Brigitte Lacombe

- - Photographers

You know what I love about working with Brigitte Lacombe (here) besides dropping her impressive (lovely sounding too) name in meetings.


That’s right. No one is allowed in the room with Brigitte and the subject. No client hovering, no hair person attending to errant hairs, no makup person blotting the brow, no stylist fussing the collar, no caterer tapping emails on the blackberry, no producer yapping on the cell phone, no agent cleaning fingernails… no goddam distractions.

Can you tell?





There Are 34 Comments On This Article.

  1. It does make such a difference on shoots when you get the subject to yourself rather than have 20 people fussing over whether or not a hair fell down or some other ridiculous reason to cut our 15 minutes short!

  2. Indeed, those are pictures of actors, something which has never been done well on an open set.

    I know, I know, there is a story that makes their existence impressive, but the closed set is only part of the story. The reasons Meryl Streep has such a strident preference for her is based on a lot of things, the set being only emblematic in the way that she relates to people.

    But, you know, they’re still pictures of actors. There’s an ever-increasing scratching at my brain that the superlative talents of the photographic world find celebrity portraiture to be the highest calling. I mean, go beyond what you know of her. Go beyond the extension of Avedon, blah blah blah. Jack Nicholson making a bemused expression? Nicole Kidman having an ethereal beauty? Wow, never seen that before.

  3. very often when I see a picture in a magazine of a celebrity I can’t help asking, “if this were a person no one knows would I think it was a good picture?”. in too many instances the answer is no. in this case the pictures are very nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. the hair and makeup people and stylists all did their work before leaving the room. but these people are posing and it’s just not that interesting. let’s see some genuine reportage about these people for a change instead of the same old over-styled and hyper-controlled “celebrity portraiture”. what a bore it has become(and probably always was). to see what is possible I would refer you to dennis stock and his work with james dean(anyone who saw stock’s presentation this year at visa pour l’image in perpignan will know what I’m talking about). I would love to see more of that kind of work with today’s leading actors and musicians. but few seem willing to expose themselves in that way. what a pity.

  4. Wow, inspiring work. Amazing how fresh all of those familiar faces look. I usually work with a CLOSED SET too. No art director, no hair/make-up, no grips, NO SUBJECT ;-)

  5. I only assisted her once, it was on a Meryl Streep shoot, may even have been the one you feature. The thing to remember though is all these actors trust Brigitte, most of them know her personally (she and Meryl are good friends I believe) and they are comfortable with her and dont need the safety net of people around to protect them from her demands.

    Brigitte has had a long and fruitful career alot of which has been spent on movie sets so she has had lots of prior contact with her subjects. Her book Cinema | Theatre is an impressive retrospective and indicative of her love for the performing arts. I think her studio portraits exhibit the mutual respect between sitter and photographer.

  6. @john mcd. : Taking the subject out of the picture seem pointless to me when it comes to photographing actors. Photographers like to ignore the fact that choosing a good subject is as important as any of the other decisions you make.

    @carpeicthus: Actors are a huge part of editorial and commercial photography so you can rail against the system or figure out ways to work within it. Brigitte and other celebrity portrait photographers do not seek out these people, they are given an assignment.

  7. I agree with what john mcd. said.

    Obviously there is a need for a certain amount of these type of shots, but it is next to impossible to tell one from another.

    I think the work that Dennis Stock did with James Dean or any of the Magnum shooters wandering around set is a lot more interesting and has probably produced more iconic images than the standard talent against splattered backdrop or white wall method.

    But Hollywood being what it is today it is very difficult to imagine that someone would be given that sort of access. I work in the biz and the level of control that is sometimes exerted makes North Korea look like Finland.

  8. Let me put this out there: the closed set is probably more for Briditte’s comfort than the subject’s – even though I don’t know her from the Starbuck’s server at the corner. Those actors you’re showing are very talented professionals. They can give you what you want in the middle of Time Square or Grand Central. Plus, those portraits are very nice but not all that intimate if you ask me.

  9. What I have always thought about her pictures is that they are incredibly naïve and I think that is what makes them somewhat appealing. the closed set nonfussed over shots translates to the simplicity seen in her images. All too often when shooting a celeb the external forces, not to mention the photographers own over compensation of thought, makes for an overly familiar photo.

    The thing with these images is this: if the subjects were not celebrities would we want to look at them? The posing is very photo 101, the framing, the lighting ditto. There is nothing special to them.

    And maybe that is why they work. Maybe that is their charm. We are so often used to seeing images of these folks dolled up with forced sexuality and toughness on their faces. Their guard is down here and we see a bit of realness for once in the subjects. There is no ‘quirk’ factor here only simplicity.
    They may be boring but to me they are a welcome relief to the all too often “Hey I am shooting a celebrity let’s do something crazy” – “no bloody way she is in Gucci this season. I also think her hand on her hip is WAY too maxim” – “That hair, no not that one, that one. CHRST – not that one, THAT ONE. Move it. Dammit let me do it” stuff that is forced down our throats.

    Jackanory – onset photography esp. the behind the scene docu stuff – love it. Don’t know why but I do. There is a great book out there if you can find it called “Annie on Camera” where nine photographers we set loose on the set of Annie. Egglestone, Shore, Slavin etc. Awesome book

  10. I like the shots… sure they’re simple but what’s wrong with that. I think that’s part of the charm.

    If the closed set it such a great thing why aren’t more people doing it.

    Is it something that the actors don’t want to do? or wouldn’t do.

    The only celebrity I’ve ever shot on a closed set was Dolly Parton… and as Bruce says you could have gotten the same thing at Central Station, because she’s a pro.

  11. Super nice images (and blog) I agree with Harry Lime….but I am sure James Dean was thinking how he look like, when he was wandering around with Dennis Stock….
    Art photographer Per Maning says he prefer to take portraits of animals because they are totally honest and dont hide behind a mask!

  12. >Super nice images (and blog) I agree with Harry Lime….but I am sure >James Dean was thinking how he look like, when he was wandering around >with >Dennis Stock….

    Maybe. Everyone in such a position is worried about their image and those photos certainly promoted the image he wanted to portray.

    A lot of stars used to run their own life. Can you imagine a PR person telling Joan Crawford what to do? Some stars still run their own house, while others think they do, but live in a bubble of their own creation.

    Some stars would probably like the idea of doing a project like Eve Arnold did with Monroe, but they will probably never hear about such an offer, because 99% of shooters who approach a star about doing something like this are unable to clear the moat of PR people.

    And unfortunately many of the 1% of shooters that do have that sort of access are cookie cutters, who got where they are because they are ‘safe’ and don’t rock the boat with such ideas. Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.

  13. Good point Bruce. I was thinking the same thing, the actors are probably as comfortable on an open set, they are professionals. The question asked was can you tell…. not really.

  14. I don’t think ‘closed set’ always makes a difference, especially if the subject is such an expert at being photographed and in total control anyway. No matter how intimate the setting may be, it will not guarantee that you can break the shell through one-on-one interaction. It certainly increases the odds though.

    But closed set is definitely the way to do it, from a photographer’s point of view. That is, unless interaction with the subject is so awkward that it would be better to have other people in the room to dampen the awkwardness.

  15. Josh St John

    I had a good look at her portfolios and as Bruce said – “don’t know her from the next Starbucks server”. Yet, let’s take the “non posed” veneer away, even in the Lifestyle section, and assign this photographer to the James Blake Miller topic. That’s covering the current core of the American society. That’s a chalenge in my humble opinion.

  16. Closed set helps so much. Many times before a shoot you are promised by the person in charge of the talent that you are granted 1 hour. So you arrive on set, set up your shot and wait. Your 1 hour can be crunched from anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour. Only to find out that your subject needs to be somewhere 20 minutes ago. It equals a rushed shot.
    Client hovering, hair person attending to errant hairs, makeup person blotting the brow, stylist fussing the collar, and the producer yapping on the cell phone.
    Will make your shoot feel like 60 seconds.

    When I worked with Celebrity and Music Photographers it was RUSH, RUSH, RUSH……. Wait……… Rush out.

  17. As a french editor who is trying to show the photo can be a new langage for child’s books, your work here is a precious help. Thanks for taking the time to show new works and explain too.

  18. APE: I’m not criticizing the photographers at all, unless you consider “superlative” an insult. It’s the system I’m criticizing. But there is some merit to judging these by stepping outside it. I know from my own work that I will like a photo better if it was hard to make, if I had to fight for every element of the composition, if it required chutzpah or breaking some laws, whatever, but that doesn’t make it any better to an independent observer. Part of what makes us regard celebrity portraiture highly, when it’s not just about who the subject is (the difference between Platon and US magazine) is that even the independent observer *knows* that was a hard shot to take, that it took a lifetime of toil just to be in that room. And you, as an editor, know how much harder it is than even the reader thinks. You know about the phone calls and the three minutes on set and people showing up with an attitude and a hangover and that often what makes these pictures impressive is that they exist at all, and what makes the photographers amazing is that they can consistently succeed in that environment. That’s all real, but that’s on your end — that part doesn’t actually make the pictures any better. Similarly, you’ve seen so many big head on white wall shots that the very smallest details seem huge, a relaxation of the shoulders a quarter of an inch shows what a wonderful rapport the photographer had, etc., but it’s still minutiae within the system, which sets the most incredible talents to often doing not-so-incredible tasks. It’s not them, it’s not you, but it’s something. While it’s always been this way to some degree, it hasn’t been a constant. I’m saying this as a critic, not as a photographer. I’d shoot celebrities if it was assigned to me like anything else, but I get no extra thrill from it beyond the quality of the people. Bill Clinton, Muhammed Ali and Nobel prize-winners have all left me a bit star-struck when I met them, but that’s who they are … they could leave you a bit overawed if you’d met them at a bar and no one had ever heard of them.

    In any case, my idea of a closed set is Douglas Kirkland and Marilyn.

  19. I should also reiterate that I’m not slagging anyone, just musing through our priorities and why they are what they are. I know full well how priorities differ; I make a big part of my living with weddings. I find them creatively and emotionally fulfilling, but to a lot of others they’re a pejorative or a punchline.

  20. about photographing celebrities:
    I’ve often thought you cannot get a bad shot of… let’s say Di Caprio smoking a cigarette shot in B&W. The though thing is getting the opprtunity!

    It’s a different matter when it comes to shooting people that aren’t very used to it. Actors are probably the easiest celebrities to photograph. I’ve shot a few CD covers and singers aren’t always easy.

    about closed set: best thing whenever you can, especially for portraits.
    In fashion shoots though, it’s not only often impossible because you can’t always kick the client or the stylist out, but I personally don’t mind having other people checking if everything is fine with hair, clothes, etc. while I shoot.
    An open set doesn’t have to be people hanging around, on the phone, eating and talking. It can be a place were people work together as a team.

    That’s what I think, not always what I get…



  21. Matteo — Working as a team has nothing to do with it.
    Imagine yourself as the subject. Having 12 pairs of eyeballs on you is not the same as 1 pair. I don’t care how ‘tight’ your team is. The point is that there is a lot of distraction just by the mere fact that there is a lot of people in the room.

    On the other hand though, I have had subjects feel more comfortable knowing that there is a hairstylist who is paying attention to her hair so she doesn’t have to worry about it. So, I think it depends.

    Musicians are tough because they generally do not like to be photographed at all. I mean let’s face it, having to pose (or care about posing) is the lamest thing one can do. When they are totally cool and they don’t care, it’s the best.

    Photographing actors always sucks because they always give you pre-cooked expressions that they’ve practiced in front of the mirror four hours and hours.

    But I am straying off-topic. The point is that closed set is the best, if you can do it, and if makes the subject feel more relaxed.

  22. If your ego is of any problem for you, do not go into a closed set with an actor. Especially one under 30. That Brigitte does this so well is a wonderful compliment to her talents. They can chew up a photographer in a matter of moments if they are not totally at ease.

    We as a culture are just so damned interested in celebrities. That is what I wonder at, but that is a personal – not business decision.

    There is a guy in Hollywood who shoots headshots of actors as they are walking the red carpet or getting interviewed by some TV camera crew. He photoshops the crap out of them, and has been able to get a great little business going by showing these ‘celebrity’ shots. As though they were commissions instead of grabs. Such is the fascination with actors and celebrities.

    No, I wont disclose names or such. Not my style or my fight.

  23. scott Rex Ely

    I think what’s lacking is the scale of the finished images. Just looking at large thumbnails does very little in my mind to allow the viewer the opportunity to study the potential nuances that might be very elemental, but absent due to the delivery via the web. I’m still struck by the John Lennon image by Avedon because the only time I’ve seen it was in the form of a huge poster. If I was to see these images as gigantic larger than life prints or full page in a larger “Interview” magazine layout i as a viewer would be instantly more interested by the photographer’s approach. I think the context and the vehicle for delivery is crucial and we loose a lot with our instant review vehicle called the web.

  24. As always, unless we were there, we don’t know how difficult the situation was or how accessible these celebs made themselves. My little experience with celebs is that they’ll give you what they want. I’m willing to believe that Brigitte has discovered that if SHE is in a closed set, she can deal with what challenges arise best by herself.

    For me, I work better with a small very charming funny crew by my side [one hair/makeup, one assistant, one client if necessary]. It just works better for me.

  25. James Osborne

    Looks like we broke her site….

    This account has been suspended.
    Either the domain has been overused, or the reseller ran out of resources.


  26. A couple of people have mentioned the Dennis Stock photos of James Dean and may be interested in the piece Stock has put together about those photographs.

    He points out that Dean was yet to be famous – “he was on the cusp” – and that it was a compliment to him that anyone would spend that much time taking pictures of him. Stock met him at a party and went with him to his hometown, in Indiana, then to NYC then back to LA. He says nothing like that has been done before or since.

    You can’t really compare those photographs to any editorial photographer being given ten minutes, or three hours, for a shoot for a magazine.

    I also wonder why no-one ever seems to mention Cecil Beaton these days when talking about portrait photography, so I am mentioning him now.

    Am I missing something – I mean did he become unfashionable or something ?

    I saw the retrospective three years ago in London and can still remember every picture there. Seeing the quick chronological progression from his first pictures of his sister and friends to pictures of the Queen was quite something. Has he been forgotten, or is he maybe not so well known in the US ?

  27. @Don Giannatti: maybe?
    my favourite modern street photographer.
    and if he aint it, still take a look at his site.

    @topic: closed vs open set. both works. both ways. some people are more relaxed if you can distract them with other peoples talk, some work the other way round.

    the art is to know beforehand which one is best for the final outcome.

    and then be able to push that through..

  28. The photos work because she gets them to look human. Of course they are, but it is difficult for people that rely on fictional characters to show themselves, or maybe it’s just a even clever illusion.

  29. Love the fact that she has a closed set. If the subject or model does not trust the photographer, well, then go home and watch tv and stop waisting the photographer’s time.
    J. Martinez – Professional Photographer – NC