The Ex Factor
When Celebrities Need to Look Fabulous,
They Call JONATHAN EXLEY
Improvement, for starters. And don't forget the comedians
(Jerry Seinfeld, Howie Mandel, Dennis Miller, etc.), the musicians
(Michael Jackson, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton), the authors
(Michael Crichton, Neil Simon, Richard North Patterson), the
athletes (Martina Navratilova, Isaiah Thomas, Gabrielle Reese), the
politicians (Hillary Clinton), the models (Christy Turlington), the
mime . . . wait a second . . . the mime? Yes, even legendary mime
Marcel Marceau has stood in front of Exley's Hasselblad and had his
Is there anyone this guy hasn't photographed?
"Mick Jagger and Johnny Carson," Exley says in his laid-back way, after taking a few seconds to ponder the question. "I'd love to photograph them, but I don't know what it would be like. Everybody's a little different." He pauses a few more seconds, seemingly unsatisfied with his answer. "But ultimately, I believe everyone has heart and soul and that's what's important. And that's what I want to capture."
The Ex Files
The answer is vintage Exley, a humble photographer from a small town in Connecticut, who moved to the big city of Los Angeles to photograph some of the hottest stars on the planet. This 52-year-old pro has indeed come a long way from his early days photographing toy racecars with a Kodak bellows camera he found in his grandparents' attic. Today, he's not only the first photographer magazines such as People, Time, and Rolling Stone call when they need a celebrity shooter; he's the first one celebrities request for their shoots themselves. Maybe it's his small-town charm that makes him so appealing. More than likely, though, it's his uncanny ability to make whoever he's photographing look absolutely fabulous.
"It's not about me, it's about the image," he asserts. "People sometimes forget that this is a service business. It's a team effort: the hair,the makeup, and the stylist, as much as the photographer."
Coming from most people, especially those who hobnob with the L.A. jet-set on a regular basis, those sentiments might sound a tad phony. But coming from Exley, who admits to getting "shy and bashful" around some of his more attractive subjects and even having to overcome a bad case of the jitters before photographing Isabella Rossellini because "she's so beautiful"—the sentiments ring true.It's exactly his earnestness, humility, and sensitivity combined with a great eye, loads of experience, and technical know-how, that has put him at the top of his profession.
Like most careers, Exley's began at the bottom. After graduating from the bellows camera in the attic, he went on to study art and physiology at the University of Arizona, and began assisting several photographers including Sherman Weisburd, known for his album cover photos of the 1960s and '70s and advertising work of the early '70s. All the while, Exley was perfecting his craft by spending long hours in the darkroom, processing in B&W and color.
He found time to slip out of the darkroom in the late '60s to attend rock concerts in the San Francisco area. Of course Exley brought his camera with him and quickly put together an impressive portfolio of live concert shots of some of the top acts in the music business. His concert work caught the eye of a record company executive, landing him his first major assignment to photograph Stevie Wonder.
Over 50 album covers and countless music publicity shots later, he's branched out to include actors, sports stars and best-selling authors in his repertoire. Meanwhile, the early album covers have been replaced by beauty, fashion, and advertising work.
One of Exley's biggest breaks came when he was asked to photograph portraits for the first "World's Most Beautiful People" issue for People magazine in 1990. Since filling up more than half of the first and second issues of the hugely popular "Most Beautiful People" editions, Exley became the first photographer People editors called when the annual rolled around.
This low-key imagemaker is characteristically low key about the whole experience.
"I don't really get nervous about it," he says. "I get more nervous waiting for the hair and makeup people for two hours than I do about the shoot itself."
Listening to Exley describe how he works with his subjects is like hearing someone describe a close relationship with a family member or a friend. The only difference in Exley's world is that the relationship takes place under the heat of a set of Norman strobes, and might last less than 20 minutes.
"It's an incredibly sensitive relationship and an incredibly personal relationship for whatever amount of time you have. They're giving something of themselves and I'm giving something of myself," he explains.
Along with his excellent "bedside manner," Exley has earned a reputation for working extremely quickly, which is always appreciated by his on-the-go clientele. He takes particular pride in a shoot he did of Dennis Miller, reeling off 11 frames in less than 10 minutes.