On Set with the Hollywood Greats

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Gwyneth Paltrow, James Rebhorn, Matt Damon, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” Venice, Italy 1998Photography by Brigitte Lacombe

Brigitte Lacombe tells the stories behind her incredible on-set photographs from some of our favourite films

For almost 40 years, French photographer Brigitte Lacombe has bypassed the great wall of secrecy that shrouds high-profile film shoots to capture cinematic history in the making. Lacombe left school to be a photographic apprentice for French Elle in Paris, and it was while on assignment at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, that she met Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland who asked her to come and document the on-set antics of their latest films. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, Lacombe jumped at the chance, and so began a fascinating and illustrious career.

As well as her remarkable knack for discreetly capturing the most beguiling behind-the-scenes moments of a production – whispered conversations between actors and directors, cigarette breaks taken in lavish, 18th century French costumes – Lacombe has a great propensity for intimacy, which shines through in the relaxed, candid shots of the stars she has come to call her close friends. Here, as an exhibition of some of her finest cinematic portraits goes on show at Phillips New York, we speak to the photographer to discover the delightful stories behind our ten favourite images.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1998
"This was taken in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The director, Antony Minghella, was an extraordinary man and a really close friend of mine, so firstly it reminds me of him and of how much I miss him. But of course it's a great picture of Gwyneth because she turned and looked at me in such a strong way. They were rehearsing a very intense scene so I don't know if she was in character or whether she really looked at me like that because I was intruding. But I'm so glad I took the picture and didn't put my camera down."

Kramer vs. Kramer, 1978
"I loved this moment because it was the first time I met Meryl. And then this movie, Kramer vs Kramer, became a very, very seminal movie and won many Academy Awards, and it was Meryl’s first Oscar. So to me it represents the film but also Meryl – she’s almost coming out of the camera, completely glowing. There’s a famous quote by Mike Nichols where he says she looks like she has 'swallowed a light bulb' and she does here – her skin is luminous."

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Evans, 1977
"That was my first time in Hollywood – I had come at the invitation of Dustin Hoffman during All the President's Men and every Sunday Dustin would go with friends and family to play tennis and see a movie at producer Bob Evans' house (Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, Chinatown). So that was taken on a Sunday afternoon after they played tennis and before the screening. What I love about it is that it represents this time in my life during the 70s when Hollywood was so different. Look at the giant phone, and my camera, which you can see on the ground in the far right. You can tell it was the 70s, I wouldn’t just leave it there anymore!"

Susan Sarandon, 1983
"This one of Susan was taken at a gathering while I was on holiday in New York, but the main point of the picture is that she’s wearing this houndstooth jacket made by our mutual friend, the famous costume designer Milena Canonero. It was a jacket she made at a time when she wanted to do her own fashion line and for me every time I see that image it reminds me of the holiday and also of Milena, who did the costumes for Out of Africa and The Grand Budapest Hotel and many many more. She's a great talent."

Dangerous Liasons, 1988
"This is a picture that I love. It's taken in between scenes, obviously – they were smoking and Uma is wearing sunglasses. It’s the kind of image that you look for on set – these moments in between that are a mixture of theatre and real life, when the actors are half way between being their character and themselves."

Meryl Streep, 1988
"For the first time I felt like I was really able to capture Meryl, she was giving me enough time. She never usually wanted to do photographs – she didn’t like it – but once in a while she knew she had to. But this time she was in a different mood and she stayed longer and I felt like she was at her most beautiful and mysterious at the same time. I love this image because you’re so close to her but at the same time she’s completely in her own world."

Julia Roberts, 1989
"This was taken very early on. Julia had only done one film at the time – Mystic Pizza, I think – so she was very young and completely undressed. I love so much the moment before fame, when you can see clearly that they’re exceptional, and yet they’re completely themselves; before the many, many photos, when they start coming with stylists and photographers and publicists who give their opinion about them and what they should look like. But Julia is wild here, there’s something young and cosy about her."

The Aviator, 2003
"I've taken so many pictures for Martin Scorsese's projects over the years, he’s my top favourite. Here you see the relationship between the director and the actor, these moments before scenes or in between takes where Leo was leaning towards Martin. It’s about the work and also about their relationship; they're so engaged with each other."

Marie Antoinette, 2005
"This picture is another one that is all thanks to Milena Canonero – she did all the costumes and won another Academy Award. I was away travelling and thought I was going to miss the shoot and then suddenly on the last day of filming I was just came back to Paris and talked to Milena who said, ‘We are shooting today! You should come.’ Sofia was wonderful and took me in. If you’re there in the last few days of the shooting on a film, you’re able to get a lot of things, because they know it’s their last opportunity to revisit scenes and get what they need. This was my favourite moment – I got Sofia from the back taking the picture, and it’s such an incredible, authentic scene."

Frances McDormand, 2009
"Now this is something completely different; it is actually a personal image of Frances McDormand. I was in California with her and she loved to go to this lake so we went. We hiked there, and it took a good two hours, and when she arrived she just took off her clothes and jumped in the water, and swam. And I was there on the side, resting and then suddenly I saw her floating on the lake and took this picture, which she later said is her favourite portrait of herself. It really just makes you want to be her, to be there just floating in the middle of nowhere."

Brigitte Lacombe: Complicities is at Phillips New York until July 30.