The secret of photographing Hollywood stars is not to put them on a pedestal, says George Holz, whose book Holz Hollywood: 30 Years Of Portraits of portraits shows how it’s done.
Today, it’s a stylish coffee shop feted for its almond croissants, but in the late Eighties the ground floor of 400 Lafayette Street, New York City, was the home and studio of sphotographer George Holz.
At the time, the surrounding neighbourhood was popular with artists, and Holz found himself rubbing shoulders with Robert Rauschenberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Lou Reed. “A lot of places were still boarded up,” he tells me, “but it was becoming gentrified. There were a lot of parties.”
Holz’s parties were among the most notorious of all: people would queue around the block, waiting to be let in. “I still run into people now who tell me they were at a party at my place 25 years ago,” he says, laughing. “They were mostly get-togethers for my clients, but I suppose my clients were kind of famous.”
Many of the “kind of famous” subjects in his new book – Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jack Nicholson among them – were photographed on Lafayette Street. Others were shot at Holz’s weekend retreat in the Catskill Mountains, where the 58 year-old photographer now lives fulltime with his flautist wife and their 18-year-old son – and from where he’s speaking to me today.
The book has taken five years to put together, chiefly because he had to rummage through 15 huge cabinets of prints, as many boxes of negatives and a hard drive containing 30 years of work. He often found he liked the outtakes of the original shoots more than the published images: as a result, many of the portraits in the book have never been seen before.
Angelina Jolie, New York, 1998. “This was for People magazine. At the time Angelina had only done a few things, but her star was definitely on the rise. She showed up without any entourage but with this incredible energy. I had my ideas but she was just off like a rocket and I was following her. She was like a ball of fire and I wanted to capture that in my photographs. It was a bit like photographing a sporting event – chaotic, all over the place, but great.”
Throughout the Nineties, he was the go-to photographer for entertainment and women’s magazines looking for a celebrity portrait. Stars would also ask for him by name; they warmed to him because he didn’t put them on a pedestal. “If you talk to them like a real person, just see what they’re about, make them feel normal and make them laugh,” says Holz, “you can catch something of the person behind the name”.
On the whole he liked them too even if, he adds, “some of them are real pills”.
Holz grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town created to accommodate those working on the Manhattan Project to construct the atomic bomb. It was, says Holz, “a weird, secretive, place, where no-one could talk about what they did.” But the chemical company managing the Project had a camera club, and it was here that Holz learned photography.
Brad Pitt, Livingston, 1991. “I was out in Montana, fishing, and I got call from my agent. He said: “I’ve got this kid, Brad Pitt.” And I had no idea who he was – in those days you couldn’t Google someone. But when I got to where they were filming – it was for A River Runs Through It – I recognised him from Thelma & Louise. He was very sweet – he turned up for the shoot with his parents and his dog, and he reminded me of some of my buddies I used to hang out with from my days in Tennessee. We had the whole afternoon, and so I took him fly fishing. He was really into it, he told me he had grown up fishing in the lake, so I ended up showing him some fly techniques – I like to think I got him started. There was no stylist – he was just wearing his khakis and I remember his shirt was inside out – he was just cool. We drove around in my rental car and stopped to get something to eat and we photographed all afternoon. I had to use my car headlights to light the last shot of the day – that’s how basic it was.”
His sister bought him his first camera when he was 15 – a Minolta SRT 101 – and at university in Knoxville he began covering sporting events and campus demonstrations for the local paper. From there, he went to photography school in Pasadena, California, which is where he met the legendary photographer Helmut Newton.
“Newton turned my world upside down,” says Holz. “When you’re at school, everything is by the book, but when I worked with him, it was like I was unlearning while I was learning. Seeing how he dealt with his models, and how he saw light and locations was totally transforming.”
Heather Graham, Los Angeles, 1998. “This was at the Alexandria Hotel in LA, and the room we were shooting in was part of a suite that belonged to Charlie Chaplin in the Twenties. We were trying to channel that, and I asked Heather to turn herself into a character that might have lived in that room. She was kind of awkward in the way she moved and posed, but that was actually really intriguing. The thing that struck me most was that she had this really pale, almost translucent skin, like you could turn the lights off and she would glow. Honestly it was hard to take a bad shot.”
These days, when he isn’t photographing – his subtle, artistic nudes are highly sought after – Holz lectures on photography. “And I tell [the students] what Newton told me: that cameras are tools, and there is some great kit out there, but the only thing that’s going to separate you from the crowd is your eye. Start with that and the rest will come, you’ll figure it out.”
Jack Nicolson, Los Angeles, 1997. “I was photographing Jack with Helen Hunt for the film ‘As good as it gets’. We did some shots of them dancing together and he was great, he made her feel really comfortable – it was fun, very spontaneous. Then while she was having her make up touched up, I said to Jack ‘Hey, you’re just kind of sitting here, can I take a shot?’ and He said ‘OK, but only one roll.’ I was working with a medium format camera at the time, so there were only a dozen shots on a roll of film – the pressure was on. He was smoking a Camel, and I had him stand in front of a simple black background, fixing the lighting so it really showed the smoke. At one point he took a puff and leaned his head back – and boom – that was it. It was the last shot on my roll. One of those lucky ‘decisive moments.’”
Lauren Hutton, New Mexico, 2002. “Here I was battling with the light – it was end of day, almost gone, and I just threw the antlers in at the last minute – it really worked.”
Javier Bardem, Brooklyn, 2009. “This was just after he’d starred in No Country for Old Men and I think he was still carrying some of the character he played around with him; he was very intense! We shot this in a loft in Brooklyn. It was between takes and he was having a lie down on the sofa – I realised it was the first time he had relaxed all afternoon and so I ran up a ladder and took the shot.”
Madonna, Hollywood, 1983. This was for the release of the single Borderline. She was staying at the Chateau Marmont in LA, way before it was nice a hotel. It was kind a dive actually, very seedy, but it had a lot of character and a lot of famous people would stay there. I remember going in and she had all this stuff laid out on the bed – leather and chains and her cool hats. I had borrowed a friend’s studio nearby, so we picked a few things and walked down to Sunset Boulevard – she even helped me carry my equipment. We had music blasting, she was dancing and I got these shots that had a little bit of blur. She had this amazing presence – those piercing eyes, the fashion, it all came together beautifully.
Gwyneth Paltrow, New York, 1997. We were down in the East Village, in this ground floor apartment, and the light coming through the window was sort of dappled by the trees outside on the street, and reflecting from a chandelier I’d placed in the foreground. She’s quite willowy and wears fashion really well, so everything she tried on looked great. The stylist tied her hair in those little pigtails – that’s a real advantage working with those kinds of celebrities; you have access to the best stylists and make up artists in the business.
Joaquin Phoenix, New York, 1996. Joaquin had this nervous energy; I had all these set ups in mind but I realised right away he wasn’t the kind to sit still for a photograph. I threw all my ideas to the wind and we totally shifted gears. He went into the kitchen and there were all these dirty dishes stacked up. He said: ‘Man, these need a wash!’ and he put on an apron and just started scrubbing. In these kinds of situations being a photographer is a bit like being a boxer – you’re grabbing things. Joaquin definitely gave it to the camera but you had to catch it.
Sigourney Weaver, New York, 2004. Sigourney is very light, bubbly; a very easy person to be with. The light was coming through the window and she was just radiant. I caught her off guard in that smile and it became one of my favourite shots. It sometimes happens like that, when they just forget that you have a camera after a while. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s magical.
Cameron Diaz, Santa Barbara, 1995, This was right when the film The Mask had just come out, which was really her break-out role. We were shooting up in Santa Barbara at the old Spanish Mission. It was one of those quintessential sunny southern California days – really dramatic clouds and rays of sun coming through. Cameron was a model before she became an actress – we’d gone for an Old Hollywood look with the tuxedo and it hung off her beautifully. She was really smart; very witty and such a knack for comic timing. She had me cracking up the whole way through the shoot.
Teri Hatcher, Cabo San Lucas, 1996. We were down in Mexico, at Cabo San Lucas, in the middle of nowhere. I took this shot of Teri on a deserted, secluded beach. We’d finished the stuff for the magazine and we were having some beers and margaritas at the end of the day. I asked her if she would let me shoot a couple of images for myself – I wanted the shadow of the palm fronds on her skin. It was something I learned from Helmut Newton – when you’ve got the best talent and the best team with you, try to tag on some time at the end to make some personal work. She was totally cool about it, as was her publicist. In fact I think I had him kneeling on the sand and holding the palm leaf.