Discovering Jeff Vespa

Earlier this autumn, Rizzoli published The Art of Discovery, the debut monograph from photographer Jeff Vespa. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Vespa studied directing at AFI alongside the likes of Darren Aaronofsky. He fell into celebrity photography while living into L.A. and is one of the co-founders of WireImage, an online marketplace for photographers to directly sell their work and thus retain control of their careers. Along the way, Vespa made more than a few famous friends, many of whom appear in his book. As the title suggests, The Art of Discovery, is more than just a book of photographs, rather, from Tilda Swinton to Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, Dakota Fanning, and Ethan Hawke, Vespa’s subjects describe their moments of personal discovery that led them to their current careers. Part of the proceeds from the book are donated to The Creative Coalition.

Here, Vespa is interviewed by his longtime friend and fellow photographer, actress Jena Malone.

JENA MALONE: Okay, so—

JEFF VESPA: I love that you’re all serious. [laughs]

MALONE: I have a business side that you love. You created this really beautiful book. The thing I want to know from this equation is what was your moment of discovery?

VESPA: Well, I talk about one moment in the book, but I don’t know if that’s my moment of discovery. It was a moment. In the book, I talk about how I started shooting, how I became a photographer. My mom had a Canon AE1 camera and I read the manual and that’s basically how I became a photographer. I was in the Baltimore punk scene. I knew it was a special time, so I went out and documented that whole era. I was the only person to really do it of my friends in real black and white, beautiful portraits.

MALONE: Then let’s go deeper into that.

VESPA: Yes, Barbara Walters. [laughs]

MALONE: Let’s talk about the first time you had a camera in your hand. What was that relationship? Was there an “aha” moment when you first put your hands on a camera?

VESPA: I always knew I was going to be an artist. It was a done deal right from when I was very little. It sounds like the dumbest thing ever, but my mom used to doodle when she was on the telephone and she made these—they weren’t just little scribbles—these little shapes and forms. I don’t know why she did it. I’ve never seen her do it again. But when I was a kid, I would look at the paper next to the phone and I would think to myself, “I want to do that.” So I started doing that.

MALONE: That’s so cute. How old were you? That’s not dumb at all.

VESPA: I would have been five or six years old. It was really young. Over the years, she always encouraged me in the arts. She actually worked at an art museum when we were kids. I took classes there. She was the one that, when we’d go to the store and I would have a pack of eight pastels, she’d say, “No, get the 24-pack.” She was always encouraging me to get the best materials, which was really awesome.

MALONE: When did it transcend from drawing to photography?

VESPA: There were just moments of the punk scene and I realized that I had to capture it. There was also this photographer in our preschool—I went to a Montessori school in Baltimore, Maryland—and they had this photographer come and take all these incredible photographs. They looked like they were from Life magazine. We were little children, four or five years old, but they were all around the house and they made us look epic, like we were part of some story being told. My mom would have this woman come to our house and take photos of us. She did a photo book of us as well when I was one. I still have it.


VESPA: Learning that aesthetic as a kid—seeing those photos—made me think that that’s what photos are supposed to look like. I never understood snapshots. I was looking at them like, “This is horrible; that’s not what a picture is supposed to look like.” I was taught by these photos. So when I picked up the camera, though I had never done it before, I kind of already knew what I was doing.

MALONE: How old were you when you picked up your first camera?

VESPA: I was probably 13 or 14 years old. My mom had bought this camera to take classes herself and I remember working with her on it, understanding how the stop-motion [worked], having a high shutter speed and things like that. Long before I picked it up myself, I remember being on a slide at a country club going into the water and wanting my mother to put in on a high shutter speed so she could catch me on the slide without it being blurred. I remember having fun with her: “Let me go on the slide and you’ll catch me in motion!” Those are some of the little moments in my artistic making.

MALONE: When you were shooting the punk scene, what camera were you using?

VESPA: The Canon AE1—a fully manual camera. [My mother] had a 50mm, which is a standard lens, and then I got a 28mm. Then I started a little punk magazine, a zine, when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was shooting my friends skateboarding and it was the beginning of the Macintosh. We wouldn’t do layouts on the computer; we would pick the font and then type up a paragraph and then print it out and cut it up and put it in a little mock-up and Xerox it.

MALONE: Did you ever study photography?

VESPA:  I never went to school for that. In high school we had photography, which was great. That was another moment of discovery. I had a great teacher—I can’t even remember her name now. I ended up going to boarding school for my last high school years and they had a dark room there. Of course there was curfew; you were supposed to be in bed at a certain time. But I would sneak out and sneak into the dark room and work all night. My teacher introduced me to this photographer Eugène Atget. He was a French photographer in the late 1800s up until 1927 in Paris. He didn’t consider himself an artist, but he was probably one of the artists of the 20th century. This guy documented all of Paris during those years. It’s unbelievable. The books are phenomenal. The Museum of Modern Art has all his stuff now and [American photographer] Berenice Abbott saved his work. Not very much is known about his life, but the work is unreal and it totally spoke to me. He was the only artist for a number of years that I cared about at all.

MALONE: I don’t even know the story of the beginning of WireImage. Where did that come from?

VESPA: It’s so boring. [laughs]

MALONE: Then let’s talk about the seed of it. What was that moment of discovery for you when you said, “This is missing from the world”?

VESPA: I was doing a lot of web design at the time. And anybody that has an agent thinks, “Why do I need an agent?” Maybe it’s a little different as an actor—of course you need an agent—but any kind of agency that’s selling something for you, you think, “Why can’t I sell this myself? It doesn’t make sense.” A lot of people have done that over the years. Many of the agencies today were started by photographers. It’s a normal progression. It wasn’t some crazy idea, it was just, “Can we start our own agency? Can we do this?”

MALONE: When was this?

VESPA: It 2001 when we started. But prior to that, I had made this website called, where me and this other photographer, Randall Michelson, could sell our images from Sundance online and it was successful. Steve Granitz, who’s my main partner at WireImage, we were already working together, and I was like, “Look dude, this is it. We can do this.” I ended up meeting this guy Stefan Simchowitz, who produced Requiem for a Dream and also went to AFI. I randomly met him in Cannes. By September of 2000, we had made a deal with this company that he was working with. They merged with us and in January of 2001, we opened WireImage. It was pretty crazy because I only started shooting celebrity stuff in 1998—literally two and a half years later, I’m opening this company.

MALONE: How did you fall into shooting celebrities?

VESPA: That’s another internet silly story. I was working at Warner Bros. at the time. This was 1998, so people were not using the internet for anything.

MALONE: I remember being 12 and being on email and AOL.

VESPA: Right, but no one used it for what they use it for today. I was at Warner Bros. and they wouldn’t even allow certain employees to have the internet on their computer unless it was necessary. I was one of the employees that happened to have it, and I was fooling around one day and looking at Yahoo! Jobs. I typed in “photo” and, of course, what comes up is “One hour photo lab” or “Be a photographer in Disneyland” or jobs that no one really wants as a photographer. I saw, by chance, this ad that said, “Wanted: Photographer for premieres and Hollywood events” and I thought, “This can not be real. This is ridiculous. No one advertizes this!” I was really suspect about it. I called them and the guy picked up the phone and he’s like, “I’m so glad you called. The guy that normally shoots for us moved out to Santa Barbara and he’s not available. We need somebody tonight for the Bulworth (1998) premiere.” I was like, “What do I need?” and he’s like, “You need a zoom lens, a flash pack, and a flash.” I didn’t have one, so I had to rent it. Warner Bros. and was a nine-to-five job—or  nine-to-six-thirty—so my girlfriend at the time had to go to the rental house, pick up the equipment, and pick me up at my job and I had to sneak out. I looked at the equipment and the lens, and it’s a Nikon and I had a Canon. So it doesn’t work. The only lens I had was a 50 mm, and you can’t shoot a premiere with a 50 mm lens. [laughs] A 50mm is too close. You need a 24mm so you can get full-lengths and head shots. So I tried to get my shot with a 50mm and I did it—this is when we’re shooting film, not digital. The guy that hired me looked through the pictures and was like, “Oh, this is pretty good. You did a good job.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m sorry. I only had a 50mm. My girlfriend rented the wrong lens…” and he stopped looking at the pictures and he looked up at me and he said, “You shot this with a 50mm? You’re hired.” If I stop there it makes me sound like I was a great photographer, but actually I was totally shit. I was terrible at it and it took a really long time to get good at it.

MALONE: Probably what he saw was that you were able to make decisions in the moment. With that type of photography, for me, it’s comparable to wartime photography.

VESPA: It was a fortunate moment in history that I happened to be in. There was a confluence of the internet and all this other stuff that I was able to capitalize on.  

MALONE: Well it’s not capitalization. It’s that you had an idea and Hollywood is the dream bank of ideas. It’s not about talent and it’s not about having the right amount of technique sometimes; you train yourself in the field. If you have an idea you can basically build any dream that you want here.  

VESPA: That’s why I always wanted to live in L.A. The other thing that always inspired me was movies; that’s why I’m here. I always wanted to be a part of the movie business and make movies. That’s why I went to AFI grad school for filmmaking.  

MALONE: So bringing that all back to the book, for me as a celebrity…

VESPA: Are you a celebrity? [laughs]

MALONE: [laughs]  

VESPA: Do you think of yourself like that? Isn’t that the worst word ever?

MALONE: Only sometimes. I try to think about it in context. When I think about the context of, “Oh, I’m this or that,” in this society, that’s one of the terms.

VESPA: Yeah, it’s just a lame term. I wish it was “movie star.” That’s a much better term than celebrity.  

MALONE: Yeah, but there are so many things now. Fame is not just for cinema. Fame is fame.

VESPA: But you’re a movie star Jena. [laughs]  

MALONE: I’m also a photographer. I guess I’m an actor…

VESPA: Jena is a photographer and is having her first art show in a week. Two weeks.

MALONE: [Now] as an actor, you really need to present yourself to the press; it’s another world. For me growing up, paparazzi didn’t really exist. There was one photographer at an event who would take photos of you doing something and it was always for the greater good of the film.  

VESPA: [laughs]

MALONE: What’s interesting is as you developed this seed, which is basically building up a very democratic form of commerce, you haphazardly created a safe haven for artists. That’s why I think this book that you did is so unique, because you do have a relationship with people and you have been able to make people feel more comfortable in that weird, odd, dirty-word world of celebrity. For me, coming in and getting to shoot with you was also the first time we shot together as “Jena.” It wasn’t selling a film or talking about this character or in this dress for a thing. It was me.  

VESPA: That was my experience with everybody in the book. That was what was so cool. It’s just an excuse to hang out with people. It’s not for a movie; it’s not for a magazine. No one’s here telling us what to do. We’re at my house shooting. I just get to go, “What do you want to do today?” We’re only there because we want to be there because of each other. There’s no other reason.

MALONE: It’s a trust thing, as well. You’ve built up an incredible ability for artists and celebrities and actors and movie stars—whatever those words are—to trust the image again. Because there are a lot of things that are untrustworthy within that world. I really respect and appreciate—beyond being a friend of yours—that you created that.

Let’s talk about when we found each other: 1999. Sundance. I was 14 years old. I had just gotten back from the hospital because I went down the slopes with people and I broke my wrist. I was there supporting The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys (2002). Me, Kieran Culkin, Emile Hirsch, and Jodie Foster were walking into this hotel and they tell me we’re there to do portraits. All of a sudden this little guy comes out and he’s like, “Come into the back room.” I’m like, “I’m not going to get in one of the back rooms with some guy I don’t know.”

VESPA: It was a bedroom by the way. [laughs]

MALONE: All of my red flags are up. I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no.” So I get in there, and he’s like, “Yeah, just sit on the bed.” And I’m like, “Nope. I’m not going to sit on the bed. No fucking way.” I was almost ready to punch this guy.  

VESPA: For the record, Jena Malone almost punched me during our first photo shoot. [laughs]

MALONE: But eventually I sat.  

VESPA: On the floor.  

MALONE: Yeah: “I’m going to sit on the floor. We might as well do this thing.” And then he started talking and I was like, “Oh! He’s kind of like a good guy. He’s not a bad guy.” But literally, for the next three years when we saw each other, I was always super feisty on the red carpet.  

VESPA: You would like raise your fist at me like you were going to punch me every time. [laughs] That was our little signal that you liked me…that you raised your fist like you were going to punch me.  

MALONE: I know. I was a bit of a rebel rouser. I mean, I shaved my head.  

VESPA: I know.  

MALONE: I had a mohawk.

VESPA: I was like, “So, Jena, you don’t want to get any roles I’m guessing right now?” [laughs]  

MALONE: [laughs] I took the year off! I didn’t want to become a woman in Hollywood. I didn’t want to do that; it was too awkward. I wanted to become a woman in my own right.

VESPA: We’ve know each other for so long, and it’s amazing what you’ve become and where you’re at and the path you’ve been able to make for yourself. It’s pretty unbelievable, actually, that you’ve been able to stay your own person. That’s why it’s so funny to describe you as a “celebrity.”  

MALONE: I know. It’s a dirty word.

VESPA: It’s just so weird! I feel like if there’s anyone it doesn’t apply to, it doesn’t apply to you. You’re an artist to me, a kindred spirit.  

MALONE: [laughs] Well, thank you. You’ve always been supportive.  

VESPA: Do you have any conception of how you’ve done that?  

MALONE: I think the reason is that I’ve constantly taken time for myself, and I’ve never let anyone make decisions for me. Since I was 13, my agent was trying to get me to do these jobs and I said no.  

VESPA: Like what? I know the teen stuff, but is there a specific project that you remember?

MALONE: I remember they sent me The Parent Trap about 14 times. I was like, “Listen, I already have 13 scripts here that you sent me. I read it. I don’t want to do it. I’m good. That’s not the kind of movie I want to make.” I don’t know if it was just because I was a weirdo…

VESPA: [laughs] Did you watch a lot of movies already?  

MALONE: I did! When I was 13, the film that killed me was Thelma & Louise (1991). I liked those types of things.

VESPA: Thirteen isn’t so young. I’m Jewish. I had a bar mitzvah. I was an adult.

MALONE: I moved out when I was 14.

VESPA: When you’re that age, you’re not stupid.

MALONE: No, you know what you want. You just have to be able to have adults that are reasonable enough to validate your voice, to give you a voice at that age. And I was given a voice and I just stuck to it. But I think, honestly, taking time off when I was 18, shaving my head, starting photography, leaving town, it helped me become more of the person that I am and trust my instincts and trust my voice. There are so many variables: “Oh I have to look like this and I have to wear that dress and I have to be this person.” If you don’t have a very firmly rooted, grounded voice of who you are, it’s too easy to change!

VESPA: That’s why I think you’re an artist. I remember there was a certain moment where I finally thought, “Oh my god. Jena Malone is an adult now. She’s not shaving her head anymore, holy crap!” [laughs]

MALONE: I was so close to shaving it again…

VESPA: But if you shaved it today it would be different than when you did it before.