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Calling Joel Grey, photographer

July 12, 2009 |  1:30 pm

Joel1 Joel Grey always had disdain for people who took photographs with their cellphones.

“To me, that’s like standing in front of the Statue of Liberty or shooting yourself or shooting your friends,” says the 77-year-old Grey. “I never took it seriously.”

Best known for his Tony- and Oscar-winning performance as the malevolent, mischievous emcee in the seminal musical-drama “Cabaret,” Grey has also developed a reputation as a photographer.

He’s published two books — “Pictures I Had to Take” and “Looking Hard at Unexamined Things” — featuring vibrant, colorful images he shot around the world with a Nikon he bought in London in 1972.

“We had a show that sold very well in New York and had another show there about a year ago,” says the father of actress Jennifer Grey. “I have two pieces in the Whitney Museum and one in the New York Public Library.”

And now, with the release of his new book, “1.3:  Images From My Phone,” it seems he doesn’t hate cellphone photos anymore.

So what prompted Grey to reach for his phone?

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Two years ago, he says, he took his one-man show to Port St. Lucie, Fla. It was just a weekend engagement, so he didn’t bring his trusty Nikon with him. He visited a museum featuring an exhibition on singer-actress Frances Langford, who had lived in the area.

“I wanted to remember these images,” he says. So he took out his Nokia 133 phone, which has a diminutive, 1.3-megapixel lens, and began to shoot.

When he got home to New York, he showed the 30-odd images to Sam Shahid, the book designer who worked with him on his first two releases.

“I kept shooting for almost a year, everywhere I went,” says Grey, who traveled to New York, L.A., Berlin and Venice, Italy.

Joel4Among the photos is a close-up of one eye as well as the freckles of his 7-year-old granddaughter Stella. In another picture, an overweight woman is standing in line at Walgreens with her hair in curlers. Grey snapped a picture of a dog snarling from behind a chain-link fence in Venice, Calif., while he was walking his dog.

“The thing about the phone is that it’s always with you,” Grey says. ”It’s very small, and mine has the least amount of mega-pixels you can possibly get,” says Grey.

Unlike with his Nikon, though, Grey can’t control the aperture stop, focus or lighting. “The light makes it own adaptation,” he says. “You can’t do a thing except find the frame. You shoot what catches your eye. I think it’s the most in-the-moment kind of thing I do.”

-- Susan King

Photos: A selection of Grey's untitled images. Credit: Joel Grey / powerHouse Books

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