MY MOM always loved musicals, so I spent a lot of time watching them growing up. At the age of nine I saw the movie Funny Face (Cinderella in Paris) with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, and she just spoke to me. Fred Astaire was a photographer, and I just thought: I want to do that. It was also about the girls. I wanted to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn and live happily ever after.
I took my first roll of film around this time and I remember going back and thinking, “This is really cool.” Then in seventh grade, I took a picture of the group. I remember that on the first day our teacher talked about cameras, and I realized that photography was something I wanted to do. I loved the way he made me feel and the joy he brought me, because life was not easy for me as a child. So by the time I was 12, I had my first business cards and started looking for clients. With photography, it was love at first sight.
That year I also started photographing models and, by then, I wanted to be a fashion photographer or shoot for Playboy. When I was 17 I photographed my first nudes. For me it was really just about the girls. When I moved to Los Angeles in my 20s to be a fashion photographer, I didn’t know anyone and only had about $ 1,000 in my pocket. I met Ken Marcus, who is famous for his work with Playboy, and he told me I could do it.
But about six months into Los Angeles, my boss at the time told me, “You are not going to be a fashion photographer.” He told me he was in the wrong city, knew nothing about fashion, and sucked as a fashion photographer.
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Until then, he had shot concerts for fun. Fui a ver a Earth, Wind and Fire y a los Commodores. I loved music. Then I met a model from Playboynamed Karen, whose boyfriend was a record producer named Keith Forsey, who made the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club (The club of five). Through that contact I began to photograph for the magazine Musician. The second photo shoot was with Earth, Wind and Fire lead singer Maurice White. I had seen the band six times in concert and I loved it. So my second big photo shoot was with my hero. Without knowing how, he invited me to his house to review the photos. He was the nicest man she had ever known.
After that meeting I drove home and just started crying. It had been the greatest day of my life and something had just clicked inside of me. I knew I wanted to photograph all my heroes. So, I decided that I was going to be a music photographer and started going after musicians like crazy.
My photographic heroes are Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and David Bailey. They produce simple and honest portraits. If you see my work you will say that I copied them. I admit it. But if you’re going to steal, rob the best of them. What I am looking for is honesty and truth. I try to capture the real person.
In 1987, the disc Cloud Nine George Harrison’s was coming out, and since I was the West Coast photographer for the magazine Musician At the time, they told me I had ten minutes in a conference room at their record company. Truth be told, it would have taken me nine minutes. Had seen A Hard Day’s Night (The night of a difficult day) at the age of five and I thought it was the best movie ever. Actually, I ended up taking two hours with him. We talk about A Hard Day’s Night and he told me many stories about the band.
George then played us the record and told us that we were the second person to listen to it in America. He had only put it on the CEO of the company. Until then, that was the greatest day of my life. Best of all, a week and a half later they went on to direct the first music video and the publicist told me to go and take snapshots because George had liked me. At one point I found myself alone in a dressing room with him. It was just surreal.
Many years later, after George died, I ended up meeting Olivia Harrison in Santa Monica and brought the entire George movie for her to see. We talked and I told him my stories. At the end of the meeting I hugged her and gave her all the scans of the images and the film. She asked me how much I wanted to be paid and I said nothing. They were his. George blessed me.
Of course, one of my greatest moments was photographing George Michael and the record tour. Faith. I met George in December 1987, he was doing the music video for Faith And a makeup artist and friend of mine was dating him, so I got to meet his agent. One of the most iconic photos I have ever taken was of George.
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When fans ask me what he was like, I say, “oh, George was the worst. He owed me $ 20 and he never paid me! ” They respond: “What!” When I make that joke, her female fans seem ready to kill me. I have to tell you that I’m kidding. George was an angel!
When I first met him he seemed to have high, thick walls around him to protect himself. It wasn’t until the second photo shoot and being Kathy’s best friend that I started to see those walls come down. He and I sat in hotel rooms to review photos and I got to know the real George Michael. He was just a gentle, nice, and personable boy. The tour with him in Australia was my first first-class travel experience, so George showed me what the good life looks like. It was amazing. If you miss you so much.
“MOMENTS OF MY LIFE THAT I DARE”
Another great session was with Kobe Bryant. Since I grew up in Northern California, I hated the Los Angeles Lakers, so when I had to photograph Kobe, I joked all day and he responded to me the same way. He had just gotten engaged to Vanessa Bryant, who was the nicest girl. I kept joking with her: “How can you be with this guy? He’s a Laker ”. I just remember that she had a huge diamond engagement ring and I looked at Kobe and said, “That ring is worth more than me!” He just said, “Yes, that’s right.”
Kobe and I also talked for five minutes about work ethics. He took everything seriously and gave 100 percent, so we connected through hard work. I see why Kobe was successful in everything he did. Even though he was a Laker, I have to admit that he was one of the greatest. The saddest thing is that I feel like, when he died, he was just beginning to actually move into the next level of his life. But I remember that I liked that he brought Vanessa to that session. Those are the moments in my life that I treasure.
The closest I had to a bad session was Nick Cave being a curmudgeon, but everyone knows Nick Cave is a curmudgeon! Chris Cornell was also a bit grumpy. I remember the last time I photographed him, I said, “I know you hate doing this, Chris —because we had been friends for years by then. So why don’t you do what I tell you? This feeling will then last for ten minutes and we can go home! ” He looked at me and said, “You’re right.”
Yes, I think a lot about the fact that the people I have photographed have already died. In 1991 there was a period when grunge started and I started photographing all the grunge bands. Within a year, these friends of mine, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana, all became millionaires. Then, years later, they all started to die. Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain and Mike Starr, for example. The last person to die was Chris Cornell. It hurts to see these people die, but I hate when it’s by suicide. I spoke with a photographer friend of mine who has photographed many more famous people than I have and many have died of different causes. From David Bowie to Michael Jackson. He said to me, “Chris, that’s part of life, and part of our job. Nobody lives forever ”.
Kurt Cobain was not only one of the most likable musicians I have ever photographed, he was also a likable person. I had great moments with him, from the first session in Seattle to the last two or three times I saw him. We always laugh a lot. Like so many musicians I’ve met, offstage he was just Kurt. I never had the feeling that I was in trouble.
However, the only people who have dazzled me were Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau. When I was a kid, the movies they were in were everything to me. Taking pictures of George Harrison also scared the shit out of me.
Young talents who think they are stars because they filmed a TV show, those people are not famous now. I photographed Brad Pitt before it was released Thelma and Louise (An unexpected end). We would see each other in my apartment all day and laugh and take photos. He was the nicest guy in the world. I can see today why he is where he is. He had a solid foundation and was a good guy. It was the same with George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston. I could give names for days of people I photographed before they were big stars and names of people who didn’t. The difference between them is that the successful ones were genuinely good people from the beginning. George Clooney and I used to play basketball, and he didn’t take himself very seriously. He just wanted to be an actor. I understand why he became a director, producer and everything in between, because he also had a great work ethic.
But, despite all the people I have photographed, there is someone I have not photographed. My dream was to photograph David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, and I still want to photograph Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Lady Gaga. I don’t need to get paid today, I just want to photograph, have fun and create. The happy thing about this life is that I have been able to meet all these people and lead a crazy life. When I moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, I just wanted to shoot a magazine cover, maybe a record cover, and maybe meet a supermodel. I’ve already done that a hundred times. For now, for me, it’s about helping and teaching others.
When I die, I hope there will be a retrospective of my work, and that when people see it, they say, “This guy had fun when he was here.” N
Chris Cuffaro is a California-based photographer who has spent more than 40 years photographing actors, models, athletes, and musicians. His “Big Hits: Top 40” are now available as non-fungible tokens on the KnownOrigin platform. All opinions expressed in this article are the responsibility of the author. Posted in cooperation with Newsweek. Published in cooperation with Newsweek