Brian Ach has been shooting celebrities for the past four years: walking the red carpet, attending invite-only events, and on occasion even vacationing with them. After a fellow shooter fell ill, Brian came up with the concept for this coffee-table book, turning the tables on the photographers and asking them about themselves and their work.
What I love about this project is it's simplicity (it was something right in front of him), the clever questions and the funny answers.
How did you come to photography?
I had always thought photography was an interesting art, but never did much involving it. When my grandfather passed away in 1988, I decided that I wanted his Canon AE-1 that he always has with him. I got it, and it sat on a shelf for over ten years. One day, I took it out and decided I needed to learn how to use it. A friend of mine showed me the basics. When I got that first roll of Tri-X back, I was hooked.
How did you become a celebrity shooter? Are you one of the paparazzi?
I was obsessed with photography, and shot so much film I almost single-handedly saved Kodak. I had taught myself graphic design and was doing that full-time, but was getting bored. Through a film I worked on, I became friends with James Gandolfini, and did a couple of jobs for him and his family. I went on vacation with him and shot his son’s birthday party. I then went to the Venice Film Festival with him and shot some of it and some behind-the-scenes stuff. When I got back to the U.S., I thought, I could do this for a living. I cold emailed Wireimage, and they called me in the next day. I showed them my books, my fine art and celebrity stuff, and I was working for them within days.
Seems easy, but you really have to know your stuff, and be in the right place at the right time and have the right personality for this. The job is not easy, and new photographers are often chewed up and spit out in months. I am not a paparazzi, although I have taken some unplanned shots here and there. If you need the shot for a client, sometimes you are left with no choice but to shoot first, ask after.
How do you feel about celebrity?
Celebrity, in general, is an interesting thing. Maybe only 2 or 3 times have I been “starstruck,” and I have shot basically everyone. Usually it is someone from my childhood that I grew up respecting, like Neil Armstrong or a hockey player like Pat LaFontaine, not some big Hollywood star. For me, it all has to do with the work someone does, whether I respect it or the process. Reality TV and American Idol and MySpace etc., those have really changed the idea of what a “celebrity” is nowadays. People now are famous for literally doing nothing…it is an interesting concept. I try not to judge, but before, to become famous, there had to be something of substance, a body of work, an accomplishment, which brought the person some stature. Today, people are overnight successes, literally. Before, you had to build a career--lay the groundwork, promote yourself, and have a body of work, to become somebody in your field.
I find that these overnight stars sometimes do not know the proper etiquette, the way to handle themselves in their career. Sometimes they have to be reminded. In the end, the one thing I have learned (and actually knew before I started) was that celebs are just people who happen to have a somewhat different job than most people. Generally, though, I find almost everyone fascinating in some way. This is what I believe makes a good photographer--unless you are shooting food.
What made you do this project?
I started the project almost exactly a year ago. The project was started because a friend of mine and fellow photographer, Paul Hawthorne, had become sick. No one really knew how serious it was at the time, but the medical bills were mounting for him and his family. He was also not able to work anymore. Paul (and I) belong to a small group of entertainment photographers in NYC. We shoot all of the red carpets, concerts, and parties for agencies like Wireimage and Getty. Not having Paul around every night was kind of sad.
The reason the project seems personal, is because it is. Paul was a mentor to me when I broke into this business over 4 years ago. He gave me tips and advice when other people would not. This is a small group, and breaking into the business is hard. I appreciated that about Paul, if you were a good honest person, he would help. Paul was diagnosed in the fall with amyloidosis, a rare blood disorder.
I started the project in December of 2008, shooting it out of my Brooklyn studio. The call went out to all the photogs in NYC who do this type of work- from the big names like Kevin Mazur to the street paps. I was going to shoot full-length portraits of them, have them fill out a questionnaire, and put the end product together in a book. The book would then be sold to raise money for his family.
Paul was touched and excited that such a fuss would be made for his benefit. I was glad to be working in my studio on something important. Sadly, Paul passed away right before Christmas. The shock was palpable, no one really knew how sick he was. I vowed to go ahead with the project and see it through to the end, for Paul. It has taken me a year, while working for my agencies and doing other work. All the portraits were completed in January, but the surveys were difficult to get people to fill out-some of the answers are very personal. I also designed the entire book myself.
In February, I pitched the book exclusively to the features editor at PDN. I showed him about 30 of the portraits, and described the questions I was going to ask the photographers. No one else had seen the pictures or heard the concept. He was enthusiastically interested, and said he wanted to do a feature on the project in the December entertainment issue. Off and on we conversed by email for months, with me sending him samples of the work and questions. Imagine my surprise when the issue comes out this month, and they have their own “version” of the project, with very similar questions.
Lesson learned, keep your great ideas to yourself. The amount of work that went into the project was huge.
The book was finally finished this past week, and has 64 photographers in it, as well as outtakes and an irreverent glossary of terms that we use in this specialized industry. I am hoping that people share my enthusiasm for this project and the book. it really is totally unique and gives a true glimpse into one of the more interesting jobs in photography, one that most people don't know anything about. It also gives that rare look into the lives of celebrities, with some answers to questions that will surprise a lot of people! As I have stated, a portion of the proceeds after printing costs go directly to Pauls' family.
How did shooters react to having the tables turned on them? Were they difficult or cooperative?
Most were very cooperative, if not a little uncomfortable. A lot of people who do this work feel very comfortable with having the camera between themselves and the subject-- it offers a certain sort or barrier or protection. Turning the tables, I had to reassure people what the goal was--to have an accurate portrait of themselves showing their personality and how they differ from the others who do this work. Knowing most of them very well, it at first appeared to be simple. But after 20 or 30 people, you have to be very quick on your feet in coming up with new things to capture that are true.
One photographer, who was coaxed into doing the project, I only took 5 frames of—but I got what I needed before he said, “OK, I am done.” In this job, you often only have 3 seconds to come up with the perfect shot before a celebrity, publicist, handler, security, or fan ends the shot, so I have learned to think ahead, plan, improvise, and push to get what I need while leaving the subject feeling like it was a collaborative effort.
Tell us a great celebrity story—good or bad.
I was working a private party for Wire, a while ago.It was a big event, with many a-listers. I was working inside, and then a certain teenage tabloid queen entered and was whisked straight back to the back, to a private table. PR came up to me and said it would be a bit before she would do photos. After a half hour, he came to get me and bring me back to her table. He got my attention, and said, “Only this” (indicating from the waist up) “and none of this” (indicating the table in front of her). I looked down and saw all types of alcohol and illicit contraband sprawled out on the table. I had a 17mm lens on my camera, so I could have gotten it all in the frame. However, I was house, and it was exclusive, so they would have known it was me even if I did somehow sell it under the table. She stood up and posed, I took three frames, and she sat down. The PR guy checked my photos on my camera to make sure they were ok, as I saw $100,000 flitter through my hands.
Which celebrity do YOU think has gotten a bad rap?
I can only go from personal experience, but I have photographed Tom Cruise multiple times in many different circumstances, and it is no surprise to me that, in the book, more photographers name him as their most favorite celeb to work with. He is a true pro with fans, photographers, and everyone else, making sure that everyone gets what they want and need. Nice to a fault, he knows how the game is played. I’d buy him a beer.
How are you dealing with the changing photo industry?
It seems like it is probably obvious, but diversifying appears to be the way to go right now. I think the celebrity market for agency photos is going down the tube now, with most of it going to the internet and rates for pictures going to new lows every day. Providing value to your clients while holding the line on your rate is the angle I am taking. Quality customer service can go a long way, and is an art that is being lost in this digital hurry-up and do it, use it, throw it away world. I think you will see a lot more cross-over, from commercial to editorial, editorial to advertising, as clients try to capitalize on the next big thing. Staying up on technology is something I have been striving to do.
What’s next for you?
Maybe a part 2 of The Photographer Project, but with a big twist. I am possibly directing an unrelated short film, and I am looking at shooting a studio project on stereotypes. I like to do things that sort of scare me. I don’t want to give too much of it away, though, I learned that lesson already.
This book can be purchased through Blurb.com, and part of the proceeds will go to the family of the late Paul Hawthorne, entertainment photographer.