In his 40 years as a photojournalist, Leigh Wiener--whose works are surveyed in an exhibition opening today at the Irvine Fine Arts Center--has dealt with just about every kind of celebrity.
You name them, and there is a good chance Wiener has them on film: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Igor Stravinsky, Robinson Jeffers, Norman Mailer, Groucho Marx, Paul Newman, Willie Mays, Norton Simon.
Although, Wiener, 56, is known for the sheer diversity of his output, it is his "people shots" that have brought him widest appeal, such as his starkly composed shots of Judy Garland during a television performance.
Accordingly, the 90-work Irvine show, which runs through Nov. 12, is given mostly to famous personalities--many of them captured by Wiener in dramatically intense, moodily lit images.
Also in the Irvine exhibition is the 1949 shot that remains one of Wiener's most memorable: the empty backyard swing once used by Kathy Fiscus, the little San Marino girl who had fallen into an abandoned well. The rescue efforts became an international media event, but the girl was found dead.
Not in the show is one of Wiener's most controversial photographs: his 1962 glimpse of Marilyn Monroe's covered body in the Los Angeles morgue, an identification tag dangling from an exposed toe.
Wiener's Irvine exhibition--his first retrospective in a public facility--is certainly well-timed. Photojournalism, for decades a profession celebrated for its globe-trotting derring-do and deadline craftsmanship, is being given scholarly appraisal by more arts institutions.
As a result, Wiener, who lives in Hollywood and makes his living also as an author and lecturer on photography, is readying more shows for the public circuit.
Beginning in February, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana will mount a 30-work event devoted to his photographs of black artists, including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Miles Davis. In March, another retrospective, this time 60 works, will be offered by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
"Photojournalists are historians, too. With the frozen frame, we can examine those instant images that tell us so much about those eras," said Wiener, who started with the Los Angeles Times and who later worked for Life, Fortune, Saturday Evening Post, Look, Paris-Match, Sports Illustrated and other leading publications.
Added Wiener, whose television ventures have included an Emmy Award-winning series on photography: "Our images of famous people deserve the same critical attention. These are a highly personal, very revealing part of that same history."
But the taking of such photographs isn't always a bed of roses. For one thing, many people--celebrities included--fear what the camera will capture.
"They're very self-conscious. They're afraid it will be unflattering. They want the image that they think others should see," said Wiener, who likes to employ natural light, minimal equipment and simplified settings to make sessions less forbidding.
Although Wiener claimed that he has encountered few celebrities who were downright hostile to him, he has worked with many who attempted to bully him.
"Some people like to test you, to intimidate you, to see if you really know your job," explained Wiener, who seems to relish the battle of dealing with truculent celebrities.
"I'm not in awe of anyone, and I don't take any guff. I know my job, and I know I'm good. I make it clear who's in control. Them or me. Of course, it's me."
To assert his control, Wiener may use quips or flattery. Or he may be openly audacious, a tactic that seems to disarm even the most imperious subjects.
Such as J. Paul Getty, during a 1968 sitting in the den of the oil billionaire's English manor. "He kept telling me I didn't know what I was doing because I was taking shot after shot. If I was any good, he said, I would have taken only one or two and gone home. He was really baiting me."
Wiener said he then looked Getty straight in the eye and fired back: "'Come on, you know it's not that simple. If you really believe that, when you drill for oil, you would just dig one hole.' "
After that, he and Getty got along famously--and Wiener took scores of additional shots.
Other celebrities have been a relative breeze. "Sinatra's one. I've never had any trouble, and I've worked with him eight or nine times. I work fast, and I think he likes that. Besides, he knows what a good photographer can do for him. It's a case of mutual, professional respect."
One of Wiener's most poignant encounters was his 1963 coverage of Judy Garland's short-lived television series for CBS.
By that time in her roller-coaster career, the Garland image as a brilliant but erratic, risky performer was legendary, and the pressures to make her first TV series a success were enormous.
"Everything was riding on her; her career needed a new success urgently," Wiener said. "If it wasn't for Mickey Rooney (Garland's guest star on the show), she would have gone to pieces that first taping. He kept clowning and doing things to keep her at ease."
One Wiener shot catches Rooney and Garland seated during a taping break, looking weary but in a pose eerily reminiscent of their "Love Finds Andy Hardy" youth. Explained Wiener: "I asked them to sit there and just think back 25 years. Apparently, that's exactly what they did."
"Rooney's one of the great performers--ever--and one of the great survivors in this business," Wiener said. "But Garland was so fragile, so lost, so isolated. Like others in the business, she's a victim of the myth-making."
In Wiener's famous shot, Garland stands alone on stage, her posture a mixture of defiance and dejection--belting out one more song, but against a vast, blank-white background.
The Irvine Fine Arts Center, 4601 Walnut Ave., will present two events conducted by Leigh Wiener: a lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and an all-day workshop Sept. 27. For information, call (714) 552-1078.