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Celebrity portraiture can seem like an easy way for a photographer to make a buck, and maybe that’s what makes it so challenging – to do something new and exciting in such well-trodden territory. Kathy Ryan, the director of photography at The New York Times Magazine, is such an avid proponent of the “good” celebrity portrait that she wrote a book on the subject, “The New York Times Magazine Photographs,” a “wonderfully heavy” tome out next month, the result of six years of research poring through 1,700 issues of the magazine.
So just what does make a Ryan-worthy celebrity photograph? There’s the decisive moment factor, to be sure, “that split second when something intense seems to be happening in the person in the portrait,” Ryan says. It also has a lot to do with “finding a presence. Avoiding the superficial. Rendering an individual almost dreamlike.” Ryan also practices a technique she calls “cross-assigning.” “Why not send a veteran war photographer to photograph the Oscar-worthy actors one year?” That’s why in the book you’ll see remarkable images from Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, Ryan McGinley and Gregory Crewdson (from his 2002 celebrity project “Dream House”) and Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, who took the above photo of Bill Murray. “I’m going to put flowers in your beard,” van Lansweerde said to Murray. He replied, “Does anyone ever ask you why?”