by Deborah Vankin
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Nothing says David Letterman like a greasy, New York City pizza box strewn with leftover crust remnants and crushed beer cans.
The late-night TV host may be retiring next month after 33 years on the air, but many of the photographs that ran as “bumpers” on TV before and after commercials or to introduce interview segments will make up an exhibition opening May 8 at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station.
All of the images in “The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” were shot by Marc Karzen, a staff photographer at NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” from 1982 to 1992.
“Initially we were just covering the bases, making bumpers,” Karzen says. “But these images, they started to take on a life of their own; they hit a nerve.”
Karzen would set up staged photography shoots with props, often in iconic locations around New York such as Grand Central Station and Yankee Stadium. Following a planned shot list, he’d create images he felt summed up the tone of Letterman’s show.
He roamed NYC backstreets in a rented limo, took over and temporarily trashed a Manhattan hotel room, wandered around the abandoned Natural History Museum after hours, commingling with dinosaur skeletons. He also captured serendipitous moments while out and about -- a bum on the street or copious steam rising from a sidewalk pothole -- that could work as a bumper.
Back in the office, in those pre-digital-photography, pre-Photoshop days, Karzen would print the images, then hand-manipulate them with scissors and glue or airbrushing to superimpose the “Late Night with David Letterman” text in witty, unexpected spots, like on the side of a bus. Or on a pizza box.
As a result, the photographs -- each of which Letterman personally approved before they aired -- are an interesting blend of art-directed photography and serendipitous Manhattan street life layered with hand-done graphics work. And they offer a window into a specific subset of New York that’s uniquely “Letterman-esque.”
The trick, Karzen says, was always searching for that special Letterman take on things, no matter the location. Even on an empty 747 airplane, in a hangar at JFK airport, in 1987 -- his favorite shoot.
“We had two stewardesses there, food, access to the cockpit,” he says. “We just shot from the point of view of what the Letterman show would see and do in an airplane. It wasn’t polished and pretty; it was more like airplane food on a tray after it was eaten.”
In 1993, after the host moved to CBS, that network created a new look and feel for “Late Show With David Letterman” that didn’t include Karzen’s bumpers. He kept the original photographs, though, and 20 of them will make up the exhibition along with newly printed images from Karzen’s original negatives.
“It was the job of my life,” Karzen says. “As a still photographer, seeing your work on television is a whole diff feeling than seeing it on a newsstand. The idea that millions of other people are watching this slice-of-life image at the same time, unlike now with time-shifted programming -- this simple, shared moment -- it was an exciting feeling.”
“The Letterman Bumpers, the Art of Late Night” runs May 8-24. There will be a preview of the artworks this Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. at the gallery, during which Karzen will give a talk about the work.
After the show closes, the original, master C-prints, with hand-done collage work and signed by Karzen, will be auctioned off at Santa Monica Auctions on May 31.
Karzen will also exhibit the works at Photo Independent, a three-day photography fair at Raleigh Studios May 1-3.