Brigitte Lacombe’s telling celebrity images seen in Shanghai
Fifty of Brigitte Lacombe’s most iconic works were on exhibition recently at the Shanghai Center of Photography, a new museum founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist LiuHeung Shing.
Titled Inside Cinema, this was the French photographer’s first solo exhibition in China.
The 65-year-old, renowned for her ability to capture the intimate side of people, has photographed countless celebrities throughout her illustrious career which started about three decades ago. Lacombe’s works have been widely published in magazines, including Vanity Fair, Glamour, The New Yorker, GQ and The New York TimesMagazine.
A school dropout who chanced upon photography while fiddling with her father’s camera, Lacombe first worked as a trainee in the dark room of Elle magazine when she was just 17. Twoyears later, her mentor left the publication and convinced the boss that Lacombe was qualified to take her position.
“I was really lucky. I was just 19 years old but I was told to cover events and do studio shoots right away,” says Lacombe.
Her big break came in 1975 when she was assigned to cover the Cannes Film Festival. As women photographers were a rarity back in those times, she naturally stood out from the crowd of men. However, it was her photographic style that shone the brightest.
Following the publication of the images, her keen eye for photography was quickly recognized by influential people from the movie industry. She soon found herself in the acquaintance of Hollywood stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland.
Impressed with the style and quality of her work, the two actors commissioned her to take behindthe-scenes photos during the filming process.
Lacombeshot imagesonthe set of the 1976 film All the President’sMen, a political thriller that starred Hoffman and won four Academy Awards. Lacombe remained in Los Angeles after completing that assignment and Hoffman later helped her obtain a green card for the United States so that she could advance in her career.
Lacombe would then move to New York where she lived for 35 years.
“Everybody wanted to be in New York. They wanted to accomplish something. There was a lot of competition and people there had big ambitions and worked with great focus and discipline,” recalls Lacombe of the unique charm of the city in the 1970s and 80s.
In the late 1970s, the photographer worked on the sets of movies directed by Hollywood heavyweights such as Martin Scorsese, David Mamet, Sam Mendes and Quentin Tarantino.
Karen Smith, the curator of the exhibition in Shanghai, says that Lacombe had managed to develop an “unusual proximity in the world of cinema”, and this was evidenced by her exclusive working relationships with some directors.
For decades, Lacombe was the only photographer allowed on the sets of Scorsese’s films. Some of her best work was produced on these sets too, having shot images from Taxi Driver, The Age of Innocence, The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street. Some of these photos are on display at the exhibition.
Some of Lacombe’s most iconic pictures were taken during breaks in filming when the camera was not rolling; the surreal space between reality and make-believe where actors look to be in the midst of recovering their real identities.
Frank Rich of The New York Times once wrote about Lacombe’s works, praising them for being able to walk the fine line between these boundaries.
He wrote: “There is art, and there is show business. In a young century overdosing on glossy and voyeuristic celebrity exploitation masquerading as photojournalism, it’s essential to keep the boundary distinct.”
“That is the key to appreciating the photography of Brigitte Lacombe, whose work often takes her into the realm of show business but whose pictures strip the commerce away from the artists untilwe are face-to-face with what some of the seminal figures of our time are trying to say to their audience.”
One of her most well-loved images is the one of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai and actors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai during the filming of In theMood for Love.
In the picture which seems to masterfully fuse elements of peace, theatricality and energy, Wong is seen hiding his gaze behind his signature dark glasses, Cheung is captured with a slight tilt of her head while Leung is wearing an restrained smile and looking straight at the camera.
Lacombe juxtaposes portrait photography with shooting on film sets, saying that the former is a more intimate genre that requires trust. She explains that it takes not one, but two people to produce a good portrait — the subject will need to be comfortable enough to let his or her guard down in front of the photographer. In contrast, film stars are hidden behind a shield of theatrical mystery with their makeup and costumes.
“As a photographer, it is important to win the trust of your subject and convince them that you are doing something good together, and not something they will regret. It is only then will the subject be able to give you something you can capture,” says Lacombe.
Even famous actors such asMeryl Streep can be very shy when they’re in front of the camera in a studio, said Lacombe, who admittedly doesn’t like to be photographed as well.
“Actors have to be preoccupied with themselves more than normal people. They have to take care of their appearances— everything has to do with their body, which is part of their instrument,” says Lacombe.
“When they are on the film set, they become someone else. They also have to do things on demand, like cry during an emotional scene. They have to be very much in control of their body and their emotions. I think that’s why when they are suddenly themselves after the camera stops rolling, theydon’t really like being scrutinized by the photographer.”
Lacombe has never been married nor has she any children. She is still actively pursuing photography and is currently covering the election campaign of Hillary Clinton, the US presidential nominee that she would love to vote for but cannot as she is not a US citizen.
“There is art, and there is show business. ... That is the key to appreciating the photography of Brigitte Lacombe, whose ... pictures strip the commerce away from the artists until we are face-to-face with what some of the seminal figures of our time are trying to say to their audience.” It is important to win the trust of your subject ... . It is only then will the subject be able to give you something you can capture.” Brigitte Lacombe, photographer
Frank Rich, critic Brigitte Lacombe speaks during her exhibition at the Shanghai Center of Photography.
From left: Jude Law, Matt Damon, Gong Li and Gwyneth Paltrow are just some of the celebrities Brigitte Lacombe has photographed in her career.