Soul Searcher: Icon Photographer

Nancy Ellison

By John Adams

Nancy Ellison

Nancy Ellison

Sometimes it is in their eyes; or maybe the set of a jaw. It can be in the line of an arm; or the tilt of a head. Whatever it is the subjects of Nancy Ellison’s photography share one simple, nearly unobtainable, characteristic – truth. In Ellison’s storied career, she has served as Special Photographer on over 75 films, including Witness, Basic Instinct, The Mosquito Coast, Coming Home, Terms of Endearment, and Total Recall. Her subjects have ranged from world leaders to icons of popular culture. Yet no matter how varied the subject, Nancy Ellison’s work always serves as a potent reminder that there is a human being behind the guise. Ellison is often able to do the near impossible. Her work has a way of getting past the art and artifice of people who are well-practiced in showing us only what they want us to see.

Through the lens
While never formally trained as a photographer, Ellison’s first efforts behind a (borrowed) camera seemed to ignite something different yet familiar in this collegiate art history and painting major. “I was an artist. And that has always mattered to me,” she says. “So when
I looked through the lens, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew what I was looking at. And that has always been the stronger
element of my work—just looking through the lens… [That] is a powerful reality. The world stops all around you. Either you see into the soul of the person, or you see beauty in the cheekbones, or you see whatever is in front of you. And that’s all you see. It’s a very heady, powerful moment.”

Total happiness
No matter how carefully cultivated a celebrity veneer, the hallmark of any Ellison photograph is that glimpse behind the curtain; a subtle brushing past of the iconic into the intrinsic. Perhaps Ellison is best described as a truth-seeker, a soul-searcher. “It’s all about the
moment. To be able to go into a face that everyone knows and find something more intrinsic than you knew prior to looking at the photograph is my total happiness.”

Shooting stories

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson. “This is one of the shots that I will become known for. And it’s an image that I had no control over whatsoever. We were on location for ‘Terms of Endearment.’ I’m prowling the beach, and I look up and see these two guys lifting Jack up onto a ladder and I think: ‘Wow, that’s a great shot.’ I’m looking very cool and chic in my cashmere sweats, but I go running into the water, holding the camera over my head. I must have looked like a stork trying to take off. The director looks at me, then he sees Jack on the ladder, and immediately understands what I want. So he waves the two guys aside just outside my framing, so I didn’t even get to choose the framing. Jack looks up and bursts out laughing. Then he picks himself up into that choir boy pose. I got one shot. I hoped that whatever I had shot on the beach would work here since I didn’t even get to set my F-stop. There was not one part of that that was me, except that I was on the prowl and I got it.”

Sharon Stone

Sharon Stone

Sharon Stone. “Sharon loves being photographed, and she brings both professionalism and joy to a session.  This was a favorite as ‘you can see I am two-faced.’ But, oddly they seem the same to me.”

Patrick Swayzee

Patrick Swayzee

Patrick Swayze. “Patrick Swayze loved his wife, and wanted very much to do a dance film with her.  I wanted him to ride nude and bareback on his favorite horse…  We settled on the photo you see here. (I was never sure whether it was an issue of riding bareback or riding nude…)”

harrison-ford

Harrison Ford

Harrison Ford. “This was the first photo session I ever did with him in his home in Brentwood. It was around the time of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ He was really charming. Shy and awkward about posing as himself. He’d much rather be posing as a character. What is wonderful about that shot is that Harrison is totally at home in it. That is his home. The shaker cabinet, everything about the aesthetics of that picture is about Harrison, and he was relaxed. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a home shot of him with that kind of, well, he was gentle, happy, at ease with himself and that’s why I love it.”

NicolasCage

Nicholas Cage

Nicholas Cage. “The intrinsic Nick Cage holds DNA from the Coppola family, which means even as a young man he was highly sophisticated in music, art and literature. Actually he could go anywhere during a photoshoot.  His unpredictability was utterly brilliant!  This is my favorite image of him, as he looks like a very sexy basset hound!”

pierce-bronsan

Pierce Bronsan

Pierce Brosnan. “What you see in Pierce is what you get. There has been no one who has allowed me, as a photographer or as a friend, ‘to steal his soul’ more than this most delicious and handsome Irishman. Pain, joy. laughter. goofiness, loss, success, love, pride, shyness – he carries it all within him like the beauty of a pennywhistle melody.”

betty-davis

Betty Davis

Bette Davis. “She was brilliant. I met her on the set of ‘Right of Way.’ The people around her were terrified. The PR person said: ‘Don’t look her in the eye, don’t get too close, and don’t do anything until I get to introduce you.’ So I’m watching her, and I’m looking her in the eye. She looks up and says: ‘Who are you?’ And the PR person practically drops dead on the spot. She looks down and says: ‘Red shoes. I like a woman who wears red shoes.’ So that got me started. As I was shooting her, the film wasn’t going through properly. I thought: ‘Oh, God.’ I turned to her, and I said: ‘Ms. Davis, the film is not rewinding in a way that is making me comfortable, and I think I may have screwed up.’ She said: ‘I like a person who knows when they’ve screwed up. Let’s do it again.’  She was a professional. She understood reality. And for some reason, out of the blue, she sent me a Thank You note.”

River Phoenix

River Phoenix

River Phoenix. “I first shot River during the filming of ‘The Mosquito Coast.’  I think he was 14.  Since we were all in the jungle on location for months, we became friends. We shot a lot together afterwards. I suppose it was about the comfort of someone familiar. This shot was the last one I took of him and the darkest. It was also (for that very reason) his favorite among photographs of him.”

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger. “I shot him a few times. The images in the show were around the time Hal Ashby’s documentary ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together,’ [about the Rolling Stones’ 1981 U.S. tour] came out. “Mick strips or gives the finger and the world falls in love. What else
is there to say.”

For a moment, Ellison becomes wistful. “The beauty of life and of working in a field that gives you the most pleasure is that curiosity and enthusiasm take you through the day… There is no time for self-conscious reflection. To look back therefore becomes a bit of
a shock. I did all that? Wow! Was I having fun! And, I was… and still am having fun.”

Soul Searcher: Icon Photographer