Striking photos of Keanu, Leo & Hollywood stars back in the day
With more than 50 years in the business, Greg Gorman discusses the story behind some of his most striking celebrity portraits.
Left: Keanu Reeves Malibu, 1993 © Greg Gorman, courtesy IMMAGIS ART PHOTOGRAPHY Right: Leonardo DiCaprio Hollywood, 1994 © Greg Gorman
"Ask me anything," photographer Greg Gorman tells me from his home in Los Angeles, "I'm pretty open."
When an interview starts off this way, you just know this person has a trove of stories to tell. And, with a career spanning 50 years, Greg has photographed some of the most prominent pop cultural personalities on the planet, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Keanu Reeves… so he's got the pictures to prove it. In the words of John Waters, "Greg Gorman is the only person I'd let photograph my corpse."
At the end of this month, Immagis Art Photography in Munich will present a selection of these exhilarating portraits from his 400-page retrospective that he released last year. It's Not About Me (though really, it is) includes all the aforementioned big stars. But how did Greg manage to gain access back in the day?
"My career -- it kind of snowballed. It all happened so fast. And I was young when a lot of those pictures were taken. But early on, getting the likes of a De Niro or a Brando or a Pacino—you'd never know what they'd be like and how that work relation would evolve. A lot of stars were more challenging because the studios were nervous whether or not they'd do the publicity -- would they be able to get the pictures they needed for the motion pictures campaigns?" He adds, "I had a good relationship with them. I could usually get them to perform for me and my camera. It was like me playing the role of a psychologist to figure out how to come up or down to their level to get them to do what I need them to do to please the studio."
Greg has always had a natural instinct to walk the line between commercial and creative and sense what his clients wanted without losing a good rapport with the talent. The method to his madness? Reaching a certain comfort level with the celebrities in front of his lens. "The most important thing as a personality photographer is to be able to win their trust and confidence and make them feel like you're playing for their team and not somebody in a suit standing on the sidelines. I always sided with the talent over my clients because I didn't give a shit about what my clients thought."
That atmosphere of trust has enabled him to photograph once-in-a-lifetime private moments -- ones that he didn't necessarily anticipate getting on film. An image of Keanu Reeves, for example, naked but for his necklaces and the towel he's using to dry himself with, stands out as a testament to this intimacy. And, the behind-the-scenes story of his encounter with Keanu demonstrates just how much Greg was sensitive to the energy of the actor on set.
"The shoot started out for an avant-garde magazine in LA called Detour," he says. "We started off in a loft in downtown LA, and I could see his mood -- he wasn't with the program. He wasn't comfortable. So I said to him, 'What's going on? What do you feel like?' And he said, 'Honestly, I feel like being in Malibu, riding my motorcycle.' So I wrapped everything up. I said, 'Let's go out to Malibu.' We were up in windy hills above the Pacific Ocean. And he was changing his clothes, and I put my camera down, and I hear over my shoulder, Keanu said, 'You can shoot this. Just shoot it.' So I took the pictures. If the publicist saw the pictures, they would be killed over their job. Instead, I called Keanu up and asked, 'Hey, do you wanna come up to the house and look at the pictures. They're pretty great.' And he did. He said, 'I'm fine with them. Run them'."
Other personal highlights include working with a young Leonardo DiCaprio from the beginning of his career -- "He was so free and open" -- and shooting Andy Warhol, who appeared in a popular, long-running ad campaign Greg shot for l.a.Eyeworks. Then there's Grace Jones, who became a great friend of his over the last 40 years. Greg explains, "We've always had great shoots, and there was never a boundary to have to pay attention to, and there was never a person on the set whenever we shot -- over a hundred times I've shot her. There was never somebody there in a suit telling us, 'This is what you have to do'. I didn't have guidelines other than magazines saying, 'This is kind of what we're looking for. This is what we'd like'. But no one ever told me what I could/couldn't shoot with Grace. And Grace would tell them to go fuck themselves if they did."
"It's strange, I'll admit," Greg finishes with. "I'm from Kansas City. I'll have friends who'll sometimes visit. Debbie Harry would open the door or someone that was staying with me. For me, I don't really think about it because it's second nature because it's just been my life. For other people, this is crazy."
It's Not About Me runs from 30 September - 30 November 2021 at Immagis Art Photography in Munich.
All images © Greg Gorman, courtesy IMMAGIS ART PHOTOGRAPHY