Pho­tograph­ing star­dust

Brigitte La­combe’s telling celebrity images seen in Shang­hai

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHANGKUNin Shang­hai Con­tact the writer at zhangkun@chi­

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.

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