Palme d'Or-nominated director James Gray invited Tinseltown’s favorite photographer Brigitte Lacombe to document the atmospheric off-camera moments of some Hollywood heavyweights for his 1920s-set epic The Immigrant. The plot sees Polish native Ewa (Marion Cotillard) lured by an illicit New Yorker (Joaquin Phoenix) who forces her into prostitution, before being rescued by his worldly magician cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner). Lacombe, who recently worked on the set of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and Spike Jonze’s Her, prefers to remain in the background, capturing the actors in the intensity of a fleeting exchange. The NOWNESS regular's first break came at the 1975 Cannes Festival when she met Dustin Hoffman and became the set photographer for All the President’s Men. She has since captured some of the greatest actors in cinema—from Meryl Streep to Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Viggo Mortensen—but this latest film marks her first meeting with French beauty Marion Cotillard. Ahead of the film’s release next month, Lacombe talks meeting her subjects halfway.
What was the most interesting thing about working on this particular set?
Brigitte Lacombe: I have always wanted to photograph Marion Cotillard because she’s quite fascinating. I don’t know her at all but she’s good in every single movie I’ve seen. I always find her absolutely true emotionally—there is never a false note. I also photographed Joaquin Phoenix in a completely different mood than on the set of Spike Jonze’s Her, it was like meeting a different person. He’s really interested in the work and is incredibly intense and focused. That’s what great actors are like.
You like to shoot your portraits with very few props, artificial lights or set-ups. How does that change when you are shooting film characters?
BL: I always keep a minimum of people around. The ideal thing is to be by myself with the assistant. That’s the best way for me to make a portrait. The subjects relate to one person, not a group. When working on a film you want to do something that is close to the film. You have to respect the film as much as possible. In this case I lit it in a similar fashion to the scenes they were in. I wanted to make very classic portraits with one source of light—very stark, simple.
You are known for the intensity of your portraits. How does the photographic portrait capture the subject?
BL: What I do is very far from concepts and ideas. I want to work in collaboration with the person I photograph, more than give my take on them. I want the person to meet me halfway. I don’t want to steal anything; I want a true classic portrait with the person wanting to be there. It’s about being 100% present and that I’m able to do—it’s easier to achieve if you’re not speaking.