Over the past few decades, Bonnie Schiffman has photographed hundreds of celebrities; from George Burns to Jerry Seinfeld; Julia Child to Joni Mitchell; Muhammed Ali to Warren Buffet, all of which have appeared in major US and International magazines.
The energy and spontaneity that Bonnie brings to her work is what gives rise to her unique images; we got a new honest perspective on her subjects.
Production Paradise: How did photography become your medium? What inspired you to pick up a camera?
Bonnie Schiffman: I was introduced and fell in love while taking a high school class in photography. My first assignment was to walk around the block and “just shoot the ground.” What an amazing and simple assignment. The first time I observed the chemical process behind creating images stuck with me. It was my “Wow!” Moment – this is what I wanted to do with my life!
Production Paradise: You have worked with many celebrities and different characters. What is your process for capturing these subjects?
Bonnie Schiffman: It started out that a friend of mine who is a photo editor and worked at Rolling Stone etc., once said that it wasn’t about taking the picture but making a picture. That stuck in my head and it’s what I tried to do over the years. That freedom is what made my career such an absolute blast, and it’s what people call the intimate quality in my work. Trying to capture a personal moment in the lives of some very public people had become tougher over the years. But in the 70s and 80s I shot at my home in L.A. and people would come to my house which was also very warm and welcoming and very different from shooting in a large studio. It’s more like visiting a friend, not going to a long portrait session. It always began with a great lunch. I also really liked going to the celebrities’ homes as well.
Production Paradise: Who or what have been the most prominent artistic influences of your career?
Bonnie Schiffman: Some of my favorite photographers when I shot, and even before, there were really a lot of people, great people. Annie Leibovitz of course, and especially her photos when she started working for Rolling Stone magazine. That was an inspiration and they were great, and at that point kind of spontaneous I think. There was also Herb Ritts, who was an incredible photographer. He photographed Hollywood, did incredible portraits, he did advertising, but his work was really clean and just beautiful. It had what it needed and I think there was some spontaneity there as well. WIlliam Claxton was another great photographer that I really loved. He shot jazz music, he shot Hollywood portraits, and he was fantastic. There was Mary Ellen Mark who was great, Nick Brandt, Peter Beard, and many more.
Production Paradise: How did you build your photographic career up to Hollywood?
Bonnie Schiffman: In my 20s, my brother became an agent when old school bands and groups were just beginning to create the golden era of music – the fabulous 60’s and 70’s. I love and am crazy about music, so it was a natural transition to shooting famous brands and their talent starting at the world renowned Troubadour in West Hollywood. Through a unique twist of fate, I decided at 25 to bring my portfolio with me to A&M Records and see if I could get an interview. I ended up getting in and was hired as an artist’s hand coloring album covers. Something like this could never happen today.
My close friend Lauri Kratochvil, Rolling Stones Photo Editor in New York, needed a photographer on the West Coast so she reached out to me. After a few assignments, I was asked to shoot one of A&M’s signature bands, Pablo Cruise, for which the pay was equal to or surpassed the weekly paychecks I was receiving while still working at A&M. At this point, I ditched the security of my job and decided to freelance.
Production Paradise: In your portraits you manage to capture the essence of your subjects. We see not only the celebrity or authority figures, but the personalities. What is your secret to portraying them in their truth?
Bonnie Schiffman: When I started shooting in the 70s I simply carried a camera on my shoulder and maybe a portable light. A Norman 200B, which I could set up in about 1 minute. We weren’t used to having stylists and makeup and that sort of stuff for perhaps an hour long shoot or less. We would go to the homes or offices of the people we photographed. We talked, got comfortable with one another, and then we started just taking pictures. Not every session was a blissful exchange. Often there was heightened stress that came with it. I was instinctual, we weren’t looking for a long-term relationship, and after all, I found that just by being myself, it allowed the other person to be themselves as well. We would become pals for those moments or hours or however long we were together to make the picture. In the 70s and 80s I shot at my home studio. Celebrities would knock on the door, they would walk into my house in Los Angeles, and it was warm and very different from shooting in a large studio. It was like visiting a friend, not going to a long portrait session in a huge place. It always began with the great lunch where we sat around the table and talked and just laughed and kind of got to know each other. I also used to go to the celebrities’ homes as well, and that was great. Trying to capture a personal moment in the lives of some very public people had become tougher over the years. I love the spontaneity in my shoots and that’s what I think worked the best for me, and I was very lucky to have been able to work at a time where I didn’t have to create spontaneity. But it wasn’t just my role to just click the shutter. I had to set the stage to allow the best shot to emerge.
Bonnie, who was an expert bowler at the time, summarises comparing bowling to photography. The ball is the camera, the pins are the subject, and the moment of a strike was the perfect Image.