Mark Abrahams: Candid Camera

The Photographer’s Revealing Portraiture Captures an Unseen Side of Iconic Celebrities

Celebrated photographer Mark Abrahams draws out understated honesty from A-list subjects such as Michael Pitt, James Franco, Lindsay Lohan and Michelle Obama. A former truck driver, Abrahams is entirely self-taught, but his textured and compelling style is often seen in the pages of L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Deutsch and GQ. His new eponymous monograph from Damiani Editore contains a potent introductory text from writer James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces and Bright Shiny Morning, poetically relating a story of a young man falling in love with his camera and mastering the photographic arts. “I wanted to write my intuitive version of what I thought his process was. I looked at the pictures and I just wrote the essay, thinking: that must be what he tries to do, because that's what I see,” explains Frey of Abrahams’ work. “I respect him a lot, I think his photographs are beautiful and haunting, intense and pure.” Here, the California-born Abrahams recounts his earliest images and his love of Ed Ruscha.

Both you and James Frey are self-taught. Is that how you connected?
My story in photography is similar to his story in writing, and also similar to some of the characters in his books. I actually owned a truck in California, and would haul sand and gravel from plants. One I would go to was called Sully Miller; there was a hut in it with all the old time truckers, 70-year-old guys who have been doing it since the 30s. I literally bought a camera to take pictures of these guys to show my friends. I didn't even know there was a job [as] a professional photographer. It literally had never occurred to me that people do this for a living. My only association with photography really was family pictures. I wasn't picking up Vogue.

What was your first shoot like?
It was with a musician called Tim Scott McConnell. He had an old Lincoln. We drove out to the desert, stopped in oddball places and took pictures. They're not in the book unfortunately; I didn't put anything quite that old in there. They were good, and that started a relationship with Warner Brothers, music and commercial photography. But at that time I had taken pictures just like everybody does—on a whim.

You have a way of bringing people out, revealing parts of their personalities normally hidden from the public.
I don't think I do that purposely. It's just me. I'm not that interested in celebrity or trying to portray people how we see them as famous. Everybody is the same to me and I hope that shows through.

You obviously have a very good read on people.
I think one of my skills is to get with people, gain their confidence, and try to find or extract something that means something to me. It’s a very subtle thing. Not everyone sees what I see, in the pictures. It's the most difficult thing to do. It's far easier to set up a scenario where everybody looks like a hero, or where the environment tells a story, than to sit down in a studio with somebody and try to strip things down. That is the challenge. 

Who are your favorite subjects?
I'm really lucky because two of my favorite artists are in there: Ed Ruscha and Tim Hawkinson. I photographed Dennis Hopper, and he and Ed were neighbors. I absolutely love Dennis Hopper. I love his photos. He was a special guy. Ed has that same quality. They’re both coming through the 60s and it’s just a different breed.

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