girls with tons of makeup and retouching look like Barbie dolls,” he comments.

“I’m not turned on by that. And it’s girls faking it. They’re lousy actresses to begin with and worse models.”

Which is not to say that Harris doesn’t shoot porn girls. But he usually gets them while they’re still oven fresh and not in a police lineup.

Harris shot Sasha Grey before anyone else did when Agent Mark Speigler brought her to him.

“I got her masturbating in my bedroom,” Harris recalls.

“I said what’s your first job tomorrow? She said I got a gangbang. I said do you like the idea? She said I love the idea of having two cocks in my little pussy.”

According to Harris, many of the agents will bring girls to him early on because he doesn’t scare women off by making a dirty old man grab for them.

“I treat them like princesses,” he says.

“I make them look beautiful, feel beautiful and they go away saying they had a great time and got great photographs.”

“My integrity is important.”


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