What do President Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tina Turner, Halle Berry, Gwyneth Paltrow, Pierce Brosnan, Jon Bon Jovi, Marc Anthony, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Mendes, Orlando Bloom, Patrick Swayze and Heath Ledger have in common? The magical lens of Richard McLaren has captured them all. And this is only a small sampling of famous people that McLaren has photographed in his four decades in the industry.
McLaren, who had already been around the world twice by age 18, has photographed for top publications throughout the globe, including Vogue, InStyle, GQ, Vanity Fair, Elle, Rolling Stone, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and more. NASCAR, Ford, The National Guard, Chevrolet, Gulfstream, Rolls Royce, and Sketchers are some of the commercial clients who have also relied on McLaren’s artistry.
Movie studios trust McLaren. When he is provided access to the talent for a day, he tends to do 15 to 20 different set-ups, which means a lot of really fast shooting. This allows the studio to have enough material to send out and promote the movie.
Phil Mistry: How long have you worked in photography?
Richard McLaren: I have been taking pictures for 35 years, closer to 40 years.
How did you get started?
I started my career when I was about 16 or 17 when I had come out of school and went into work for Scope Features, a photo print news agency which had all the top photographers in London, England on their books. So I used to assist them, all over the world on different assignments from music to fashion to advertising campaigns. I stayed at this agency for about seven or eight years and became a freelance photographer after that.
What brought you from London to Los Angeles?
I used to shoot all big-name celebrities. I used to come to America with my photo team and my wife and kids, and we rented a house in Beverly Hills. We used to spend six months in the year in Los Angeles. We would work five-six weeks at a time and then come back after about a month. And then I thought we might as well move here. So in January 2000, I moved the whole family to Los Angeles.
So were you into photography in school?
Oh, yeah. In school, we used to shoot 16mm documentaries, and there was a film club at school.
I have heard that your first job involved putting oil on naked ladies. Is that true?
As I mentioned earlier, I was 16 when I joined the agency in London. There was a studio attached to the agency, and there was one photographer who did all the glamor shots. On my first day, he asked me to rub oil onto naked ladies.
At home that evening my mother asked me how my first day at the job was. I said, “Great, I rubbed oil on two naked ladies, ” and she said, “You’re not going back there tomorrow.” And my brothers said, “Oh, we’ll go in there for you.” My mother is now 96, God bless her, and if I mention it, she still remembers the story and laughs over it.
In 2006 David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers, two icons of the music industry reunited, and you witnessed it?
Yes, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen’s hadn’t seen each other for 23 years [since disbanding after their classic 1984 album]. When I turned up, Eddie Van Halen was getting his makeup done, and David Lee Roth’s walked by and they looked at each other and sort of nodded. I told my assistant, “Give me the camera,” as they may have a fight. And then Van Halen said to me, “I would like to do a picture with David?”
The picture of the two of them together that I did ran in Rolling Stone [on the website], and I got thousands upon thousands of hits and turned out to be a historical picture. But then something interesting happened. We shot on a Wednesday, and his manager called me on Friday and asked me not to release the pictures as Van Halen was going into rehab. So the pictures just appeared on the Rolling Stone site.
Tina Turner did not know how to swim. How did you get her to go into the pool chest deep?
Her manager knew that I could do just one shoot and get them a ton of publicity. Tina had an infinity pool in the south of France, and yes she couldn’t swim, but I managed to get her in the water. It was a funny shoot as I didn’t bring any swimwear with me and I was in the pool in my underpants. My guys were holding the lights in the water, and I was shooting on a 4 x 5 film camera. She was terrified of the water, and one of my assistants was underwater holding her legs.
It worked out to be a very successful picture as we got 40 or 50 covers from the selected frame. I was very into doing pictures that would cause a stir, get a lot of attention and generate publicity—and that was what I was known for.
How did you get Jean-Claude Van Damme to strip naked and pose with lions?
He was out in South Africa doing a movie, and his manager asked me if I would go out there and do a shoot. My friend has a lion farm in South Africa, and I organized some lion cubs. Ultimately Van Damme, who had a great body and loved himself, was naked and holding up two cubs by the scruff of their necks and that picture ran around the world to promote the movie.
Can things go wrong with celebrities and lions?
They were only lion cubs. However, things went wrong in a different way. I asked a Dubai sheik whether I could shoot in his suite at the hotel in South Africa and he agreed. We shot with six lion cubs, and they ended up ripping the cushions and furniture in the $25,000-per-night suite!
Any other disasters ever happened on your shoots?
Sure… I was shooting photos for Paulina Rubio, the Latin singer and actress. It was for a shoe company, and I had pictured her naked on a horse with just her shoes. The daylight studio that the client chose was four floors up, so we got the horse in the freight elevator. The horse wasn’t scared but as soon as we got in the studio he did the biggest pee and it stank. Yes, we had to spend 30 minutes mopping it all up before we could continue.
The picture went up in Mexico City on a huge billboard. However, they had to take it down in 24 hours as numerous drivers kept staring at the poster and crashed their cars!
How did you end up shooting Nelson Mandela?
I was shooting the Miss World pageant in South Africa when I met an associate of Mandela and requested her for an opportunity. There were 78 photography applications before me and I did not have much hope but then two days later she called me and asked to come over the next day.
It was the only time I’ve been nervous on a shoot and I have been with some of the most prestigious people in the world. Understanding what he had gone through, it was the pinnacle of my career.
And Desmond Tutu?
At the same time that I was photographing Mandela, Desmond Tutu was scheduled to retire. The day he retired I got to go to the church, see him pray and did a series of portraits.
And you shot Winnie Mandela as well?
Yes, and also on the same trip without Mandela knowing, I photographed Winnie Mandela as well in Soweto. So I actually shot three iconic people in South Africa on a single trip.
What’s in your camera bag?
Digital now although I am a film man, a pure film man! I’ve got 28 boxes of film cameras from 35mm, 645, 66, 67, 4×5, 8×10, whatever, I’ve got basically everything. But now, nobody wants film as such, which is a shame. I am a Canon man and I also shoot digital H2 Hasselblad as well with the IQ digital backs.
The problem with the digital cameras is that they are so d*mn sharp so that if you are shooting anyone older than 15, they look terrible because they show every line and every flaw in your skin. And you have to end up softening everything down. And when you have a big 27-inch preview monitor they say, “Do I look that bad?”
In the film days, I had certain cameras and lenses that were soft with different qualities. I was then able to use the camera that would work correctly for the person I was shooting. But nowadays you don’t have an option, as the digital cameras are so sharp that they are scary.
I recently shot a veteran singer-songwriter who’s has had a career of 50 years. When the pictures come on the 40-inch monitor, whoa, you see every sore, every vein, everything. These are not the most flattering of cameras but clients like these cameras because they got great quality as you can do a postcard or put it on the side of the hotel and it still looks beautiful. I don’t particularly like it, I think they are too sharp, they are too critical but you have to deliver what the clients want.
But I got this beauty software, which is fantastic, as clients love the way it makes them look.
Can you make anybody look beautiful?
My forte in photography is lighting. I always make people look beautiful.
The problem with digital now is that you don’t have to be technically fantastic or brilliant or even good because you got all these computer experts that can tweak and change the color, soften it, make it look flattering on the skin or whatever.
In the film days, you just got [the film] processed and that was WHAT IT WAS. Now you can pull a recipe on the computer so that when you shoot a picture, it comes in the way you wanted it to look. At the end of the day, it’s the end result that matters not what came out of the camera.
It’s [beauty software] amazing software for men or women. You can change the noses, you can change the lips, and you can change the eyes. You don’t have to have a retoucher with you anymore as you can just run this software, which takes roughly 3 minutes to work.
Your Emirates image landed up covering the complete side of a building at the airport. Did you have to shoot it in a particular way, so that it could be enlarged this big?
No, we just shot that on the Hasselblad and they enlarged it to something crazy like 240 feet high. It ended up being the biggest Billboard ever done in Dubai
Do your photos get used without permission?
My photos go directly to the clients or magazines. But after they have used it they do end up on the Internet and there is not much you can do about it, whether they have scanned it from a magazine or whatever.
Have you ever sued for unauthorized use?
No. But back in London, many years ago, there was a company I did shoot for and they were published in Esquire and someone scanned the images and was selling in a record store. Esquire went to court after them but then that company just closed down. So you end up spending 30 grand and get nothing. It may work out for big companies but for me, it doesn’t make sense as it costs thousands of dollars and you may not get any money back.
When you photographed Patrick Swayze dancing in Pinewood Studios, a paparazzi shooter got the photos published before you could even process the film. How did that feel?
That shoot was actually at an airport hangar in Santa Monica and was for Mondo Uomo in Italy. I never saw any other photographer there but he must have been shooting from far with a 400-600mm lens and the next day the photos appeared in one of those rag magazines. The editor called me to protest but that was the only time it happened to me, after which I have been much more on the ball. If I have done big names, I have had security.
Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony got together for the first time for their album in a Miami house by the ocean. Paparazzi were coming by in boats but I just had a 12 feet high black curtain put around the location. If you are going to shoot near a public beach where paparazzi are going to be there, they are going to find you but you have to be alert.
Celebrities like Beyoncé are taking their own pictures and posting them to Instagram. Is this cutting out the professional photographer?
No. Social media has made it easier for celebrities to post pictures but they still need great photographers to shoot great photos.
How limited are the limited-edition prints you are selling on your site?
I’m doing 20×30 inch prints in an edition of 20 prints at the moment. I will see how the interest is and then maybe release another edition in a different size, like 30×40 or 16×20 inches.
Do you still shoot in anything other than digital?
Yes, I do personal projects. I do portraits on wet-plate collodion [invented in 1851] on16x20 inch cameras with brass lenses. I take the photos on black glass or aluminum and the photos are incredible. I love shooting on large format cameras like Linhof but nobody wants it anymore, which is a shame.
Recently you have been directing videos. How does it feel not to be behind the camera yourself?
I love shooting motion and I have got into it because the cameras we use are capable of shooting it now, so it’s opened up the business for the photographer. I like directing and I operate the camera as well, so I can do all basically. We do TV poster shoots for shows and nine times out of ten the client will ask for a video as well. And it works out cheaper for the client, as they don’t have to bring in different crews for stills and motion.
What cameras are you using to shoot video?
We shoot on the RED, ARRI Alexa and the Canons. When we shot the Emirates Airlines commercial, we shot the Canon on 4K and the quality is beautiful.
Do you pull stills from your 4K videos?
I don’t because I prefer to shoot stills with my still cameras unless it’s something you can’t get on your still camera. When you have someone running towards you, there is a greater chance of getting a perfect frame at 24 fps than with just 10 fps on a still camera.
What lighting do you use?
Profoto. That’s what I like. I’ll shoot Broncolor. I’ll shoot whatever is available but my go to is Profoto.
And what lighting do you use for videos?
We’ll just bring HMI’s although we shoot a lot of daylight videos as well.
Between still and video how much equipment do you have to carry to a shoot?
For the Emirates Airlines campaign, I took 3 tons of equipment to Dubai: 6 huge flat cases with the lighting, 12 camera cases and probably 10 bags of accessories. There were 80 people on the shoot that lasted for 12 days. I had 40 models, 7 assistants, 1 digital tech, hair and makeup stylists, art directors and ad agency people from Holland, clients, crew and local runners.
I shot 30 print campaigns and four motion commercials. And earlier it took 2 hours to clear all that equipment through customs at 1 AM in the morning at Dubai airport!
You have said that photography is 90% personality and 10% photography. What do you mean?
For me it is. I’m not blowing my own trumpet but I feel I have a very good personality and can really converse with people whatever they are, homeless individuals or kings and queens. Sometimes I have a DJ on set to get a great atmosphere going and relax everybody.
I know a lot of creative directors who work with photographers who won’t say anything during a shoot. They will let the creative director direct and they will just press the button. Now I can’t do that, as I like to be in control of how the shot is going to look. Working with the creative director is very important but once the creative director starts talking they lose respect for the photographer because the photographer is letting someone else take control of the shoot.
I like to speak to the celebrity and tell them what we are trying to achieve. I will let them come and look at the monitor to review the images because most of them are very insecure. They are great in front of the motion camera but when they get in front of the still camera, there’s not too many of them comfortable to be there. So I try to make it fun for them to be there and get them in and out of the studio or location as quickly as possible and do what’s needed and not overshoot.
You have said that you would like to shoot Nicole Kidman in Antarctica. Why Antarctica?
I love shooting in offbeat places. Celebrities are always shot in the studio or their beautiful homes, but rarely in great locations. If you look at the great photographs of movie stars from the 50s and 60s, there’s a jazz photographer called William Claxton. He did great images of Steve McQueen in various situations and you just don’t see those kinds of images anymore.
The pictures that are shot now are very safe, very easy and just what the magazine wants. I just think Nicole Kidman in Antarctica would be incredible, maybe fishing through a hole in the ice or something.
Oh yeah, I love their stuff especially Klein’s work for Italian Vogue. I love the classic photographers, including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Patrick Demarchelier. I’ve got probably 350 photography books from pinhole to modern day. Film was tough to shoot on, mostly black-and-white film. Color is easy but when you shoot black-and-white, you got to know your tones to get a great image.
Your black-and-white portrait of Gwyneth Paltrow is high in contrast with the middle tones washed out. Do you like that kind of tonality?
My best medium is black-and-white. Back in the day, there used to be six grades of printing paper from 0 to 5. I would always print on grade 5 so that the blacks were black and the whites were white and there were no gray tones. I got all my black-and-white prints hanging up in my house and all of them are printed real contrasty: jet-black blacks and white whites, there are no mid tones or grays in them at all. That’s how I like my black and whites.
How did you get the assignment on the book China: The New Long March?
A book publisher in Australia asked me if I would shoot for the book on China. They work with Chinese photographers and I was the only photographer from outside China. It was about re-tracing Mao Zedong’s long march. I don’t exactly remember but this book was the 75th year of the Long March. Each photographer had a section of China to shoot and I was in Chengdu and went up to the snow mountain.
What’s on your bucket list?
I want to travel more. I want to go to different parts of the world. There is an Indian festival called Holi where all the colorful powder is thrown over everybody. I love to go off and do these adventurous things. Maybe photograph Queen Elizabeth II!
Would that make you nervous?
No, no. I got nervous with only Mandela because he’s one of the biggest icons in the world. That’s the only time in my career that I’ve ever been nervous. You have protocols to follow and how you address her and that’s a bit nerve-racking, but the photography side wouldn’t bother me at all and I’m sure I’d make her look beautiful.
How did you get Halle Barry to do that risqué pose for the magazine covers?
It might have been for the X-Men movie that she was in. She was known in America but not really in Europe. This was for the FHM (For Him Magazine) and I talked to her manager and said I want to shoot her naked because I want to create a stir. And that shot went on to 22 FHM covers around the world. And it helped her get recognized in Europe!
How do you get celebrities to trust you?
The press representatives usually know who the photographers are and so do the celebrities. It’s easier now with digital as they come and look at the monitor and see the picture the instant you click the camera. I always make sure that the first picture is a beautiful, beautiful image and straightaway you have them in your pocket and they trust you.
Should photographers have an agent?
I’ve never really had an agent in the past. My ex-wife used to run my business and when we split up, I did my own thing. I go from jump to jump by word of mouth. I took on, Joanna Flores as my agent recently.
The problem with agents is that photographers rely on them to get work. When I’m not working, I’m in my office with my staff looking for a job and what the next thing is to do. Right now I have reached out to Air New Zealand, cruise ships including P&O Cruises, Discover Ireland, Alaska Airlines, Visit Britain and something very dear to my heart The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.
Have you shot covers of magazines in the US?
I’ve done a couple of covers in America but the most of my covers when I used to shoot for them are European publications as they are more risqué. I can do nudes on the cover of German GQ and that’s acceptable. With the European magazines, they’re not so set in what they want whereas here if you shoot for Cosmopolitan, it has to be on a white background or a yellow background, the lighting has to be the same, etc. So every cover looks the same just that it has a different person. This is boring to me.
How has celebrity photography changed in the last 35 years that you have been in it?
I think social media is hurting it a lot. The celebrities can now shoot their own pictures. If Ronaldo comes out with a new soccer boot and puts it up on his Facebook page, he gets 3 million hits or whatever! Social media has changed the way the celebrity thing works now which never used to be the case when I was actively shooting. Now with iPhones, it is more accessible for everybody. The paparazzi are videoing the celebrities and then it’s all over online.
Do you think still shooting will go away and everything will be on video?
No, there will always be a need for [still] photography in some sort.
Do you use social media to get work?
I’m not into social media. If you look at my Facebook page, I got about a thousand followers. I don’t really care about social media. I do it because my daughters ask me to. My office posts stuff. I’m not bothered about it. It doesn’t make or break me, and it doesn’t get me work. A lot of people rely on it to get work, but I don’t think it’s going to get me one job. I can use social media to say this is what I’ve recently done if you want to look at it.
Do you shoot selfies with celebrities?
No, never. I don’t have one picture of me with a celebrity. Not my scene. If a celebrity wants to do a picture with me, I do it. I don’t like having my pictures taken. I don’t think I look great in pictures.
Magazines are folding up, and in 10 years there might be very few left. How will that work for you?
In 10 years there won’t be any [printed] magazines. Everything will be online. I get 50 magazines delivered to me every month. It’s nice to flip through them, and you don’t get that same feeling when you do it online. I like to rip pages out and reference them, so I hope magazines never go away.
So if you hadn’t made it as a photographer what would you have done?
A racecar driver! I don’t know, maybe because of the McLaren [British sports/racing car] name or whatever it was, but I always wanted to be a racing driver of some sort. That was my dream, and then I stumbled into photography by sheer chance. But I am a fanatical Formula 1 and motorsport fan and would have loved to be a racing driver.
You have been shooting for almost 40 years. Does the word retirement ever cross your mind?
No, not at all. I love the business too much. Every day I wake up I kick myself because I can’t believe I am in the business I am in. I get to travel the world extensively, and meet great people, from Nelson Mandela to Tina Turner to aborigines in Australia. I have an amazing life, and I am just a boy from London from a working-class family. You couldn’t even get these experiences if you are willing to pay for them. I feel I am blessed in life and it couldn’t be any better. Even now I get excited as every day you don’t know what you’re going to do next.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him via email here.
Image credits: All photos © Richard McLaren and used with permission
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