Brushes With Fame
January 20th, 2019 by David LaBelle

John Denver in a candid moment before a concert in Utah in 1982.
Photo by David LaBelle

Have you ever found yourself face to face with a famous person? Maybe at an airport, a shopping mall, a sporting event, a fishing spot or in an elevator? You may have felt a little star struck and unsure how to act or what to say.

Somehow, being seen with somebody famous makes us feel a little famous, too.

Before the term “selfie” was born, most of us liked having our picture taken with a famous person. With the advent of cellphone camera technology, it is easier and quicker than ever to get your picture taken with a celebrity.

As annoying as quicker, easier smartphone selfies can be—clearly out of hand, at times—I understand the appeal. Brushes with celebrity can be exhilarating. I have seen people freeze and even cry uncontrollably when having their picture taken with a star.

Brushing shoulders with famous actors, authors, musicians, sports stars and even presidents sometimes feels a little like visiting Fort Knox. You are close to unfathomable wealth—so close you can touch it—but it doesn’t belong to you.

I have never been a celebrity photographer, though I have photographed a lot of famous people. I regret not taking advantage of some opportunities. I could have photographed Robert Kennedy the day before he was killed, but passed because I wasn’t interested in politics or making pictures of celebrities then. I was in high school and had not yet developed an awareness of history or how important images like these could become.

When I look back at my black and white images—many now a half-century or more in the past—I am thankful I photographed the people I did. Though thousands of pictures may have been taken of a celebrity, each is unique.

I remember sitting on the steps of a Utah university debating philosophy and evolution with John Denver several hours before a rehearsal, and being backstage with a weary Johnny Cash before a concert. I told him I came from the same area where he once lived and had watched him in an ugly bar fight that had spilled out in the street.

I encourage you to photograph as many famous or almost famous people as you can, on stage or off. Most of us love old pictures, candid moments of celebrities before they were famous. We love seeing them as equal, vulnerable human beings without their stage faces or decoration, when they are not performing. Some of my favorite celebrity pictures have been taken by amateur photographers.

A few tips about photographing famous people:

  • Choose small venues in out-of-the-way places. The atmosphere is often more casual and less stressful. You might be able to approach a person in Billings, Montana, who is unapproachable in New York or Chicago. I have been to venues where a dozen people came to listen to an artist who later filled stadiums.
  • Photographing is one thing. Publishing a picture is another. These days, more than ever, celebrities are extremely protective of their image because it is so attached to their livelihood and their legacy. Taking a picture and sharing it with friends is one thing. Selling it commercially is another. Agents, artists and handlers frown on that.
  • If you get an opportunity to photograph a celebrity, don’t overshoot. Be polite and discreet. Enough is enough and too much is too much.
  • Above all, respect your subject. Most famous people are surrounded by pushy people with an agenda. Be sensitive. Be honest. Be real.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.