Greg Gorman was sitting in the third row, center, at a Jimi Hendrix concert when he seized the career opportunity of a lifetime.
Using a borrowed camera, Gorman began photographing the rock guitarist. The images were his first of a celebrity and, well, of anything. Gorman had never taken photos before then, and didn’t know at the time how dramatically that night would shape the next 40 years of his professional life.
Later, as the images were being developed, Gorman was transfixed watching the white photo paper increasingly reflect his concert experience. He was “hooked” on photography from then on, and enrolled in a photojournalism course at the University of Kansas. As he became more knowledgeable about photography, he discovered his passion in photographing people. He moved west and earned a Master of Fine Arts in photography at the University of Southern California.
His move to the entertainment capital turned out to be another important step on a journey that’s led Gorman to photograph some of the most famous entertainers of the 20th and 21st centuries. In studios and on movie sets, he earned a reputation as one of a few go-to celebrity photographers in the 1980s and ‘90s. His subjects included Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Jackson, Bruce Willis, Bette Midler, Heath Ledger, Bette Davis, Robert De Niro, Grace Jones, Elton John with his husband and children, and many others.
Along the way, Gorman honed his camera and storytelling skills in fine art, magazine layouts and erotic male photography. He will be recognized Feb. 14 for his body of work with the Photographer of the Year Award at the 3rd Annual Palm Springs Fine Art Fair at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Actor Udo Kier will introduce Gorman, who will then be interviewed by Desert Outlook Editor Will Dean. A VIP reception and book-signing follow the interview. (Desert Outlook is a media sponsor of the fair.)
Here’s a look at Gorman’s pre-interview for the event:
You’ve photographed some famous people multiple times. Who do you look forward to working with when you get the call, and why?
I think the majority of those photographers who worked through that celebrity period, a lot of us had our own stable of stars. I think this whole celebrity photography — I always found that celebrity photography is a condescending term for what I do. I find that what we did in the ’80s and ’90s has really changed. The focus, the challenge of the people around, and the periphery of people around have made the celebrities so insular. They used to drive themselves to the shoot. They’d do themselves up, and we’d have a great shoot.
Which stars became a part of your stable?
Certainly Bette Midler. I worked with Bette throughout both of our careers. I did 80 percent, 90 percent [of her photos] over the course of her career, from the 1970s till now. (David) Bowie and I worked together a lot, until I couldn’t stand his assistant. I’ve done a lot with Elton John. And Grace Jones is one I do all the time.
A common assumption is that because a celebrity often works in front of a camera, he or she knows how to be photographed. What are the challenges specific to photographing a famous person?
I would definitely say that (fame) is not an asset. Most of the time they don’t know how they should be shot, and oftentimes that creates a much bigger problem. Some of them are a little more considerate and amenable to direction; others want a certain angle or lighting.
I think non-famous people are more relaxed in front of a still camera, because celebrities are more concerned about their image.
You have shot great images of beautiful people who aren’t smiling. Do we regular people “say cheese” too often?
I tend to like more serious pictures than smiley pictures. (Smiling) adds a degree of artificiality to the picture. There are times I’ve shot smiling photos. I realized in some of the early pictures I did of Ray Liotta, he always had a demonic laugh. It works for him. Sometimes with the Divine character, I’d get these *$@&-eating grins out of Divine and that worked for the Divine character.
How does it feel to be honored by the Palm Springs Fine Art Fair?
I think it’s great. I always joke you know you’ve got one foot in the grave when they give you a lifetime achievement award or photographer of the year. I find it kind of amusing. I’m honored.
IF YOU GO
What: 3rd Annual Palm Springs Fine Art Fair featuring Photographer of the Year Award recipient Greg Gorman, who will be interviewed by Will Dean and participate in VIP reception and book-signing.
When: 5 p.m. interview, 6 p.m. reception Feb. 14.
Where: Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros.
Tickets: Start at $25.