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Q&A with Mark Liddell, celebrity and fashion photographer

November 11, 2009 | 12:07 pm

Exposed-cover The job title "celebrity photographer" can take on various meanings. There are the icons of the trade who could very well be famous names in their own right -- those with expansive lofts and high-quality costumes and visions who can turn an 8-by-10 of a reality star into something that will later be found in a museum or gallery. And then there are those who (sometimes) stealthily sneak up on starlets during their morning pre-Starbucks, post-Bikram run.

Photographer Mark Liddell falls into the first category, having spent 10 years capturing A-listers for magazines like Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and People, as well as shooting celebrity-themed advertising campaigns for Fendi and Versace and charities like PETA, voting-awareness nonprofit Declare Yourself and Women's Cancer Initiative.

However, the title of his new book might make him feel like he's in the glare of the paparazzi's cameras: "Exposed: 10 Years in Hollywood" ($30, Channel Photographics) encapsulates not only some of his renderings, but interviews with him about how he approached shooting stars such as Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Aniston, as well as some juicy bits of gossip about his subjects (some names obviously extracted).

Liddell called up All the Rage to chat about this book, how he got to this point in his career, his favorite shoots, celebrity photography versus fashion photography, and how much he hates the paparazzi.

Mark-liddell Tell me about how you got your start with celebrity photography.

I was rung up to shoot for the Princess of Wales Memorial Fund after [Diana] the princess of Wales was killed. They asked me to shoot some of the most beautiful people in the world for a charity [including Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, Iman and Kate Moss]. Janet Jackson was the first person I shot who was famous.

I then did a shoot for Nicole Kidman for the launch of Australia's Harpers Bazaar. She suggested I move to L.A. and she was supportive. She gave me all the covers of the magazines [i.e., every time she was on the cover, she asked for him] and she introduced me to all the celebrities.

Who is your favorite celebrity to photograph?

(Laughs, then answers diplomatically) My favorite people to photograph are always when we're doing a shoot for a cause. When a picture has a meaning is when I'm the happiest.

Proceeds of "Exposed" go to the Trevor Project, a teen suicide prevention group, and to the Jenesse Center, which Liddell was introduced to by Halle Berry after he learned that she was donating her fee from a Vogue cover they worked on together to the domestic violence outreach group.

Who is someone you've always wanted to shoot but couldn't get to?

I am fascinated by powerful women. I feel both Madonna and Hillary Clinton are exceedingly beautiful in their own rights.

I had the chance to shoot Madonna a few years ago, but I had to have back surgery at the last minute. I don't think she's ever forgiven me because I sit by the phone every day waiting and hope. I guess the lesson in that is: Don't say no to Madonna. It was a tough one -- should I walk again or should I say no to Madonna?

I feel politicians are never photographed well. The pictures are boring and it always looks like bad wallpaper in the hotel. I love iconic imagery and I'd love to talk to Hillary and find out what her inspiration is and get that to come through -- but not in a hotel room or in a hallway in the White House.

Mischa-barton How important is clothing to the shoot?

It's one of the most important factors and the one component I insist on is the stylist for the shoot. You can alter hair and makeup in post-production. I grew up as a fashion photographer shooting for Versace. I keep in touch with what's going on in the shows and fashion's so relevant to the image.

Are there certain designers you prefer?

It really depends. I look at the body shape, who the person is, what age they are. ... I had this incredible shoot for Annie Lennox and we had all the designers in the world. Annie looked at it and said, "I've done all this," and pulled a white HIV T-shirt out of her bag. It would have been wonderful to put her in Dior or YSL, but the white HIV T-shirt said it all.

I've also had very spoiled English actresses. Every designer in the world sent clothes for them. They arrive and throw a hissy fit and ask the stylist to go out and get Gap. [Note to readers: No, they're not in the book and no, Liddell wouldn't divulge their names].

What are your favorite shoots?

My favorite shoots are often very personal shoots. When Britney Spears, whom I've had the honor of shooting for the past 10 years, asked me to do her pregnancy pictures and her baby pictures and her engagement pictures ... it really is an honor as a photographer to be brought in and trusted with really special memories of a person's life.

What about your favorite place to shoot?

My favorite place has to be in a studio because we have to escape the paparazzi. They are a constant pain in my life. It takes away my freedom to shoot outside. [In recent years,] it's really gotten worse. They hire helicopters that destroy my set. I've had the paparazzi kick in my car door, threaten my manager, push me when I try to protect Britney. ... It's really unbelievable and I'm just a photographer. As you can tell I don't like them very much ...

What's the most complicated shoot you've done?

Trying to shoot Paris Hilton naked in sprayed gold in the desert for Prosecco ... . We had the logistics of the paparazzi. If I take Paris in the desert, the pap will follow so I took my manager with me and had him strip down to his underwear in the position Paris would be in. Then I got Paris in the studio and finished it in post-production. I love Paris, she's up for anything. I love when a subject is so trusting.

Eva-longoria How do you get the person to open up to you? What does it take to get subjects to cross the line and see you more as a friend?

Treat them as normal people. Take away the fame and the celebrity and be as real as possible. I respect all human beings. It doesn't matter who anyone is. I treat everyone on the same level.

[Because I'm British,] I think I get away with hell. I had Meg Ryan in front of me and I needed to break the ice. I showed her a centerfold picture and said "I know exactly how you want to look today." She looked at me, her mouth dropped and then she burst out laughing. In the book, she calls me silly.

How is celebrity photography for magazines and publications different than fashion photography?

There is a huge difference. ["Exposed"] isn't just a book of pictures and of words. We're trying to make people aware of all the differences there are. A model knows how to pose, she knows how to wear an outfit ... you can't expect the celebrity to be a model. With a celebrity, you have to respect who they are. Everyone is so different.

As the fashion photographer, you're used to ruling the roost and telling everyone what you want and what your concept is. With celebrities, you have to understand who they are and why they're there. You're enhancing their image.

[But] I believe if you don't have a picture taken in five minutes, it's a wasted shot -- whether it's a fashion photograph or a celebrity. You lose who you're shooting. And they're bored as well.

Nicole-kidman Have advances in photography and technology made things easier?

The developments in the technical sides have been incredible. In the old days, you did your photograph and that's your piece of art. Nowadays, the photograph is only 50% of your picture.

[But] for some people, [technology] is almost an excuse. They can solve problems too easily in post[-production]. I think it's taken the skill out of it for a lot of photographers. Those of us who are trained and know our lighting, we can get away with it. A lot of the photographers out there can get their work corrected in post.

I also don't like in fashion photography, the trend in Europe to make everyone ugly. I don't think we need to see hairy armpits in everyone. I want to make people look beautiful. I want a photograph to be an inspiration and I want it to be a beautiful piece of art.

The Image section just did a cover story on the art of modern fashion photography, and noting the passing of some of the greats, such as Irving Penn. How has Penn's death changed your industry?

We've lost a great photographer. The sad thing now in the industry is that everything seems to move so fast, it seems like we don't respect the masters of the craft. We need to remember the masters and the people who made it great.

[With "Exposed,"] I have probably done the exact opposite from what someone like Irving Penn did. His photographs and books are so stunning and coffee table icons. I've gone the other way and tried to make it accessible to the masses. I've created incredible imagery and give it a modern-day twist and made it affordable. It's a stepping stone for people. We're also trying to raise money for the causes. We've done it so it's totally affordable and so it'll have appeal to the masses.

Now that you've conquered celebrity photography, what's next on the horizon?

We've just done our first short film -- we've put the book to life with a short film called "Exposed." I really believe the photography is becoming more moving and less still. It's getting the message out there and giving the picture a voice.

-- Whitney Friedlander

From top: The "Exposed: 10 Years in Hollywood" cover, a portrait of Liddell and photos of his celebrity subjects. Credit: Mark Liddell