Photographing The Famous And Not-So-Famous!

by William Lulow

I was listening to a “famous” photographer, probably more famous than me, talk about photographing famous subjects and I noticed a group of people paying rapt attention. This is good, but I began to wonder what they were expecting from this photographer. Were they just interested in the stories behind the images or were they looking for information that could help them be better photographers themselves? You see, each photographer’s experiences are different and perhaps, interesting in their own right and we all go about the process in different ways even though we may have very similar encounters, but is it enough to explain how you got access to a famous person? I’ve even made images of some of the same famous people, and they were very different. The process of making photographs of famous people basically entails the same sorts of stories. Famous people are notoriously short on time and it takes a very high degree of knowledge to get great images under these kinds of pressure-filled conditions.

So, I’m not as interested in a photographer’s backstory regarding shooting someone famous as I am in the technique he or she used. Oh, backstories are interesting as stories go, but they rarely teach anything. They don’t really get at the heart of how a particular image was made. It may be nice to hear how so-and-so photographed President Obama, but as a photographer, I’m more interested in how that artist was able to obtain those images.

I have been paying much more attention to photographing my actual studio lighting setups recently than worrying about how I managed to photograph a person. From a photographic standpoint as well as a teaching one, I find it much more interesting to notice just how lights were set up, or how particular exposures were determined or which lights were placed in which positions. With images being much easier to make these days, I have tried to educate my audiences more about the tools and techniques of making great photographs rather than fill up space with stories about access to famous subjects. Here’s a recent example of what I’m talking about:

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This was my setup in a corporate office to do a series of portraits of people for their annual report and other brochures. You can see how I set up my lights to create the kinds of images I make (along with the tripod and the power pack). And, here is one of the portraits made with this setup:

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This is the kind of information that is useful to other photographers. They can readily see how I was able to make this image from the above setup. Does it really matter how I came to be in the same room with this individual? It really doesn’t matter if the person is famous or not. A person’s fame may be of interest to the general public, but for someone wishing to learn photographic technique, it is largely irrelevant!

If you have a camera and know a bit about how to use it (enough to get a proper exposure), and, you are in the same room with a famous person, and, that person allows you to take his picture, then you’re going to have an image of that person. The story of how you came to be in that room with that famous person may be interesting, but others can’t really learn anything about photographic technique from it. There was a fairly well-known photographer many years ago, who happened to be married to a famous person. This photographer was often in the presence of other famous people and she always had a camera with her. She, I’m sure, considered herself a “photojournalist” and, although she managed to make many images of famous people, I never once asked myself “How did she get that photo?” I knew immediately how she did it. She was just in the presence of the famous person and actually had the notion to snap the shutter.

Photographing a famous person in a studio setting is quite another matter. There is rarely any “luck” involved. You have to know what you’re doing with your lighting and other equipment and you have to be able to engage the person somehow in order to elicit a particular expression. THAT is when the backstory could have some relevance. It might be interesting to know how a photographer was able to get a particular pose or expression from a famous subject.

Here is my portrait of the late novelist, Ira Levin. I was assigned by Random House to make the jacket photograph for his novel “The Boys From Brazil.” I did some research on Mr. Levin, found out what some of his current interests were and also found out that he was somewhat of an oenophile! I was also able to ascertain the brand of wine that was his favorite and managed to procure a couple of bottles. When he came to the studio, I had some cheese, crackers and this wonderful bottle of wine of which we both proceeded to imbibe! This was one of the ways I was able to obtain this image. Fortunately, I still had enough presence of mind to remember to snap the shutter:

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Here, there was obviously some interaction between me and Mr. Levin and the expression reveals it. This was one of my early attempts at doing this type of portraiture and I’ve done many since. But, the lighting, the studio setup and the technique I used is far more interesting than the story of how I actually got to meet Mr. Levin. I used the same, large portrait umbrella that I use today except that there was no fill-in light in order to keep the shadows that created this kind of haunting portrait.