Brigitte Lacombe: 'I want to show people as they are'

Photographer for the stars on shooting Winslet, Warhol, Jagger and more

With her portraits of Robert di Niro and Jude Law hanging in the background, Brigitte Lacombe oozes an insatiable measure of elegance and warmth. Her own silver hair rests wildly on her shoulders and as she talks her eyes glisten from behind chic Prada spectacles. It is suddenly easy to see how the lady who started as a 17-year-old intern in Paris has become one of Hollywood’s most trusted photographers. In light of her new exhibition at Shanghai Center of Photography celebrating 40 years of work in cinema, Brigitte Lacombe provides us with a fascinating snapshot of old Hollywood, with unflinching, remarkably raw portraits of some of the biggest stars in the world. We spoke with Lacombe at the opening of her Inside Cinema exhibition.

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You dropped out of high school in order to pursue a career in photography. What was the view of this at the time?
My parents were afraid for me, but they also knew I was very strong-willed. I was lucky enough that my father knew the black and white lab director at Elle magazine, which at the time was the only weekly magazine of its kind in Paris, and the only aimed solely at women. I was given an internship and one lady in particular took me under her wing, and I ended up following her wherever she went. She was working on a lot of high profile photography projects at the time and she became like my mentor; she opened my mind to the possibilities of photography within the industry. After a few years this lady moved back to her previous work as a painter, but before she left she put me in the hands of the director at Elle and said ‘Look, you have to give this girl a job.’

What was it that originally drew you to photography as a medium?
My father wanted to be a photographer, but his parents didn’t allow it. He was taking pictures all the time as we were growing up, and I can only think that it was this that drew me to photography. I am unbelievably fortunate, I chose something at such a young age, and I’ve now been doing it for 40 years. It has become my vocation, and I love it just as much now as I ever did.

A turning point that seemed to catapult you into your career was your meeting with Dustin Hoffman at Cannes Film Festival in 1975. How did that come about?
The magazine sent me to Cannes Film Festival because I asked them to. I managed to persuade them based on the promise that I could stay at the house of a family friend who lived just outside Cannes! It was a very different time. The venues were small, the crowds were small, and the actors didn’t have huge entourages and security like they do now. I was able to photograph a lot of the people who were there, and one of those people was Dustin Hoffman. At the time I was just a young girl, and I was the only female photographer
at Cannes. As Dustin left he invited me to work on his next film. I don’t even know if he was serious, but I went back to Elle and told them about it, and they sent me as a guest photographer for the magazine. The film just
happened to be All The President’s Men.

Through Dustin I was introduced to so many exciting and amazing people like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. He even helped me to get my green card, which allowed me to base myself in New York.

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Over the past 40 years, you have worked with a host of influential figures from cinema to politics. What is it like to be trusted by so many leading names?
I love that I have been able to earn the trust of so many inspirational people. I think this is partly because they know that the studio as a collective team closely controls all of the images, and I’m very protective over how and where they can be used. I have no family and no other life; I put all of my energy into my work so people know the photos are going to be in good, safe hands.

Some photographers choose not to return to the same subjects. What is it that makes you return to some of the same people time and time again?
My life is my work, and everything in my life comes from that. All of my relationships, and all of my friendships, have come from my work, and I feel honoured to be able to follow these people as themselves and in their careers. Working with someone over such an extended period of time is really special, for example, I have worked with Leonardo di Caprio for over 20 years, and in this time I have seen him mature and evolve. All the people I work with are amazing, fascinating people. Martin Scorsese and Meryl Streep are now two of my closest friends, and every single project that they are involved in is spectacular. Every time I work with Martin Scorsese, he has the best collaborators who just really want to excel and do their best for him. He is a joy to
work with.

Your relationship with Meryl Streep is certainly special, how has it been to follow her life and career through your lens?
Meryl Streep is actually one of the most difficult to photograph, as she really doesn’t enjoy it at all. Unless we make a joke and she pulls a funny face, she is often very nervous and unsure. I think of portrait photography as a meeting between two people; you have to be able to look at each other and trust each other completely. Meryl does that with me because we have nurtured a long relationship together. I love and admire her as an actress and a friend, and she is willing to come and share these moments with me.

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Is it possible for you to name one particularly memorable experience that stands out to you from across your illustrious career?
I have had so many wonderful experiences, but I think the most memorable would be when I photographed Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. I was just in the middle of reading a new biography about him, written by a very close friend of his, and so I felt like I was at this strange stage of beginning to understand his mind. The feeling of looking down the camera into the extraordinary face of this extraordinary man was very emotional.

What do you think it is about you and your photography that keeps both subjects and audiences coming back?
For me, I take my photographs in such an instinctive way. It feels so simple. It’s not about ideas or abstract concepts; I just use a small, private space and preferably natural day light. If I can, I like to photograph women with bare shoulders – I don’t like to give any importance to clothes or other distractions. I want to show people as who they are.

Lacombe: Inside Cinema is at Shanghai Center of Photography until August 28. Entry costs 40RMB.
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