Art Streiber: Tell Me What You Want Me To Do

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.

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