Shooting stars

New Jersey native Timothy White (above) was in Singapore in April to photograph Singaporean Olympian Joseph Schooling for German fashion brand Hugo Boss. Schooling was named Hugo Boss' first Singaporean ambassador last year.
New Jersey native Timothy White (above) was in Singapore in April to photograph Singaporean Olympian Joseph Schooling for German fashion brand Hugo Boss. Schooling was named Hugo Boss' first Singaporean ambassador last year.PHOTO: GIN TAY
New Jersey native Timothy White was in Singapore in April to photograph Singaporean Olympian Joseph Schooling (above) for German fashion brand Hugo Boss. Schooling was named Hugo Boss’ first Singaporean ambassador last year.
New Jersey native Timothy White was in Singapore in April to photograph Singaporean Olympian Joseph Schooling (above) for German fashion brand Hugo Boss. Schooling was named Hugo Boss’ first Singaporean ambassador last year. PHOTO: BOSS BY HUGO BOSS

Celebrity photographer Timothy White can always get his famous subjects to react to him

Renowned Hollywood celebrity photographer Timothy White has taken pictures of world-famous names such as actors Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr, singers Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston and even the late screen legend Audrey Hepburn.

Now, Singaporean Olympian Joseph Schooling will join the list.

White was in town in April to take photos of Schooling, 24, who moved back to Singapore from the United States this year, for German fashion brand Hugo Boss.

The 63-year-old photographer says of Schooling, who became Hugo Boss' first Singaporean ambassador last year: "He was amazing. He's not a model or celebrity, so he's not used to being in front of the camera, aside from his work with Hugo Boss and being photographed by journalists."

To show a "different side" of Schooling, White got the swimmer to jump and bend over backwards while standing on his toes.

"He could have been stiff and that would have required a lot of energy from me to work with, but instead, he was really sweet, very open and willing. He trusted me right away and let me guide him through the process, more so than I anticipated," says White.

The New Jersey native, who has more than 30 years of experience, went to Rhode Island School of Design to study fine art photography.

After graduating, he found it difficult to make a living off fine art photography and instead took photography gigs for one of his great loves - music - helping to shoot album covers for bands and singers like Julian Lennon.

Through his work, he studied portrait photography and, over the years, became one of the most sought-after celebrity photographers in the US.

He says of working with celebrities: "I'm a professional and I'm trying to make them look good. I'm not some brilliant technician, I'm just me. And I have a way of getting my subjects to react to me."

While he does not know exactly how he does it, he says: "I have no idea when I walk in the room how the day will go, but I have confidence in my ability to make it work one way or another.

"If my subjects are being difficult, it's usually because they're insecure about being scrutinised. And that's what a still camera does."

What was his craziest celebrity shoot?

He says he has done too many shoots to name a definitive moment, but adds with a laugh: "Brad Pitt and I once went into a brothel and I photographed him with two naked prostitutes. That was in Nevada."

White also has a long-running relationship with Indiana Jones star Harrison Ford, whom he says is "bigger than life and a perfect subject".

Working with and having close relationships with famous names does not mean he cedes creative control.

"The thing is, to you, celebrities might be beautiful, but I can make them look ugly. Because I control the medium and how they feel about the process. A photograph is my reality, I'm imposing myself on it," he says.

White, who was quick to banter and crack jokes during the interview, seems relaxed about everything, but one thing does get on his nerves.

He says: "I think selfies are fine to tell people where you are and what you're doing.

"But sometimes, you see people, in public places, doing all the posing to get the perfect angle and then cleaning up their faces to look like an anime - that's not reality in any way."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Shooting stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe