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The smiles behind the style: an enduring creative partnership

The smiles behind the style: an enduring creative partnership

© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images

February 2016

Back in 1994 Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, pop group D:Ream released ‘Things can only get better’ and a young Cheryl Newman met a young Lorenzo Agius. Cheryl was starting her career working for the film title Premiere and Lorenzo had just arrived from rural Norfolk to London to seek success as a photographer. They collided and exploded onto the creative industry with crazy new ideas and a hunger for work and a determination to push the boundaries. It is a rare thing that creative partnerships like this last such a long time so we asked Cheryl to reminisce a little with Lorenzo and tell us how it all began...

“I had a call at 3am on the shoot day saying Jared Leto would only be lit from the left-hand side. We built four massive sets costing thousands of dollars and already shot six of the actors. So I had to apologise to Jared and tell him I got the memo, but sorry, it came too late.” The life of the photographer can be demanding, Lorenzo Agius tells me laughing!

Chatting with Lorenzo, a celebrity photographer and Canon Ambassador, is more delicious than an afternoon in bed with Grazia magazine. During the past 20 years he has photographed most of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities and his unique portraits are in high demand by major film companies and magazines both in the UK and in the US. His skill is making men look like men and women even more ravishing than God designed them; Lorenzo’s lighting is second-to-none and he is a very safe pair of hands.

© Jocelyn Bain Hogg
© Jocelyn Bain Hogg

London, January 2016. Lorenzo Agius and Cheryl Newman look back on their vibrant careers.

My first shoot with him was in 1994 when I was photo editor on Premiere, the trendy UK movie magazine. We photographed the 12-year old (and then unknown) Kirsten Dunst who arrived dressed in pink silk with her mum in tow. The shoot was for the movie, Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. This would be the beginning of a fruitful partnership and an even more cherished friendship with Lorenzo that continues to this day. We are currently working on the publication of a retrospective book of his work, covering the 200+ photo shoots we have worked on together as constant spectators of unknown actors’ rises to meteoric success. Among the many names is the TV actor Daniel Craig, unaware he would later become James Bond, and a teenage Kate Winslet wearing a saucy bright blue lace dress – long before the Titanic had sailed.

“I knew Kate was going to be a great actress from the first day I met her,” Lorenzo recalls. “She was shy and new to all the attention, but definitely had the driving ambition, and that special something that’s hard to put your finger on. The bare lace dress was a tough call for a first shoot, but she approached it like a star.”

Excess all areas...

It was in the glory days of lunches at The Ivy, dinners at '192' and parties at the Cannes Film Festival. There were budgets for grand locations and much more freedom from publicists who can make or break a photographer’s career at the drop of a hat. Shooting was a blast and was often followed by a bottle or two of wine. We fought over Polaroids, tried on clothes we couldn’t afford, shot film and had fun. He is a joy to shoot with and a consummate professional. Neatly pressed, stylish and very funny he is all one would expect of a celebrity photographer.

In late 2001 the Telegraph magazine, where I was the director of photography, came up with the brilliant idea to make a special BAFTA issue celebrating the best of British film. Unfortunately, the timing left much to be desired as we were approaching Christmas and the BAFTAs were in early February. Shooting the issue was a rollercoaster: exciting, physically exhausting and a logistical nightmare. We piled into Lorenzo’s two-seater and began careering around London – from Soho to Shoreditch. Behind the scenes the producer, Krishna Sheth, tore her hair out as she juggled hair and make-up artists, stylists, location houses, churches, cafés, hotels, backstage in a couple of theatres; making sure the talent and publicists’ cars arrived on time and catering was on hand. I even elicited my then 13-year-old daughter to make tea and coffee and keep the talent entertained. This is simple enough for a single shoot but with only two weeks and 100 of the greats of British cinema involved, it was nail-biting.

© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images
© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images

Actors Rufus Sewell (left), James Frain (second from left), James Purefoy (second from right), and Daniel Craig (right), 2001.

At one point in a nondescript Formica tabled café in Fulham we had four of the coolest young actors – Daniel Craig, Colin Firth, Tom Hollander and James Purefoy – sitting down together amongst the cuppas, Kit Kats and doughnuts. Just a few years later these men would be demanding single cover shots only. We worked with Emily Mortimer, Sir Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter, Mike Leigh, Tim Roth, Rufus Sewell, the late great Alan Rickman, Miranda Richardson, Sir John Hurt and Dame Judi Dench (photographed nursing a terrible cold in her dressing room) to name but a few.

And then there was that photograph of Jude Law and Ewan McGregor in bed. “When I arrived at the Savoy suite,” Lorenzo chuckles, “I decided I had to photograph the guys in bed together. Initially, Jude wasn’t so sure but Ewan – who I’d worked with a number of times – just laughed. I explained the Morecambe and Wise idea, straight male friends in bed, and the actors ran with it. Wearing classic striped pyjamas, with boiled eggs and soldiers, plus Sporting Life and the cigars, it was so funny.”

Making it pay

Lorenzo Agius grew up in windswept Norfolk. Driven to become an artist, he enrolled in the art and design foundation course at his local college. “During the course you would do a bit of everything, and figure out what you want to specialise in. At this time I wanted to be a fine artist. However, I definitely didn’t want to end up starving in a garret so I came to London to meet some photographers and make my fortune.”

He assisted for six years with solid jobbing photographers, cutting his teeth on glamour, landscape, still life, buildings, fashion, car photography and portraiture basically gaining experience over many genres. “I did a few days with Norman Parkinson and I worked with John Swannell as a second or third as part of his team. But the guys that I worked with were all good, working advertising photographers,” he explains.

“My first camera at college was a manual camera as I was keen to learn more about the mechanics of it; I needed to be in control of the shutter speeds, light and so on, and it was film obviously back then. It’s vital for me to have all that information which I can then translate into my visual language. It’s the way I still work now.” It was only after his mastery of the camera’s mechanics that he began looking for his own commissions from magazines.

“In the beginning I would go to Los Angeles just try to make shoots happen for magazines. It was tough, not at all glamorous. I was shooting young actors such as Sandra Bullock, Rachel Weisz, Val Kilmer and Tim Roth, whose careers had just begun,” he says.

© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images
© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images

Actress, filmmaker and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, 2005.

In 1996, things were to change dramatically. Lorenzo had been working for the film company PolyGram; he’d shot a couple of nondescript film posters and travelled with them to the Cannes Film Festival. He recalls: “We were sitting at the bar in the celebrity hangout, the Carlton Hotel, and one of the people from the film company offered me the job on a film called Trainspotting. He asked if I’d read the book. I lied and said ‘Yeah.’”

The rest is filmmaking history and this year Trainspotting celebrates its 20-year anniversary and will have a follow-up movie. It was fledgling director Danny Boyle’s second film, following Shallow Grave, and boasted a cast of completely unknown actors.

“The beauty of that job,” he explains to me, “was the film cost less than a million pounds to make, and although it was a cool movie, Miramax didn’t know how to market it. It was a low budget. I think they paid me like £7000 to do the shoot and the job came in at ten to 12 thousand. It would have been a normal fee for back then, 20 years ago.”

Generally, when commissioning a movie poster the film company will tender the art out to design agencies that will come up with all the visual concepts. The photographer will then get a brief on what they want. Unusually, Lorenzo was given complete visual control.

Trainspotting revolves around the messed-up lives of a group of dysfunctional kids and drug use. Heroin junkie Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, the violent psychopath Begbie, brought to life by Robert Carlyle, and strange characters with names such as Sickboy and Spud.

“The film company didn’t want to glamorise drug taking but I thought it was an interesting subject,” Lorenzo shares. Two things influenced the way he approached shooting the campaign. One was the massive advertising campaign for CK One the Calvin Klein perfume. Shot in black and white, which was unpopular for advertising at that point, it also street cast real people as the models. The other was the work of the iconic photographer Richard Avedon. “I took, [Avedon’s photo book] 'In the American West', to the shoot and told the actors I wanted our images to be as gritty as the pictures of the tramps.” Lorenzo was also keen to bring a fashion element to the poster campaign. “We used the costumes from the film; I think we did a couple of looks on Begbie, Robert Carlye’s character as we didn’t know if we wanted him in a suit or a Pringle sweater.”

The major image of the series, a T-shirted Ewan McGregor, soaking wet from his journey down the toilet bowl became a cult classic. “The film company also wanted to run posters on bus shelters so I suggested it run it without any type, just the character and a number like one to five,” he tells me. This ambiguous approach to the campaign crossed the genres of fashion film and music.

Matt Mueller, Editor of Screen International, told me: “As soon as you saw Lorenzo's images, you knew you were witnessing something deeply iconic. They just jumped out in how phenomenally cool they were while not betraying the spirit of Irvine Welsh’s characters and Danny Boyle’s film. They seemed to spring from the world of advertising and music more than the world of film and gave an edge to Trainspotting's marketing campaign that many youth films have tried to mimic since but none have ever come close to matching. One of the defining photo shoots of the 1990s.”

© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images
© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images

The shot that got Lorenzo noticed in 1996. This image of Ewan McGregor’s character Renton, from the film Trainspotting, became iconic almost overnight.

“It didn’t have any factor; there was nothing cool about it yet.” Lorenzo reminds me, “I can remember going to a meeting with Danny Boyle and Andrew McDonald, carrying an Agfa box holding the gritty black and white litho prints with Trainspotting written on the outside of it and feeling embarrassed. I hope people didn’t think I was some geeky twit.”

But Trainspotting went on to sum up a generation and Lorenzo’s career was launched; within weeks he was to shoot a cover story for Vanity Fair. “I got the call from Vanity Fair they said, we’re doing this issue called ‘Cool Britannia’, and we want you to shoot for it. They believed I was part of that whole thing; they were talking about ‘Cool Britannia’ and I didn’t even know what they were talking about,” he laughs.

Cool under pressure

Lorenzo went on to photograph a cover with Patsy Kensit and Liam Gallagher in bed and is the only photographer to shoot a cover from a first commission. “It was all very druggy; we were coming into a period of ‘Cool Britannia’, Tony Blair, Blur, Oasis, Kate Moss, Corinne Day, Alexander McQueen, Izzy Blow and basically that was the film that summed it all up.”

© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images
© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images

Actress Patsy Kensit and her former husband, Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, pose for a ‘Cool Britannia’ front cover for Vanity Fair magazine, 1997.

Lorenzo Agius is now at the top of his game and I am desperate for him to spill some gory-shoot-gossip. Being the master of discretion, he instead indulges me with some of his favourite tales. He was hired to photograph Tom Cruise for the movie Collateral, and they wanted Tom to get the ‘Agius Trainspotting’ treatment. It was an epic production with an army of people and 15 lighting setups ready to go in a massive warehouse. “We raced from setup to setup, Tom changing his clothes as we went. I shot two rolls of film at each; we didn’t even wait for Polaroids. When I said 'you’re done, we’ve done 15 setups', he was blown away.”

He believes Angelina Jolie to be the most beautiful women he has ever photographed. “The first time I shot her was for the film Girl Interrupted, and she was in big trouble back then. She was crying on the set and was wasting everyone’s time. I suggested she go home, as she wasn’t enjoying it and I hate to see people suffering. However I’ve shot her again a few times and she’s amazing now, all the good things she does, she has an opinion and she’s intelligent, beauty and is about other things as well.” He would love to have photographed Philip Seymour Hoffman, “He looked troubled which made him great,” he muses. A favourite shoot was with Jack Nicholson, “I love Jack. He was only supposed to give me 30 minutes but in the end we couldn’t get rid of him and he’s my idol. I was in a room with Nicholson standing in only socks and boxer shorts talking with him about art and women. It’s a surreal moment you never forget.”

Lorenzo Agius shoots are a mix of fun and focus. Once he shot Ewan McGregor on a poster campaign for the movie Angels and Demons in which McGregor plays a priest. He had the idea of dressing him up in a French nun’s habit and managed to get the agreement of the publicist.

“So we put Ewan in this Sound of Music nun’s habit, no-one’s ever seen them, there’s even pictures of him having a pee, it’s hilarious. It’s great when you work with someone a lot, as there’s that familiar ground that you know him or her and they know you. I shot Ewan’s first pictures, which are still on his Instagram and Facebook pages. That is what represents him; they launched his career.”

© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images
© Lorenzo Agius/Contour by Getty Images

Actress Sienna Miller in the bath. Says Lorenzo: “I wanted her to get in the bath and play around. We had this great dress that was like seaweed so I wanted her in that. She has this real sense of fun about her and we started to get into the funny moments making a moustache... still looking hot.”

I urge him for juicy stories about nightmare shoots, irate publicists and difficult talent but generally things go smoothly for him. “I do remember a rider that made me laugh when I was assisting”, he laughs, “and it was for two bottles of Stolichnaya vodka and an eight ball of coke. After the shoot there was half a bottle of vodka left and all the coke had gone. That was from Freddie Mercury.”

Keeping control

We’re looking through my collection of old Polaroids from his shoots, some going back 20 years. “I love the Polaroids,” he tells me. “Shooting film meant I had complete control. Nowadays you’ve got people looking at the monitor: the actor, the digi operator to the assistant and the publicist. Everyone has an opinion. The beauty of photography, in that sense, has gone. The first few times I shot digitally I felt completely out of my depth. I was using a 35mm camera as opposed to a medium format, which is such a big heavy thing, so I had this tiny little camera and it felt amateurish. However you have this thing that fits in the palm of your hand that’s better quality than what you’ve been shooting on.”

Despite this, Lorenzo has now parted ways with all his old film cameras, now working solely with his Canon kit. “I shoot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. It’s a brilliant camera, but then Canon lent me an EOS 5DS and it’s an amazing camera, the quality is incredible. I’d describe it like shooting ISO 50 film as opposed to 400. You get no grain! It’s bigger and better. However I shoot, I look at the greats, Irving Penn, or Richard Avedon. A real portrait is to capture the essence of that person at that point – they may be in a bad mood they may be happy, they might be sad or p*ssed off. I see it as my job to convey that moment to the public. People look at my phone and say, ‘Wow your phone takes such good pictures.’” he laughs, “Yes, the phone takes great pictures. It’s nothing to do with 30-years of experience.”

Biographie: Lorenzo Agius

Lorenzo Agius

Following several years working as a photographer’s assistant in London Lorenzo Agius went freelance in 1989. Specialising in advertising, portraits and still life his big break came when he shot the publicity posters for the film Trainspotting in 1996. Shortly after that he secured a cover shoot for Vanity Fair’s ‘Cool Britannia’ issue and shot the stills for the Spice Girls movie. He now has a reputation as one of the world’s leading celebrity portrait photographers.


Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson. Says Lorenzo: “I love Jack. He was only supposed to give me 30 minutes but in the end we couldn’t get rid of him and he’s my idol.”