It's been two decades since photographer Michael Thompson shot his first spread for W magazine, yet his talent still lies in his ability to adapt his distinct sensibility to each new portfolio. "I think it's death when people know what you're going to do next," he told the Cut. "It's always good, as an artist, to second-guess or do something a little different [than what] you've done before." And it's this dexterity that keeps his images of various subjects like Beyoncé, Jennifer Aniston, and Christy Turlington — one of his favorites — all unified under his simple but graphic cinematic style.
We recently spoke with Thompson, who's now based in Oregon, about celebrating 20 years of shooting for W, why Turlington may be the best (and nicest) supermodel of them all, and his development from Irving Penn's assistant to striking out on his own. Also, in the slideshow ahead, we had Thompson curate fourteen of his favorite works, culled from W's archive, and had him recall one grand old time with Kate Moss in the Moulin Rouge.
What do you remember about your first shoot for W?
Back in 1993, I remember doing a beauty assignment for W with makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. At the time, when he was alive, he was the premier makeup artist. We did a black-and-white beauty story about different types of makeup. The magazine was so new and it was a wonderful time because they didn't really have a [visual] stamp yet. Whenever you [have this situation], it's kind of a free-for-all. It's a nice time to be at a magazine's beginning because it's trying to find its place, which means you get full liberty.
It seems W has always been more of an image-based magazine, if you will, as opposed to other publications where the focus is on the actual fashion credits.
It started with Dennis Friedman, who is an integral part of W. It's one magazine that everything revolves around photography. I've always said that W is the definition of what editorial is all about. Usually, you get to do that in a smaller magazine where there are no budgets. W magazine has always been a big magazine but with a small magazine attitude and philosophy.
And you've worked with the magazines for two decades. How are you able to continuously challenge yourself with each new shoot?
It comes from a tight relationship with the editor. All the images kind of come off of what the current fashion is, and then it's pretty much whatever you want to do. It can be [inspired] from music or Man Ray, or something not even from any inspiration and it basically came right off the fashion.
How do you feel you have grown as a photographer?
In the beginning, like all photographers, you don't just want to do the right thing. I tend to overthink things a little bit. And now, I come into it more in the sense that things free-flow a little bit. When you have something in your mind that you don't want to stray away from, you kind of miss out on all the things that happen spontaneously. Over the years, I found myself just accepting inspirations, even from my editor to anyone on the set, and then putting my own words to it, and it becomes a kind of collaborative effort. For me, you can end the day with, "I didn't think it was going to go there, but it did."
So, you started out as being more cerebral, but later became more into shooting loosely and "in the moment"?
Yeah, it's funny because I am a person who loves to plan. I'm constantly balancing between overplanning and being loose and easy. I feel when I find that balance between the two, it's great. If you're too loosey-goosey, you never really get to the end of what you're trying to accomplish. You have to have some kind of order. For me, when you're at the point where it could be a complete disaster, meaning you're taking a chance, is where I'd like to be, because it makes it exciting.
When you find that balance, that's when, people say, the magic happens.
I think that's with everything in life. When you find a balance, that's kind of the goal.
Sure enough. What are some differences you experience when you're shooting a multi-page story of models versus capturing a celebrity portfolio?
Sometimes when you're working with an actor or actress, for the most part, it's really more of a technical thing, but you don't really have much time with the particular person. You never have two days with an actor or actress, so you're basically working in a one-day time slot. Whereas on a fashion shoot, you have at least two days, if not more. That's one big scenario. Another thing, with actors or actresses, I would say 99 percent of the time a publicist is on set. They may or may not want to give their two cents. [Laughs.] So you're dealing more with that kind of communication. Other than that, I treat them both the same. A lot of the times, I'll have the actor take on a role, just like I would a fashion model. In that way, it's very similar.
You're now living in Oregon. Do you miss New York yet?
At the end of the day, you've got to go home and be with yourself. There's a lot of great people in the fashion world, [but] there's a lot of people caught up in the fashion world, too. I kind of stay away from that and I think it helps, like, I'm not a "fashion-y" person. I kind of have to go away from it and come back. It helps me look at it with fresh eyes, instead of being totally engulfed in fashion 24/7. I think you really need to be able to step away from fashion, and have that balance, so that you can come back and enjoy it.