Photographing famous people requires a unique blend of humour, creativity, patience, and technical skill, but when done well it can result in iconic images that transcend time. There’s no set formula for this kind of alchemy, however, which makes the photographers who can reliably pull it off a major asset to any publication. Toronto-based photographer and director Matt Barnes is just that kind of artist, as he has proven in countless cover shoots for SHARP and The Book For Men over the past 15 years. “In the beginning, you do a great job any way you can, and then, as you get more comfortable, you can pitch bigger and bigger ideas,” he says of the longstanding creative partnership. “I’ve been lucky that SHARP has been game to let me run with it a little bit and put my own spin on things.”
Whether he’s shooting in an abandoned building or a Hollywood Hills mansion, Barnes’s knack for creating striking visual metaphors and moody tableaux lends his shots depth and emotional resonance, and has resulted in many standout editorials over the years. “I love being able to do my own research on a person and pitch my own concepts,” says Barnes, who uses props, locations, and an easygoing approach to bring out his subjects’ colourful personalities. Crucially, he also knows how to shoot to schedule. “My strategy is always that we just get straight down to work,” he says. “I’d rather have one hour of intense shooting than three hours of trying to figure out what you want to do.”
Here, Barnes reveals the stories behind his favourite SHARP cover shoots.
“This is honestly one of the highlights of my entire career. I rented this studio from an old photographer who was big in the ’80s, and he helped me set up all of these old-fashioned lights he had, and we were listening to jazz and having a great time. Then Jeff Goldblum gets there, and he’s like, ‘Are you guys listening to Erroll Garner? I love this stuff!’ He ended up introducing me to a bunch of new music that I still listen to and enjoy, and he stuck around for way longer than he had to. I had another shoot booked right afterwards in the same studio, so I was able to combine them in some really cool and unexpected ways. It had a big impact on me at the time, both personally and professionally, and it continues to shape how I think about my work.”
“One of the big things that stood out to me was that Auston was so interested in the clothes and the modelling aspect of the shoot. We’ve shot a lot of athletes over the years, but it’s sometimes a challenge to get them to look comfortable in the clothes because they aren’t used to wearing stuff like this. But Auston wanted to do more fashion-type things to build his brand, so he asked me to coach him on how to be in front of the camera. He told me, ‘I don’t want to look like an athlete; I want to like look like a model,’ and that was fun because even though he’s a huge deal, he was very humble and put himself in our hands. He was very casual, very easygoing.”
“This was a great example of where we really got to run wild with an idea. He was in Chicago, so we connected with an artist who carves stone gargoyles and has a really interesting workshop. It’s an hour outside the city, so we put Michael Shannon in a taxi — and he came without any handlers or anything — and I said, ‘I want you to look like this strange artist that lives in the country, and you’re a bit of a recluse. It’s kind of dark and strange, but also show off the clothes.’ And he just played that role. We didn’t talk for the entire hour of the shoot. He just moved around and interacted with what was around him in this big, intense way that he has. It was pretty surreal.”
“We shot this one in L.A. and it was one of those times where everything came together by chance. I had met Magnus Walker — who’s the Porsche guy in L.A. — a week before through another photographer friend, and he was like, ‘If you’re in L.A., let me know, I’ve got a great studio you can use.’ So, I hit him up and he happened to have this old E-Type Jaguar there. It was perfect! It’s just such a classy old car, and Don Cheadle is such a classy guy — a real gentleman — so it was a perfect fit. I think the colours worked really well, and we got Don Cheadle interacting with the car and the space in this easy, cool way that just seemed perfectly suited to him. He’s not really into cars at all, but he had fun with it.”
“I knew that Sam Rockwell was doing some theatre work playing Bob Fosse, the famous choreographer, so I thought it would be cool to shoot him in an abandoned theatre. We found one in Brooklyn, but it was in such rough shape — the whole place was filthy — that we thought he would never go for it. But one thing I’ve learned is you never know how someone’s going to be when they walk in the door, and when he got there, he said, ‘Just tell me what to do.’ So, we went for it, and he was dancing around and laying on the ground in thousands of dollars’ worth of clothes, and just having fun with it. He also had this very cool Red Line Rolex that he wore, which turned out to be a gift from George Clooney from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. It was a great day of shooting.”