C California Style

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER on Muscle Beach in Venice, photographed by MICHAEL CHILDERS in 1976.

Stars in His Eyes

by C California Style

Celebrity photographer Michael Childers looks back ahead of a major retrospective

You may not have realized it, but for decades you’ve been seeing the legends of Hollywood through photographer Michael Childers’ eyes. While a student of film and photography at UCLA, Childers’ multimedia work captured the attention of theater critic and writer Kenneth Tynan, who showcased the up-and-comer’s work in the 1969 production of Oh! Calcutta! Later, during his role as literary manager for the U.K.’s National Theatre company, Tynan offered Childers stints shooting stage legends including Laurence Oliver in London and New York. Soon Hollywood beckoned: Childers emerged as one of the premier portrait and film-set photographers of his generation, a modern-day George Hurrell (who was a mentor) helping define celebrity iconography of the latter half of the 20th century, initially as founding photographer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and later for fabled media outlets including GQ, New York, TV Guide, Esquire, Elle and Paris Match.


“Michael Childers: Starstruck – A Life Behind the Lens”
Jan 31 – Dec 31

Childers, 73, recently donated around 1,000 film-related images in his archive to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which assembled a significant exhibit, “Michael Childers: Starstruck—A Life Behind the Lens,” in his honor, on display at the AMPAS’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills beginning in January 2018. “I want to have a legacy, I want these things cared for properly,” he says. “The Academy has all my theatrical and film work, and it couldn’t be in a better place.” Now mostly retired and settled in Rancho Mirage, the photographer is enjoying a moment to reflect on his extraordinary career crafting indelible imagery of everyone from graying Golden Age idols, such as Mae West, Joan Crawford and Groucho Marx, to Natalie Wood, Steve Martin, Al Pacino and Jamie Lee Curtis in the prime of their careers.


“I had to be in love with the subject—or in like with the subject,” Childers says with a chuckle. His penchant for research and preparedness, as well as always engaging top styling and costuming pros, helped cement his reputation as much as his eye for a stunning shot. “I enjoyed working with actresses in particular,” he says, having photographed the likes of Cher, Bette Midler, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston. “I’ve photographed some of the male stars of the time—I did well with Harrison Ford, Paul Newman, Richard Gere and Mel Gibson—but I think it’s easier for a gay photographer working with extraordinary strong and beautiful women, with great clothes and jewelry and makeup and hair. Men still have the macho thing, the vanity. I’ve never met a male star who didn’t have a huge ego.”


Some even became close friends, including Wood, whom he shot from 1968 until her death in 1981—he was scheduled to photograph her for People magazine just days after her tragic drowning. “She was my first, best, big star, and she was a wonderful person,” he recalls. “If she trusted you, you became part of her family.” A career high: being tapped by Paris Match and London’s The Times to snap Wood and Robert Wagner on their honeymoon in Venice after remarrying. “You don’t get assignments like that anymore! We stayed at [Hotel] Cipriani and I photographed one of the greatest weeks of my life. They were just wonderful, and the pictures turned out really enchanting.”


Despite film sets being notoriously monotonous between takes, Childers—whose longtime partner was Midnight Cowboy filmmaker John Schlesinger—found excitement there, too. “Filming is ‘hurry up and wait,’ ” he admits. “Hanging out in dressing room trailers with Sissy Spacek and Beverly D’Angelo waiting for hours for the lighting to get right—that part was delightful.”


Even today, Childers has a few subjects he’d love just one more session with: “Michelle Pfeiffer—not only was she astonishingly beautiful, but she was so much fun to work with, so bright and smart. Probably my favorite male star was John Travolta—the early magic of Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Urban Cowboy. He was amazing, sweet and cooperative—and this huge star, like, overnight.”


Childers met future superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger at Cannes Film Festival, shooting him hitting the gym at the breakout moment starring in bodybuilding documentaries. “I loved his incredible sense of humor about himself, and about everything,” the photographer recalls. “I remember him having a glass of wine saying, ‘My wish in life is someday I’m going to become the biggest action hero in the world.’ I told the journalist who I was working with, ‘He is right, because he has the will and the discipline.’ ” As Schwarzenegger’s star status grew, he would tap Childers to shoot him on early blockbusters like Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator. “I have nothing but the fondest memories of working with Arnold.”


Occasionally, he was neither in love nor much in like with the object of his lens, but remains discreet. “I’ve photographed probably 2,000 actors. Ninety-nine percent were wonderful. But there’s always a couple. I don’t want to diss anybody,” he says with a laugh. “There were a couple of explosive diva women I did not enjoy working with, and a couple of big male movie stars who were impossible. I like working with wonderful, creative and collaborative [talent]. So the best sessions I had were a collaboration: They brought costumes; they had ideas.”


“Michael Childers: Starstruck – A Life Behind the Lens”
Jan 31 – Dec 31



Written by SCOTT HUVER.
Photography by Michael Childers.
All images courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of C Magazine.