Photographer Regan Cameron couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing through his camera lens. Gazing back at him were the immaculate features of one of the world’s most famous women, Madonna.
“I had to look again and make sure she was really there. As I lifted the camera onto her face, I thought it’s either her or the Pope that’s this famous,” says Cameron, on the phone from his New York office.
It was 2001 in a studio in Los Angeles where he was shooting Madonna for a spread in InStyle magazine. He expected the star would be late, as celebrities often are. But at 8.00am sharp, a woman came in alone, walked up to him and said, “‘Are you Regan? I’m Madonna.’ “I said, ‘Yeah, I can see that!'” The day-long shoot went well. Madonna liked one image so much she splashed it across posters for her world tour. Later, trade magazine American Photo featured the picture in a cover article on Cameron.
For Cameron, this was arrival. When Madonna was first breaking into the charts, he had, as an Auckland teenager, pored obsessively over every page of American Photo. Now his work was on the cover.
He has made it to the top ranks of fashion and commercial photography. His British Vogue covers include Kate Winslet, Claudia Schiffer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Courtney Love, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek. Most recently, he had the July 2010 British Vogue cover with Cameron Diaz, and the December Teen Vogue cover with Glee stars Cory Monteith and Lea Michele. Based in New York, where he lives with his Australian wife, Kate, and sons aged six and 12, Cameron also shoots advertisements for brands including Ralph Lauren, Estée Lauder, Elle Macpherson and Victoria’s Secret.
The son of a travelling hardware salesman and a homemaker, he grew up in One Tree Hill. His father opened his eyes to beauty. “My dad used to drive us to school. He was always saying, ‘Look at the light right now.'”
As a teenager, Cameron worked nights at Woolworths to make payments on his first SLR camera, a Chinon. “I took a lot of photos of the dog and my family.” His first assignment was taking photos of sports day for his school magazine.
His academic performance at Marcellin College was “pretty average”, so after college he worked in a photo lab. Renowned photographer Brian Brake happened to be a regular. Cameron fell on him. Brake was extraordinarily kind.
“The first time I went out to Brian’s house to show him some pictures, he said, ‘Listen, these are nice pictures of dogs and back gardens. Do you know this word called composition?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Look out that window there.’ And he had that beautiful house in the Waitakeres. He said, ‘See the way the trees are in the window frame? That’s composition. Now go away and find out about it.'”
Later, Brake and the photo-lab owner arranged for the teenager to join a week-long workshop in Queenstown led by international photographers. One was Chris Rainier, a National Geographic photographer and former assistant to American legend Ansel Adams. “I sponged it up. I couldn’t believe I was hanging out with this bunch of people. It was like a flock of angels swooped in from above.”
Cameron decided he wanted to become a photojournalist. But while working as an assistant to Auckland photographer Max Thomson, he came across the work of British photographer David Bailey, who helped define the “swinging London” of the 1960s. After work he would stay late at the studio with a model, attempting to emulate Bailey’s style by experimenting with lighting.
Thomson says Cameron was both humble and eager. “He wasn’t some cool guy wanting to be a cool photographer. He wanted to get in and learn and work.” Thomson remembers talking to the model after Cameron’s first shoot. “He had told her, ‘I don’t want any of that modelly stuff.’ He set out from the beginning to break the mould.”
In the late 1980s a new generation of photographers were documenting a thriving, edgy world of style in Auckland, but with nowhere to publish their work. Thomson’s solution was to found ChaCha magazine with Rip It Up’s Murray Cammick, and Ngila Dickson as editor.
Says Cameron: “They were encouraging all these young, hip guys to try to do something in Auckland. It was cool fun. We used to hang out at ChaCha offices and think we were very groovy. When I talk about this, I realise I couldn’t have had a better start than in New Zealand.”
Cameron’s work from that period still stands out, says Thomson. He refers to a recent book on the history of the fashion industry, The Dress Circle: New Zealand Fashion Design since 1940. “The best shot in the whole book is by Regan Cameron,” he says. It is of two young women in bowler hats, walking backwards in the sand. “Most people would have had them walking forwards. It’s very, very strong, but at the same time it makes you smile, because the girls are smiling. It’s saying, ‘Let’s have some fun with this.'”
At 21, Cameron headed off across the Tasman with a portfolio of photographs of a Fijian boxing team, whom he’d snapped at an Auckland gym. What was then a small but cutting-edge Australian fashion magazine, Follow Me, asked him to go back and persuade the boxers to don jewellery and stylish clothes. He did, and his first overseas fashion spread was printed.
He then went to Paris in the hope of breaking into fashion photography. It was a dismal failure. He returned to New Zealand, humiliated. In 1991, aged 26, Cameron headed for London, where he remembers walking past Vogue House, in Hanover Square, and thinking of his idol David Bailey’s work there. “I thought, jeez, I’d really love to give that a go.”
His big break came when he managed to wangle a small job with Vogue. They tried him on the “More Dash than Cash” pages, which feature inexpensive chain-store garments. “I was so nervous, I was shaking when I was holding the camera. I slipped over and banged my arm. I was totally nerve-racked. I knew I had to make this work or I wouldn’t be back.”
The intense competitiveness of London’s fashion industry left little room for kindliness or second chances. “I knew I could be replaced within a heartbeat. There are a million other photographers around the corner ready to take your job.”
He pulled it off, and Vogue soon gave him another assignment. One photo, in which the model sported an apricot Jackie Onassis-style jacket and skirt in apricot, was chosen for the cover of British Vogue’s September 1995 edition. Overnight Cameron’s life changed. He has been in demand ever since. Between mid-1996 and mid-1997, he shot eight out of the 12 British Vogue covers.
Cameron says the secret to photographing famous women is never to let them suspect you are anything but confident and in control. In his 2001 shoot with Madonna he had to hide that his head was spinning. “If they sense you’re really nervous, or you’re too in awe of them, that’s when it becomes very dangerous.”
Celebrities need to feel sure the photographer is going to make them look good, otherwise “you’re going to have a bad day. Part of my job is to make people look good. There’s a lot of insecurity that reigns out there among famous people as well. They’re human.”
The job can take him to enviable locations. “One of the most incredible shoots was spending the day in the Bahamas underwater with dolphins, with a model dressed and being pulled down into the water, swimming with the dolphins. You could tap the boat, the dolphin would come around, and you could grab the dorsal fin and it would take you for a ride out in the ocean.”
Catherine Zeta-Jones, who featured on a 2001 Vogue cover, “was a sweetheart”, he says. “One of my boys was about three or four, and she spent more of the day cuddling and kissing him than anything else.”
He initially shot Nicole Kidman in Australia, just before she was about to travel to Hollywood to film Days of Thunder, where she would become romantically involved with co-star and future husband Tom Cruise. The next time Cameron photographed her was for a moody British Vogue cover in 2002, when she was splitting up from Cruise.
“She’s very, very intelligent. There’s an amazing mind going on there; very interesting person,” he says. Like other fashion photographers, he has a habit of calling grown women “girls”. “Some of the Aussie girls – and Cate Blanchett is similar – are very intelligent. They’re very smart and switched-on.” Blanchett is not only beautiful, “but one of the most interesting, down-to-earth stars I’ve ever been around”.
His favourite model is Christy Turlington, who is an amazing “cut of a human being”, but also well-rounded. A lot of models from her era have burnt out, but Turlington went back to university, supports charitable foundations and practises yoga.
In New Zealand, Cameron counts Karen Walker among his good friends, and says it’s a sign of the country’s growing style maturity that she has been able to build a successful global business while staying in Auckland. “In the old days people like that would have just gone to London, you wouldn’t have seen them again, like me. Now, people feel they can stay in New Zealand and achieve what they want to achieve internationally.”
But although he says he wants to return to New Zealand “every day”, he has no plans to do so.
So, what is it that makes him sought after? What is his distinctive style? Cameron can’t say. “I’m still trying to work that out. There’s some ingredient they really like. I just look at everything and think it could have been better. Ninety per cent of the shoots I do I look back and think, ‘That could have been better.’ Which is a little frustrating some days. But I guess that’s what keeps me going.”