Entrepreneurial Hollywood Photographer Puts Photojournalism Skills to Work Behind the Scenes
War photojournalist-turned-Hollywood-photographer Greg Williams is hoping his new book can teach others his simple shooting techniques.
The book, “Greg Williams Photo Breakdowns: The Stories Behind 100 Portraits,” documents not only the stars in the photos — Jennifer Lopez, Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Cate Blanchett, Ana de Armas, Kate Winslet and more — but also the how-to of how he got the shots.
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Despite shooting VIPs at Chanel’s resort show in Los Angeles, Williams, a 30-year photography veteran, does not consider himself a fashion photographer. Nevertheless, the behind-the-scenes viewpoint in his celebrity images relay a certain parlance. “I shoot fashion, because so many actors have relationships with fashion brands. But I rarely do a fashion shoot,” he explained in a recent interview.
With a studio in London’s Mayfair neighborhood and a home in the English countryside, he is Stateside “a helluva lot” — three months already this year. Off to the Cannes Film Festival for a few weeks, he will then hit the Venice Film Festival in the slow build-up to the Oscars.
HIs love of cinema is far from a newfound interest.
Williams was quick to note how some of the greatest photojournalists of our time covered Hollywood, such as Elliott Erwitt and Magnum Photos’ Dennis Stock, whose James Dean photographs from the ’50s have greatly inspired a good amount of Williams’ work. Shooting for Look and Life magazines, Stock got extraordinary access to photograph movie stars one week and then fly off to cover a war zone the next week, he said. “I certainly base a lot of the work that I do on trying to get pictures that still have that authenticity and live in that reportage photography world rather than be overpolished and overstaged.”
The new book breaks down photos in a vein that is similar to his social media accounts. Knowing “there are so many people out there interested in photography nowadays,” he continues to be amazed by how often he receives direct messages asking which light was used for photos that were obviously —at least to him — taken in the daylight.
“A lot of people assume it is much harder than it is to get these kinds of pictures. It really isn’t. There are some very easy rules to pick up — about light and composition, and techniques about how to talk to people and interact with your subjects that are incredibly simple, but people are not really taught. I have always loved this idea of democratizing photography,” Williams said.
His crew’s role is mainly to assist him getting to a job and with the work that is necessary after a job. “Normally, it is just me walking into a room on my own. I rarely like pictures nowadays. I used to like a lot of stuff…I now walk into a room with windows or whatever, and make calculations incredibly quickly to decide how to get my picture,” said Williams, adding that the behind-the-scenes photo breakdowns prompted the book.
A post-Oscars photo last year of Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara eating vegan burgers was a set-up shot that is a personal favorite, he said. The Hollywood couple had DM’ed him thinking that the lensman was at the Oscars, but he was not. When they learned he was at another job shooting a party, they asked to come to him. Williams found a “suitably shabby” stoop nearby that would be a good contrast “for these two fantastic people in their tuxedo and ball gown with an Oscar, eating their burgers.” he said. The five-minute shoot resulted in an unexpected photo that was beamed around the world — racking up 40 million views via Williams’ Instagram alone.
Another favorite is of Kate Winslet knee-deep in the sea, during a rainstorm. Despite looking “like a Vanity Fair cover that would require a crew of 50, rain machines, safety [rescue] divers, stylists and catering tents,” Williams said it was just Winslet and him in swimming trunks and jacket, holding an umbrella overhead. Taken by her husband, the image is one Williams is really proud of because despite looking like a grand production, it probably wouldn’t have happened had they thought through it that hard. “I didn’t turn up and say, ‘Can you please walk into the ocean?’ It was entirely the result of collaborative thought. It had started raining outside of her house. I said, ‘Look, not being funny, but if you’re prepared to get wet, that’s a really expensive effect out there that we have been given for free.’ She completely agreed and then she pushed it, suggesting we go into the ocean.”
Williams insisted that that same picture could be taken by someone of a friend or of a sister at the beach one day. “These photos are all entirely takable without all of the paraphernalia that we think of with professional photography,” he said.
By the time he got interested in photography, Look had shut up shop and Life was no longer what it once was. By the age of 12, Williams was sold on photography, because he was “pretty ghastly at most things at school,” he said. A gift from his father — a book commemorating Magnum Photos’ 40th anniversary — introduced him to all of photojournalism’s elements, and left him equally struck by the war photography and the Hollywood coverage.
That developed into getting his own boots on the ground, documenting war zones in Burma, Chechnya and Sierra Leone in the ’90s. That last life-threatening assignment was the tipping point for him, but the Russian army’s invasion of Grozny in 1995 was “very full-on” to put it mildly, he said.
“I am reminded of it watching the news from Ukraine, where this callous might of the Russians is against a seemingly easier opponent, who stand up to them and give them a very bloody nose. That is what the Chechnyans did, and what the Ukrainians are doing now,” Williams said.
Sierra Leone was “terrifying,” because he “genuinely and very realistically” feared for his life, he said. (The 11-year civil war left more than 50,000 dead.) Williams said, “That was the final one for me. That made me think, ‘I really don’t want to do this any more. I really want to live.'”
After leaving West Africa, he continued to work as a photojournalist and did a number of medical features, including a yearlong portrayal of a family watching their daughter die of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a mutant strain of Mad Cow Disease, for the London Sunday Times magazine. Given the graveness of that subject, the magazine rewarded him by suggesting he choose his next assignment. The film industry was at the top of his list, since there was then a resurgence in British films, tax breaks were being offered to entice production and a number of films were being made in Britain. However ripe that time was to venture into that picture-perfect industry, Williams said it took a long while to find his footing.
“I was always very aware that I didn’t want to make any enemies in that world, so I was always very cautious about what I did and the photos I took. I’ve really continued that cautiousness through. I always insist on showing the talent photographs. I have never ever gotten the sense that people are unhappy with an image,” he said. “What I’ve learned is that people like good photos of themselves. For all of the perceived control in Hollywood, I very rarely lose a good photograph to an approval process, because people are quite engaged in the pictures that I’m doing. And they like the results. I don’t feel manipulated by the system at all.”
At an event, he’ll be inclined to share photos. Whereas with shoots, Williams will spend a few days editing his work and will then send what he liked. “I’ve always liked to share pictures. It never made any sense to me not doing that,” he explained.
His upbringing in East Dulwich was akin to an artistic co-op. His father was a writer and painter and his mother was a painter. Lacking adequate hand-eye coordination for painting and the grammatical skills (due to dyslexia), he zeroed in on photography. As a professional, he is committed to encouraging others to do the same. Although he has worked on various assignments tied to some of the James Bond films, Williams first met Craig, during his pre-007 days on the set of “Layer Cake” in the 2000s. He also shot the actor’s screen test for the actor’s debut Bond role in “Casino Royale.” The pair bonded over a love of cameras and photography. During one of their “reasonably geeky conversations about Leica cameras,” Williams mentioned an opportunity he had been offered from Leica to do a limited-edition camera, and Craig mentioned that he had one as well. When they suggested a collaborative project to Leica, the company “practically bit their hands off and we certainly got a much bigger edition of cameras [Leica Q2] had Daniel not been a part of it,” Williams said.
Another pursuit is the magazine he started a year ago, Hollywood Authentic, which borrows from “Life magazine-type Hollywood coverage from back in the day and brings it into today,” Williams said. About 2,500 producers, directors, agents, publicists, actors and casting directors receive hard copies of it at no cost in the past year. An online version has far broader reach, partially due to some of his 1.2 million Instagram followers. Ties to Johnny Depp and de Palma have helped spread the word to create a fairly big imprint online. Williams pays to make and post the physical magazines, but that is not purely altruistic.
“I don’t quite know what it is yet. But I do know I’m heading in a direction where there’s going to be some value in this proposition. I am fully aware that now is not the time to try to make money with it. It’s the time to establish its points of differentiation so that people know exactly what it is,” he said, declining to pinpoint the investment. “It’s not cheap. I do get well-paid shooting advertising and I do make money elsewhere through commissions and an online education course called Skills Faster, which does well. There are 50,000 courses so far.”
Williams also makes such products as the G Grip, a device with a Bluetooth shutter that can be held like a camera to simplify picture-taking for smartphone users.
But back to Hollywood Authentic: One of the three covers thus far focused on Sean Penn’s work in Ukraine. Others were of actors de Armas and Brendan Fraser, before his 2022 Oscar Night win. “The Whale” lead drove Williams to the actor’s Los Angeles haunts from the ’90s.
“This idea of learning about someone through their origins is something that I am putting a lot of my energy into. It’s one of the few magazines that isn’t reliant on the fashion critics. It’s something that I’m doing almost as a Hollywood insider,” Williams said.
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