Art Streiber has been photographing the Academy Awards for six years, with his rare all-access pass positioning him as close to the event as the celebrities themselves. But instead of focusing on designer dresses, diamond-studded jewellery and gushing acceptance speeches, the Los Angeles-based photographer strives to capture the emotion inherent in Hollywood's biggest self-love fest: the overwhelmed stars whose names are called; the A-listers waiting their turn to present; the quirky moments that prove even stars who command US$20 million a film are human.
A carefully culled selection of Streiber's photographs are the basis for an exhibition that is drawing rave reviews for its unique insight into the biggest night in Hollywood. Titled All Access at the Academy Awards: Photographs by Art Streiber, the show was made possible only after Streiber and his team searched through more than 1,000 shots taken over the past six years for Premiere and InStyle magazines. From this enormous portfolio of work, only 120 photographs were chosen for display. 'It was brutal,' says Streiber, describing the task.
The exhibition, which is on display until April 16 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, draws on the range of activity and emotion generated by the Oscar ceremony, the set-up operation and rehearsals.
'Over the years, I've definitely been given more access [to the event],' says Streiber. 'I work side
by side with an assistant who carries around a light source, but we go out of our way to be unobtrusive; to pop out, grab an image and recede. My approach has changed a little bit. I'm not as reticent as I was to go after photos, but I'm still very cautious and respectful of the process.'
Streiber - who has been a freelance photographer since 1993, working for magazines such as Vanity Fair, W, Oprah and Town & Country - has succeeded in capturing the kind of candid shots paparazzi would give their right arms for. One picture shows Cate Blanchett, after winning the 2005 best supporting actress award for her role in The Aviator, looking casually into a press room as if she is peering into her children's nursery. Another catches Mike Myers, dressed casually in a Puma shirt, rehearsing the day before the show. An ecstatic Tom Cruise congratulates a bewildered-looking Cameron Crowe, who had just won an Oscar for best original screenplay for Almost Famous in 2001, while veteran Oscar ceremony producer Gil Cates looks bemused at Bjork's now-infamous swan dress and matching egg handbag. Julia Roberts has a serious moment after receiving her award for Erin Brockovich and host Steve Martin is dwarfed by a huge Oscar statue behind him. Some shots - like that of Cameron Diaz holding a fake Oscar between her legs as she rehearses - are priceless.
'Mostly, it's a matter of being in the right place, ready to go,' says Streiber of his ability to reproduce the spontaneity of the moment.
Many of the photographs are taken at the practice sessions the day before the event, when all presenters are slotted to appear at 15-minute intervals sometime between 9am and 6pm. They go to the venue, meet the producer, rehearse their lines, read from a fake envelope and hand a 'statuette' to a stand-in. Some of Streiber's best pictures are taken as stars wait in the wings for their turn: Robert Redford with a coffee mug in one hand, his statue in the other; Sting, waiting to rehearse Until from the movie Kate and Leopold, sitting between two placards denoting the seats of Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson; Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett kissing before their practice presentation.
'We can't be in their way when they are rehearsing but there are always surprises on rehearsal day,' Streiber says. 'I might be trying to shoot somebody backstage but there could be something else happening outside. I try to be in five places at once.'
The exhibition contrasts the casual atmosphere of rehearsal day with the all-out glitz of the following night. 'These people have just rolled out of bed, or are on their way to lunch, and have to stop in for 15 minutes to do this thing,' says Streiber. 'That's the window of time I have to find their publicist and ask for permission to photograph them. Some say 'no' every single year. Some say, 'Sure, go ahead.''
That behind-the-scenes intimacy can be found in many of the Oscar-night shots: Susan Sarandon, her eyes ablaze with excitement, on the phone to her children to tell them their father, Tim Robbins, had won the best supporting actor for Mystic River; Roberts huddled with Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, like four friends having drinks at a bar. There's a picture of Cruise having his hair smoothed down by his then-publicist, Pat Kingsley, and producer Brian Grazer taking a breather on the steps adjacent to the stage after winning the best picture award for A Beautiful Mind.
Perhaps the most telling example of how 'real' movie stars can be is evident in a gorgeous shot of Charlize Theron, moments after picking up her award for best actress in Monster, her hand placed on her forehead, her eyes downcast, still trying to absorb it all.
'Someone asked me if I was demystifying the Oscars,' says Streiber, 'but I think these pictures humanise them. The Oscars might be filled with all kinds of glamour, celebrity, pomp and circumstance. But at a certain level, [the stars] start to be just as human as the rest of us.'