Greg Williams: “I never think of myself as photographing celebrities, I photograph artists”

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Lashana Lynch © Greg Williams.

Off the back of launching the second issue of Hollywood Authentic, we catch up with Greg Williams about his new magazine, and how he built a career photographing Hollywood’s elite

Name any living actor, and it’s likely Greg Williams has worked with them. Over the last 20 years, the British photographer has made his name producing candid and intimate behind-the-scenes shots with some of the world’s biggest stars, including Joaquin Phoenix, Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Zendaya, Idris Elba, Timothée Chalamet and more.

“I never think of myself as photographing celebrities, I photograph artists,” says Williams, who has worked on over 150 movie sets. Images of famous people tend to be made either in hyper-controlled environments – with a team of stylists, makeup artists, lighting directors, and assistants – or by paparazzi, who can have a hidden agenda. “My interest is getting an honest, authentic portrait of someone,” says Williams, who is motivated by a genuine respect for the art of acting. “A lot of people will take a good picture, but you’ve got to be in that room, boat, plane, or dressing room. That’s the hardest thing. And to do that, you’ve got to build trust.”

© Greg Williams.

This sincere approach has paid off. At the time of writing, Williams has 1.1m Instagram followers. Most of his work lives online, and while he recognises the immense global reach of Instagram, “it is not the greatest showcase,” he says. Williams wanted to create a platform where his images would have “more space to breathe”, so in April this year, he launched Hollywood Authentic – a free print and online magazine led by photo stories and in-depth interviews. Its first cover was graced by Sean Penn, and now in its second issue, the magazine leads with an intimate profile of Blonde star Ana de Armas. 

The magazine is almost entirely funded by Williams, and is freely distributed to “anyone who wants it”. “I do a lot of work that pays,” he says, “I know if I were in a rush to make [the magazine] pay for itself, I’d have to compromise its integrity”. Williams does all of the photography and conducts the interviews himself. The editorial is put together with the help of Peter Howarth – CEO of Show Media and ex-editor of Arena, Esquire UK, and Man About Town – and the art direction is managed by Mike Bone, who Williams has worked with for 25 years. The rest is coordinated by a small team who manage talent relationships and research.

© Greg Williams.

Williams wasn’t always an entertainment photographer. In fact, this recent endeavour chimes back to his roots as a photojournalist. He started out as a war photographer in the mid-90s, aged 19. “I was definitely not built to work in war zones. I was far too aware of my own mortality,” he says. Back home, he carried on working for magazines and newspapers, and eventually broke into the film industry in 1997. The iconic comedy The Full Monty had just been released, and Williams pitched a story about the British film industry to The Sunday Times Magazine. Growing up, Williams had been enamoured by photographs of old Hollywood: Dennis Stock’s images of James Dean, William Clayton’s Steve McQueen, and Eve Arnold’s Marilyn, for example, as well as the lengthy talent profiles published in Life Magazine. “They were hugely inspiring to me,” he says “and that slowly led me to where I am today”. 

“You’re almost more measured by the pictures you don’t take, than the ones you do. It’s about knowing when to put your camera down; knowing when to walk out of the room, rather than into the room”

© Greg Williams.
© Greg Williams.

Having worked in the industry for over two decades, one might assume that Williams has come across his fair share of divas. “A lot of people think I find it hard doing my job, but I find my job incredibly easy,” he says. For Williams, “empathy is everything”. It is easy to denote a person as “difficult” for not wanting a photographer on set, he says, but “that person might be about to deliver an incredibly emotional performance, and needs to put themselves in the zone. Having you take their picture, or chat to them, isn’t appropriate… You’re almost more measured by the pictures you don’t take, than the ones you do. It’s about knowing when to put your camera down; knowing when to walk out of the room, rather than into the room.”

Hollywood Authentic is a product of 20 years of knowledge and experience. It is a “love letter” to the film industry, and a contribution to its history today. “It is really difficult putting a magazine together,” Williams admits, “but I’m loving it! […] It feels empowering. I’m not waiting for someone else to give me my dream job. I’m going out and getting it for myself.”

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.