As far as interesting lives go, photographer Raeanne Rubenstein has a lot to celebrate. From her early days as a fashion photographer in London, to her work shooting celebrity portraits and the creation of an online women’s magazine, Rubenstein has worked with some of the biggest names in movies, music and pop culture. In the 1970s, Rubenstein made her name in New York shooting such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Dustin Hoffman, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, and her work has graced the pages of Rolling Stone, People, Time and LIFE magazines as well as nearly a dozen books.
Shooting iconic portraits of the rich and famous is tougher than it might seem from the outside looking in and Rubenstein understands the importance of embracing the moment because anything can happen, and she wants to be ready when it does.
“There are many ways that a good photo shoot can be made, but one of the best ways is when the artist comes up with a really original, or crazy idea,” Rubenstein said. “You never know what will happen when you do a photo shoot with a star; you never know what will happen. You have to somehow get them to reveal who they are, what they’re interested in and how they see themselves. And you have to convince them to do all of that, and by convincing, I definitely do not mean I try to talk them into anything, because that’s the sure way of not getting anything at all.”
To illustrate her point, Rubenstein recalls an afternoon she spent with legendary comedian and actor Rodney Dangerfield, whom she was shooting for the cover of People magazine. “I drove with my assistant to Rodney’s house in Connecticut and someone who worked for Rodney met us and told us we should wait outside. Soon, out came Rodney, wearing one of his famous robes and slippers. He sidled over slowly towards me and he said, ‘OK Rubenstein. What ya got?’ And what that meant was what ideas did I have for photographing him?
“Usually when I do photo shoots, I come up with ideas in advance because I don’t want to get caught with no ideas. I told Rodney my first idea and he looked at me quizzically and said, ‘Nah. I don’t like that. What else ya got?’ So I told him my second idea and he said, ‘Nope,’ and he turned around and started heading back towards his house. I was panic stricken because I didn’t really have a third idea. I actually had thought the first two ideas were so good that he’d certainly want to do one of them! But, confidence, or hubris you might say, is the death knell; to think little you knows what a big star is going to want to do.
“Rodney was getting dangerously close to the door and I was thinking, ‘What can I do? What can I do? He’s going to go through that door in 30 seconds!’ So I called out, ‘Rodney!’ and he turned around and said ‘What, Rubenstein?’ And I said, ‘I have an idea that I think you’ll like.’ And he said, “Well, what’s that?” And I said, ‘What do you want do? He turned, started walking back in my direction, and said, ‘Now you’re talkin’!’ From that moment forward, he was happy to do anything I suggested. I got a lot of great shots of him in the pool that day, including pants down and looking at me quizzically.”
Although some shoots can last for hours, others race by in the blink of an eye and Rubenstein has to be on her “A” game when she has limited time and, therefore, limited frames to work with. Such was the case when she did a shoot with heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
“I went to the gym where he worked out and I was told to wait for him in a room while he finished,” Rubenstein said. “The door opened and in he came, and he was enormous! He was so powerful and handsome, so fierce! And he too asked me the usual question, ‘What ya got, Rubenstein?’ I suggested that we take some shots of him pretending to fight and he said, ‘OK. That sounds good.’ So he came toward me and he started punching; he had his gloves on, and he was punching at me and punching at me. And I thought, ‘If he ever hit me, I would be dead!’ It was really, really scary. And then he stopped and said, ‘OK. That’s it.’ And he left. I think I got something like 16 frames that whole photo shoot.”
In 1998, Rubenstein traveled to Nashville to create a photo book of country music artists for Schirmer Books, Gone Country. Although she had every intention of returning to her home in New York City, her loft was sold suddenly and she found herself at a turning point.
“I had finished the book and I wasn’t planning to stay in Nashville. But I liked it here,” Rubenstein said. “In order to even consider staying here, I needed something to keep me busy, and I got the idea to start Dish Magazine,” the e-zine “For Young Women of all Ages.”
In 2009, Rubenstein enrolled in Watkins Film School. Since then, she’s shot 10 short films, including Molly and the Kids and Mary and Albert, both of which won Audience Choice awards at Nashville’s Artlightenment Film Festival.
No matter where her career goes from here, Rubenstein understands the power of the work she’s created.
“When people look at the photos I took of a certain actor, musician or entertainer, I try to allow them to see that person’s true personality. [And when you’re shooting them] it’s so important to take the time to let them reveal themselves, because, in the end, it’s the photos that are the truth tellers. They last forever, and people feel they know person forever,” she said. “And that person is proud of that photo forever because it’s the truth about them.
“But if a photographer lies and gives a subject clothes that aren’t appropriate for them or make-up that doesn’t resemble the way that they like to look, it never works as well as telling the truth about a person through a picture. And there’s nothing better than that either. I think most great photographers or portrait artists know that and do that, and that’s why they’re considered to be great. They tell the truth.”