Behind the Scenes at the Oscars: An Interview With Art Streiber

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For the past decade, photographer Art Streiber has been at every Academy Awards ceremony, taking pictures of stars and crew-members alike to document what goes on behind the scenes at Hollywood's biggest event of the year. Here, he talks to The Atlantic about how the ceremony has changed over time, what you have to do to get kicked out of the Oscars, and who he's rooting for this year.

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STREIBER/AUGUST


How long have you been covering the Academy Awards?

This will be my 10th or 11th year. When I started working on this project, I was shooting for Premiere magazine. After Premiere folded in 2003, InStyle stepped in as the assigning magazine. I was the fourth photographer that Premiere had hired to shoot backstage—and the last one—because the other three had all been asked to not to return.

Wow. What do you have to do not get asked back to the Oscars?

There are lines you just don't cross. You have to be respectful of the production, the presenters and the winners. I don't know exactly what the other photographers did, but they committed various transgressions that interfered with the decorum of the production, so one by one, the Academy would politely say to Premiere magazine, "we'd rather that you reassigned this story to someone else."

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ART STREIBER/AUGUST

How has the ceremony changed since you started?

Security has gotten a lot more intense, everywhere. There are more, bigger guys backstage: LAPD and private security.

Up until 2003, the only other photographers that were around [besides me] were hired by the Academy. But what changed in 2003 was that George Bush invaded Iraq. And as a result of his invading Iraq right around the Oscars, the Academy decided to tear down the red carpet. So a number of photographers that were on the red carpet, like the Associated Press, the LA Times, Getty, and USA Today, said, "Hey, we need some access here." So they allowed those guys to come backstage.

So for the last seven years, there are six of us back there. And we're all in tuxedos, all elbow-to-elbow. And honestly, it has changed the dynamic of what it's like back there. I still treat it as kind of "two and out," where you fire two frames and get out of the way. But a lot of the other guys treat it like the red carpet and do what I call a machine-gun approach and just go, "brrrrrrrrrr" and, you know, hammer away.

How is shooting the Oscars different from the other work you do for magazines and film and television promotion?

The Oscars is unique for me because I came from photojournalism. But I don't have that many opportunities over the course of the year to do this kind of work, which is reportage, fly-on-the-wall, behind-the-scenes, I'm not even supposed to be there. I'm not directing the talent. I'm not talking to anybody. I'm just trying to find these amazing, great little moments that may or may not be happening right in front of me. And kind of anticipating where the action might be.

Walk us through your Oscar routine.

The Oscars are on Sunday, and I get to the Kodak Theater on Thursday morning. I'm there Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to get the lay of the land, to get to know the stage-hands, the guys who are moving the scenery, so they recognize me. And to watch the production process and the construction process of building the sets, building the red carpet—all of that behind-the-scenes stuff that normally you don't get to see.

On Friday night, all the musical acts come in and rehearse, and on Saturday there is a rehearsal, and every single presenter shows up. Starting at 9 am, every 15 minutes, in 15-minute increments, if you're presenting an Oscar, you show up. They tell you where you're supposed to be, where you're supposed to stand, what you're supposed to say.

They're all dressed in street clothes, and I may or may not be allowed to photograph them if they or their publicist decides that they don't want to be photographed that way. Every 15 minutes, I've got to find their publicist and say, "Hey, is it OK to shoot Jennifer Lopez?" The thing is, is that while one of them is on the stage rehearsing, another one is walking in the side door. So you have to be in two or three places at the same time.

Then, on late Saturday night, there is a full dress rehearsal.

Do they let the photographers watch that?

Chances are that they kick all of us out of that. I've been to a couple. Some producers and some hosts don't mind, some do mind if you're in the room watching the full rehearsal and you see all the gags, see all the jokes, see all the films, and all that stuff. Jon Stewart could not have been more agreeable about having photographers around. But Billy Crystal doesn't want a lot of interference. It's just the way these guys work and rehearse and deal with the production process.

Ok. Then what?

On Sunday, there's another full-run dress rehearsal in the morning, and then they clean out the theater and sweep the theater and I change into a tuxedo, and then if I'm lucky I get an hour on the red carpet before I race backstage and just document the mayhem.

Nearly all your Oscar photos show big Hollywood stars in unusually natural, candid moments. How do you create that sense of privacy in the midst of such a public event?

Rehearsals are fairly empty, fairly secure. The point of the rehearsal is to block the set, so they have stand-ins who are literally sitting in the seats of the category nominee, but the room is pretty empty. So when Tom Cruise or somebody else arrives to come out and rehearse, they're brought out on the stage and I've asked his publicist, "Hey is it ok if I photograph Tom?" And I introduce myself and I say, "Hi, I'm with InStyle, and I'll just be hanging out, and I'll stay out of your way." Which they really appreciate. That's why the theater and the space is so empty.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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