Monday, October 2, 2017

Robin Wright

Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997

FOR YEARS, I DID NOT HAVE HAPPY MEMORIES OF THIS SHOOT WITH ROBIN WRIGHT, or Robin Wright Penn as she was known when I took these photos. It's probably why I forgot I'd taken them for nearly two decades, and only remembered these photos when I came across an entry for this shoot in my ledger a couple of years ago.

It was a difficult shoot, for reasons that are hard to describe if you've never had to deal with celebrity, or the people who handle and - at least from their own perspective - protect celebrities. Portrait sessions are inevitably about trust and control; you have to understand and accept that if you want to try and get the most from your subject, regardless of the situation. But that dynamic is made much more difficult when it involves someone who isn't either the subject or the photographer.

Erin Dignam & Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997
Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997

After a break-up, Wright had reunited with and married actor Sean Penn the year before this shoot, taking his name and the burden of a whole new layer of celebrity. Penn - a gifted actor and director but also a political bore and bully - had become the qualifying condition of Wright's newly intensified fame, and it threatened to overwhelm her work in Loved, a small film directed by her friend, screenwriter Erin Dignam, when it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Sean Penn, Toronto, Sept. 1991

I remember going into this interview alongside NOW writer Ingrid Randoja with some doubts about whether I'd actually be allowed to take any photos at all. I remember Wright being visibly wary, and both Dignam and a hovering publicist giving off very protective vibes for the actress. Conditions and warnings were whispered to Ingrid and I as we tried to work, and I expected, at any point, to be told that I'd violated some unstated boundary and ordered to put down my camera. I was certainly relieved when I got the end of my roll, having shot candids of Wright and a handful of portraits of her, with and without Dignam.

Robin Wright, Toronto, Sept. 1997

There were doubts that I'd even be able to shoot portraits at all, which is why I have the candids taken during Ingrid's interview. In retrospect, this seems mysterious to me since - as the shots above show - the candid shots come across like stills from a rather downbeat drama, and show a much more anxious, uncertain woman than the portraits I took when the actress (a model when she was a teenager) could address my camera directly. I'm not sure what image Wright's handlers wanted to project, but I'm sure it wasn't the one I got in these unposed shots.

It left me with a sour memory, so after printing a couple of frames for NOW (I think they ran the shot of Dignam and Wright) I never looked at these photos again. (UPDATE: I've since been told that the shot of Wright above ended up on the cover of NOW. I had no memory of this at all.) Wright endured a difficult relationship with Penn (not surprisingly) and after a rather unremarkable string of roles during the waning years of their marriage, she bounced back at the beginning of the last decade and gold-plated her professional reputation playing Claire Underwood in the Netflix series House of Cards. She's either an exception to or a refutation of the conventional wisdom that women get less interesting roles after a certain age.

They're not terrible pictures. I don't know why I decided to use my Canon 35mm instead of my Rolleiflex; perhaps because I'd been warned that I'd have to work fast, if I was allowed to work at all. The candids come off, as I said, more like film stills - the "little performances" that I would come to  strive to get out of my subjects. And the circumstances of the shoot - a couple of minutes in available hotel room light that could be cut short at any time - would be very much the new normal in the next decade, as we'll see.

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