Art Streiber: Tell Me What You Want Me To Do

For the past two decades, Los Angeles-based photographer Art Streiber has been documenting the who’s who of Hollywood and beyond, with his portrait and entertainment photography gracing the covers and inside pages of magazines from Vanity Fair, Esquire and Entertainment Weekly, to Wired, Fortune and Rolling Stone. He has also put his camera to work for many of the major television networks and film studios. Streiber’s clean graphic aesthetic, technical prowess, professional demeanor and mental acuity bring a sense of calmness and confidence to the often frenetic handler-handheld world of "Hollywood." The son of a banker might well have inherited the traits that have given his career such a solid foundation. The trust built upon years of successful pressure-packed assignments helps Streiber push through barriers that can impede a creative shoot.

DPP: You often work with groups of celebrities such as the stars of Last Vegas—Robert DeNiro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline—for AARP Magazine. How did you approach putting these megastars into a single frame?

Streiber also likes to create photos that evoke a particular era as in this photo of Bryan Cranston.

Art Streiber: There are a number of technological and aesthetic hurdles to overcome when photographing any group and certainly when you’re photographing a group of celebrities. The cast of Last Vegas shoot was in New York, and we had very limited time with our subjects because they’re all very well known and overscheduled. The hurdles start with coming up with an idea and a setting in which we’re going to place these people. So I brainstorm with the client and my set designer and come up with a look, a feeling and an aesthetic. With the cast of Last Vegas, we opted for classic tuxedos in terms of wardrobe and finally landed on the idea of photographing them in a bar. We were inspired by the Slim Aarons photo of Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. The idea was to really get these guys to hang out. My set designer had to find, build and stock a bar in the Pier 59 Studio in Manhattan, and then my crew and I had to light the bar to make it look as legitimate as possible. I’m always interested in a lighting look that’s appropriate and natural-looking unless I’m going for something very aggressive. In addition to the bar set, we had to do a cover, so we created two additional sets, one with a white background and the other with a blue background. With the four A-list actors shooting on three sets, our total time with them was an hour. We got into the studio at 8 a.m. to build and light the sets so everything was nailed down and we could move from one set to another when the actors were ready at 6 p.m. If we have a limited budget, that might mean moving power packs between sets.

I’m looking for the group to have a dynamic, for the group to rise and fall and have depth so that your eye keeps traveling through the frame.

DPP: How do you make the shot dynamic with the group in front of you?

Streiber: It’s my job not only to coordinate every one of the subjects in front of me, but to make sure that it comes together cohesively—to make sure that it feels like an organic group. I don’t want my group photos to feel like I’m photographing a football or soccer team, lining them up shoulder to shoulder. I’m looking for the group to have a dynamic, for the group to rise and fall and have depth so that your eye keeps traveling through the frame. I’m charged with following the performance of every single person in the group and looking at everybody individually, as well as the group in its entirety. That’s a specialty that I’ve developed over the years by studying what works and doesn’t work in my pictures and the pictures of others—figuring out that in order to make a group really work, you have to break it up into smaller groups.

Streiber’s ability to make particularly whimsical images is on display in this photo of Seth Rogan re-creating the famous scene in the Hitchcock film North by Northwest.

DPP: So, let’s say you had 11 people….

Streiber: I’m going to probably break that group up into a 3-5-3, 2-4-5 or 2-4-3-2 combination, turning people’s shoulders into each other or away from each other so that there appears to be smaller groups within the group.

DPP: How much are you directing your subjects?

Streiber: I came from photojournalism. The premise in photojournalism is that you’re a fly on the wall. You don’t engage with your subjects. You’re a witness. You’re not affecting the outcome of the event in front of you. You’re just there to document. As I got more and more into portraiture, especially celebrity portraiture, I had to grapple with the fact that I was directing people. Once your subject gets in front of you, they’re expecting your help and your direction. In my experience, nobody really enjoys having their picture taken except for models. I liken it to dentistry. It’s something you have to and should do every year. I try and make it as easy as possible.

I’ve really come to appreciate that actors want direction. I hear a lot, "Tell me what you want me to do." When they’re on stage or in front of the motion-picture camera, they’re being directed. They’re inhabiting a role, they have lines to project, they have blocking, they have an emotion to convey. In the absence of that in front of the still camera, oftentimes they’re lost or insecure. So it’s my job to take them through a role, give them motivation, give them something to do, give them something to think about in order to elicit a great performance, even if it’s in front of the still camera.

Streiber’s sense of humor can be seen in this photo of the Monty Python ensemble.

DPP: How did you create your well-known Paramount anniversary photo? Did you feel the pressure of having so many major names in a single shot?

Streiber: The Paramount 100th anniversary photo was an incredible high point in my career, and it was absolutely daunting. In order to tackle a shoot that big, I break it down into bite-sized pieces. "Where are we going to shoot? What’s the set going to look like? How are we going to light it? How are we going to arrange all these people?" I rely on an incredible team of professionals—my photo assistants, my set designer, my producer, my digital tech. With this particular shoot, we also had the set builders, gaffers and electricians at Paramount at our disposal. So we were able to come up with an outrageous lighting scheme.

The grip department and the lighting department at Paramount built us trusses onto which we could hang our lights. We were on Stage 18 at Paramount, and that shot is lit with 56 Profoto heads, all with P50 Magnum dishes with grids aimed at specific sections of the set instead of trying to go very, very big and soft. The idea was that we were going to build ourselves a stage and we were going to light it like a stage. The stage itself was built over the course of three weeks. We shot on a Friday, got in on Monday and lit for 2½ days, then we dressed-rehearsed with stand-ins, all the while, my set designer Rick Floyd work
ing side by side with Paramount executives, including the chairman of the studio Brad Grey, trying to figure out where everybody was going to go.

The stars of Last Vegas were photographed on a compressed schedule. Streiber had about one hour with the actors, and he had to work with them on three different sets. The concept for this photo came from a Slim Aarons photo of Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.

When it finally came down to the big day itself, it took about 25 minutes to load all of these A-list actors, actresses and directors into the set, but we only shot for 5 minutes and 50 seconds. Once Rick had gotten everybody into position, we photographed the stage in three sections. I panned my Hasselblad H3 with the IQ160 back and a 150mm lens left, middle, right, left, middle, right. When we had test-driven this, we realized that asking someone to sit still or stand still for much more than five minutes was asking a lot. We really didn’t need to shoot in excess of 20 frames per each section with tiny adjustments of body positions on a couple of people.

DPP: How did you feel behind the camera, with 116 of the who’s who of Hollywood in front of your lens?

Streiber: I was nervous approaching the shoot, but I really wasn’t overwhelmed. By the time we got to the day of the shoot, everything was nailed down. We had done our job. I realized that it was of staggering historical importance assembling this many actors, actresses and directors in one place, but it really wasn’t until they walked in the door that it really hit me. They came in without their managers, publicists, agents and assistants, so everywhere you looked there was a famous face. That was kind of intimidating. But it turns out after talking with a number of them before and after the shoot that they were more nervous than I was.

Individually, for the most part, these people are fans of the other people in the image just like we are. A number of them were starstruck by their contemporaries or older actors or directors and couldn’t believe they were there. Charlize Theron said to me, "Oh, my God, I got to put my hand on Harrison Ford’s shoulder." We assume all these people know each other and live together in a gated community at the top of the Hollywood Hills, but the reality is, most of them don’t know each other.

I remember right before the shoot started, I was making my way up to where my tripod was and Leonardo DiCaprio was just standing, staring at the stage with his arms crosed. I said, "Hey, Leo, I’m Art, I’m the photographer. We worked together a couple of weeks ago for The Hollywood Reporter." He kept staring at the stage and said, "This is monumental." When DiCaprio said that about the project we were about to undertake, that really hit home.

DPP: What’s your approach to working with celebrities and entertainment people who can be very ego-driven?

Justin Bieber in a photo that exemplifies the immortality of fame.

Streiber: For the most part, the way I deal with people who the public feels have big egos or that get fawned over all the time is that I treat them as equals or I act like the director. I never say, "Oh, my God, it’s an honor to meet you. I love your work." Maybe at the end of the shoot, I’ll say something acknowledging their latest project. I establish that I’m in charge and I want to make them look great. At the same time, I want to be very collaborative with my subjects. "This is what we’re planning to do today. What do you think of this?" I acknowledge their time limits and respect that they have shown up to do a job. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve never had an actor walk off the set and I’ve never had a shoot completely break down, though there was one time in Las Vegas when Jerry Lewis kicked me out of his office after I asked him to sit on the couch.

DPP: Why was he so uptight about the couch? Did it belong to Dean Martin?

Streiber: I’m really not sure why he got bent out of shape. We had already photographed him at his desk. I think he was just over being photographed.

DPP: What initially sparked your interest in photography?

Beyond work for major L.A. and New York entertainment studios, Streiber has a special appreciation for doing magazine editorial work like this image of Zynga founder Mark Pincus, which was shot for Fast Company.

Streiber: It started in fifth or sixth grade. My grandfather was a very advanced amateur. He had his own darkroom and processed black-and-white film and C-41 color negatives and made prints. When I was in eighth grade, he sold my brother and me his Canon AE-1 for $5 and threw in a lens for $2. I started taking black-and-white candids at school, and developing and proofing the negatives in his darkroom and making prints with him. Eventually, I became the photography editor of the newspaper and yearbook in high school. When I went to college, I joined the staff of the school paper. After college, I did an internship at the Riverside Press-Enterprise, then a traineeship at the L.A. Times. I thought I was going to be a photojournalist traveling the world looking for photo stories and places of conflict.

DPP: How did your career evolve into focusing on celebrity portraiture?

Streiber: I fell into first lifestyle photography, fashion photography and portraiture, and eventually celebrity portraiture. I started freelancing for Women’s Wear Daily and W in Los Angeles. In about 1987, they needed a staff photographer. At the time, they also had a men’s magazine called M. As the staff photographer, I had to shoot everything, from fashion and portraits to still lifes, interiors, travel stories and special events. After a couple of years in L.A., where I met my now wife, they transferred us to Milan where we were from 1989 to 1993. My love of all genres of photography comes from perhaps my being at the very beginning of my career a photographic jack-of-all-trades. We ended up back in L.A. in 1993.

I’ve always loved magazine photography. My great-grandfather started the first wholesale magazine distribution company in Los Angeles, and my grandfather worked there, my uncle and father worked there a little bit. On Saturdays, I would go down to the Sunset News Company warehouse. It was wall-to-wall magazines, everything from TIME and LIFE to Sports Illustrated to Richie Rich, Archie and Playboy. I still get that same kind of visceral response to the glossy magazine covers I had when I was a kid. I love contributing to magazines.

DPP: What changes do you make when you shoot in more of a reportage mode backstage at the Academy Awards® for magazine assignments?

Streiber: I’m shooting with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and I have an assistant holding an off-camera Quantum Qflash so I can give the light a little bit of shape. To get into that mode, it’s quite natural for me to put on black jeans and a black fleece, and try and hide in the shadows and capture these moments that occur right in front of you at the Academy Awards®. I love this kind of documentary work, an
d I’ve always loved the Oscars®, ever since I was a kid. It’s a real honor and privilege to be backstage in the days leading up to and the night of the Oscars®. I used to be the only guy back there. There are now five or six of us, so it’s a little more crowded and the elbows are sharper, but there are amazing moments that you just don’t have the opportunity to capture anywhere else.

You can see more of Art Streiber’s work at

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