If there were an "A" list for celebrity photographers, Jerry Avenaim’s name would probably be at the top. Admired and respected by publicists, editors, art directors, and stars in equal measure, he has photographed such icons as Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, James Caan, and Mel Gibson. He talked to PhotoVideoEDU about his illustrious career.
Portraitist Jerry Avenaim has scores of cover shots to his credit for top publications such as Vogue, Newsweek, People, TV Guide, and Detour. His work has also graced the pages of Glamour, GQ, In Style, Elle, and Vanity Fair. That he is a consummate craftsman and an ingenious innovator is immediately apparent to anyone viewing his powerful pictures, but it is his uncanny ability to work with high-intensity people, to put them at ease, and to capture the essential humanity and character of his famous subjects with depth and insight that sets him apart from the rest.
The native of Chicago, now based in Los Angeles since 1992, has been seriously engaged in photography since his teens. "In high school, I was fascinated and influenced by the works of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. I pored over their photographs in books and in magazines. I was always captured and moved by their striking and timeless images. Photography was a true yearning, and fortuitously I knew what it was I wanted to do at a very young age. To teach myself the mechanics, I would study the catch lights in the subject's eyes and try to replicate the lighting. As I grew, I knew to be successful I would have to accomplish one of the hardest things to do in photography, and that would be to develop my own style."
Starting out, Avenaim knew that if he wanted to make a career in photography, he'd have to learn from the best: "Being young and naïve, I packed my bags and moved to New York. I pursued photographers relentlessly and freelanced for many good ones, but it wasn't until a year later when I was almost broke and living in a Lower East Side tenement that I got an offer to work with Patrick Demarchelier, a legendary fashion photographer who is, in a sense, the Richard Avedon of today."
"My first day working for Demarchelier convinced me that he is not only a great photographer but a true professional. I was in awe of everything around me—my mentor, the lighting, gorgeous supermodel Christy Brinkley—and I watched spellbound as Patrick shot away and did his magic. After a while I thought to myself, 'that must be a very long roll of film,' and at that moment Patrick looked at the camera, then at me and said calmly in his thick French accent "but zer iz no feelm in ze camera." I quickly loaded the cameras, convinced that my first day would be my last, but it wasn't. Without missing a beat or making a fuss, he just kept on shooting—it turned out to be a great lesson on how to treat people, and as importantly, to never disrupt the pace and energy of a shoot."
After assisting for a while, Jerry Avenaim was determined to strike out on his own. "Working for a legend gave me a huge boost of confidence, and I was still naïve and arrogant enough to think I could start at the top. So I phoned every country in the world that had a Vogue and told them I wanted to shoot a cover. Finally I got a conditional okay: 'If you can get Cindy Crawford, we'll give you the cover.' Well, it just so happens that Cindy and I both started out in Chicago and I had met her several times while I was assisting, so I asked her if she would do this for me, and without hesitation she said 'sure.' So, my fist solo job as a pro turned out to be a foreign edition Vogue cover of Cindy Crawford."
But Avenaim was determined to make an even bigger splash in advancing his career. While waiting for the cover to come out, he kept shooting constantly in order to create the strongest possible fashion portfolio to take to Italy. "When I got to Milan, all the agents looked at my book and turned me down flat. After being rejected by Giorgio Repossi (one of the top agents in Milan) in the morning, I decided to go see Italian Vogue that afternoon. I had no appointment. In the meantime, to console myself, I went to a café, where something quite incredible happened. I ran into a group of talented young photographers—my competitors and peers—and we sat down and re-edited my book. What I wound up with was a much more focused portfolio consisting of five retro-looking black-and-white romantic photographic essays. It was a classic example of artists helping to elevate each other's game through constructive input, and it proved to be an amazing stroke of good luck."
"When I got to Italian Vogue I just walked in and asked to see a former editor that I knew was no longer there, and then persuaded Bianca, the photo editor, to have a look at my book. After a minute, she just up and left the room and left me sitting there for an hour. When she finally returned, she said nothing, but then in walked Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of all Italian Condé Nast magazines. Franca asked me how long I would be staying in Milan, to which I replied 'until Saturday, unless you want to book me for something.' She said things didn't work that way here, and then I guess I lost it. With mounting frustration in my voice, I implored, 'Well, then how do things work? Should I go to Australia, build my book and come back in the fall, or would that be a waste of time? Maybe I should just go out and come back in—would that help? Franca, help me out here—why don't you tell me how things work so I can.' I still don't know whether what I did was smart or stupid, but I almost wet my pants when she asked me to go out and have a coffee and come back in about an hour."
"After sipping a few espressos, I returned to Vogue's offices and sat on that same couch for what seemed like an eternity—I could hear them talking about me. Finally, Franca came out and asked if I could stay to shoot a nice-sized editorial and then an advertising job for her. Now I have to hit the pause button for what came out of my mouth next. I still don't know what possessed me, but I responded, 'I don't know, you'll have to call Giorgio Repossi and ask him if I can stay.' She left the room and while I was starting to panic, she returned. 'Giorgio said you can stay,' she said. 'We start casting models Monday. Have a nice weekend.' I went straight over to Repossi, and Giorgio looked at me like I was out of my mind. I'm not sure exactly what he said in rapid-fire Italian, but I think it must have been good because he welcomed me into the agency. When I look back on it, I think I pulled off a pretty crazy stunt that day."
In the early '90s, celebrities started to become the world's supermodels, so Jerry Avenaim's transition from high fashion photographer to celebrity photographer was quite natural. In shooting high fashion, the photographer interprets and showcases the highly individualistic art of the fashion designer, or, as Avenaim says, "I am there to complete the canvas photographically—everything from lighting to texture to model selection. Every piece of that dynamic is an interpretation and extension of fashion, and how these elements interact will always move me in an almost spiritual sense. A celebrity is basically someone who has fashioned his or her life, being, persona, and physical self into an art form, so the essential process of defining and revealing is the same. I am essentially a storyteller, and fashion and celebrity portraiture is a kind of continuum, except that with celebrity portraiture, clothes can actually get in the way and become a distracting element. I concentrate on the facial landscape to ensure that clothes do not play the dominant role. I want the character of that person to come forth in all its purity and honesty. That's why when Robert Blake didn't like the clothes he was supposed to wear, I told him to take his clothes off and captured the defining portrait of him in the all-together."
One of the essential principles underlying Avenaim's phenomenal success as a celebrity photographer: Be completely truthful and honest with your subjects. "The way to break down the walls that people, especially famous people, build around themselves is for me to open my heart, be myself, and reveal my true character. When I do that I will always receive that back, and it shows in my images. Every person is accessible, and every person has walls, but you can begin to understand who each person really is by being a good listener and actually getting to know each other. As an artist, you have to realize that your preconceived visual concept, however brilliant, is merely a template. You have to be malleable and responsive to changing circumstances. Even the same person is different on different days and you have to tune into their mood, and follow the course of least resistance. Another crucial concept is involving your subject in the creative process, not by telling them what you want, but by eliciting natural responses. I never ask people to 'give me a more pensive expression.' Instead I'll engage them in a dialogue or tell a joke, or say something outrageous or silly to get the expression I want. Not every celebrity photographer takes the time to study and engage his or her subjects, but it is something I am always intent on doing. My psychology of celebrity photography is based on equal and opposite reactions, and there are two approaches that I use depending on the celebrity. If given the time, I like to take pause and interact with my subject, making every frame count. In an opposite approach, since time is often a factor, I'll set up a scenario, launch into my story, and just keep rolling, snapping pictures all the while. Even if I can make a brash comment and evoke a response of honest anger, that can work too, but the experience and the emotions have to be genuine."
Avenaim's empathic approach to photographing Hollywood stars and actors stems from a deep understanding and respect for their craft and art. "Let's face it, when an actor is on a movie set, he or she has spent hours preparing for the scene to bring out just the right emotions or to create a specific image for the character. When that same actor is in front of a still camera, there is often only fraction of a second to capture a specific look or mood on film. It's a much more exacting science. It boils down to maximum creativity at warp speed. That's why it's crucial to enhance the subject's comfort level, making the photo session into an enjoyable experience. It's also why I spend considerable time researching their work if necessary, the characters they play, and who they are off the screen. If I'm meeting someone for the first time, it's often moments before the shoot, so I try to find a common ground with them, things or experiences that we can both relate to; this will most always set the tone and relax the session ahead." This remarkable degree of empathy and dedication has resulted in some of the more insightful images ever captured of today's top celebrities. By treating his subjects in such a personal manner, Avenaim has created celebrity images imbued with raw, unfiltered emotion, images that convey the subjects' true essence as well as their persona.
How this empathic process of "feeding off the vibe" of his subjects actually operates is revealed in Avenaim's poignant and often humorous stories of how he's photographed specific stars—not surprisingly he is a great storyteller in words as well as in images.
"When I photographed Angela Bassett for Detour magazine, I could tell early on that we shared a creative connection, and with that connection comes an undying trust, which is what allowed me to experiment freely. It wasn't until I was almost finished shooting her that I came up with a wild idea. I asked my assistant to go to the kitchen and grab all the milk they had, a broom handle, and a pan. We taped the pan to the handle and my assistant stood over Angela on a 12-foot ladder. I asked her to scream as the milk poured over her head (which she did with ear-splitting gusto), but the best shot came at the end, with milk streaming down and a peaceful calm settled on her classically beautiful face. It became an iconic image of one of today's most recognizable celebrities."
"The instant I was assigned to shoot six women of color who are leaving indelible marks in the arena of film and television, I knew it was going to be an extremely challenging project, but also that it represented an opportunity that comes only once or twice during a career even of the most high-profile photographer. Of these six dynamic women, the one who made the most dramatic impact on me was the indomitable Halle Berry. And while Halle is an extremely approachable star, superstardom has its price, and her time has become a luxurious commodity in short supply. Because she began her career as a model, she's very comfortable in front of a still camera. Halle knew we were there to capture beauty shots and didn't need a whole lot of direction. Once or twice I would shout out from behind the camera if I needed a shoulder to come over a bit, or her chin to come up for the light, or to get that simple smirk or full smile. Before I started shooting, she asked me where the 'crop' was, and I let her know it was above the bust, but that on occasion I'd pull back and go as far down as the waist. From there, things happened extremely fast. Five rolls and 15 minutes later we were finished. The look was pure Halle—a Hollywood star that is gorgeous, approachable, and a real professional."
When Avenaim was asked to photograph self-help guru Dr. Phil, it seemed that Murphy's Law was in full force and everything that could possibly go wrong did. What saved the day was Avenaim's work ethic, which inspired all around him to make the shoot a success. "We were scheduled to finish the shoot before lunch to allow Dr. Phil to keep a scheduled TV interview, but the time just slipped away. I found him delightful, and we hit it off very well. He's the same person privately as he is publicly, and I wanted to capture a larger-than-life image for this cover shot. I knew I wanted to focus solely on his face, and that meant I needed to shoot him 'black-on-black.' To get what I wanted, I had to change the lighting and backgrounds, and I thought I was going to have to let these shots go for lack of time. Dr. Phil sensed my dilemma, and simply asked me if it would help if he switched his interview until later in the day so we could keep shooting. I emphatically told him I'd give him a hug if he'd make the switch. I went to shake his hand, and he exclaimed, 'Now don't be a welcher, I want that hug!' The shot resulting from Dr. Phil's warm-hearted flexibility is what landed on the cover of Newsweek."
His ability to capture his subjects' sensitivity, vulnerability, and uninhibited side—seen in his first book, Luminosity—is not just limited to celebrities. In what he considers his "soul-cleansing" personal work, Avenaim has taken intimate portraits of those not in the spotlight. His books Naked Truth and Kindred Spirits are further examples of how he can find and express the emotion buried deep beneath the surface of his subjects, taking the great and noble art of portraiture to new levels. As he says, "The greatest voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." With that profound insight, it is certain that Jerry Avenaim will remain true to his vision, and open to the art and opportunity that lie ahead of him.
To see more of Avenaim's master imagery, visit his website at www.jerryavenaim.com.