Celebrity Photographer George Holz on 30 Years of Shooting the World's Biggest Stars
When he's not snapping portraits of the most famous faces in the world, photographer George Holz lives upstate in a house with sheep, chickens, two dogs, a cat or two, a couple of cars, a pick up truck and an original '60s Airstream. His wife Jennifer lives there too, her hand a presence on "Holz Farm" as well as in the light touch on the look and feel of his monumental new book Holz Hollywood: 30 Years of Portraits.
But it wasn't always like this. Certainly not 30-plus years ago when the fledgling photographer lived and worked out of an illegal loft on the corner of 4th Street and Lafayette in lower Manhattan, then a squalid downtown artist enclave, now a gentrified neighborhood with some of the most expensive apartments in the world. "Keith Richards lived across the way," says Holz. "You could see Rauschenberg sunning up on his deck across on Bond St."
By then Holz was already on his way to a major career but he didn't really know it. While a photography student at The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he befriended Helmut Newton who was at the height of his infamous glory in the late '70s. Holz heard through a friend that Newton was expected at a Rodeo Drive boutique and waited around to meet his idol. "These days you would call it stalking," says Holz who parlayed the meeting into a job as an assistant. Still a student, he says, "I was torn between photographing a milk carton or tagging along with Helmut Newton." Guess what he chose.
After graduating in 1980, he worked around L.A. shooting album covers, before deciding, at Newton's urging, to go to Europe, specifically Milan. "Back then there weren't a ton of photographers going to Milan," says Holz. "I was living in an apartment with no heat with a modeling agency upstairs. I had a constant supply of models." But not much revenue. "It was tough. You're ready to give up and someone gives you a morsel and one thing leads to another. Everything was under the table there. We did our bookings through a modeling agency. They took 50 percent, but I didn't care. I had another week of film and food."
The road to celebrity photographer par excellence began with shooting still life portraits -- "from shoes to beauty," says Holz who worked under the watchful eye of his legendary benefactors Franca Sozzani at Italian Vogue and Paula Greif at Mademoiselle, eventually landing the global Elizabeth Arden campaign.
"Probably my first breakthrough celebrity portrait was Madonna in 1983 in California. And a little later I photographed Jellybean [Benitez] for Paper." But it wasn't until Holz received a phone call while he was on his yearly fly fishing trip in Montana that it all began to jell. "My agent called and said we have this young actor who's out here filming a movie. Would you be interested in photographing him. I probably would have said no since I was on vacation, but since I was literally 30 miles away I said ok I'll do it." The young actor was Brad Pitt; the magazine People.
Some 30 years later Holz has amassed many file cabinets full of negatives of the hundreds of celebs that followed Pitt. Holz Hollywood's 304 pages include many of his iconic images, as well as lots of others that have never been published before. "Over five years of going through the images, I kept wondering why the editors didn't pick this or that image. Maybe it was a shot with a breast hanging out that the magazine would never use but would be great for a book."
Today celebrities are used to being photographed and ogled but Holz's photos are different, stolen moments when something is revealed to the camera about the subject that isn't obvious. The defining photo often taken at the very end session when the shoot was formally over but "just a few more shots" were taken.
"I'd always try to push the envelope on the assignment. Try to do something farther than expected," he says. 'I was in Dennis Hopper's house all day for InStyle. I photographed him with his art work and showed his house architecturally but I knew that this was an interesting guy and I should do stuff for myself. I knew that the magazine would never use it but in the back of my mind I knew that I should do some iconic shots."
Surely, Holz has developed some tricks of the trade that help him get comfortable with the star and vice versa. "It's kind of like a dog," says Holz. "If they sense fear, they'll take advantage of you. You have to show a certain amount confidence. Take control. Feel that you can direct them but also need to know when to pull back. One time I was shooting Anjelica Huston and I could sense that if I started shooting she would move because she was a great model before she was an actress. I didn't have to tell her to do this or that. So I gave her that rope and let her do it. Other people, especially actors and actresses are comfortable when they are method acting the emotions are rolling and they can get into a role. They're used to being directed in films. But if you're taking one photo they get very nervous."
On the other hand, you have eccentrics like Joaquin Phoenix. "I had all these lights set up and I was shooting him and it wasn't going to work. He wouldn't sit still. I basically wound up following him around with the lights. He went to the kitchen and began washing dishes. He was talking to himself. I had to be flexible. I couldn't tell him what to do. The same thing with Kevin Spacey. He jumped up on a Times Square bus and I just captured him doing his thing. You have to be very flexible, especially with celebs. One of the tricks is being able to change everything 360 degrees at a moment's notice. Because it can go south very fast. They can walk. Other times you're spending the day and hanging out with their families and the day goes by and it's just like magic."
Holz manages to capture his subjects within the context of the greater buzz surrounding them. In one shot, Jessica Simpson, at the height of her early-aughts pop career, looking like a living Barbie doll. "When I was printing that image for the book in Italy I said I want her to look like Barbie. She was quite young and came from a religious Christian background. And they hadn't put her out as a sex symbol. When it came out on the cover of FHM, the cover line was 'Oh, Lord.' I remember the family was concerned."
And then there are people like Donald Trump who he shot for New York magazine. "As a photographer who does portraits there are people you really admire and those you do not but I still try to make it interesting and a great photograph. I still want to make them look good. I'm not going to shoot where you're trying to sneak something in to make a statement. I'm not going to do that."
Like most things media related, celebrity photography has been disrupted in the digital age. When massive stars like Rihanna can post revealing photos of themselves on Instagram, who needs photographers? "Now it's about shock," he says, "how to push the envelope even more. There's so much it doesn't seem special anymore. I have a nude of Carly Simon in the bathtub. No one's ever seen that. In this day and age is that going to be lost in the multitude of this kind of imagery that's surrounding the internet?
Well, not if you listen to Mariah Carey, Holz's most frequently photographed personality. "George is always focused on making me look the way he sees me when the camera isn't rolling," Carey writes in the book, "capturing the essence of the real person, not just a persona."