Megan C. Hills, CNN
Celebrity photographer Andy Gotts has snapped numerous stars, from Hollywood titans Al Pacino, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts to promising newcomers like Anya Taylor-Joy and Nathalie Emmanuel. But one picture stands out to him as the most poignant of his career: a portrait of the late Tony Curtis, his face painted with an American flag.
The British photographer recalled years of begging the actor’s agent to set up a shoot. After multiple rejections, he found a phone number for Curtis’ wife, and she picked up. A shoot was arranged for the next day.
That night, however, Curtis called Gotts. The aging star, who suffered from various health issues and was using a wheelchair at the time, said he was feeling unwell.
“(He said), ‘I don’t feel good at all. But I will honor our commitment tomorrow, if you make me one promise,'” Gotts recounted in a video interview. “I said, ‘Anything, anything.’
“He said, ‘Will you make me look like an icon one more time?’ And I said I would do my utmost.”
It was the last portrait ever captured of Curtis, according to Gotts, who said the actor saw the photograph just hours before his death and had declared it “the best ever taken of me.” Characteristic of Gotts’ muted, shadowy style, the image sees catchlights glimmering in the actor’s eyes as he stares out with a painted face.
The image is among dozens of celebrity portraits featured in Gotts’ new exhibition “Icons,” which is now open in London, and an accompanying book of the same name. In a career spanning three decades, the photographer has become a favorite among celebrities for his distinctive style and low-key photo shoots.
With lighting inspired by art history’s Old Masters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, as well as cinema greats like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, Gotts works with an analog camera and no crew. His portraits are never retouched, unveiling actors’ “facescapes” with all their wrinkles, blemishes and smiles. It’s a style that has remain largely unchanged since he first started.
“If you see a pimple on someone’s head, or a hair out of place — that’s because that’s how they were, sitting in front of me,” he said. “I was capturing that moment when they sat down with me for our conversation.”
Over Gotts shoulder hangs a smoldering portrait of Kate Moss with glowing skin — pores, minute lines and all. Stars like Kate Winslet, Naomi Campbell and Sir Ian McKellen have all embraced his candid style, but his aversion to re-touching images on Photoshop has been an issue for some, he revealed.
“There are these two iconic singers, probably the biggest in the world, who have both said to me, ‘Andy, I love your photography (and) I own your photography, but you will never photograph me because you’ll show me as I look.'”
Gotts was once assistant to celebrated photographers Lord Snowdon and David Bailey, though the experience had an unexpected impact: It showed him exactly what kind of photographer he didn’t want to be, he said.
“If you think back to the late ’80s and ’90s, lots of portraits had glamorous backgrounds and were very ostentatious,” he said.
Gotts resisted the era’s preference for staged glamour photography and instead turned to ’60s-inspired plain backgrounds, which had “fallen out of favor” at the time, he said. Focusing his attention on subjects’ faces, his preference for black and white photography accentuated every detail while his style of overexposing and under-developing portraits helped create stark contrasts.
“It’s essentially the landscape of the face that I’m interested in — the nooks and crannies, the peaks and troughs of a human face,” he said. “That’s what I love about it. It’s all beautiful imperfections. It’s fantastic, and no one was doing that.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I strip it all back, it’s just a face,'” he continued.
While working with Bailey, Gotts also found that the photographer was constantly surrounded by a “circus” of assistants — a debacle that left subjects feeling “obviously bored,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘When I do this, it will just be me, no assistants. And I’ll be really, really quick. So that was my idea when I started: quickness,” he added.
Actor Paul Newman went on to nickname him “One Shot Gotts” after the photographer captured the winning portrait on the first attempt. But aside from speed, Gotts’ ability to put celebrity subjects “at ease” allows him to capture more intimate, authentic portraits, he said. Chatting and telling rude jokes are both key to his method, which sees him crafting photographic moments through conversation. Gotts balked at the idea of a traditional “very gray, drab studio,” and instead shoots in a converted London hotel suite or at his subjects’ homes.
He explained, “Straight away, it’s like they’ve gone to see a friend, rather than to a photo shoot.”
While Gotts sometimes has preconceived ideas for shoots, he often adapts to the situation. A pensive portrait of Robin Williams, for example, was taken as the late actor unexpectedly revealed how the death of John Belushi had affected him. George Clooney, meanwhile, was snapped at his Italian villa after unearthing a pirate hat from a party the night before.
Other times, surprise guests completely changed a shoot. When Gotts first photographed Matt Damon, for instance, he had wanted to capture the star’s “really piercing eyes” in an intimate portrait. But during the shoot, Damon’s “The Brothers Grimm” co-star Heath Ledger barreled into the room looking for a place to hide after he accidentally upended a make-up table. From there, Ledger did everything he could to make Damon laugh — throwing toilet paper, blindfolding him with a scarf and hugging the actor.
Gotts kept snapping through Ledger’s photobombs. But the unlabeled roll of film containing images of the pair fell into the lining of his camera bag and was forgotten for years. When Gotts eventually found and developed them, Ledger had already passed away.
“It was the only reel of film of Heath and Matt together, of these people messing about together… This moment in time was a moment where these two friends were bonding,” he recalled.
Gotts printed large copies of the photos and sent them to both Damon and Ledger’s family. The late actor’s parents “loved the pictures,” he said, before giving him permission to share them in his new book.
“This is Heath,” he recalled Ledger’s parents telling him.
Asking the right questions
Gotts’ entry into the industry was as unconventional as it gets, but one that reflects his seemingly fearless approach. As a 19-year-old photography student, he interrupted British icon Stephen Fry as he was giving a talk to ask if the comedian would sit for a portrait. Fry rolled his eyes and told him he had 90 seconds. =
The resulting black and white portrait ended up on Fry’s mantelpiece, where it was spotted by actor Kenneth Branagh. Next thing Gotts knew, he was photographing Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson — kick-starting his career as word-of-mouth recommendations spread through celebrity circles.
Gotts hasn’t stopped asking — and getting — since, landing photo shoots with Clint Eastwood by turning to Morgan Freeman for help, or asking Harrison Ford to act out emotions on cue. (The “Star Wars” actor told Gotts that nobody had ever asked him to be silly in a photo before, telling him, “Everyone’s scared of me,” the photographer recalled.)
“The worst that can happen is someone says no,” Gotts said. And getting a “yes” from Stephen Fry when the photographer was, in his words, an “absolute no one,” he realized that nothing happens if you don’t ask.
Gotts name drops like a phone book, revealing that he called Harrison Ford an “a**hole” to his face, challenged Meryl Streep’s lighting preferences and ordered “Fleabag” actor Andrew Scott to cry on cue. Calling himself a “frustrated actor” in another life (though “more of a Danny DeVito”), his early wish list was full of iconic film stars like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both of whom he’s now ticked off. Tellingly, his exhibition and upcoming book are less about Gotts’ career and more about the icons who have held “meaning in his life.” Some of the celebrity subjects featured are now among his friends, while others were photographed multiple times, 10 or even 20 years apart.
However, true icons are becoming harder and harder to find, according to Gotts. While there will always be A-list movie stars, “iconic” actors are stardust, he said — especially in a world full of people pursuing fame.
“I don’t think the word ‘celebrity’ will be as important as it was 20, 30 years ago,” he concluded.
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