It’s hard to talk about classic Hollywood actresses without talking about Elizabeth Taylor. She was widely regarded both for her beauty and for her roles in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? as well as the infamous Cleopatra. In addition to all of this, she is also remembered as an outspoken activist in the fight against AIDS, a passion which continues to change lives in the form of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Though she passed away in 2011, her memory lives on as we continue to celebrate her legacy.
In the following excerpt from My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Gianni Bozzacchi describes his early experiences with photographing Elizabeth, to whom he would later become both a personal photographer and a friend.
I’d enjoyed freedoms that a twenty-two-year-old rarely has on the set of a movie featuring two of the biggest stars in the world. Not being the official photographer was a blessing. He or she is obliged to stay close to the camera and take photos that correspond to individual scenes, with no freedom to choose any other angle than whatever the director wants. Actors know they are being photographed while they work and inevitably pose, even if unconsciously. Which is why any “spontaneous” photo of a star at work isn’t spontaneous at all. Those were the kinds of photos that Elizabeth had expected to see.
When I was on set, my technique had been to not be seen. If you don’t see me, you don’t think that someone is photographing you. You feel freer, more relaxed. A lot of people are intimidated by a camera. They block, consciously or unconsciously, concerned about how they look. But in my case, since no one cared what I did and didn’t realize that I was taking professional photos, I didn’t have that problem. I was able to photograph Elizabeth and Richard being natural without worrying about their poses.
My long experience with printing had taught me the best system for photographing a woman. I learned from observing how light bounces off a subject through the lens and is then imprinted on film. The negative. The aperture of the stop is inversely proportionate to the contrast obtained in the final photo. Thus, at the retouching stage, you realize that some of the defects could have been avoided with a different stop aperture. Skin and color tonality are merely a question of light, and thus of contrast. In Africa, the light was very strong, so I knew I had to close down the stop and use film with a low ASA. To get better photos, I exposed a small quantity of light (stop closed) over a longer time lapse (shutter).
All these considerations contributed to me getting unique photos. But I don’t believe that that was what made them special, nor why Elizabeth appreciated them so much. Stops and exposure times mean nothing when you’re dealing with a woman as beautiful as that. If you took a Polaroid shot of her neck she’d still have looked like a star. She was the most famous and photographed woman in the world. The world had literally watched her grow up through movies and photographs. Ever since she shot to stardom in Clarence Brown’s 1944 classic National Velvet at just eleven, Elizabeth had been shot from every conceivable angle and in every imaginable circumstances, often alongside crowned heads and superstars. How can you take an interesting photo of a woman like her? What more can a photographer come up with?
In the end, while shooting dozens of photos of her in Africa, I realized where the real challenge lay in photographing Elizabeth: how to make people looking at my photos feel as I’d felt, as if they were seeing Elizabeth—the world’s most photographed and famous woman—for the very first time. I’d spend the next twelve years trying to solve that problem. My photos were not of a movie star but of a woman and her husband behaving normally, unaware of my lens. And those were the kind of photos I’d keep trying to take throughout my career.
Gianni Bozzacchi is an Italian writer, producer, and director made famous by his photographs of Elizabeth Taylor. He has collaborated on films with Sergio Leone and Michelangelo Antonioni among others.
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