Photographer Brigitte Lacombe is shy, says her editor. But how can a timid person take such bold photographs? How does she stand before dignitaries such as the Dalai Lama — or celebrities like Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese — and maintain composure, both photographically and personally?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, Dharamsala, India, 2003
Cate Blanchett, London, United Kingdom, 1999
"Richard Avedon asked me to take his portrait at the time of one of his retrospectives," Lacombe writes. "I was very honored, as I admired him very much." Richard Avedon, in his studio, East 75th Street, New York, New York, 2001
Gena Rowlands, at home, Los Angeles, 2004
"I have worked with Martin Scorsese for the last few years," writes Lacombe. "I love working with him. He is the most interesting man — knowledgeable, generous, and always gives credit to other people. He is a great storyteller, very funny." Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, New York, 2002
This portrait of Jude Law and Matt Damon was taken for the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Jude Law, Matt Damon, New York, 1999
"Penelope Cruz is a great beauty. I always try to photograph actresses in a very spare way, with no makeup; just as people," Lacombe writes. Penelope Cruz, Paris, 2002
Lacombe spent a day with Barack Obama in 2006. "I was taken by his charisma, poise, and elegance," she writes. "Despite the many demands on his attention, he was very present when I was taking his portrait." Illinois Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Washington, D.C., 2006
"I think Twiggy and Kate were happy to see each other and to be photographed like this. ... I kept this very, very bare. It's the simplest you can do: no clothes, very little makeup, a little hair. ...That's what's interesting to me: not the artifice; the opposite of that." Twiggy, Kate Moss, London, 1999
Bjork, Cannes Film Festival, Cannes, France, 2000
"This was an extraordinary day for me ... he's very enigmatic, extremely guarded and reluctant to open up." Bob Dylan, on his ranch, Point Dume, Calif., 2004
Gwyneth Paltrow, James Rebhorn, Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cafe Florian, Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy, 1998
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One possible answer is that with shyness often comes intuition. Lacombe is just that: an intuitive photographer who cares little for the trappings of stardom. Her impulse is to capture the essence of her subjects. This explains the title of her most recent book, Anima/Persona. A retrospective collection of portraits, mostly black and white, it explores the various faces of fame: There's the way we perceive celebrities, but there's also the character beneath the facade. Lacombe's mission is to present the latter.
The book is full of quiet, intimate moments — from 1975 to today. Nicole Kidman gets dressed for the film Cold Mountain, seemingly unaware of Lacombe's presence; Kate Moss and Twiggy, typically made-up and dressed-up on magazine covers, are stripped down to the minimum; Bob Dylan, in his 60s, walks with his back to Lacombe on his California ranch.
Frank Rich of The New York Times puts it well in his introduction:
There is art, and there is show business. In a young century overdosing on glossy and voyeuristic celebrity exploitation masquerading as photojournalism, it's essential to keep the boundary distinct. That is the key to appreciating the photography of Brigitte Lacombe, whose work often takes her into the realm of show business but whose pictures strip the commerce away from the artists until we are face-to-face with what some of the seminal figures of our time are trying to say to their audience.
In that sense, Lacombe provides more than just a lens; she also gives a voice, despite being shy.