Ralph Steadman, an illustrator and the subject of the film “For No Good Reason,” speaks about his creative process.
“I really thought what I would do, if I ever learned to draw properly, was I would try to change the world,” the British artist Ralph Steadman explains in “For No Good Reason,” Charlie Paul’s documentary about him, opening Friday.
So in 1970 Mr. Steadman, his first marriage imploding, jetted to New York, where he planned to take a thousand photographs that would inspire the illustrations he couldn’t seem to get quite right.
As he explains in the film, speaking of his early work: “There was an arrogance missing, there was a wildness missing, there was a rawness missing. It lacked that bite I needed, that real ferocious bite, the thing that would make it noticeable.”
Then he received instructions to meet Hunter S. Thompson, not long after his infiltration of the Hells Angels.
The weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare, Mr. Steadman recalls, and he and Thompson went to pieces.
Thus, the gonzo school of journalism — in which the writer (and in this decadent collaboration, the illustrator) becomes the story— was born. What would Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” be without his immortal ink-speckled and splotched drawings, Mr. Steadman argues.
And where would his art have been without his immersion into the cesspool of tattered souls he found on the Bowery of Manhattan?
“My experience in New York gave me the conviction that I needed to make this the work of my life,” he says of the illustrations born from that early trip, one of which — “New York Citizen 2” — is shown here.
An Extended Hand On the Bowery …
“I was drawn towards Skid Row,” Mr. Steadman says in the movie, as “almost a museum of misery and deprivation.” Of the wrung-out denizens he shot with his Minox camera, he adds: “I found it upsetting seeing all these vagrant people wandering the streets and always staggering towards you and grabbing you by the hand and saying, ‘Give us a dime, buddy, this is a tough city to get started in.’ It’s hopeless. They could never do it. And I wanted to capture that sort of look, that face.”
… Becomes A Vision
“The kind of human misery encapsulated there — I don’t think I was dwelling on it, and I was sad to see it,” Mr. Steadman said in a phone interview from Kent, England. “That’s what I wanted the camera for: to give me a record. I could so easily forget all these images.” Illustrations resulting from that visit will be displayed at the Red Bull Studio New York, at 218 West 18th Street, on Thursday and Friday. “I still think the computer has so confused us that we don’t quite have the strong moral compass that we should,” he said of his preference for drawing by hand. “I always say to people that I like to see wet ink. A computer leaves me unable to do what I live for: to find something unexpected.”
ARTIST RAHPH STEADMAN: A NICE MAN FOR A PICTORIAL ASSASSIN
Steadman’s drawing of Hunter S. Thompson’s car beset by huge bats illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1971.
Ralph Steadman is known to most Americans for the surreal illustrations he drew to accompany Hunter S. Thompson’s articles and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
But Steadman has drawn everything from extinct birds to savage political caricatures to wine and beer labels. He’s even written an opera libretto.
The British artist is also the subject of a documentary, titled For No Good Reason, narrated by Johnny Depp.
Such A Nice Man, Such Dangerous Drawings
Steadman’s drawings are a ferocious tangle of ink blotches and lines that famously distort but also reveal their subjects. They’re scary, says filmmaker Charlie Paul.
“I was concerned that Ralph’s art would be the man and that I’d end up trying to make a film with someone who had this kind of aggressive attitude towards the world,” Paul says. “But Ralph is such a lovely, warm and generous man, and yet he goes to his table and creates these pieces of art which are dangerous and, to be perfectly honest, quite upsetting sometimes.”
That’s exactly what the J.C. Suares, the art director of Scanlan’s magazine, was looking for when he hired Steadman to accompany Thompson to the Kentucky Derby in 1970, says Victor Navasky, author of a history of political cartoons called The Art of Controversy.
Suares “said he treated [Steadman] with caution,” Navasky says. “He treated him as if he were dealing with a hit man, a Mafia hit man, because he saw these caricatures as the equivalent of assassins.”
The film tries to understand how such a nice man can become a pictorial assassin. Steadman suggests he first learned to distrust authority in childhood in response to an abusive headmaster at his school. He was ready to take on America when he arrived in 1970, during protests of the Vietnam War.
“I think America is where all that was going wrong in the world was being nurtured,” Steadman says. “It seemed to me they needed attacking. It was something that absolutely had to be done.”
Steadman feels his friendship and professional alliance with Thompson sharpened his attack. The title of the film even comes from one of Thompson’s cryptic explanations.
“You know, we’d be doing some ridiculous thing at the Watergate hearings or something, and I’d say, ‘Hunter, why are we doing this?’ And he said, ‘For no good reason, Ralph.’ Always, ‘For no good reason.’ ”