London-born photographer Greg Williams’s photography has a cinematic polish to it, which comes as no surprise considering he’s photographed almost all of the iconic film, music, fashion and sport stars of our time, including Jay-Z, Kate Moss, Kate Winslet, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt, David Beckham, Joaquin Phoenix, Meryl Streep and Dame Judi Dench. You might argue that it’s not hard to make famous people appear fabulous but when they’re in front of Williams’s lens they always give that much more. Williams is a man the great and the good trust, someone who they have a transparent relationship with, “I have a policy where I show everyone the photos I take.” Williams isn’t “trying to uncover some dark truth they don’t want to tell me. I’m not looking for the bad in people I’m looking for the good and I think people sense that.” It’s obvious in Williams’s portfolio how much fun his subjects are having, so much so that he has entire albums entitled “Joy” and “Partae” on his website, where you can find Lily James whipping her unicorn-length ponytail whilst sipping from the bottle, Dua Lipa singing along to lyrics on the dance floor with friends, Ed Sheeran sat giggling on Elton John’s lap or Olivia Coleman’s face squished between children-sized plastic crowns.
Williams captures the glittering minutiae of his subjects in all of their genuine glory, a unique perspective in heavy contrast to the hungry gaze of the paparazzi who only seem to snap celebrities either toppling out of a club “having done something wrong or on a pedestal completely perfect and what’s lost is this lovely authentic moment you believed in.” The magic of those in-between moments is where Williams sits comfortably, just like the Magnum photographers “from Life magazine’s coverage of Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s and 70s” who inspired him and forged a “direct relationship with the talent.” All are bewitched by his charm and Williams has managed to buck challenges and move right to the core of his subjects. Under Williams’s gentle guide we find ourselves getting up close and personal with the people we only see on our screens, whether that be feeding ducks alongside Daisy Edgar Jones in Hampstead Heath, or sat opposite Anne Hathaway singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” on the ukulele, or at home with Gary Oldman. It took Williams 25 years to build up these relationships and to have the privilege to archive celebrities as they squeal with delight, dance with freedom, smoke seductively, raise an inquisitive brow, cry in disbelief, fight during rehearsals or even eat takeout between press trips.
Williams describes his style as “very first person, you often sense me behind the lens in the photos I take. You see interaction, you see chinks in people's armour, you see them looking at me. Often I’m just above the camera and it gives the viewer a picture which makes them feel like they’re having direct interaction with the subject. Often it is about making yourself as invisible as you can, but increasingly in my work it’s about interaction.” In a world of perfection, Williams strips back the composed veneer to reveal visceral emotion, “I don’t see myself as someone who’s photographing celebrities. I come from the angle where I’m photographing a fellow artist. I absolutely love what I do today because you get so much from working with really truly great creatives.”
Which begs the question, how exactly has a man from East Dulwich ended up behind the gilded gates of the entertainment industry? It all began aged six when one of his Mum’s distant Canadian relatives came to visit wearing “two or three cameras around his neck at all times, always taking pictures.” Transfixed by “the kit” and “seeing the process in front of my eyes”, Williams decided there and then that photography was his future. After five years of practice on his gifted “broken 410 Instamatic” camera, Williams’s father gave him a book on the 40th anniversary of the Magnum photographers, “I was just transfixed by it, the mix of everything. On the one hand it had war photography but on the other hand it was full of pictures of James Dean and Sophia Loren.”
Thanks to the 14 premium bonds his grandfather bought him when he was born, Williams bought his “first proper camera.” Whilst Williams’s writer father worked on plays at a local conference centre during the summer holidays, young Williams and his painter brother got stuck into the photography department there. Just like a plot you would read in the pages of a movie script, it just so happened that the head of the photography department was the esteemed Second World War photojournalist Arthur Strong, “the only allied photographer to photograph Hitler meeting Mussolini for associated press” who took Williams “under his wing”, giving him daily assignments. From that moment he thought he “wanted to be a war photographer. I think I just suddenly wanted to be interesting. I’d never left Europe before.” Aged 19 he was smuggled into Burma, later working in various other war zones for six to eight weeks. It was his multiple experiences with near death in Sierra Leone that made Williams change his path, “it’s a very strange thing to deliberately put yourself into harm’s way.” He describes his decision to bring his war photography career to a close as “the most colossal relief… whilst they were also experiences I wouldn’t exchange for anything in the world because they’re amongst some of the most important moments of your life, the most important is being married and having kids and stuff like that, but they are important because they shape you. Everyone I know who’s done it has in some way been shaped by those experiences.”
Greg William's full interview appears in Spring Summer 2022 Issue 8.
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