We have a tendency to build up stories around legends and celebrities, to create a fantasy surrounding them that paints them more as divine creations rather than mere mortals. One incredible, award winning photographer, Stephanie Cornfield, most notable for her work with greats of the like of Shia LaBeouf, David Lynch, Jack Nicholson and Kirk Douglas, works to accomplish the exact opposite – to strip these celebrities of their fame and to reveal them in their raw and true form to the world.
Stephanie Cornfield, an award-winning photographer, has worked in the world of art, rock music, film, fashion–in a world considered to be artificial. “ Everything is fake in cinema,” Fellini would say (“Tutto è finto nel cinema ”). But Stephanie Cornfield has managed to find the truth behind the cinema’s screens. She knows how to bypass and evade the pitfall of the image conceived, she cuts through the make-believe to reveal the true spirit of the silver-screen legends.Daughter of Hubert Cornfield, who directed The Night of the Following Day ( 1968 ) with Marlon Brando, Stephanie Cornfield has film in her blood. In 2011 she was awarded the prize for Best Photographer at the Venice Film Festival and was selected as Best Photographer in the section “Behind the Lens” of the Cannes Film Festival in 2014.
A few years ago, I met Stephanie Cornfield in Venice, at one of those afternoon cocktails at the cinema lounge for the movie stars and selected invitees. Her rock-and-roll star quality and the way everything seemed to easily flow around her made us instant-friends. It was on the terrace of the celebrated Excelsior hotel where the CEO of Cinecitta, the birthplace of thousands of international and Italian feature films, including many Academy Award winners, had approached us and told me: “Have you seen Stephanie’s work? Her pictures are fantastic.” On that same afternoon, we came to the idea that she should film the editorial for my at that time forthcoming novel.
“But I am not sure I can afford you”, I told Stephanie, but to that, all she did was smile and over the sip of pink champagne said in her native French: “Do not even think about that, mom amie.”
After the festival I went back to Madrid where I was living at the time and Stephanie went to Paris. Three weeks later we met at my sister’s house on Hampstead Heath in London to make an editorial that turned into a four-day shoot. On the last day, the famous Goring Hotel which hosted Prince William and Kate on their wedding night had opened its doors to us to finish the editorial for my book. Working with Stephanie felt so easy as she is the artist who does not hold out and works very fast.
Stephanie Cornfield’s adventures are happening between Paris, Rome, Los Angeles and Bombay. From the ultra-modernity of an utopian city to the absolute silence of the mountains, the work of this freelance photographer reads like a book of wonders. In Stephanie Cornfield’s portraits the actors and artists express themselves beyond the image, beyond time, anguish, anticipation, doubt, frivolousness or complicity. Through her make-believe, Stephanie gives meaning to reality, a process which Yves Jean Bonnefoy defined as “the state of presence and of sharing”. Her portraits are brimming with mystery and life. Stephanie is not only able to capture the moment –the place and light –but also how a person is feeling.
These days, I talk to Stephanie at the bar of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City where she is passing through for only one day. Exclusively for The Pavlovic Today Stephanie Cornfield talks about her artistic inspiration and her experience in working with David Lynch, Jack Nicholson and Kirk Douglas.
You have been awarded at the Venice Film Festival and Cannes. Are these awards the proof of your artistic value and worth?
From an early age I felt challenged by color, motion, trends and especially faces. People say that my pictures are very cinematic, dreamy, and they capture the mystery of the moment. It’s a nice recognition and it’s quite striking to suddenly be able to tell people that I am an award winning photographer. Awards are helpful to find sponsors to set up an exhibition and get clients, but in terms of my work and identity, it does not change anything to be honest. Every time you face a new challenge, every time you put yourself out there, every time you take a risk, it is a new moment and the past does not count as much. What is important is what you are able to achieve in the present. Do not look at your past to feel too satisfied and proud of what you’ve accomplished, think of the future and how you can improve. I always see myself as a beginner with experience. It is a work in progress every single day.
What brings you back to film festivals every year?
Cannes is the biggest film festival in the world, it’s the big annual meeting point. Everybody is there, it’s a huge machinery. It is buzzing, it has something magical and is very special, there is a particular craziness that you find nowhere else, everybody is communicating. It attracts all kind of people though – people working hard like journalist, photographers, publicist and talents, and a mixed crowd of party-goers, even tourists, it’s totally insane. I’m a Cannes veteran. I’ve been there more than 20 times. Cannes is my home. I know everybody from the concierge of luxury hotels to publicists, festival organizers. When I enter the press room I see a lot of familiar faces – it’s a small world, so we may have met at different film festival – it’s like a family…Venice has its particular pace due to it’s magic location, it is an important festival but also very small so you can’t miss anyone there. These last years I also attended the Dubai film fest on a regular basis. Berlin is also very interesting regarding its exquisite dense and international selection. Toronto is huge, big business place, the place to be for the American market as well as Sundance.
You did an unexpected photoshoot with Shia LaBeouf?
I was at the Venice Film festival doing a photo session with Dito Montiel, the director of Man Down, with the actor Shia LaBeouf. I asked the publicist if I could have a photo session with Shia too but she said: “Sorry, Shia’s doing only the red carpet and a photo call.” So I thought it was impossible. However, throughout the day I kept on coinciding with Dito and he was super friendly. In the evening when I went back home to change, I instinctively did something I’ve never done before: I took my my camera with me. As soon as I got back to the festival, I came face to face, again, with Dito and his girlfriend. Thinking of it now, I think it was serendipity. I told him I was surprised that he was not at his own party. His girlfriend then handed me their two invitations. At the gala dinner sitting at my table, I heard a girl calling me, an Israeli film director whom I photographed. She liked her pictures very much. Naturally, I was standing up talking to her when Shia who was at the opposite table suddenly stood up and our eyes met. I could tell that he had noticed me, so I told myself, “Don’t be stupid, go talk to him.”
I went towards him and congratulated him for his work and told him, “I photographed Dito, in fact he’s the one who gave me the invitation, but I was extremely disappointed not to have photographed you.” He then replied “I don’t like it, maybe if you come to LA.” I thought this photo session was slipping out of my hands. So I showed him my catalog on my cell. After a few images he stopped me: “Do you have your camera? Ok, let’s do the shoot now!” I came back to my table “Sorry guys I’m off!” I was kidnapping the star of the night. I went for a totally improvised photo session, I connected with him and started a great conversation. Shia is rebel and I’m a rebel too so it worked. He is a very cool actor.
You are always on the move, leading your life in a free style. What challenges do you face and what have you learned so far from your experience?
Life in a free flow gives you a spread vision of the world, an openness, an awareness. But to be constantly on the move can be also a weakness, can be also dangerous in the sense that you can easily lose yourself, edifying different projects, you can easily lose your concentration. You have to always think ahead to have an international life and being based in India you definitely gain this habit of thinking ahead twice as much. Bombay,where I live, is very draining, you have to be very cautious calculating your moves otherwise you get drowned. After living in India I feel living anywhere in the world would be very easy. To have a stable personal life having this kind of international life is also an incredible challenge, you have to find either a nomadic like you, or somebody with tremendous understanding. Generally creative people get along because they understand each other’s lives, living the same experience.
You took one of the rare portraits of David Lynch?
I went to David Lynch’s house on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. It felt incredible to enter the place where he’d shot Lost Highway, one of my favorite movies of his. David asked me if he could light a cigarette. Usually it’s the other way round, the photographer asks the model if by any chance he can smoke to create an interesting pose. He definitely offered me something there. His presence is very intense. He gave me a sharp look which is quite rare in most portraits of David Lynch. He always has about him a certain aloofness
You initially wanted to be a war reporter. What is the connection between war and Hollywood? Do you see any?
I studied political science and wanted to be a war reporter. At that time I had a boyfriend who was a war reporter for CBS News, based in London, and I joined him during the conflict in Israel. Then and there I realized that I wasn’t strong enough psychologically to cover the horrors of war. In the work of my partner I saw the war, he had dead babies in his arms. He was covering lot of conflict and in the end end I joined him in Tel Aviv. It was towards the end of the war. It was a very electric atmosphere and you could feel the tension of the bombing that was still happening. At that time I was getting more and more into art and I was thinking of going to L.A. for film school. But then a very traumatic thing happen to me and it sent me in a different direction. Photography was not my original plan. But in the end it turned out to be my destiny. Hollywood uses war in a lot of its movies, art imitating life except that it is often glamorized and the reality is ten times harsher. With few exceptions like Apocalypse Now by Coppola , Full Metal Jacket by Kubrik, The Deer Hunter by Cimino and most recently Beast of No nations by Fukunaga.
You are one of the rare photographers who had photographed Jack Nicholson one—on—one? What was that experience like?
I was impressed and nervous to meet Jack Nicholson. I felt my heart beat much faster as I approached his house on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. A simple, elegant house on the hills with a breathtaking view of the city, definitely not flashy, with beautiful pieces of art everywhere. When I saw him I thought it was not real, he had this charismatic presence and a voice to die for. When I was doing his portrait I totally lost it, telling him ecstatically,“You’re looking so good! ” I understood then why much younger women would fall for him. During the shoot, he told me it was the first time he was posing with his eyes closed.
I asked Jack if the stories about him and Marlon Brando his neighbor and good friend were true. He denied it with a smile. Stories are always made up around movie legends. That’s the fact of life.
What is the best life lesson you learned?
I believe that human relationships are cycles. Friendship and love —if you’re lucky — they last long, but generally, there is always an end. For happiness, always rely on yourself. Find an equilibrium. Do not put all your eggs in one basket so to speak.
What come to your mind when you hear Mixed Media?
I think of all the visual art influencing me, like the choreographer Pina Baush with her unique expressionist surrealist style, inspiring greats like David Bowie or Pedro Almodovar.
Some film makers inspire me a lot , Mikhail Kalatozov for Soy Cuba, Sergio Leone for Once Upon a Time in America, Wong Kar Wai for Happy Together, Days of being Wild, Chungking Express ,Barbara Loden for Wanda, Monte Hellman for Two Lane Black Top, Ridley Scott for Blade Runner,Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, Jean Renoir for La Chienne, Darren Aronofsky for Requiem for a dream, Brian de Palma for Scarface, Francis Ford Coppola for the Godfather, Marcel Carne for Les Enfants du Paradis, Scorsese for Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Spike Lee Do the right thing, Pedro Almodovar for Matador, Kubrick for 2001 Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Aki Kaurismaki for The Man without a past, Victor Erice for El Sur , Michelangelo Antonioni for La Notte, Fellini for 8½, La Dolce Vita , Luchino Visconti for Death in Venice, Kim Ki Duck for its exceptional poetic 3-Iron , Jean Luc Godard for The Contempt, Tony Gatlif for Latcho Drom , Emir Kusturica for Time of the Gypsies.
My Dad inspired me also, as he was a great director who would transport you in another dimension. My three favorite of his movies were Pressure Point, the Third Voice and The Night of the Following day.
Architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for his Less is more minimalist style. Andre Courrèges was a fascinating French fashion designer. He was particularly known for his streamlined 1960s designs influenced by modernism and futurism, exploiting modern technology and new fabrics. Painters like Rene Magritte, Amedeo Modigliani, Rembrandt, Egon Schiele.
What was your experience in working with legendary Kirk Douglas?
I met Kirk Douglas through one of my best friends in Los Angeles, the film director Jeff Kanew. I met Jeff at the Berlin Film Festival, took his portrait and then we hung out together from that time. Later when I sent him his portrait, he was very enthusiastic about it and promised to hook me up in LA which he did. He directed Kirk Douglas with Burt Lancaster in the movie Tough Guys, so he took me to Kirk Douglas’s house in Beverly Hills. Kirk was 87 then, his stature was very much there.
I took pictures of him with giant sculptures of him, we laughed a lot and suddenly he became serious and said in a low voice: “You didn’t know, but you just took your last shot,” which was quite scary for a photographer. His authoritative tone didn’t leave any door open. I stopped immediately then we went back to the house. I showed him my portfolio and we joked again with his wife and I started to take group pictures, of him and his wife, him and my friend Jeff, him with his maid. Then I said, “Well, at least let me finish my roll of film with you!” and he didn’t resist and I took this picture… I conquered him (laughs) , then he showed me around the house, I surprised him, we had the same affinity with some painting he had, it was the celebration of the black virgo in Saintes Maries de la Mer in France where is the gipsy gathering (did some documentary pictures there). After that he offered to hook me up with his son Michael and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, adding with a malicious smile that she was not photogenic… I left the house thrilled as you can imagine thinking of Michael and Catherine.
I sent Kirk some prints and a letter, then he had the immense courtesy to reply to me signed by his own hand. I still have the precious letter. A few months later I went back to LA but there was no way I was going to ask Kirk for any favors to meet Michael and Catherine. Tragically Kirk had just lost his other son, so I wrote him a letter of condolence with some more prints. One day maybe we’ll meet again. I always ask my friend Jeff about him.
How did you and Iggy Pop meet?
I met Iggy Pop when I was a rock photographer, backstage at one of his concerts. I got lost in one of the corridors. Then, suddenly I saw him and called him: Iggy! The bouncer wanted to push me away but Iggy grabbed my hand and said : Come, have a drink. So I ended up for 2 hours with him, his musicians, and manager, it was more like a one-on-one meeting. I remember the whole conversation to this day. Then I met him again backstage at his concert. I felt he was like a big brother to me, giving me advice and we were both doing martial arts, the conversation was very deep. I miss meeting him.
How do you respond when life knocks you down? Are the knock-downs a necessary part of life?
I rebuild myself, I put myself together with a tight discipline doing sports intensively, it gives me a core. It’s like washing your brain.
Where do they serve the best hot chocolate in Paris, your home-town?
The best hot chocolate is in Angelina, it s located in a magnificent tea salon under the arcades of the rue de rivoli. It’s called the African Chocolate, it’s thick creamy with a particular dense taste melting in your mouth …yum !
What was your reaction to Brussel attack? How would you describe it with one picture?
My reaction was of fear. I had just landed from a long flight and read the headlines with horror. I have many friends in Brussels so it was a long series of calls and emails. I sent supportive messages as well to my friends in Istanbul, Ankara and of course Paris my hometown.
Terrorism has changed its face symbolically with the November attack in Paris, attacking the progressive youth in their core, in their innocent way of enjoying life, sitting in a cafe terrace, having fun watching a concert or going to see a sport game. It can happen anywhere now. Even if you are totally not involved politically it affects you. It affects anyone whatever their race, religion or social background. You have to be twice as cautious but in the end it is just a matter of luck.
If you had to shoot only one frame about terror attacks, what that would be like?
I see a very raw image, either very dark and grey or in a strong white sun light, I see someone bleeding from an injury with hands on his ears. Eyes closed with an expression of pain to protect him or herself from the craziness and going on his shelf; this person in a panoramic image of chaos with scattered pieces of ruins and dead bodies with a lot of blood lying in a mist.
What stories do the movie sets hide in the backstage?
People fantasize of what it’s like to work on film. To work on a set, is like to have a soldier’s life. You have night shifts or early morning shifts, it can be quite insane and exhausting. To be a set photographer is a very tough job. You have to be invisible but be able to impose yourself at times in order to get stuff done. You have to be good in psychology and being able to adapt, to get along with people. It is a life within a group and if you’re lucky, this group becomes like a family. I enjoy this particular parallel life I have and even though it’s tough, I like challenges.
You had the opportunity to photograph the director of the City of God, Fernando Meirelles ?
I had the opportunity to photograph Fernando Meirelles. The ‘’ City of God ‘’ is such a masterpiece, it was like a dream come true. When Fernando greeted me first with « impressive work ‘’ referring to my portfolio, I was filled with excitement. We have been discussing locations for a shoot of which he suggested a few so I finally decided to shoot in his production house as there were many spots that looked very cinematic. Fernando was all smiles, totally relaxed during the shoot and the rapport was good.
What is your plan for making your mark ?
I would like to publish three books, two photographic books and an autobiography as I have a lot of stories to share and I believe some important ones from my rebel youth in particular. One photographic book with my portraits and one with my documentary pictures. I would like to write a screenplay and lastly but most importantly to direct movies, starting with a short movie. For this I have to acquire some peace of mind and stability that I don’t have right now ( laughs) Hopefully one day. One day for sure.