Jerry Avenaim: Stills Of The Silver Screen

Photographers who concentrate on shooting celebrities can usually be lumped into one of two categories. There are the irascible paparazzi, despised by celebrities for their tenacious, sometimes obsessive pursuit of catching the stars during their most private moments. Then there are the stereotypical studio photographers who are usually commissioned to capture the perfectly composed and lit portrait of flawlessly made-up celebrities that does much to perpetuate the myth that they are somehow above mere mortals.

Then there’s Jerry Avenaim, one of Hollywood’s hottest photographers to the stars, who is quickly and quietly earning the reputation for his ability to capture celebrities as they really are. And he even makes the photo sessions an enjoyable experience, which has resulted in Avenaim becoming one of the more sought-after photographers in the industry

With more than a decade of experience shooting some of Hollywood’s most famous, as well as infamous, faces and more than two decades as a professional photographer, Avenaim has put together a formula that has set him apart from his competition. “You not only have to be good at what you do, you have to be consistent and work well under pressure,” explains Avenaim. “I try to set an easy and relaxed atmosphere for my clients, the celebrities, and their publicist.” Shooting a celebrity can be difficult, and most of the work you see is done prior to the shoot. Avenaim will spend extensive amounts of time researching his subject’s work and finding ways to show both the characters they play on the screen and who they are off-screen.
The celebrity portraiture of Avenaim comprises some of the more insightful images ever taken of stars. Looking at his work is like looking into the souls of his subjects, showing all the humanity buried inside the godlike status of celebrity. By treating each of his subjects in such a personal manner, Avenaim has captured images of celebrities with such raw, unfiltered emotion that the work stands as some of the most genuine shots you will see today. It’s this kind of work and ability to get to the bare essence of a person that has left Hollywood begging for more of Avenaim. Being in such high demand, he receives the offers most photographers would dream of. Avenaim was recently selected by the editors of TV Guide as the only photographer to shoot actors starring in this fall’s new lineup of shows. Shooting exclusively for TV Guide’s Fall Preview, as well as for cover shots throughout the coming season, was an honor he didn’t take lightly. “What made it even more special for me was the fact that this year there was a lot of veteran screen and television stars involved in the new lineup,” says Avenaim.

Going to work each morning meant working with some of Hollywood’s greats, including the notable faces of James Caan, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, and Mark Harmon, as well as some of the newer faces of Hollywood, such as Kelly Ripa and Carla Gugino. However, with such a lineup, a lot of expectations and time constraints follow.
One of Avenaim’s favorite shoots for TV Guide, and ironically one of his most stressful, was the cover shot of American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson. Avenaim admits he and his wife are huge fans of the hit show, but also admits that shooting the cover was undertaken during tremendous stress. “This shoot took place in the evening following a live broadcast of the show,” explains Avenaim. “In attendance were the executives of FOX, the editors of TV Guide, a British TV crew, and another video crew filming my pre-lighting techniques-about 40 people in all. There was absolutely no margin for error.” The end result was one of the more memorable images of 2003 with Cowell tied and gagged to a chair by his fellow judges.
Working under pressure and difficult situations is something every celebrity photographer must face, whether it is surrounding pressure from executives, the time constraints put on them from the schedule of the star, or at times simply the celebrity.
When Avenaim was assigned to photograph Dr. Phil for the cover of Newsweek, and it seemed like everything was going to go wrong, his work ethic and how it inspires all those around him made everything go just right. “But it almost didn’t happen. We were scheduled to finish the shoot before lunch to allow Dr. Phil to keep a scheduled television interview, but time had slipped away.

“When I met him, I found that he was the same person privately that he is publicly. I wanted to capture that larger-than-life image. After going through several backgrounds, I knew I wanted to focus solely on his face. That meant I needed to shoot him ‘black-on-black.’ The changing of the lighting and the backgrounds to do this would take a little extra time, time I felt we would not have, and I thought I was going to have to let those shots go.” Dr. Phil came to me and simply asked me if it would help me out if he switched his interview until later in the day so that we could keep shooting. I emphatically told him I would give him a hug if he could make the switch and allow me to finish the shoot. As I went to shake his hand he exclaimed, “Now don’t be a welcher, I want that hug!'” A shot that resulted from Dr. Phil’s willingness to alter his schedule became the cover of Newsweek. Unfortunately, not all celebrities are willing and able to be as flexible as Dr. Phil. A case in point would be former Baretta star Robert Blake. The actor was not only unwilling to alter his schedule to stay longer, he didn’t even want to be there in the first place. However, shooting at his own home, Blake had little choice. Never has the attitude and ethic of Avenaim resulted in more powerful images. From the get-go, everyone knew there would be a problem shooting the reclusive Blake. Immediately, there was a simple creative difference of Blake disagreeing with the wardrobe for the shoot. Avenaim politely asked whether his reluctant subject would just do him the favor of putting on some or any of the clothing the stylist pulled for him and they would be done quickly and painlessly.

To be done quickly might have been appealing to Blake, but making this shot painless for Avenaim was clearly not. He refused to wear the clothing, which left Jerry with only one option. He challenged his agitated subject, “Blake, if you don’t like the clothes, don’t wear anything at all. Just go out there naked.”

Just when everyone at the ranch thought the shoot was over before it began, in an act of defiance Blake answered the challenge by walking out on his porch with only a beret and a cigarette, ready to be photographed. The results are the only professional portraits of the actor taken in nearly two decades.
“My patience was running thin with Robert, just as his patience was running thin with me and my crew, but you can’t let that dictate the tempo of a shoot,” explains Avenaim. “As the photographer, you set the tempo of a shoot. If you start to unravel, so does everyone around you, and it shows in the work at the end.”

A native of Chicago, Avenaim’s fascination with photography began as a teen when he became enthralled with the photographs of famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Studying his life and works through books and magazines, Avenaim would stare at the catchlight in his subject’s eyes and try to replicate the style of those who inspired him by shooting friends in his backyard. This was one of the first steps Avenaim undertook as he began to develop his own shooting style. Keeping things in tempo is one of the critical lessons Avenaim learned as a photographer, a lesson he came to understand on his first job assisting the legendary Patrick Demarchelier.

“On my first day, I was nervous and in awe. Here I was with of one of the industry’s greatest photographers, along with stunning supermodel Christy Brinkley and an intricate lighting setup-everything was perfect. As Patrick continued shooting, I remember thinking to myself, This is a very long roll of film. Patrick looked at the camera and then at me and calmly stated that there was no film in the camera. I quickly loaded the camera, thinking my first day would definitely be my last. Without missing a beat, Patrick continued shooting as if nothing had gone wrong. He got his shots and, amazingly, I kept my job. It was a strong message of how to take care of both subjects and assistants. One I never forgot.”

To this day, Avenaim is both haunted and humored by his film-loading scenario. But as fate would have it, the same thing happened to him again, except this time the roles were reversed. The camera was loaded and Avenaim kept shooting, never breaking tempo and setting an example for his assistant. Avenaim is a believer in spreading the wealth when it comes to tricks of the trade, whether it is lessons learned in the art of photography or in life. “Many of the things Jerry taught me about lighting I use in my films today,” comments Rick Thomas, a lighting director on such films as Road to Perdition and The Alamo and before that an assistant of Avenaim’s during the late 1980s and early ’90s. “When I began working with Jerry, I thought I knew everything about lighting and photography. After learning from Jerry, I realized I knew nothing at all. There is a little bit of Jerry’s teachings in everything I do today.” It wasn’t just technical knowledge either; learning lighting was only the tip of the iceberg. “Most importantly, he taught me about how to treat people and how to put forward a professional attitude on every shoot. He never hesitated in sharing his knowledge with me, and I don’t think I ever asked him a question he was afraid to answer.”
Avenaim’s assistants are not the only people who have access to his wisdom and guidance. He frequents photographic events and workshops and has never hesitated in showing aspiring photographers how to better their work. While most photographers will guard their technical secrets, Avenaim will go out of his way to explain how he did even his most famous of images.

The photograph of Halle Berry he shot last year has graced the covers of countless magazines including People’s Yearbook 2003 issue. It is the most recognizable shot in Avenaim’s portfolio and has become the template for celebrity glamour portraiture. If you asked any other photographer how he did it, you might get laughed at, but with Avenaim you get a diagram with specifications of where the lights were set up and insight into how to create the perfect key light. Furthermore, he would continue to explain how he would soak Rosco Tuff Spun in Lipton tea to get the perfect color temperature for Berry’s skin.

There are many stories behind Avenaim’s most famous sessions, many of which will be included in his forthcoming book, Luminosity, which, according to the artist, will be a “10-year retrospective on my celebrity photographs that will include the technical aspects of the shot as well the stories behind the images.” Some of the more humorous stories come from the mid- 1980s, when Avenaim was ready to break away from the world of the assistant and become the well-balanced photographer he is today.

“I phoned every country in the world that publishes an edition of Vogue and told the editors that I wanted to shoot a cover for them.” Avenaim got a conditional green light. The Vogue staff responded, “If you can get Cindy Crawford, we’ll give you the cover.” This was not a difficult task for Avenaim. “Cindy and I are both got our start in Chicago and our paths had crossed many times over the years, so I simply phoned her and asked. She agreed to the shoot, and my first assignment at age 24 ended up being a cover for Vogue.”

Even those who have not crossed paths with Avenaim can’t help but want to work with him “Everyone loves Jerry from the first time they meet him,” said Gaye Ann Bruno, who is the photo department publicist for CBS. “He makes his subjects feel secure; he’s very professional, very energetic, and has the innate ability to get along with people. When I know Jerry is involved in a shoot, I can rest easy knowing it’s going to be a great one.”
After spending several years in Milan, Avenaim headed for L.A. in 1992, where he is currently based. This began a new evolution in his career and a path that would put some of Hollywood’s most famous and infamous faces in front of his lens.

“When I moved to Los Angeles, there was a transition period between shooting supermodels and celebrities. During the early ’90s, you began to see a trend where celebrities had become the models. I have always had a great respect for actors and their craft, so this next evolution in my career was a natural transition for me.”

A transition that his agent, Wendy Schneider, says has both celebrities and their magazine editors talking. “Jerry is extremely popular among members of the industry because his easygoing personality makes him approachable and makes celebrities feel comfortable around him. Clients love him because there is never a question about his ability, he can work with tight schedules and different personalities, and he somehow manages to capture the best from his subjects, often in very little time.”

Time is something that seems to be at a premium in Hollywood, and occasionally the elements are against Avenaim. While shooting a feature of Ben Stiller, he had to resort to what can be best described as guerrilla celebrity photography. Stiller and Avenaim had to jump over fences, and racing against the setting sun, he had to shoot quickly and efficiently so that there would be enough light. The reward for winning the race against time was yet another cover and feature.

You would think such an experience would leave celebrities shying away from shooting with Avenaim, but it’s the experience of sitting for him that keeps them coming back.

An example of one of Avenaim’s early subjects who willingly returned to face his lens is actress Alicia Silverstone. “Jerry first photographed me for Elle magazine more than a decade ago, and working with him again on a recent shoot was just as pleasurable an experience as the first time. He has an incredible ability to put people at ease, and I found myself still having fun in front of his camera. I never worry about how I’ll come across. I look forward to working with Jerry again.”

Karen Samfilippo, who is a personal publicist to many of Avenaim’s subjects, said that the feeling is contagious. “Going into a photo shoot is usually an event my clients feel is something they have to do, but when they hear Jerry is the photographer, it becomes something they want to do.” Avenaim has created the images that have become the defining shots for such celebrities as Halle Berry, Milton Berle, and Dr. Phil.

“Celebrities know I would never do anything to make them look silly-it’s my image as well. As artists, we all have to take chances sometimes to come up with the truly memorable images. But not everything is going to go as planned, and that’s the beautiful part about the creative process. The key is to be malleable-be prepared to change to fit the situation or mood of the celebrity. It’s that ability to change that often gets you the gems you hadn’t planned on.”

Avenaim believes it is important to be prepared prior to shooting. “You have an intention when going into a shoot but know that it is just a template for the creative process. At the end of the day, success will be based upon how you and your subject can work together.”

The way Avenaim and his subjects have been able to collaborate in the creative process has resulted in some of the more memorable images Hollywood has seen in recent years. It is his creativity and ability to be inspired by his subjects that make Avenaim so appealing to the networks.

Lauren Townsend, who is a press manager at NBC, knows that her clients are in good hands with Avenaim. “In the case of TV Guide’s Fall Preview issue, he screened all shows of his subjects prior to them being aired. From this he absorbed the essence of the characters they play and was able to illustrate those traits in the photographs he took.”

While photographing his subjects, Avenaim will often be inspired as the shooting progresses, feeding off the vibe exhibited by his subjects. “When I photographed Angela Bassett for Detour magazine, I could tell very early on that we shared a creative connection,” Avenaim confesses. With the creative connection comes an undying trust, and it was that trust that allowed Avenaim to experiment.

“It wasn’t until I was almost finished shooting that I came up with an experimental idea. I approached her about the idea, and Angela agreed.” Without hesitation, he began preparing for what would become yet another iconic image of one of today’s most recognizable celebrities. Avenaim asked his 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 her head on a 12-foot ladder. Avenaim instructed Bassett to scream as the milk poured over her head. The best shot came at the end, with milk streaming down her face and a peaceful calm settled on a classically beautiful face.

Avenaim has been known to go to great lengths to create an image or theme with his celebrities. When his creative juices begin to flow, and the subject becomes inspired, the results can be stunning. While doing a shoot for Paper magazine of Patricia Arquette, her past work influenced the theme of the shoot.
“I remember how much I loved Patti in True Romance and wanted to tap into that character,” explains Avenaim. He worked with the surroundings for the shoot, which coincidently was right where he landed off of his flight and took place in a nearby hangar.

Avenaim recalled the inspiration Arquette had on the shoot. “We put her in a black wig and used dark eye shadow and a black backdrop. Her porcelain-white skin and ice-blue eyes with smoke in light wisps from the corner of her mouth made the images striking, almost surreal.”

His ability to combine his subjects’ sensitivity and vulnerability as well as their wild, uninhibited side is a trait that Avenaim does not limit to celebrities. In what he considers his “soul cleansing” work, he has taken intimate portraits of those not in the spotlight. His upcoming book, Naked Truth, is just another example of how he can find emotion buried beneath the surface of his subjects. “The greatest voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” he declares. With that comes a certainty that Avenaim will remain true to a vision but remain open to the art and opportunity that lay ahead of him.

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