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Shooting for the Stars : Work of Celebrity Photographer Greg Gorman on Exhibit in O.C.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The most difficult things that photographer Greg Gorman has to deal with have nothing to do with photography per se. Most of his work comes in trying to elicit the personalities of people whose job it is to act like anyone but themselves.

As a photographer whose specialty is celebrities, Gorman must be a psychologist. He must be an intimidator. He must be a leader. And, most of all, he must be persuasive.

“It’s winning through intimidation,” said Gorman, 40, whose subjects have included Bette Midler, Mel Gibson and David Bowie. A selection of Gorman’s portraits will be on exhibit until June 13 at Rizzoli International Bookstore & Gallery in Costa Mesa.

Gorman, who lives in Los Angeles, is often hired by major magazines, studios, advertisers and public relations firms. His assignments include such projects as shooting movie posters, magazine covers and shots for advertising campaigns.

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“Basically, the name of my profession is psychology,” he said.

Gorman, who was reared in Kansas City, Kan., got his introduction to photography in the late ‘60s by taking shots at a Jimi Hendrix concert with a friend’s camera that he had borrowed. A few weeks later, he shot a Doors concert in St. Louis and, at that point, he was hooked.

He enrolled in a photojournalism class at the University of Kansas, then continued his studies at USC, majoring in cinematography, which eventually provided his entree to celebrity photography.

Gorman did a little bit of film work but felt that he had more creative control as a still photographer than as a cinematographer. He also enjoyed the one-on-one relationship he had with the people he was photographing.

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His first work in Los Angeles was shooting models and actors on a free-lance basis, for which he earned about $35 a day.

“I was lucky,” Gorman said. “After I got out here, I shot a few (celebrities), which led to shooting a few more. Little by little, it snowballed. It was guilt by association. It wasn’t me going after them; it was more word of mouth.”

Gorman says that competition has become much tougher since he started, but he doesn’t see it as a battle between photographers for assignments.

“I don’t think anyone who is really good is suffering from not working,” Gorman said.

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He describes his style as pretty straightforward--neither particularly trendy nor avant-garde. In some photographs, however, he creates a dark mood that leaves much to the imagination.

"(If) I’m shooting a specific assignment, but there’s something about the person I find intriguing, I will ask them to (let me) do a shot for me at the end of the session,” Gorman said. “I’ll take some pictures for me, separate and away from any stock publicity photo.

“The back cover of my book (“Greg Gorman Volume 1") is a good example. There is a picture of Tiger Williams, the hockey player. He was here shooting an ad campaign for Sporting News. He walked in the door, and I loved his face. He was a little guy who has one of the most ferocious reputations in hockey. He’s taken over 200 stitches in his face.”

Gorman’s comments on some of the other stars he has photographed:

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* Bette Midler--"She has been a client of mine for years. As a matter of fact, we just finished putting together her new album cover. She was a person who took winning through intimidation. She was often irascible, not particularly easy to get to know. But once you get to know her and once you win her trust, she’s one of the most down-to-earth human beings to work with. She is one of the few celebrities who isn’t into ‘yes’ people. She and I fight more than we get along. It’s mainly because I tell her exactly what I think, and I push her during the photo sessions.”

* Kirk Douglas--"Kirk is great. I’ve shot him a number of times. The photograph in the book is a perfect example about my personal work. I told him I was just finishing up a book and I wanted something that had a little edge to it, a little more like the Kirk Douglas people know. I like it more than anything I shot for him.”

* Arnold Schwarzenegger--"He is one of my all-time favorites. Arnold is really a giant. I think there are few people in the business today with his looks, integrity, personality, sense of business and charm. He will be on top forever. There are few people I have worked with who are so charismatic to be around, that have as great a sense of humor or such a terrific understanding of themselves.”

* Al Pacino--"I was hired as a special photographer to shoot him in the movie ‘Scarface.’ I was warned he would be difficult: I would need to use long lenses, and he probably wouldn’t pose for me; I would probably be thrown off the set, so I should just try to get a few head shots. He was exactly the opposite. . . . He was fantastic, always giving of his time.”

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* Grace Jones--"Grace is absolutely larger than life. There are few people that, when you turn on the camera, . . . can perform like Grace Jones. She has the best awareness of anybody I have photographed. I directed my first video for Grace for her single ‘Love on Top of Love.’ We’ve had a long working relationship.”

* Michael Jackson--"Michael Jackson is great. I think he is misrepresented in a lot of ways because I don’t think he is that strange. I think he is extremely eccentric and childlike in his feeling. He loves kids. He always came over without an entourage and was very down-to-earth. He was very open to sharing ideas.”

Gorman says that nine times out of 10, celebrities aren’t as tough as their reputations, though sometimes they use those reputations to their advantage.

“The bottom line is their bark is always louder than their bite,” Gorman said.

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Celebrity portraits by Greg Gorman are on display until June 13 at Rizzoli International Bookstore & Gallery at South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa. The hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Information: (714) 957-3331.


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