It’s a cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s begin these thousand words with the mirror image of that axiom: One word can render a thousand pictures irrelevant. The word is no, and over the last 10 years, it’s been used regularly — sometimes gently, sometimes regretfully, occasionally ferociously — by the editors of Entertainment Weekly to dismiss all the photographs in which the celebrities we cover do the same things that you and I tend to do when we’re photographed: They blink. They look dazed or frowsy or congested. They have eye crust, or nose hairs, or a little drool in the corners of their mouths. They turn ordinary, dull, blotchy, guarded, glum, or posey. They become their least interesting selves.
Someday, seized by collective malice, maybe we’ll do a special issue composed entirely of those pictures. But for this, EW’s celebration of its first 10 years in celebrity photography, illustration, and caricature, we decided to toss out the ”No’s” and showcase the very best of our ”Yes’s”.
If there’s one quality that makes a celebrity photograph worth a second look, it’s not beauty — that’s one of the cheapest commodities that famous people have to offer, and one of the least interesting. Nor is it style, which, when not married effectively to content, tends to drape itself over the photographic subject like a suit of ill-fitting clothes (often, it is a suit of ill-fitting clothes). What makes us look and look again is tension: the tension that comes from the stretch and strain between a celebrity’s desire to preserve his image and his desire to change it, the struggle of a photo editor to commission pictures that enhance a story by telling a part of that story that words can’t, and the challenge of a photographer’s yearning to do something new without scaring his subject away. In fact, nobody feels that tension more acutely than the person behind the camera. ”There’s a fine line between the success and failure of a shoot,” admits photographer Dan Winters, whose memorable EW subjects have included ”Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Will Smith. ”I could describe a portrait that’s successful and one that fails miserably, and the descriptions would be identical.” When it all comes together, says Winters, ”there’s a subtle resonance…you say, Yeah, that’s it. That works.”
When it works, the picture, to lift a beloved fashionista phrase from the Isaac Mizrahi documentary Unzipped, should speak to you very distinctly — and not just about a celebrity’s highlights or makeup or face-lift or clothes rack; a great shot should tell you something the subject of the picture may not want you to know, may not even know herself. It should be about revealing, not hiding — an airbrushed Keith Richards is, by definition, not Keith Richards. A great picture can define one’s image (see Alastair Thain’s portrait of Jack Nicholson) or turn it upside down (check out James Gandolfini, shot by Michael O’Neill). It can offer an entire tortured narrative of its own (want to know how the making of Waterworld went? Take a good look at Kevin Costner), or it can dazzle with what it chooses to conceal (see Peggy Sirota’s bubbly portrait of Jodie Foster, and don’t blame yourself if you have trouble recognizing her). An adventurous subject can be willingly pinned under the photographer’s microscope, as in the extreme (in every sense) close-up of Christopher Walken by Martin Schoeller, or he can consent to be the shooter’s partner in crime (note Christian Bale’s wonderfully complicit expression in Platon’s American Psycho portrait). Sometimes, the photo itself can be a performance: Look at Kate Garner’s picture of Jennifer Jason Leigh long enough, and you can almost see her getting into character.