Celebrity photo shoots are a challenge because photographers often get five minutes to shoot. For photographers who like to shoot conceptual portraits, the secret is preparation.
Chris Buck is known for his quirky, humorous portraits that push the boundaries of editorial photography. He doesn’t shoot to satisfy or flatter his celebrity subjects; he’s shooting for his clients, and to satisfy his own creative urge. “There might be three set-ups, and one of them is for Chris Buck. I get hired for that,” he says.
To plan those set-ups, Buck tries to check the location in advance, to see what lighting and props are available. (He relies heavily on props because they tend to relax his subjects). He does research, and comes with lots of ideas–some of them outlandish–for how to photograph his subjects. For instance, he photographed Billy Bob Thornton urinating on a backdrop. Buck asked the actor to do that, and Thornton complied willingly, but then indignantly refused to pose while holding a bowl of potatoes (which Buck had learned was the staple of Thornton’s diet when he was a starving actor).
“I throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks,” Buck said. “I write lists of ideas, and when I go in, I refer to that list, but once I’m there, I’m open” to other possibilities.
Andrew Hetherington shoots concept-driven portraits of celebrities for Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He comes up with portrait ideas by Googling his subjects to learn what he can about them and to see how they’ve been photographers in the past.
On an assignment to photograph Donald Trump for The Hollywood Reporter early in Trump’s run for President, Hetherington wanted to avoid the trademark glare. He looked instead for a way to convey another Trump characteristic: hunger for attention. “I was looking for simple gestures, with no props involved,” Hetherington says. His plan 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 “shush” portraits ended up on THR’s cover (shown at right).
Hetherington says sometimes he comes up with just two or three ideas for a portrait, and other times, as many as 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 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.
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