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June 19, 2016

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Star-shooter subject of new photo exhibit

FOR more than 40 years, French photographer Brigitte Lacombe has had a job most people would envy — taking portraits of celebrities and shooting on movie sets.

Since the late 1970s, she’s worked back-stage with some of the world’s most accomplished directors, including Martin Scorsese, David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino. She’s contributed photos to publications like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue and The Wall Street Journal. And luminaries like Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio are regular guests at her photo studio.

From now until August at the Shanghai Center of Photography, it’s Lacombe’s turn to be in the spotlight. Some 40 of Lacombe’s images are on display at the center in an exhibition that gives viewers the chance to observe the cinematic world through a photographer’s perspective.

Born in Paris, Lacombe dropped out of school at age 17 and began working as an apprentice at the black-and-white photo lab of Elle magazine. In 1975, she was sent to the Cannes Film Festival where she met Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland. They invited her to the film sets of “Fellini’s Casanova” and “All the President’s Men.” She then started her career as a behind-the-scenes film set photographer. She is now based in New York.

As Lacombe explained to Shanghai Daily, her strategy when working behind-the-scenes is to make herself as unobtrusive as possible, while also seeking out compelling shoots.

“When you’re on the movie set, you are the least important and not necessary to the film making. So you have to be very discreet and quiet, and just wait for the moment to capture an interesting picture,” Lacombe told Shanghai Daily in an interview.

One photo on display shows Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon during shooting for “The Talented Mr Ripley” in 1998. The picture was captured between takes, and shows Paltrow casting a sullen look in Lacombe’s direction.

“I wasn’t sure if she was in character because the scene was very difficult or if she was just looking at me as if to say ‘go away’,” Lacombe recalled.

Taking portraits is quite another story. In her studio, “the photographer sets the situation and brings people in,” she said.

Lacombe’s portraits are characterized by their bare settings, subtle lighting effects and the natural poses of her subjects.

“I mainly focus on someone’s face and try to be very simple, not involving too much fashion, hairstyling, make up… Sometimes nothing at all. I don’t want any distractions or protection from costumes, props and anything else,” she explained.

Lacombe described her works as “simple, classic and direct.” Almost all of her images are black-and-white.

“Colored pictures can be dazzling but you get too much information,” Lacombe said. “In a black-and-white photo, you get only essential information and that’s my way to make photos simple.”

But simple, she noted, is not the same as easy. Unmasking her subjects, and letting them be true to themselves can be quite challenging. “People nowadays are more guarded, especially famous people who are over-exposed. Some prefer to show what they have to show. They like to be protected, emotionally and physically,” she said.

“But that is not the way I do portraits. If they can... behave less guarded and show their real face, it’s a success to me.”

Building trust

Lacombe’s images have been widely recognized and praised. Adam Gopnik, with The New Yorker, once described her works as “an investigation of intimacy.”

“The magic of her work is that she somehow shows her sitters’ souls without betraying their confidences. We see inside. They remain intact,” he said.

Liu Heung Shing, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and founder of the Shanghai Center of Photography, also sees a bond of trust between Lacombe and her subjects.

“What she brings to the table is taking the stars away from their guises, to face themselves and face her,” said Liu.

Lacombe says she prefers to collaborate with her subjects and avoids coming to a shoot with preconceived ideas or plans. Instead, she sees these sessions as one-on-one encounters, where her goal is to make her subjects feel relaxed.

“I don’t give too many directions to those people and take photos of their natural states,” she said. Fostering intimacy helps Lacombe capture unguarded moments that bring out the true personalities of celebrities.

Lacombe has followed many of her subjects for decades, and her images trace their evolving careers. She’s followed director Martin Scorsese for 20 years, and been behind the scenes on nearly all of his films during that period. She’s also documented Leonardo DiCaprio for some 15 years.

“I photograph them and I love them,” said Lacombe, who identified Meryl Streep as one of her favorite subjects.

“She is an extraordinary woman,” she said with admiration. Yet, this award-winning actress “hates having her picture taken, which is very difficult for my work.” Even though they’ve known each other for 30 years, Lacombe says she still has to “persuade” Streep to take part in a shoot. But, Lacombe added, “she trusts me now.”

The photographer is now working on her third book of personal photos, which she says will also be a memoir of sorts. “My work and my life are not separate. They’re the same thing,” she said.

Lacombe | Inside Cinema

Date: Through August 28, Tuesday-Monday, 10:30am-5:30pm

Admission: 40 yuan

Venue: Shanghai Center of Photography

Address: 2555-1 Longteng Ave



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