An exclusive, behind-the-scenes profile of what goes on behind the lens of famed photographer, Theodore.
t 7:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Theodore walked through the door, his calling card of a beard preceding him as he entered. The reclusive fashion photographer was shorter than his larger-than-life reputation would lead you to believe, and he marched directly to his subject, barely acknowledging our team -- the one he granted exclusive access -- and grabbed his camera.
He wished none of his crew a happy new year.
“What, you guys want a celebration?” he asked no one, yet everyone. “Celebrate the work. Not the passing of time.”
And with that, every single crew member fell into line. You don’t get a job working with Theodore to not buy into his view of the world. We watched as the flash went off for the first time that morning, transforming the day into something it never would have become, our intrigue in tow as we caught a rare glimpse at the most in-demand photographer in the fashion world. The provocative genius hasn’t given an interview in two years, telling friends that his work should speak for itself. He has a point. Fashion photography can be broken down into two eras, and we certainly live in a post-Theodore world. Nothing will ever be the same.
“Change the game? I don’t know about that. I set out to take pictures,” he told us after his grueling 13-hour shoot with the nameless model who’s become his muse. “A lot of photographers will tell you that they don’t even do that. That they set out to capture life. Or the lack thereof. Sure, I do that. But for me, it’s about the camera in my hand. And how powerful it makes me.”
Theodore used that power to burst onto the scene with his intimate profile of Australian actor Dominic Moore in his Beachwood Canyon bungalow. Those photos found their way to the cover of Vanity Fair and in front of the eyes of millions. Like Theodore, Moore hid from the public eye, denying interview requests as he chose to live a private life. Perhaps that’s why they hit it off. Perhaps that’s why, to this day, the only known photos of Moore have been at been at the hands and lens of Theodore.
Just one look at the results from that day show that not only did an established star shine brightly, but another was born.
“We just understood each other. I could see it in his eyes. He wasn’t just going to open up because some GQ bullshit jagoff had to fill 5,000 words,” Theodore explained to us. “That’s never what it was about to him, nor was it to me. I didn’t even plan on publishing those pictures.”
The pictures, as well as many that followed, showed a rawness that few others can capture so effortlessly. Then again, not everyone is so comfortable with the crude portrayal of the human experience.
“That’s why we like him,” said the actress Chloe Sevigny, who has worked with him often over the last few years. “He knows how his subjects want the world to see them better than they do. When I’m in his hands, it’s like I’m unleashing something I never thought I could. Nobody’s ever taken a better photograph of me. When I see the portraits he’s taken, which are hanging throughout my house, I think ‘Yes, this is how I want to be remembered.’”
In recent years, Theodore has gone mainstream, a go-to celebrity portraitist, photographing everyone from Derek Jeter to Gwyneth Paltrow for major publications. Word is that Time Magazine has already tapped him for their upcoming spread with Barack Obama, something Theodore downplayed when we asked him about it. “Listen, I’m just the guy holding the camera, capturing something that already exists,” he admitted, humbly ignoring the fact that he’s revolutionized a century-old profession.
He’s even picked up commercial work. The shoot we attended was for the second round of a national American Apparel campaign he’s been tasked with. Even if you’ve never picked up a magazine, you’ve likely seen his work, which litters the streets of Los Angeles.
“I’m not gonna bullshit you, it pays the bills so I dare anyone to call me a sellout,” he confidently stated before staring at me without breaking eye contact for what seemed like an eternity. “Sorry, I spaced out there. I saw a bird in my head, and I needed to free it from its cage.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone judging him for any career moves, no matter how mainstream, especially when you witness the sweat and passion he pours into every snap of the shutter. His assistant, a wide-eyed postgrad who refused to be named told us he can only dream of devoting his life to his art in the way that his mentor has. Unfortunately, it’s come at a price, as he’s had to sever ties with his family who “just didn’t get it.”
One can tell how grateful he was to have us on hand for his latest American Apparel shoot, which in case you were wondering more than “pays the bills.” He may not have verbalized it -- he was in such a zone it’s like we did not even exist -- but his energy radiated throughout the crew. Everyone on hand felt the emotion of the shoot, something evident in the results.
Theodore is more in demand than ever, and that means more is at stake. “He is protective of the style he’s created,” said actress Rosario Dawson, a close friend who told us she’s afraid to model for him, fearing what she might find out about herself. “But I don’t see him ever slowing down.”
The word Dawson used the most when we spoke over cafe-au-laits in Soho was “brave.” It’s something you can see even in the first photograph Theodore ever took (above). It may come as a surprise, but the photo came just five years ago on a whim, when he was sharing a 300-square-foot apartment on the lower-east side, making ends meet as an office manager, just hoping for some overtime.
Recalled a nostalgic Theodore: “Yeah, my flatmate Doni had a Fuji point-and-shoot lying around. He liked to take pictures of us hanging out and stuff. I think he mentioned once something about a pipe dream of being a professional photographer. One day as a goof I took a picture of him, and I haven’t looked back.”
He means that literally. Theodore revealed that he’s never once set eyes on a picture he’s taken. “Why bother? I was there. If I did my job right, the work does all the looking for me.”
slideshow images, with corresponding captions!
1. Theodore and his subject.
(Not pictured: everyone in attendance on all fours. "Never make the model feel alone.")
2. He ran a no-nonsense set, telling his model, "Cut the pretense and let's get it done."
3. Every photo Theodore takes could end up in the Smithsonian, so it's important everything is perfect.
4. He conducted his shoot like an orchestra. Magic doesn't even begin to describe what we all witnessed.
5. Theodore wears a wedding band but claims to have never been in a relationship. "I'm married to my work," he said.
This article was originally published February 2013