Famous Faces in Focus: An Interview with Renowned Celebrity Photographer, Andy Gotts

Andy Gotts is a celebrity photographer best known for his magnum opus, Degrees, a collection of 300 black and white portraits of celebrities and figures in the public eye.

The work, which grew slowly following the concession of a single figure, actor Joss Ackland, and eventually came to include legendary figures like Paul Newman, Anthony Hopkins, Sir Ian McKellen, and many others. Gotts is noted for his bare-bones photography style, preferring to work on clean, simply designed photoshoots which feature public figures with as little pomp and public persona as possible.

The result is a collection of portraits which showcase many of Hollywood's major performers in the most human, accessible light. Gotts' other work includes a history of the famed Savoy Hotel in London, England and several editorial projects. In 2012, Gotts was awarded the MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to photography. Gotts' upcoming work includes iCons, a further collection of celebrity portraits featuring Hollywood luminaries, and Behind the Mask, which features every actor who has won a BAFTA since the inception of the award. 

 

Anthony_Hopkins

Anthony Hopkins © Andy Gotts

Christopher_Walken

Christopher Walken © Andy Gotts

 

Lauren_Bacall

Lauren Bacall © Andy Gotts

Karen Lo: When you photograph individual subjects, how much time do you spend researching and getting to know them first?

I always research before I go to a shoot, as most of my subjects are famous and their faces are known extremely well. The last thing I want to do is mimic any existing shot of them, so I purposefully have a forage around to look at their portraits. For example, before I shot Morgan Freeman, I spent a few days looking at how he has been captured by camera before. In most of the shots he looked very iconic and classical... so I wanted to stay away from that in my shot.

So at the shoot, after we had spoken for 15-20 minutes, I asked him how he entertained his grandchildren and he said he pulled faces. So I set him up in a passport booth shot and just asked him to pull faces... the resulting shot is four portraits put together like a passport book photo, with four silly faces.

Morgan_Freeman_

Morgan Freeman © Andy Gotts

 

How much planning do you do for each shoot, and how much happens naturally?

I go to every shoot with at least one idea I want to do. Needless to say, things change all the time, whether its the mood of the person I'm shooting or the chemistry we have, etc. Normally something changes, and usually for the better. I like my shoots to be organic and not overly directed.

Lithgow

John Lithgow © Andy Gotts

Alan_Rickman

Alan Rickman © Andy Gotts

How do you capture genuine personality from a celebrity and get past the traditional publicity still or glamour shot?

I am a 'one man band.' I have no assistants at each shoot, and no PR people around. The shoots are just myself and the talent. This way, the sitter feels a lot less pressure and does not have to 'put on a show'. If there were forty-five assistants watching every move the talent does, like on a Leibovitz shoot, the talent would obviously feel a little self-conscious. A shoot where there are literally two people in the room provides a more relaxed element. I also do not retouch my shots – they are "warts 'n' all," and are a true depiction of the talent, and not a glossy ideal of how they look.

Matt_Damon_and_Heath_Ledger

Matt Damon and Heath Ledger © Andy Gotts

 

Christopher_Lee

Christopher Lee © Andy Gotts

 

Who decides whether the photo shoot will be serious or silly?

Mr. Spontaneity does.

Helena_Bonham_Carter

Helena Bonham Carter © Andy Gotts

 

Do you coach or talk to your subjects about the expressions they will be making, or do you capture the spontaneous expressions from your conversation with them?

I rarely direct the subject, I just let it flow. If I am looking for something quirky I just engage in a conversation with the talent and direct the chat to a light-hearted or silly subject and snap away during the chat. For example I knew I wanted Liza Minnelli to have a huge laugh on her face, so I literally told her rude jokes until she began to laugh.

Liza_Minnelli

Liza Minnelli © Andy Gotts

You often shoot celebrities in hotel rooms. Do you mostly work with natural light or is there some kind of portable lighting system you use?

I normally use the talent's own home, or a hotel room. I hate using a studio so I make my shots look like a studio shot, but in a friendlier environment. I always use flash and take a couple sets of flash heads that run off packs. My choice of flash is Elinchrom Quadra.

Which celebrity looks the most different in real life from the way he (or she) is usually photographed?

Barry Manilow looks like a Picasso painting in real life. But it is not always their 'look' that interests me, sometimes it is the person they are. Some talent you really look forward to meeting as they seem so nice in interviews, but are really moody and grumpy in real life. Other talent you think will be hard work can be lovely to work with. I was warned about Dustin Hoffman being a taskmaster, but he was perfectly lovely to be around.

Dustin_Hoffman

Dustin Hoffman © Andy Gotts

Do you find that subjects tend to have things in common based on their age or industry experience?

I find that the older the talent the more relaxed and amenable they are. They do not have to have a persona, they can just be themselves and have fun. I find the young ones are a little more needy.

Tom_Hanks

Tom Hanks © Andy Gotts

Ian_McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen © Andy Gotts

Whose photoshoot was the most memorable?

Paul Newman. I shot Paul in his 5th Avenue apartment in New York. I had been after Paul for years and he had always declined to be involved, due to his workload and other commitments, which is very understandable. I had just returned back from New York from shooting Mia Farrow and Susan Sarandon and I was literally going through their photo contact-sheets when I heard the dainty sound of an email arriving. I checked to see who it was from and to my astonishment it was from Paul's office and it was saying how much Paul would love to be involved, and could I take the shot the following Thursday?

Paul_Newman

Paul Newman © Andy Gotts

Airfare was not on my mind as I quickly replied saying that I would love to and I started planning my trip. I had noticed that he always looks very serious in shots and I had heard he does not like to be photographed. But I was so pleasantly surprised when the shoot started, as he was the complete opposite. In fact, it was hard to get a straight shot of him as he was constantly larking around. He was hilarious but I still managed to capture my iconic shot. I was delighted. Paul was a very generous and genuinely lovely man, and he is greatly missed.

Susan_Sarandon

Susan Sarandon © Andy Gotts

Who was the funniest subject?

Jeff Bridges, "The Dude"...what an amazing lovely guy. I shot Jeff at his home in Santa Barbra – he has a music studio next to his house and I set up there. When he walked in it was like greeting an old friend that you have not had the pleasure of seeing for years, and I was so pleased he had his lovely grey beard, as I knew it would look really good in a black and white shot.

We spoke about his music and his latest movie TRON: Legacy that had just been released and how the effects team made him look 20 years younger to play the part of CLU. I could not have left the shoot without asking if there were any truth that they were planning a sequel to The Big Lebowski. A huge smile came over his face and he softly shook his head saying "No man, that's just one sweet dream."

Jeff_Bridges_

Jeff Bridges © Andy Gotts

Do you make any requests of your subjects in terms of preparation for a photo shoot? Do you tell them in advance that it will be a ten-minute photo shoot with no makeup and wardrobe people?

I tell them not to wear fussy or loud clothes. I tell them it will only be me and them in the shoot, so any PR people, etc, will have to wait in a different room or outside. I tell them I need ten minutes in font of camera but will need a little time to chat before the shoot.

Kate_Winslet

Kate Winslet © Andy Gotts

 

DeNiro

Robert De Niro © Andy Gotts

 

Have you ever been starstruck by one of your subjects?

Not really as I have been shooting celebrities for twenty-three years, but the nearest to giddy I became was when I shot the legend Kirk Douglas at his home in West Hollywood, as he was one of the first "true stars" I shot. This was a real honour to have shot one of the last actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, although it nearly didn't happen.

At the time I was in California and I thought I might as well call his office, on spec, and see if I could fix a shoot while I was in town. I called fully expecting a polite brush off, but I was pleasantly surprised when they said they would as Kirk and call me back. Those next few hours felt like a lifetime, so I was elated when the phone rang with the news that Kirk wanted to be shot. I arrived at his house and was shown to a guesthouse by his maid called Fifi, and I quickly set up.

Kirk came shuffling in, he was still recovering from a stroke, and he look immaculate, every snow-white hair in place. He was wearing this loud tartan patterned shirt, which was no good for the photo, so I asked him to change into a black roll-neck top. He got changed in front of me, and as he was standing there with a bare chest I quipped that I was not there to do a shoot for Playgirl. He looked at me and with a wry smile and said "how quaint."

Kirk_Douglas

Kirk Douglas © Andy Gotts

 

If you could photograph a historical figure, who would it be?

I did! I always wanted to shoot the Hollywood icon Tony Curtis. I knew he had been doing poorly for quite a while and I tried to contact him for ages. Then during a trip to LA I thought I would reach out to him one more time, and found a contact phone number for his office...and called.

I was told by his business manager he lives in Henderson, Nevada, and that he would let me go to his house to shoot him. That afternoon in his company will be forever etching in my heart and soul, as he was every bit the gentleman and star you would want to wish to meet. What makes this shoot even more poignant is that the shoot was his very last photographic portrait as he passed away a few weeks later. So I managed to take the very last portrait of the historical figure that I wanted to meet.

Tony-Curtis-Andy-Gotts

Tony Curtis © Andy Gotts

Are there any photographers or artists who have inspired your work?

I don't look at photographers for inspiration, I look at artists or film directors. I look at old movies by Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, David Lean or painters like Caravaggio or Rembrandt.

Al_Pacino

Al Pacino © Andy Gotts

 

Clint_Eastwood

Clint Eastwood © Andy Gotts

 

Could you talk a little about your upcoming project, Behind the Mask?

Behind the Mask is a project I am shooting for BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). I am photographing every actor who has won a BAFTA since it began issuing BAFTAs for acting in 1953, which is a very challenging project...as the actors are scattered all over the world, some are retired and some are very old and not in the best health...but I am three-quarters of the way finished now and it should be completed by February 2014.

Any tips on shooting a good portrait?

Take off the lens cap, drink a bucketload of champagne and know rude jokes.

 

 

All images © Andy Gotts

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