As a child, Jeff Vespa wanted to be a fine artist, but “really needed instant gratification,” as he puts it. So, he put down the paintbrushes and picked up his mother’s camera.
“I didn’t have to sit and draw for hours to get photo-realistic drawings,” he says. “Now, I could just take a picture and be done with it.”
Vespa, 45, is well-known today as the co-founder of WireImage, the largest entertainment photograph agency in the world, and as a celebrity photographer—The Daily Beast today carries a series of portraits he has taken of stars, including Sir Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain.
But Vespa’s first big project, undertaken when he was around 14, was to take photographs of his friends in the punk scene of Baltimore, where he grew up.
“I really wanted to capture that moment of time, living in it,” Vespa says. “I was the only person who was photographing them in this beautiful, artful way.”
Vespa grew up appreciating the pictures of Life magazine (and later became an editor-at-large of its online incarnation). Inspired by photographers, such as Alfred Eisenstaedt and Phil Stern, he says he likes photography that captures people in “natural moments.” Thus, there is no elaborate staging or decoration in his pictures.
Many of the images are black and white. If there is color, it’s dark or muted. Often his subjects’ profiles emerge from shadows. Vespa takes many of the pictures at film festivals, where—as he is in Toronto—he is the event’s official photographer.
You can see many of Vespa’s images at his Instagram page, @portraits, where he posts outtakes, and behind the scenes images of Hollywood’s most famous faces.
Vespa laughs that he once photographed the actor Sir Ben Kingsley and called him Ben all day, rather than his preferred “Sir Ben” (which Vespa was clueless about).
Vespa’s favorite subject has been Tilda Swinton, because working with her “is like creating a work of art together.”
He has toured with Miley Cyrus, Tom Cruise, and the cast of Avatar and says the only celebrity he has ever had to win over was the film’s star Sam Worthington: the charm offensive wasn’t over-the-top, says Vespa, but by the end of it, the Australian actor had thawed.
Shooting Will Smith remains on his wish list, as does photographing Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as a couple.
Vespa is friendly with many celebrities, but says he doesn’t treat them differently than anyone else, nor does he over-direct them. He sees both the celebrities and himself as “fellow artists,” and so—in his own quiet and quick way—he takes their portraits, themselves little flashes of revelation and surprise.
The trick, Vespa says, is not to over-conceive or get the celebrity to do something outlandish. The most he asks his sitters to do is move left or right. “I know if someone asked me to do something I would think it would be lame or stupid or corny. I’d rather observe people, than direct them to do things.”