Ever wonder about the those celebrity photographs you see in your favorite magazines? Who are those photographers, and how did they get their jobs? Celebrity photographer John Matthew Smith, talks about how he got started, his work, and how he got those celebrity shots. And, he insists, he is NOT part of the paparazzi.
How I began as a photographer
I have been taking celebrity photos since June 1 1990. It was on that day that I traveled to Washington D.C. on an errand. While I was there I learned that Mikhail Gorbachev was there..and given his propensity to jump from his limo and greet the crowds (as he had done days earlier in NYC ) I thought well perhaps I may be able to get a pic of him. Well to do this I needed a camera. I bought my first 35 mm camera at Ritz Camera on 15th st. The gentleman said this pocket size camera from Nikon had a zoom lens...so I thought great....and sent out to photograph Mikhail !
His motorcade was easy enough to find and the crowds were on the streets to greet him. I was able to snap a photo of him passing by...I excitedly returned to the camera store where I anxiously awaited the results. After what seemed forever I was handed my mornings work."Oh no...who is this little man waving from the car" It was Gorbachev... but it could have easily been a 1000 other men, You could hardly see him. In my disgruntlement, " I thought you said this had a zoom lens" which was my reply to the clerk. I then said..."I will have to get 4 feet from him to get a good shot" I had no way of knowing what would happen later.
Well remember this was in 1990 and Gorbachev was in the middle of bringing peace to the world so he was very popular, so I wasn't the only person hoping to see him..and hoping he would perhaps return the route he had earlier...and this time maybe he would jump from his car.
So here I was in the park with the other Gorby fans showing off my photo, I had extra prints and I happily gave a couple of those prints away to others. It was later that afternoon and I looked up...and the crowd was running, A woman whom I had given a picture to called to me...I followed her ...though I lost her in the crowd, all I could see was people ahead of me...until finally I looked up and Mikhail Gorbachev himself was standing right across the car from me. I first reached to shake his hand...and then I got the camera out and started taking pictures one after the next 2 rolls worth...(turns out for an Amateur my instincts were great...taking so many)
Whew....now back to the Ritz Camera I go... they were near to close and so as I readied to leave, A Pro photographer who was there and heard me talking about being so close to mr. Gorbachev...said to me "well if you were really that close, dont you know those pictures are worth money" I hadn't really thought of that.
He told me where to find the wire service offices and I went to Agence French Presse where I was given $ 150 for usage of "peace Mikhail" Just enough to pay for that "zoom" camera I bought earlier in the day.
My Big Break....
I was in NYC at a Madison square garden red carpet Event for the Essence awards in February of 1997.
Now before I continue I must tell you I am not a member of the.. quote...unquote Papparazzi that relentlessly follow the celebs everywhere...even to their homes. Nearly every photo That I snapped over the years was at a press conf. or a charity event....or a reception..or black tie dinner..or at a red carpet. In all of these events...I did the legwork to get the info and make the proper calls in many cases and get my name onto the list of media that was coming. Though I was freelance,that was rarely a problem.
Now back to our story... I decided that since JFK jr. lived in NYC and from my understanding didn't mind stopping for a photo or two, Providing that after you got your pics...you allowed him to go on his way...unobstructed.
Therefore I decided to go to 20 N. Moore street and wait there for John to arrive Home... and ask him would it be fine, if I took just a few. I stopped at the tavern next to his house and thought I would have a beer.(all the best photogs drink a little) I was quite surprised when the bartender would not serve me...I asked him again...but his still wouldn't serve me, while never telling me why he would not... frankly is was a little mind boggling.
So I left Walkers Bar and went to another watering hole around the block, where I had a marvelous time so marvelous that I didn't want to leave...but I had to resume waiting for John jr. It was about 5 pm and I looked for a place to sit near to his front door. I sat down on a metal railing...Suddenly it collapsed, and sent me crashing down these basement stairs that apparently went under the Tavern (Walkers).
I am no sure how long I laid there at the bottom of the steps..I was disoriented though unhurt other than some bruising. I walked back up the steps only to see the proprietor who had refused to serve me at the top of the steps. I was really frustrated now... and thought well perhaps this will have to be the end to my trip...and I preceded to the Bus station and returned home.
well that would have been that ...except that it was only a few weeks later that a fellow photog and I went to the White House Correspondents dinner. Now the situation at this dinner is that you can attend the pre dinner receptions...but its nearly Impossible to get into the dinner without a ticket. I was determined to photograph Robert DeNiro who I knew was on the guest list..so we managed it.
As soon as we were cleared by the secret service, I walked only a few feet further...and there stood John Kennedy jr in the flesh. Wow...this was great...we didn't even know he was attending the event. So I take a few photos and then I tell him...John I just want to tell you I wont take but a couple here and there I know you don't want to be hassled all evening. I was just up in New york for the essence awards and was hoping to take some photos of you. He said I wasn't at the Essence awards..I said I know..I stopped by your house in hopes of taking a few..and the railing broke where I was perched..and it was a mess... It was just then, He looked at me with a funny look... I didn't know why at the time.
So I went about my plan to shoot DeNiro, he was easy enough to find. I snapped a few of Bill and Hill who were there as well...including a nice photo of Hillary with hand on heart saying the pledge of allegiance.
So it was just a little later...I went by his table for a photo or so...and he turned and kissed Carolyn. On my way home that evening I thought about the evening...realizing I hadn't just caught them kissing...but that he had done it on purpose. So........He had heard that story about the photog who had fallen down the basement steps... probably laughing while they told him the story.. It was about then I realized why the bartender wouldn't serve me as well.
John had done me a favor...Quite a favour. I had my phone ringing off the hook...of agencies that wanted to represent me...just to have that photo in their Archive. I signed with Gamma Liaison... (Getty Images)
Now I was represented after 7 years of freelance.
What are your most popular Images and how Popular are they?
My most popular Image is that of John Kennedy Jr and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy kissing....it was bought by one media outlet or another in 25 countries.
The photograph of Princess Diana was on the cover of US news best seller of all time as of 1997.
My other images were published here and there, mostly overseas. With the advent of internet many of my Images have been "bootlegged" for lack of a better term.
The most popular of these also mostly on foreign websites are...
Princess Diana shoot
It was a lovely spring day and after calling to have my name placed on the press list days earlier... I made my way down to the headquarters of the American red Cross.
I arrived very early that June 17 morning to assure a good position...because in photography a good spot is literally everything. After about a 3 hour wait, Diana and Elizabeth Dole, (head of red cross at that time) walked into the courtyard. My first thought was that Diana's Lavender dress would show very well against the green background where she was to speak. There was quite a tussle of photographers as she arrived...In fact I was lifted off the ground at one point, by the surge of photogs. I ,on the hand was trying to keep as close to the spot I had picked for myself...knowing it was where you would eventually come to take her seat.
I will say as a freelance photographer, I didn't have near the equipment or the lenses of my fellow photographers. I had to crouch down and extend my arms as far as I could to get a little closer view...(Though I was only 15 feet away...I had learned than more than 10 feet would hurt the clarity and intimacy of the photo)
Well frankly..it seems Diana who could see me clearly directly in front of her..with my lack of a zoom lens, and a small body camera..while all those around me had lens so large...they were on tripods..as I struggled to keep my balance reaching across the velvet rope. She found this amusing...and its reflected in the photo.
On my way home that day...I was anxious as always to see the film. There were 100 pictures taken of Diana that day...I put only one into the fed-ex to New york and Gamma Liaison...Later I learned that US News choose mine from a pool of 2000 images to use on their cover to commemorate Diana"s very sad and untimely passing.
How do you take such candid photos? They are mostly candid ...right?
Yes, for the most part all my photos are candid. Its Important to always get close to your subject, ideally as he or she interacts with others to achieve the very best results.
lets say a speaker comes to speak at an event, we'll use as an example the National press club. When the speaker is at the podium...they are speaking, and behind a microphone and above you in the audience, All these factors will not make for a good photo.
Now, the speaker has finished and the crowd would like to meet and greet them briefly before they leave. Now here is your opportunity... Simply position yourself over their shoulder as they greet the speaker...try to anticipate if someone says something funny, that a broad smile is coming, and shoot and shoot some more, whenever the speaker turns toward you.
The essence of a great photo is two contradictory things, spontaneity and the subject looking directly into the camera at that same moment.
Rosa Parks and Coretta King
I was working with the Baltimore Times a small newspaper in Baltimore where I am from. The editor picked me up early and I thought he had some inside connection to get us on top the Lincoln Memorial where all the speakers were.
Well when we got there he wanted me to take shots of the crowd...I thought I could shoot crowds any day...I was looking for Rosa Parks. Luckily we became lost from each other and somehow that day... I managed my way past security to the top of the memorial.
Really, what I remember well from that day that I wanted to mention was standing atop the memorial when to my left walked Mrs. Coretta Scott King... I literally shook....Oh my...Mrs King...I thought I I took about a roll of film of Mrs. King...Though didn't speak to her, I was always shy about that type of thing.
Seemed to me if I waited there Ms. parks could not be far behind...and wasn't long and Ms. Parks appears.. and I snapped the photo of her seeing the crowd from from atop the memorial.
It is still one of my favorite photographs and believe it will stand the test of time as one of the best images of Ms. parks in her later life. of all My images I concentrated on Mrs King and Ms. Parks through out my career... Photographing these special women on nearly 20 occasions.
What was the best day you ever had as a photographer?
I went to Capitol Hill to photograph Ali in May of 1997. on My way there via Marc train I picked up a copy of the Washington Post.
I learned that of all people Fay Wray was to be on Capitol Hill as well. Unfortunately, it didn't say exactly where Ms. Wray was to be on capitol hill...or when.
I finished my Press conf. with Ali and was onto the business of finding Ms. Wray. I started knocking on doors..asking was this the congressman who would be having the company of Ms. Wray that day. This went on for sometime until I finally knocked on the right door...The receptionist said she would be arriving soon...I sat down to wait.
I wasn't there long and I heard a ruckus in the hallway... It seems Muhammad Ali was making his rounds seemingly attempting to meet and greet everyone who was on the hill that day. Well I walk out into the hall...and there is Ali and next to him is this little woman I believe to be Fay Wray. Well I take a photo of them together...As far as know The only photo of them that exists. Then Fay and I and her son-in-law proceed into the congressman's office.
Now I have to tell you, I have seen oodles of stars and almost 100 percent of that time maintained a professional approach and didn't get overwhelmed by the moment... However, on this occasion you could have knocked me over with a spoon. Here I stood with the Young Lady from KING KONG who wouldn't be a little flustered.
I learned from that day that indeed some people have star power...and it doesn't matter how old they are... " Fay was a Pixie"
Anyway I took my pictures and as I left her son in law asked for my business card, I didn't think much about it at the time...About a week later I get a call from him asking for some photos from that day. I happily sent them without charge and received a handwritten note from Ms. Wray soon thereafter That I treasure.
There was another person on capitol hill that day as well...it was the Dalai Lama. So there you have an excellent days work... Muhammad Ali, Fay Wray..and the Dalai Lama
Who was your favorite Celebrity, you Photographed?
Well I guess that would have to be Mother Teresa. The word celebrity doesn't do this Diminutive lady justice...She was so much more.
Frankly every time I saw her (4 times) it made me cry. Seeing her always put things into perspective, here we were racing around...with our daily lives..taking photos...etc and "there she was" The most worthwhile human being that God had created in the last century.
She has only one equal in our lifetime that I was also fortunate to photograph, Nelson Mandela
More Favorite celebrity Shoots with Details
I was just catching my stride in 1997 as a photographer. Myself and another photog had a competition of sorts and when I learned he had photographed Ms. Horne... wow..I said to myself...you better get to it...If your going to say your the best here in town...well Lena is a big Fish and she is in the other guys boat.
It was a few months later when I learned of her appearing in New York...and thought well here is my chance. I was told as well that Sidney Poitier would be attending.... that turned out later to be inaccurate, but fueled my desire all the more.
I sent my emails and left messages on Answering services to let the PR people know I wanted to attend the event...for days ahead of the date. I received no response however to let me know if my name was indeed "on the list".
Well, Now it was the morning of the event...as I sat on my bed..NYC is a long way to go..when your not on the list. Sure I had winged it plenty of times and successfully, but that was all in D.C. I knew my way around there a bit...and it wasn't so far or as costly to fail. it was then I said to myself...well if I stay here.. I know what I will get...A big Zero... But if I go...who knows what I will get? So I left for new york.
When I reached the Lincoln Center, I stayed with fans and amateur photogs catching stars as they arrived. Joe Williams, Freda payne, Rosemary Clooney among them. I learn that Lena's event was not there...uh oh... I was lucky an insider told me where...it was not public Information. "It was her 80th birthday"...and it was at the ASCAP building.
Well I got to the security desk...and I was sure this is where my emails and phone messages had gone...so I gave the guard my name and inquired fingers crossed if I was on the list. he called to he back office...and then about a minute later his phone rang back... " I am sorry Mr. Smith you are not on the list" Believe me those words are a press photogs worse nightmare.
Now at this point I am not feeling too bad, because I figured things would work out, just as the woman at the Lincoln Center had been kind enough to give me the real location of Ms. Horne"s event.
So now what to do.... I decided to go back down to the lobby of the ASCAP building and await Lena's arrival. I feel she may stop for a quick photo or two sometimes it best to ask...it courteous in that type of an encounter..and your photos will be better as well. Well there is an old saying that you cant be in two places at the same time...well its really not true, the trick is to keep moving.
So I guess I marched around that lobby for some time watching the faces and hoping one would be hers. so then I do see someone of interest..a gentleman with a cart full of video equipment. I say to him, "I guess your going to the press conf. for Lena Horne.."yes' he says "that's where I'm going" So I tell him...I am having a hard time getting in. He asks who I am, and I tell him that I am from Baltimore. With that I can tell by the look on his face that this explains satisfactorily why he had never seen me before around NYC press events.
So its now I tell him, as we both get into the elevator, "well I don't expect you to lie for me...but please don't volunteer any information" (ie: he is not with me) So when with arrive, I believe it was the fourth floor we get out together only to be greeted by the pr. man that is handling the event.If you recall I had never seen him...most importantly he had not seen me, but I had gotten his message via telephone through the security guard.
So we go to the room where it was all supposed to happen, we sat there for the longest about 20 media people...listening to the radio and waiting. There was some talk about moving us to another room...which worried me greatly..sure the list would be at the ready to check all the names. "Whew" it never happened. we were stationed in the back of the room with desks turned sideways..call it a wooden velvet rope, if you will...it was meant to keep us where we were.
The door opened and little by little they began to appear...Sheryl lee Ralph, Steve and Edie, Cicely Tyson, Chita Rivera, Jessye Norman, Liza Minelli and yes finally Lena Horne! Well just about then, remember thoselaid desks sideways...well the guy to my right jumped over them...who do you 'spose was the second photog to leap those tables...yours truly.
In seconds I was standing directly across from Ms. Horne. I am just snapping away...and I say to her..."Ms Horne you are Lovely" quite an understatement for a man who traveled 200 miles in hopes to be exactly where I was standing. After she gave me the most wonderful smile which thankfully I captured on film... she replied. and I quote..
"I know all about you photographers... and your soft soap"
First time I had ever heard that no doubt southern saying...but I know what she meant.. God bless her.
This trip taught me great lesson... That you make your own luck, if you are only willing to try...things may just work out for you.
As with my Image of Rosa parks and several others, I truly believe my Image of Lena Horne is one of the very best in her later life.
photos republished with permission from John Matthew Smith