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The stories behind 5 intimate celebrity photos

<i>Greg Williams/Cider Mill Press</i><br/>Greg Williams had this to say about the picture. “I shot this picture of Willem Dafoe at the Venice Film Festival. We were in this hotel courtyard
Greg Williams/Cider Mill Press
Greg Williams had this to say about the picture. “I shot this picture of Willem Dafoe at the Venice Film Festival. We were in this hotel courtyard

By Oscar Holland, CNN

(CNN) — Whether he’s backstage at the Oscars, shooting posters for the James Bond franchise or roaming the sets of over 200 movies, Greg Williams enjoys the kind of access most celebrity photographers can only dream of.

The former war photographer, who covered conflicts in Chechnya and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, has captured intimate moments with no small portion of Hollywood’s A-list. And for the last six years, the British photographer has shared what he calls “breakdowns” of individual pictures with over 1.2 million Instagram followers.

In an extension of this series, Williams has published a new book, “Photo Breakdowns: The Stories Behind 100 Portraits,” telling the stories behind his favorite photos. In the introduction, he expresses hope he might be able to help budding photographers with their own practice by explaining his processes.

“As photographers, we often go into a shoot with an idea of the picture we would like to take,” he writes. “One of the main lessons I hope you learn from this book is to remain open-minded to change, because often the picture you end up with will not be the one you went in wanting to take, and the sooner you can get beyond that, the quicker you can capture the image that’s actually unfolding in front of you.”

Here are five images, and the stories behind them, featured in the book:

Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara (top)

“This picture of Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara was taken on Oscars night, just after Joaquin had won Best Actor for ‘Joker.’ The story in this picture, for me, is a love story. You have two people that clearly adore each other and who, despite their great fame, are really quite down-to-earth and at their happiest in each other’s company Rooney’s taken off her high heels and she’s got her ball gown on still, but she’s wearing Converse. And there they are just chomping down on these vegan burgers.

“Joaquin and Rooney wanted to use Joaquin’s Oscar win and the attention that it brought to highlight veganism, a cause very close to both of their hearts. They came in with such an understated presence that the sea of photographers across the road that were photographing arrivals at another party, never even noticed them come or go.”

Cate Blanchett

“This is a shot of Cate Blanchett at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. There is no special lighting going on here. It’s nothing but the sun. She’s literally looking up and I’m probably on my tiptoes asking her to move her head so the sun lands perfectly on her face.

“The lesson here is that if you can’t move your light (which is impossible when you’re working with the sun as your light source), you have to move your subjects to the light. By angling Cate’s face back toward the sunlight here, we turned the sun — which would otherwise have created quite harsh shadows — into a soft beauty light. Then all I had to do was get up to a bit of elevation.”

Willem Dafoe

“I shot this picture of Willem Dafoe at the Venice Film Festival. We were in this hotel courtyard, which was very pretty but it didn’t really offer anything. Willem said, ‘I get it. It all looks great, but it’s not what you want.’ So we looked for something to do. And there was this little fountain and he said, ‘Oh, I can play with this.’ So he started playing with the water, flicking the water up at me. He completely soaked my trousers, so at the end of it I looked like I peed myself.

“This is where you get happy accidents. He probably did it 20 times: splash, splash, splash. And this is the one picture that by far outshone all the others. There’s this beautiful curve where the drops of water frame his face so perfectly.

“Sometimes you take a picture, sometimes you create a picture and other times you really make a picture with the subject.”

Kate Winslet

“This is Kate Winslet standing in the ocean, and it’s definitely one of my favorite pictures from the last couple of years. We’re not a long way from where she lives, and we went for a walk down the beach. It was very much her idea. I wanted to get her in the sea, but I’d imagined a long sandy beach, nothing like this violent and powerful scene.

“We both loved the fact that back in the day, this would have taken hundreds of assistants, fashion assistants, special effects crews, people would have brought extra wave machines to make sure it was wavy enough. But here we just did it. Her husband was helping me — I even had to borrow his wellies. Compositionally, she’s framed perfectly by the breakwaters, one-third across the frame.”

Olivia Colman

“I shot this when Olivia Colman was promoting ‘The Crown.’ As with a lot of my favorite pictures, the shoot was kind of over. We’d bought all these crowns for the shoot and she was like, ‘Oh my God, my daughter would love them.’ I told her to take as many as she liked. Then she stuck one on her head, and then she stuck another one on her head, and I’m just laughing, encouraging her. And she keeps going, stacking these things up.

“Once I lifted my camera, the whole moment was over in seconds. The lesson to anyone trying to take pictures that have this sort of joy is: It’s not over until everyone has left the building. You never know where the most authentic moment’s going to come from.”

Images and excerpts are from Greg Williams’ “Photo Breakdowns: The Stories Behind 100 Portraits,” published by Cider Mill Press and available now. Some of the above excerpts were edited for brevity.

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