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.

And the minute they start rehearsing, I fly off the stage. I hear, "Ok, we're going to rehearsal, and I just bug out of there." The guys on the cameras and the guys in the booth know I'm there, and they know I respect their process and that their process comes first. I'm completely incidental to what's going on there, and I get out of the way and try to wait until the very last minute to get that very, very, very last moment of concentration. And then the minute they're done rehearsing, I get back up in there to continue to try to find great moments with these guys.

Does it help that you've photographed a lot of these stars before for magazine covers and ad campaigns?

Absolutely because their publicists know me, and they may or may not remember me, but I can say, "Hey, we did that Men's Health cover." Or, "I shot you for Vanity Fair." And it puts them at ease. Because you know when you live in LA and to some extent New York and you're a celebrity or a well-known actor or actress, the chances are there's a paparazzi following you or one will appear because some valet parking attendant or waiter or somebody has called the paparazzi. So, yes, they're used to having cameras in their face, but the folks at the Academy want these people to have a really, really pleasant experience. So, their knowing me or knowing who I am or having worked with me is incredibly helpful putting them at ease because they know I will respect their space and not get right in their grill.

Are there any images you've taken at the Oscars that you're especially proud of?

I love the shot of Jack Nicholson and Nicholas Cage having a cigarette in the back. And the truth is, a lot of my favorite images aren't of the celebrities. A lot of my favorite images are of the over-sized Oscars statues. I have an enormous respect, fondness, awe for the statuette in kind of a sick way because he's so regal and calm and above it all, even if he's on the back of a truck or he's laying on his side or he's being dragged onto an elevator. So I love those moments that may or may not involve a celebrity.

However, with the actors and actresses, there really isn't that much of an opportunity to photograph them this way at all. I mean, this isn't the '60s or the '70s when Life magazine and William Claxton could spend a day with Steve McQueen driving up the coast, doing beautiful black and white photography. Those kinds of opportunities don't exist because the celebrities and actors and actresses are very managed and handled and presented. So yes, they're in gowns and jewels, yes, they're in tuxedos, but the moments are all real, they're not manufactured. I like that about this kind of work.

Are you rooting for any particular film or performance this year?

If I had to decide between Colin Firth's performance [in The King's Speech] and Jesse Eisenberg's performance [in The Social Network], I couldn't do it. Occasionally I'll have a favorite. Here's the thing, we'll never know: Did he win by 10 votes; did he win by 20 votes; did he win by 100 votes? We don't know, and we'll never know unless somebody breaks into Price Waterhouse, which would be the Watergate scandal of pop culture. We will never ever know.

I am just rooting for whoever's going to be the most kind of awestruck. And it turns out every year that it doesn't matter if you're Jeff Bridges who's been around the block forever or Reese Witherspoon who's won her first. They're so psyched. And I just want to be in the right place at the right time. I'm not really pulling for anybody. And I do not put any money on it.

What should people know about the Oscars that they don't already know?

All of those emotions are real. That's something that people are probably cynical about. If you're a young actor or maybe you're a foreign actor you may have never been to the Oscars before. It can be very overwhelming, even for them. I mean, imagine how overwhelming it would be for you. And just take that down maybe three or four notches because these are their peers, many of whom, especially if you're a young actor, if you're like a Jake Gyllenhaal, you look out at that audience of these seasoned, veteran actors and actresses whose work you admire, and you get a little bit nervous unless you've done it four or five times.

A lot of these actors and actresses are in awe of the other actors and actresses—as much in awe of them as we are. We all assume that they all live together, hang out together, they live in some social colony in Beverly Hills, they only socialize with each other. But the truth is, a lot of them have never met, and they're huge fans of each others' work. And that's always refreshing to see.

Let's say you're Charlize Theron, and you still see yourself maybe as just a girl from South Africa who came to LA and was really good at her craft, and here's the Hollywood establishment saying, "You were the best one this year." All of those flustered speeches and tears and choking back of emotions—all of that is real.

It's like your wedding day. You didn't eat, you forgot to dance, you don't remember you danced. "I think I had some of the shrimp, but I don't remember." That's what it's like for those guys, for the winners.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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