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Lunch with Richard McLaren, Petit Trois, Los Angeles

26 September 2016

The celebrity photographer discusses a career snapping everyone from Nelson Mandela to Tina Turner over lunch at LA’s Petit Trios.

Celebrity photographer Richard McLaren and I are meeting at a Los Angeles strip mall. But not just any old strip mall. One on the corner of Melrose and Highland, it’s sought out by foodies for its two restaurants run by buzzed-about chef Ludo Lefebvre.

Scribbled directions lead me past a doughnut shop and a dry-cleaner, then to a quaint bistro-cum-bar, Petit Trois. French rap plays overhead; it smells of charcuterie; nimble staff dance around one another in the small open kitchen. Chef Ludo, the hostess tells me, is next door, in his other restaurant, Trios Mec, filming a Hennessy commercial and scenes for the TV show, Mind Of A Chef.

Minutes later, McLaren arrives – a commanding yet affable presence. What’s really striking though is that he’s early, an anomaly in a town where lateness-due-to-gridlock trumps punctuality. Contrary to popular thought, not everyone in Hollywood acts according to type.

We exchange a handshake and bit of talk about McLaren’s recent photo shoot with Barry Manilow, but before we sit down, there are portraits to take. Unsurprisingly, McLaren is relaxed in front of the camera, and while he nails his Blue Steel pose, I scroll through his highlight reel of work. Photos of Sharon Stone, Tina Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Heath Ledger. Nelson Mandela in the presidential palace and Jean-Claude Van Damme in the buff – not an ounce of fat on him – gripping two lion cubs.

McLaren leans over in between setups, and suggests I order lunch. We end up sharing steak tartare, Burgundy escargots, a Boursin cheese omelette and a salad for good measure.

Half an hour passes… the photo shoot is a wrap and McLaren, in good spirits, pulls up a stool and orders a beer. “Right, so what shall we talk about?”

He grew up in London, a kid from a working-class family with aspirations of making the McLaren-Honda Formula 1 team. “I wanted to be a car driver,” he explains. “I liked the glamour and flair of racing and I’d go to the track with my older brother all the time and watch cars race. I loved it.”

Throughout high school, however, he dabbled in photography and at the age of 16, his father gave him his first camera for Christmas. It was a game changer.

“I thought I’d won the lottery. It was a Pentax Spotmatic SP F, which I still have.” Sensing his talent, McLaren’s cousin, a creative art director at British tabloid News Of The World, clued him in on a job at London photo agency Scope Features. McLaren showed up, scoring a one-week trial. “On my first day, we ended up shooting models. And I thought, ‘Well hang on, why do I want to race go-karts when I can photograph beautiful women?’ And that was it.”

McLaren assisted the best photographers of the time: Brian Aris, David Steen, Allan Ballard, David James. “They were all top in their field. Some worked on movie sets, some shot glamour, some did music. The biggest thing for me was how they handled the Bob Marleys, the Thin Lizzys. Taking the pictures is easy; it’s (more about) handling the person and getting that person to trust you.” He says his mentors had a knack for putting their subjects at ease by telling jokes, or having conversations over beers. “I took a bit from each of them and put my own thing together.”

Recalling the early days, McLaren singles out photographing English stand-up comic Freddie Starr. “He’d turn up in the studio in Wellington boots and shorts. He was fun to shoot because you never knew what you were going to get from him,” he says. “When it’s all planned, it’s a bit boring. I like people turning up and collaborating. It all depends on how comfortable they are.”

At 25, Richard went freelance; working with celebrities became his forte. “I am more of a people photographer; I’m not a fashion person. Celebrities are more fun,” he says. “You can talk to them. When I was starting out it was models on the covers, but when celebrities replaced them, ratings went through the roof. It’s a tactic that clearly still works.”

Having photographed England’s “most important” celebs, he then looked across the Atlantic and decided to try his luck over there. For 25 years he did just that, travelling to the States for three months at a time, when he’d rent a house with his crew – “I rented Mike Tyson’s house” – to complete projects for clients back in England. “In the end I was bringing the kids (his two daughters) over all the time.” They ended up moving to LA in 2000, which is when Richard launched his company, Rocket Entertainment.

Film promos granted McLaren access to actors, and he naturally has stories to tell. “The Jean-Claude Van Damme shots were in South Africa,” he says on shooting international press for the Belgian’s film, Legionnaire.

“Van Damme had come down in a dinner suit and we were doing pictures at night by the Sun City hotel pool. A Zulu band – they were all naked – was playing drums, and then he started stripping off until he was in his underpants, playing the drums.” And the lion cubs? “My friend had a lion farm there. I asked him if he had any babies, and he had six, so he brought them in. That shot was taken in the hotel’s Royal Suite.”

Next begs the question: of all the celebrities left to photograph, who in the world does McLaren most want to work with? George Clooney, he says. “He’s a character; he likes pulling jokes and pranks. In that way he’s an American version of me, so I think we’d get on very well.”

McLaren also wants to work with more charities. “If any charities knock on my door, I’ll always do it for them.” He’s collaborated with Unicef, and wants to do the same with The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, specifically the Sheldrick Trust Orphans Project that rescues baby elephants left motherless as a consequence of ivory poaching. “I’ve been trying to get a celebrity to come with me to shoot a campaign with the elephants, because that’s what I’m good at – when I shoot an image, I can promote it to all the magazines I know in different countries. This way I can raise money to keep this foundation going.”

After 38 years of working with magazines, movie studios and on ad campaigns for clients including Nascar and Emirates, McLaren is sharing his unseen images with the world. “Lots of people ask me for images, so I decided to release a limited collection of about 20 to 30 of my favourites as prints.”

These prints cannot be accessed anywhere else; McLaren maintains he’s never given any away, just “three Mandela pictures to American charities to raise money for a church and two for schools. One was auctioned for US$5,000, another for US$10,000 or something crazy.” The limited collection of prints can be purchased on his website in a variety of sizes that will be numbered and signed.

As we near the end of our time together, I ask McLaren about creative pursuits that might inspire his work. Apart from fly fishing – “I do it all over the world, in Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Patagonia. That’s the way I love to relax.” – his passion is simply photography.

“I don’t think there’s a better job out there for me. It is a hobby that I have a talent for, and I get paid to do it. Every day I pinch myself and think, ‘I’ve got the most amazing job.’ I’m a boy out of London who has done reasonably well for himself, but it hasn’t just been given to me. Even when I leave here I’ve got three conference calls for the drive back home. Then I’ll go straight in the office because we’re working on other projects. I don’t stop. That’s just me. I have to be doing something. My brain has to be working.”

We split what’s left of the omelette (Petit Trois is known for it, I later learn, and rightly so. It’s deliciously fluffy). McLaren finishes a Coke, scans his BlackBerry, and checks in with the chef – the two are friends – before getting into his SUV. With a wave, he’s off, headed for the Pacific Palisades and as ready as ever to photograph the next big thing.

Richard will release his collection of unseen prints later in 2016. For more information visit richardmclarenphoto.com

Words: Marina Lay / Images: Vincent Long

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