Joseph Cultice’s best photograph: Marilyn Manson with prosthetic breasts

‘I wanted to make Manson look beautiful. But people found this image haunting and grotesque’

In the late 90s, Marilyn Manson was the new rock star in Los Angeles. I’d already gone on the road with him and shot a few covers, including the Smells Like Children EP, and done the press shots for his album Antichrist Superstar. So I felt like I’d earned the album cover of Mechanical Animals.

I always found it funny that people find the image haunting and grotesque. I wanted to make Manson look beautiful, like Bowie from the cover of Diamond Dogs. To make his prosthetic boobs, we drove out to the San Fernando Valley, where a Japanese special effects artist named Screaming Mad George had his studio. They brought in three different girls to get their breasts cast. In the end, the sculptor decided he’d rather make the prosthetic breasts from his imagination.

We did the photoshoot in LA. At first, Manson wanted to be wearing three sets of breasts, and we were planning a scene where he’d be on his hands and knees, and the breasts would be hanging there and there’d be little dogs at his teats. But we looked at the first Polaroids and there was nothing sexy about it.

But I had the cover image in my head. We covered Manson’s body in liquid latex. You pour it on and it dries smooth on your body, like a mannequin. Someone did Manson’s hair and face makeup while the liquid latex was being applied, then we attached one pair of the prosthetic boobs. I was ecstatic when I saw how he looked.

We shot about 20 rolls of film. Manson really got into it. He really thought about his poses. He’s one of the few rock stars who loves having their picture taken. Even on the shoot, I felt like this was history. I knew that image was going to be my pièce de résistance. I remember Manson’s reaction when he saw the Polaroids. It was, like: “Oh my God, this is it.” I have a bunch of photos of him looking really happy, having the breasts taken off afterwards. Johnny Depp owns one set of those boobs now. He keeps them in a glass case.

After the shoot, we started retouching the image. We didn’t have Photoshop, just a program called Barco Creator, on which it took us a week just to retouch one photo. I put six fingers on Manson’s left hand, to add a little weirdness. Towards the end, we were trying to get his hips to look like a woman’s, because Manson’s body is like a tube. In the same studio where we were working, there was another retoucher working on a photo of Elle Macpherson walking out of the ocean. I was like: “That’s it!” So Peter Gott, who was working with me on retouching, laid that shot of Elle Macpherson on top of Manson’s image, and we shaped his hips just like hers.

Manson’s breasts originally had nipples, and the sleeve designer had put the album title on a plastic sleeve that slid over the CD in such a way that it covered the nipples and you couldn’t see them. We presented his management and Interscope records with this beautiful print of the cover. But the next day, I was told: “We gotta take the nipples off or Walmart won’t sell it.” So the designer retouched it and took them off … but Walmart banned it anyway.

When Mechanical Animals came out, they put a big billboard of the cover up in Times Square. The band and I got in a limousine and drove down to find it. We all stuck our heads out and looked up at it, awestruck. Why was that image so powerful? I think the fact that it’s so real – and so unreal, at the same time – twisted people’s minds around. They couldn’t stop looking at it.

I haven’t shot Manson since. We’ve had a few flirtations, but for whatever reason, it never happened. When Mechanical Animals was over, I needed to go away from him for a while. The lifestyle was all too hedonistic for my fair constitution.

Portrait of photographer Joseph Cultice for My Best Shot only
Joseph Cultice Photograph: Joseph Cultice

Joseph Cultice’s CV

Born: Yellow Springs, Ohio, 1963.

Trained: Arts BA at Arizona State University, and assistant to photographers including Annie Leibovitz.

Influences: Nick Knight, Garry Winogrand, Joel-Peter Witkin.

High point: “My teenage dreams of being part of music history coming true.”

Low point: “I turned down a shoot with a new artist, because my son had just been born. It was Lady Gaga.”

Top tip: “Don’t be a flake, don’t over-promise, be prepared and drink good coffee. And enjoy it – life is short.”

• See more work on Joseph Cultice’s photobook, Pop Is Personal, is out later this year. Marilyn Manson’s new album, We Are Chaos, is out now on Loma Vista.


Interview by Henry Yates

The GuardianTramp

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