If you're lucky enough to catch up with Timothy White between his projects and bicoastal commutes, as we did recently, you soon discover his passion extends to friends, family, cars, motorcycles—and his role in improving the lives of New York's neediest.
Because he was our cover photographer back in October 2000, we asked White to update us on how his business has evolved, share any big plans for 2006, and offer any advice for today's younger photographers. Here's some of what we discussed...
White on White
As 2005 was coming to a close, White seemed energized by holiday plans and projects coming to fruition in 2006. He told us about a major photo shoot innovation he had begun to introduce for long-term clients. "I've been shooting Tim Robbins, Harrison Ford, Nick Cage, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, John Travolta, and Richard Gere since the ‘80s. And it's been getting tough thinking of something different, something new to shoot. So I've developed the idea of spending a day or two together with a client, during which time we shoot the movie poster, the advertising, publicity photos, and any necessary imagery for the big magazines around the world."
His recent four-day motorcycle trip with Brad Pitt is a perfect example of the plan in action (p. 12, top). "We rode our motorcycles, my assistants followed with equipment. We'd stop, they'd catch up to us, we'd do some pictures then take off again. An amazing amount of work—and we had fun. My clients are starting to realize I've been doing this long enough and have relationships with enough people so when were together we can get so much more done this way than they can the usual way."
Our cover shot of Brad Pitt, a simple but edgy portrait, was taken during the advertising shoot for Mr. and Mrs. Smith in Los Angeles a little over a year ago. White composed the off-kilter image in camera on his Mamiya RZ67 Pro II with Profoto strobes, and an Elinchrom Octa Light Bank. That shoot was really emotional," he recalls. "A very close friend of mine, motorcycle guru Indian Larry, had just passed away. Brad new of him. We had a memorial planned for the next day in New York, so no matter what, I told everyone I was taking the red eye back to New York that night. Brad arrived and we connected immediately, talking nonstop about my friend and motorcycles. It was a wonderful way to start a shoot. We were comfortable, and the mood was right."
Throughout the day, they discussed White's idea of a three-to-four-day photo shoot/motorcycle ride. "Some weeks later, Brad called to say he's trying to make the bike ride happen," says White. "I couldn't believe he was actually trying to put this thing together, but then I realized he was going through a lot with the press at that time and maybe what he needed was to get on his bike and go have some fun with someone he could relate to."
The beauty of White's plan is that everyone wins. White and the celebrity, in this case, Pitt, would retain full control of the hundreds of pictures they generate during their trip. And the studio would get plenty of stunning cover images and ad images to cover all promotional requests worldwide—images they never would have had otherwise—for covering the trip. As it turned out, the bike trip was a blast. Brad Pitt had a great time and White had 70 contact sheets of images, all approved by him, to give the studio. Fox agreed their money had been well spent.
Plans are in the works for other such photo shoots during 2006 and beyond.
Collaborative & Comfortable
White is particularly animated when talking about his relationship with assistants Gus and TC, who have been with him for 20 years. "Because our team is so collaborative and comfortable, we don't have to discuss technical things doing a shoot. I'm free to connect with the talent. Are they happy, are they insecure, are they relaxed, do I need to move things along and get them out as quickly as possible?"
Clients pick up on the team's unspoken communication and the confidence the team exudes. White mentions being "reactive"—as opposed to "proactive"—several times during our discussion. It's fundamental to his shooting style, as well as his personal style. "While I have some ideas in mind before a shoot, I walk in ready to react to the client's mood, react to a change in light, react to serendipity. Over styling doesn't interest me. I'm interested in images you can't tell if I shot 10 years ago or today."
The reason White's able to take this spontaneous approach is that he knows he can rely on Gus and TC to "reach into their ‘bag of tricks' whether they're shooting in the pouring rain, in the brightest sun, or in Iceland in the middle of winter."
The Great White Way
As it was back in 2000, lighting remains one of his primary creative variables. "I change lighting at every shoot. I react to what the environment feels like to me. Sometimes it says it just needs a light bulb. I always have Profoto portables and plug-ins, silver cards, and flashlights with me. I use flashlights a lot, actually. I also use car headlights a lot. I grab what I can and keep moving."
While White has become even more involved technically and digitally in post since our last cover story, he now shoots both analog and digital, but as he explains, "I work so intuitively with my subject that my finger is on the shutter and it's like vibrating and my eyes are on their eyes. Click, wind, click, wind. So fast. I look forward to the technology advancing to fit my shooting technique."
Then and Now
There have been other developments at Timothy White Photography in the past five-plus years.
He has sold White Space, the voluminous studio he owned on West 37th Street in New York. He wasn't using it enough because most of his jobs are either on the West Coast or on shoots all over the world. With the money he received from selling the studio, he build the beautiful five-story West 54th Street studio he owns today.