Great Read: Hollywood cameraman insists he invented the celebrity selfie in 1981
In the photographs, Lester Wisbrod is a constant: He always appears on the right, with a big smile and a satisfied look about him. On the left, a cavalcade of famous faces flashes by: Clint Eastwood, Jennifer Aniston, Charlton Heston, Renee Zellweger.
The A-listers look perfect, captured in a single moment of stardom. But as the photos flip by, it is Wisbrod who captivates. Crow’s-feet deepen. Hair turns gray. Jowls set in.
It is a portrait of a life — an unvarnished one.
For more than two decades, the longtime Hollywood cameraman snapped photographs of himself and celebrities he’d meet on television sets. In all, Wisbrod has about 150 of the shots, most of them taken in the days before digital cameras, never mind mobile phones with front-facing lenses.
Ellen DeGeneres’ famous photo of herself with several actors at the Oscars — which was actually snapped by Bradley Cooper — became the quintessential selfie in an Instagram world of cellphone auteurs, self-obsessed teens and celebrity culture. But Wisbrod insists he invented the celebrity selfie. And now he wants his due.
“Generally I am not that ostentatious,” said Wisbrod, now 67 and semi-retired. “It just seems like it is bad form to be bragging. But what the hell.”
It just seems like it is bad form to be bragging. But what the hell.
Wisbrod began taking the photos in 1981, shortly after the introduction of Canon’s Sure Shot 35-millimeter compact camera, one of the first autofocus models to hit the market. It would allow him to take a self-portrait that he could count on being in focus.
Still, his first Sure Shot selfie — with humorist Art Buchwald — came out blurry. But Wisbrod quickly got the hang of it, and termed the images “silly shots,” though his friends would eventually call them “Lesters.”
The photographs capture Hollywood in all of its mystifying allure. For every enduring star there’s a has-been, and plenty of former cultural touchstones who long ago faded to obscurity. Viewing the images now makes Wisbrod wistful, and even a little bashful over having aged.
“I guess I was better-looking then than I thought I was,” he deadpanned.
Wisbrod said he never harbored dreams of working in Hollywood, or cultivated a childhood interest in movie stars. He was raised in Oakland in a working-class family and joined the Air Force after high school. He served in Vietnam, working in radar operations.
In 1968, Wisbrod enrolled at Nevada Southern University (now UNLV) and, needing work, found a job listing posted by local television station KLAS-TV, which was looking for a cameraman. The gig paid $2 an hour.
He was soon hired and began work on the local broadcast of the children’s show “Romper Room.”
“I fell in love with it,” Wisbrod said. “I could not believe my good fortune — it was glamorous, and it was fun.”
He would later work at other Las Vegas television stations over the course of a decade. In 1979, Wisbrod moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, once he’d gotten a toehold in Hollywood, Wisbrod — who worked on shows including “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and “A Current Affair” — began taking selfies.
With time, Wisbrod developed a routine. First he’d “chat up” his subjects — many of whom he’d already been working with on assignment as a cameraman — before asking for a photo.
“That warms them up,” he said, adding that celebrities nearly always obliged — and happily. Wisbrod was turned down only once.
He said “M*A*S*H” actress Loretta Swit told him he could have a photo only if someone else shot it. “I awkwardly withdrew,” he said.
Many of the women in the images have their cheeks pressed up closely to Wisbrod. Several of the men have their arms draped around him. Wisbrod believes that the physical act of holding his trusty Sure Shot with an outstretched arm — which required he and his subject to gather closely — disarmed the seemingly untouchable actors.
“It just puts people in a whole different mood,” he said.
Steve Domier, who worked with Wisbrod on television shoots in the 1980s and 1990s, said his colleague’s approach was “unusual at the time, and it was novel.”
“When you want a picture, you ask someone. Not Lester, because he is a cameraman,” said Domier, vice president of distribution marketing for the CW Television Network. “He wanted control. And then he’d know how it’d come out.”
There were technical aspects to the Lesters. Wisbrod, who’d almost always take a photo with just one other person, knew he’d need to hold the camera at least 18 inches from his face — the bare minimum for an auto-focusing camera. Wisbrod would also hold the camera at an angle slightly above him, “simply because it would tighten up my neck,” he said, laughing.
In taking all those photos, Wisbrod documented a career spent in the shadows of stardom. But until recently, he wasn’t so inclined to share his hobby.
Wisbrod’s wife, Jody Wicks, said that on a mid-1990s trip to visit her family in Iowa, she brought along a secret stash of the photos so that she could show her relatives.
“I knew he didn’t want me to take them,” said Wicks, a dentist. “He is not the kind of guy who wants to say, ‘Oh, look at me, look at what I did.’ But when people in Iowa saw them, oh my God! They’d never seen anything like it.”
Wisbrod may have once kept his selfies private, but that changed this year when he posted a slide show of his photos to YouTube.
In the video’s voice-over, Wisbrod sounds mildly exasperated as he stakes his selfie claim, but also is almost apologetic in explaining his decision to publicize his pastime.
“Everybody’s making a big fuss about selfies — selfie this, selfie that … give me a break. I’ve been doing selfies since 1981,” he says. “I thought I better do something or else I’ll end up as roadkill on the history highway.”
On a recent afternoon, Wisbrod sat in the dining room of his woodsy Hollywood Hills home, shuffling through a file of old photos. He marveled at each, holding up the glossy 4-by-6 images and reciting the names of the celebrities. Sometimes, he couldn’t remember them. Others triggered warm memories.
He flashed a picture with Steven Spielberg.
“Spielberg said: ‘Are you sure you want to take it that way? You may not get another chance,’” Wisbrod recalled. The photo came out perfectly.
Admiring a picture with Anthony Hopkins, Wisbrod recounted having asked the “Silence of the Lambs” actor to autograph a bottle of Chianti — a playful nod to his turn in that film. (Hopkins obliged.)
Actor Mel Gibson takes a selfie at an outdoor screening of “Mad Max” during the 49th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival on July 4, 2014, in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.(Matej Divizna / Getty Images)
An admirer gets a photo with an accommodating Sally Field at the 2014 AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Jane Fonda at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on June 5.(Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for AFI)
Andrew Garfield takes a selfie with fans as he arrives on the red carpet for the world premiere of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2" in Leicester Square, London, on April 10, 2014.(Jon Furniss /Invision/ AP)
Adam Sandler, right, arrives for the premiere of his film “Blended” in Berlin, on May 19, 2014.(Joerg Carstensen / EPA)
A photo with President Reagan, taken after he’d left office, made Wisbrod chuckle.
“That was a tough one to get, because I had to slip in between the Secret Service and the dignity of the presidency,” he said.
A picture of Bill Pullman triggered an awkward memory.
“He thought I was macking on his girlfriend,” Wisbrod said. “I wasn’t.”
But when Wisbrod came across photos of people who died before their time — among them Gregory Hines, Robert Urich and Jim Henson — he turned melancholy.
“They were really young, as was I,” said Wisbrod, the wail of a siren on some Hollywood street far below just barely registering.
There’s a sense that Wisbrod felt that by documenting his proximity to celebrity, he’d secure his reputation as a Hollywood high roller. Wisbrod, however, said he took the silly shots simply because it was something fun to do.
“It was kind of a goof,” he said, fingering the stack of photos.
But he conceded that after working behind cameras all those years, he had wanted to memorialize his connection to all those beautiful faces in front of them.
“I came from East Oakland,” he said. “People in East Oakland really don’t get out and about into the celebrity scene much. I did it so much I really kind of took it for granted. In a way, I kind of miss it now.”
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