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TIFF: Confessions of a WireImage Photographer

TIFF: Confessions of a WireImage Photographer

Photographer Jeff Vespa (below right, with Elizabeth: The Golden Age star Abbie Cornish) is a well-known fixture in Hollywood. He lives on the red carpet. His busiest season starts in Venice in late August, followed by the Toronto and New York fests and the long awards season, through Sundance and the Golden Globes in January, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Oscars and finally, Cannes in May. In the summer, he rests. Vespa knows everyone. He meets many stars and directors at film festivals, where they first learn to trust him. Then they see him at the L.A. premieres and events he covers. Vespa and eight partners co-founded the Internet photo agency WireImage in January, 2001, which was recently acquired in a $207-million cash deal by rival agency Getty. Vespa edits and posts his photos for license online. (He makes sure everyone looks good.)

WireImage makes long-term deals with places like Variety (WireImage supplies pics for the V-Page, among other things) and covers events exclusively for thousands of magazines who have user names and passwords; the photos go online after the period of exclusivity ends.

When WireImage started the world was not yet digital. Vogue wasn’t using digital photography. But now, everyone wants digital shots of the stars and they can easily download them at WireImage. Actors go online to see how they fared on last night’s red carpet. Execs look to see themselves at premieres. Vespa and I covered two Oscars on the red carpet for The Hollywood Reporter; he shot the Hollywood execs and their wives and kids as they came through, and sent the cards back to THR by runner, where within hours they went into the paper.

With the sale to Getty, Vespa’s rich enough to retire. But he’s a young guy. He still helps to run the agency and covers many events himself. At TIFF, where WireImage is the official photo agency, 14 photographers are blanketing the fest, shooting all the galas and big parties, press conferences and events. For the first time, WireImage set up a suite at the fest headquarters at the Sutton Hotel next to the press conferences to make it easier to shoot portraits of all the attending filmmakers and celebs.

Unfortunately, Warners mounted the Michael Clayton press conference at the Four Seasons. So Vespa set up his seamless with one light in the kitchen hallway at the hotel, where George Clooney and Tilda Swinton gave him just a few minutes. “He’s very present when he’s there,” says Vespa. “It was only a short moment. He’s a total pro. You’d never know. He likes to clown and Tilda’s comfortable; they were fooling around. She likes the way the back of her dress looks. George was teasing her about how tall she was. She’s already tall but she was wearing four-inch heels and towering over George.”

At the Venice fest, Vespa shot Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the red carpet for The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford. He first met them at Cannes in May after the screening of A Mighty Heart. “We were so solemn when people came back for dinner,” he says. “I decided not to take any pictures that night.” So he got them at Oceans 13 instead. In Venice, “they arrived a half hour early,” he recalls. “They went through the entire massive line of fans signing autographs. I was specifically shooting the tatoos, they were interesting.”

As part of the Toronto coverage, Vespa tried to get a portrait of every director. But there are a hundreds of them, many of them unknown. “If we don’t shoot the smaller films at the premieres,” he says, “we shoot them here. The festival likes portraits better than random shots on the red carpet. It makes directors feel part of the festival, stars of the show as well.” Venice is where Vespa first met Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman (right), the directors of Cocochi, a low-budget Mexican film produced by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna’s new Canana production company. “I knew Diego, so I knew who they were,” he says. “I made sure we photographed them.”

More than most photographers, Vespa gets to escape the barriers and wander the red carpet, which enables him to capture more intimate angles. He met Naomi Watts on Mulholland Drive. “It’s amazing to see her meteoric rise in the years since then,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve seen her since she had her baby.” Watts signs autographs at the Toronto premiere of David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and poses in a line with the director, right, and producer Paul Webster and Viggo Mortensen, left. “Viggo is so funny,” says Vespa. “Like, ‘I’ll beat you up and write you a poem about it.’ He’s so masculine and a sweetheart at the same time.”

For more portraits of Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe), Jennifer Garner (Juno), Simon Pegg (Run, Fat Boy, Run), Peter Saarsgard (Rendition), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age and I’m Not There) and Charlize Theron (Battle in Seattle), go to the jump:


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