How Celebrity Portrait Photographers Beat the Clock
February 5, 2016
Usher carried a motorcyle helmet to his shoot with Sheffield. Picking up on the cue, Sheffield built a quick rapport by asking questions about Usher’s bike.
To photograph Elisabeth Moss during a Mad Men press junket, Joe Pugliese asked her castmate Vincent Kartheiser to be on set. “I know Vincent was a real cut-up because I’d photographed him before,” he says. “He immediately made [Moss] laugh.”
Andrew Hetherington’s portrait of actor Alec Baldwin for THR was made at the end of a short, difficult shoot. “I was relieved to get something,” says Hetherington.
When Andrew Hetherington was assigned to shoot Donald Trump for THR, "I was looking for simple gestures, with no props involved,” he says. His plan was to ask Trump to put his finger to his lips—“a ‘shush’ kind of thing.” Trump went for it, and ended up on THR’s cover.
Time is the enemy on the set of a celebrity portrait shoot. Celebrities are pressed for time, and in a hurry to leave. Photographers compete for time with other photographers, especially during hotel press junkets, and with reporters interviewing celebrities for stories. “If they say you’re going to get ten minutes, it’s most likely going to be five minutes. And if they tell you five minutes, it’s most likely going to be two and a half,” says photographer Andrew Hetherington.
It puts photographers under pressure to make compelling portraits in a big hurry. Strategies for pulling it off range from conceptualizing, scouting and styling in advance, to getting celebrities and their publicists on board with ideas before the shoot, to building rapport and taking control of the shoot within minutes. We talked to several experienced celebrity photographers about how they manage time constraints. Here’s what they told us.
MAP OUT A PLAN
“I like to get as prepared as possible,” says Hetherington, who photographs actors, comedians, musicians and politicians for Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. His portraits of actors and comedians in particular are often concept-driven, so he starts by brainstorming ideas before a shoot with magazine editors and creatives. “They’ll have a strong vision of what they want the portrait to be,” he says.
To come up with his own ideas, he Googles the subject to learn more about them and see how they’ve been photographed in the past. Sometimes he’ll come up with just two or three ideas for a shoot; sometimes ten ideas. “I like them to be thoughtful,” he says. “They might not all be practical, depending on the location and time constraints.” Or depending upon the whims of the celebrity and his or her publicist. The important thing, though, is to go in with options.
Hetherington also considers the prop requirements for each concept, and runs his ideas past his prop and set stylists. “It’s important to have a strong team,” he says, because good stylists can add new ideas. Another strategy for giving himself the best chance “to make the picture you want to make” is to scout the location in advance. “And even if I don’t have access to a location, I will go online, and look at Google maps or whatever to find out as much as I can, and take the guesswork out of it.”
Hetherington recently had an assignment to photograph Donald Trump for The Hollywood Reporter (THR). The magazine wanted clean, simple portraits on seamless, as well as some environmental portraits of Trump in his office. Hetherington had to get it all done in about 15 minutes, and couldn’t set anything up in advance. So he scouted the office before the shoot to figure out the logistics: where to set up the seamless, stow all the gear, and put the crew.
The challenge of shooting Trump, of course, is that he defaults to his trademark glare in front of the camera. Anticipating that, Hetherington was looking for a way instead to convey Trump’s hunger for attention. The solution was in the direction. “I was looking for simple gestures, with no props involved,” Hetherington says, adding that he knew Trump wouldn’t agree to do anything “untoward.” His plan going into the shoot was to ask Trump to put his finger to his lips—“a ‘shush’ kind of thing”—and to cup his hand to his ear, as if he was trying to say, “Can you hear me now?”
Trump went for it, and one of the portraits ended up on THR’s cover.
GET PUBLICISTS ON BOARD
Standing between photographers and the chance to execute their ideas for a portrait are the celebrities and their publicists. It’s a matter of selling the ideas, and photographers use different strategies to do that without eating up valuable time on set.
Joe Pugliese, who shoots celebrities for THR, Billboard, ESPN and other publications, says he doesn’t spring any surprises on set. Because his style of portraiture isn’t high concept to begin with, and because his reputation as a celebrity photographer is well-established, celebrities and their publicists aren’t fearful he’ll make anyone look bad or foolish. Even so, Pugliese says, “If I have ideas for styling or props, I’ll run that by the publicist beforehand.”
Jay L. Clendenin shot Johnny Depp with his wood and brass 4×5 field camera. Clendenin first sent the publicists for Depp and the movie studio to his Instagram account, where he has similar images. © JAY L. CLENDENIN
Jay L. Clendenin, staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times, often finds himself shooting actors in hotel rooms during press junkets, when publicists “create a schedule for the film’s talent, to go from room-to-room, usually from 9 to 5 in one long day.” Clendenin usually brings a couple of backdrops he shows the publicist, “to foster the idea that we want something different than the previous three outlets that shot before me.” On a recent shoot with the cast and director of Black Mass, Clendenin wanted to get some black-and-white, medium-format shots of Johnny Depp and co-star Scott Cooper. Before the shoot, he pitched the idea to Depp’s personal publicist and the movie studio. To show them what he wanted, he sent them his personal Instagram account where he displays similar images, so they were aware of what he would do, and to alert them he would be arriving early to set up his 4×5 field camera.
Graeme Mitchell says he learned early in his career that if he kept publicists in the dark about what he was shooting, “they would nitpick” through the whole shoot. So at the beginning of his shoots, he shows celebrities and their publicists a few images that show where he’s going. “I let [publicists] do their job, and most will have ideas that make [what I’m doing] better. After that, most go over to the craft table and leave me alone,” he says. “If you don’t allow people to participate, it’s a fight.”
Photographer Bryan Sheffield takes a harder line, though. “I like to bypass the publicist. I’m not going to go to them [and ask]: ‘Hey, will your talent do this?’ or ‘Can I do that?’ I always go right to the talent, and tell them what I want to do in a creative way. And most of the time, they’re into it.”
BUILD RAPPORT QUICKLY
Sheffield is able to ask celebrities directly for what he wants because he works to win them over the minute they arrive. “Building rapport—that’s huge,” he says. “I don’t wait to be introduced. When they pull up I go right to their car and introduce myself. And on the walk from their car to the location, you can have a chat without anyone interrupting, and you already have good rapport.”
Sheffield says he’ll start off with a joke, or by mentioning common acquaintances, or by asking about projects he knows the celebrity is working on. “I want to make [the celebrity] know that I’m a real person, too, and not someone who is going to exploit them in any way,” he says.
He recently had an assignment to photograph Usher, who showed up at his studio door in a motorcycle jacket, and carrying a helmet. Sheffield started asking about the motorcycle—“I knew it was something he was proud of, because why else would he drive a motorcycle to a photo shoot?”—and suddenly Sheffield and Usher were alone in the parking lot. “He was showing me his motorcycle. I know nothing about motorcycles, [but] it’s about him, so we’re off to a good start.”
Sheffield says his conversation with Snoop Dogg got him an hour and 45 minutes of shooting time, after he’d been told he’d have only 45 minutes. For another shoot, Sheffield met a publicist beforehand in a celebrity’s music studio. He immediately saw the space as the perfect backdrop for the portraits, but the publicist said her client’s studio was off-limits for the shoot. When the celebrity showed up, he and Sheffield hit it off. “I was told I had 45 minutes, but we spent maybe two hours because we were making great stuff,” Sheffield says. “He was giving me all this access and I said, ‘Hey, let’s go in your studio,’ and he said, ‘Let’s do it. What do you want to do?’”
LOOK FOR WHAT’S IN FRONT OF YOU
Mitchell’s advice for getting a good celebrity portrait quickly is, “Don’t try to chase something that’s not there. Look for what’s good right now and go for it.” In practical terms, that means if a celebrity looks good when they show up, skip the plans you had for hair styling and make-up. If you have a lighting set-up in mind and bring a kit to execute it, but once on location you find a spot with good available light, don’t bother with your original plan. “I see what the picture wants to be, not try to make it what I want it to be,” Mitchell says.
Graeme Mitchell’s portrait of actress Hayden Panettiere. Mitchell shows a few images to publicists and celebrities at the start of a shoot, so they let him work in peace. “If you don’t allow people to participate, it’s a fight.” © GRAEME MITCHELL
Pugliese says he spends more time talking to his subjects, and less time shooting than he used to, with better results. “Even if I have only five or six minutes with them, I don’t mind spending a good portion of that time talking to them,” he says. The idea, he explains, is to use conversation to figure out what subjects are offering or revealing about themselves, and shoot a portrait to reflect that, rather than impose his preconceptions on the shoot. “Sometimes people are introspective, or they’re flamboyant, or they want to joke around. It’s up to me to find out,” he says.
Pugliese photographed the cast of Mad Men for The Hollywood Reporter during a TV critics’ press tour for the final season of the show. He had about five minutes with each cast member, but spent much of that time chatting with his subjects. “I asked what was going on with them, or I asked something in reference to a previous shoot,” he says.
Because the show was ending and cast members were going on to other projects, Pugliese didn’t want their Mad Men roles to define the portraits he shot. He ended up getting a natural laugh out of Elisabeth Moss (who played Peggy Olson) by asking Vincent Kartheiser (who played Pete Campbell) to hang around the set for Moss’s portrait. “I know Vincent was a real cut-up because I’d photographed him before,” Pugliese says. “He immediately made [Moss] laugh.”
When time is short, you have to be clear—and sometimes demanding—about what you want from subjects. “It’s a matter of being confident, knowing what you want, and going for it—not panicking or dilly-dallying,” Mitchell says.
Sometimes, celebrity subjects make it clear they don’t want to be there, and aren’t cooperative. Mitchell, for one, doesn’t stand for it. “I believe the work I’m trying to do is as important as the work they do,” he says. “If someone shows up and says, ‘I hate doing this,’ I tell them, ‘Don’t do it, you don’t have to.’ I’m letting them know: It’s my set. If you don’t want to do it, piss off.’ Most people will behave after that.”
Sheffield says, “If you feel like pushing, you should push.” And he’s not above taking a feisty approach. If a publicist gets too pushy, he’ll threaten to walk off set. “It’s an editorial shoot. You’re not getting paid that much anyway,” he says. He recounts how an assistant publicist informed him, through one of his assistants right after a shoot with an A-list celebrity began, that he had only five more minutes to shoot. Sheffield asked for more time. The publicist refused. “I said, ‘Alright, then let’s just stop now.’” The publicist backed down and gave him another 30 minutes.
Hetherington recounts a difficult ten minutes with Alec Baldwin several years ago, on assignment for THR. It was for THR’s annual New York issue. Baldwin was starring in a Broadway production, but made his dressing room off limits for portraits. He also rejected all of the “I (heart) NY” props Hetherington had brought along for the shoot. And Baldwin told Hetherington he would have to photograph him as he strolled around the block, giving an interview to a reporter.
“We were back at the stage door, and I had to make a portrait with just him in it,” Hetherington recounts. Baldwin pushed for a photograph showing him standing next to a poster advertising the Broadway production.
“I said, ‘No, that’s not going to work. It’s about you, not the play. That’s going to look like a press photo,’” Hetherington recalls. “There was a wall I scouted just before the shoot, right by the stage door, and I was like, ‘Stand here, and look at the camera.’ I think I got 3 or 4 frames before he disappeared. It was so fast, I was relieved to get something.”