Regan Cameron knew the most crucial moment of the most crucial photo session of his young career was about to happen. In front of him was no less a personage than Madonna, the icon immortalized in images by the likes of Herb Ritts and Steven Meisel. Now it was his turn, and he was feeling the pressure. “It was certainly the biggest celebrity I’d shot yet,” says Cameron. He’d received the assignment to shoot Madonna last fall from InStyle magazine, and now they were standing in the SmashBox studio in LA, Madonna, blond hair draped over one eye, her back to a painted-black background. The moment had arrived.
“I had to make the first Polaroid of the day,” recalls Cameron, grimacing. “It was make-or-break time. With celebrities, if you pull a bad first Polaroid, then you may as well just pack your bag and go. You’ll never get them to trust you after that.” That, why Cameron always makes his first Polaroid on black-and-white film, “That way they’re not looking at the color and worrying about skin tones,” he says. “It, simpler.”
As it turned out, Cameron, first test shot was good, and Madonna gave him a full dose of her seductive force for the rest of the day-long shoot. “She was great, and not what I imagined,” Cameron says. “She showed up on time, came in by herself. She said, ‘What do you want,’ She took direction really well. She brought her daughter to the set, and we
made some shots of her, too.”
Photographers learn early — sometimes the hard way — that their craft is about much more than perfecting technique; it, also about managing the relationship between subject and artist, a give-and-take that is often complicated but especially so when the photographer is young and the subject is as powerful, and visually cunning, as Madonna. Cameron was prepared. “We tried lots of setups and backgrounds,” says the photographer, “And toward the end of the day, when I knew I had enough for the magazine, I remembered what I’d been taught years ago — keep shooting for yourself. Fortunately, Madonna was into it and we got some very nice pictures.”
Two of those later shots appear here. For months they lay in boxes in Cameron’s New York office, but last summer they were rediscovered, big time. Madonna, beginning her Drowned World Tour, chose Cameron, finger-to-the-lips image as the centerpiece of a promotional blitz for her August 26 HBO special, meaning it would appear in magazines and on billboards across the country. By that time, American Photo had also chosen it as a cover shot. When we asked Madonna to add her comments to our layout in June, she graciously complied.
The “just-one-more” pictures will be featured in September at an exhibition of Cameron’s work in New York, held in conjunction with the fall fashion shows. “We’re having the photos printed on clear plastic strips that will hang from the ceiling, so you’ll literally walk through them,” says Cameron. It’s a big career step for the 36-year-old photographer from Auckland, New Zealand. He remains grateful to his biggest celebrity subject. “When I told my friends I was going to shoot her, they gave me CDs to have autographed. She took them with her, and I thought, ‘That’s that, she’ll never do it.’ But a week later they were sent back to us, autographed.” Proof enough that the session went well.
When none other then Madonna walked into LA’s SmashBox studio to have her picture taken by Regan Cameron for InStyle magazine, the photographer was prepared to do what he was told. After all, the durable pop diva has a reputation for being a control freak. But as it turned out, Madonna took Cameron’s direction ably and eagerly. “She was so professional,” says the photographer, who spent a whole day working with the superstar. That leisurely block of time, together with Madonna’s willingness, allowed Cameron to shoot her in a variety of ways, experimenting heavily with his lighting. That range of lighting is dramatically apparent in the two images shown on pages 48-51.
For the first shot, Cameron lit Madonna with a Profoto ringflash mounted on the Sonnar T* 140mm 02.8 lens of his Contax 645, relying on the camera’s fast autofocus to keep up with the singer. “Ringflash can be hideous because it reveals every blemish,” says Cameron. “But it really seemed to suit Madonna. She looked beautiful. She’s very photogenic.” The ringflash was powered by a 1,200-watt-second Profoto Pro-6 pack. For the second shot, Cameron went for the very opposite of ringflash, full-frontal quality, backlighting Madonna with a 6,000.watt Arri HMI—a continuous source that combines the daylight balance of strobe with the what-you-see-is-what-you-get control of tungsten light. “HMI gives you a very film-like quality, says Cameron,” who diffused the light with a translucent silk.
Using the same camera and len, Cameron deliberately underexposed his Kodak Porna 400VC color negative film by at least a stop. Then he had Nucleus Imaging, his New York City digital lab, “open up” detail in Madonna’s shadowed face with image-editing software. “When you bring the image up that way, you get a totally different feeling than with a so-called correct exposure,” says Cameron. “You get softer colors and a more pronounced grain structure.” Whatever the technical explanation, Madonna liked the effect so much she decided to use the image to promote her recent Drowned World Tour.
© American Photo Magazine