Q&A: A-list Shutterbug Art Streiber on Shooting Backstage at the Oscars

Streiber has been aiming his camera at the Academy Awards for 15 years—but always from behind the scenes. Amy Wallace talked to him about how and why he does it

To see a curated selection of Art Streiber’s photographs of the Academy Awards, pick up the January 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Fifteen years is a long time. How did this come to pass?
I shot five years with Premiere, seven years with InStyle, and the last three with Entertainment Weekly/People. The only Academy Awards I missed was 2009. And that was not my choice. That was the year that Hugh Jackman did theater in the round, and the producers thought, “We can’t have anybody backstage.” Meanwhile, when I started with Premiere, I was the fourth Premiere photographer who had been assigned to the project—the previous three had been politely asked not to come back for various transgressions.

What did those transgressions include?
I’ve heard tell—and this is all secondhand—that one got into the elevator at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with one of the winners. Being a war-torn photojournalist, he just didn’t get the etiquette.

But you do, it seems.
I take this very seriously. It’s an honor to me. I grew up watching the Academy Awards. And I love the idea of the behind-the-scenes experience. When I was in elementary school here in L.A. and we would go on a field trip, I fell in love with the idea of what a privilege it is to see how things work—how the Coca-Cola is bottled or how the cow is milked. To see that process is still magic to me. And the truth is, the Academy Awards show is the last place where it’s possible to find unscripted moments with today’s actors and actresses—except that their hair and makeup is done. There are very few of these opportunities to do what Bill Claxton or Phil Stern did. Without managers, publicists, handlers.

What goes on at rehearsal?
The telecast is Sunday night. I start shooting on Wednesday, and I’m there from eight in the morning until roughly eight at night. Those are long days in comfortable shoes. I want to be there early because I don’t want to miss anything. And I want the people who are working to get the show together to have me in their sight lines, to know I’m there. The security guards. The people who are putting out the flowers. The people who are installing the red carpet and the huge statues of Oscar. Also, over the course of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, all of the performers come in to rehearse. They’re not dressed up yet, but the actresses who are presenting might bring their heels to practice walking onstage. And some will also bring their gown choices and hold them up and look at the monitor and see which gown plays better on TV. Of course, there are nominees who aren’t presenters, so they don’t get that opportunity. But many of the presenters do it. I took a great photo a few years ago of the lighting director holding up a couple of Adele’s gowns to see what worked best with the set. And, as a music lover, those rehearsals are heaven for me. To be able to hear Adele, Jennifer Hudson, U2, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Sting, Melissa Etheridge—it’s mind-blowing to hear them rehearse. It’s a gift.

What are a few of your tried-and-true tricks for capturing the best moments?
Every year during the telecast, I position myself in the wings on stage right. That’s where the majority of presenters enter because it’s attached to the green room, where people who are about to go onstage are held. Stage right is where all the sets and the instruments for the musical numbers are stored. And everybody exits stage right. You’re seeing all of the cables and the cords as well as the glitz and the glamour. That is the place that literally says “backstage.”

You get such amazing access. What do you see back there that the rest of us miss?
One thing I never tire of seeing is younger actors and actresses meeting their idols— that reverence. Because we’ve been inundated with Us Weekly and People and Entertainment Tonight, we all assume that they live in a gated community on Mulholland Drive and that they all know each other.

They live on Planet Celebrity.
Exactly. And the truth is that a lot of them don’t know each other and are in awe of each other and are fans of each other and want to work with each other. That’s revelation number one. Revelation number two is, the Oscars come at the end of a very long awards season. It is still the most prestigious awards ceremony, and it’s a vote by your peers. It’s the pinnacle. Which is why we hear Sally Field say, “Omigod, you like me” or when we see Halle Berry crying or Charlize Theron or George Clooney at a loss for words, that’s real. They can’t believe that they’ve won.

I have so many shots of people coming offstage after winning, and sometimes, if I see them later at another photo shoot, I’ll give them a print of that moment. I’ve done this with Jennifer Hudson, George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon, and several others. And what’s striking is that they have absolutely no recollection of it. Because it’s like your wedding, where you don’t even remember if you ate. It goes by so quickly, and it’s so emotionally charged.

Since you embed for five days, you must get to know all the stagehands and other workers who are putting the show together.
It’s not that we know each other so much as it is that we recognize each other and respect that we’ve all got a job to do, and I certainly realize that their job is more important than mine. I am very conscious of staying out of their way while taking their picture. And just like with the Oscar winners, I attempt to come back and give them pictures of themselves, too.

It’s a maze backstage, isn’t it? And the winners have a gauntlet they have to walk that TV viewers never see, right?
The minute they win, they are whisked offstage, and they go through this series of signs of the cross. They call it the Winner’s Walk. They exit stage right, and because the Internet was invented, there’s now a Web cam called the Thank You camera immediately off stage right. What they’re encouraged to do is not thank everybody onstage but instead to save the majority of their thank-yous for the Thank You camera. Then in the backstage hallway, there’s Kelly Ripa—the host of another show on ABC, the same network that airs the Oscars—and they stop and talk to her. Then they walk around stage right, behind the curtain, along stage left, and they get into an elevator. They go up to the third floor, where there’s a hallway bridge that connects the Dolby Theatre to the Loews hotel next door. They walk across the bridge and sign an Oscar poster (or four) that all the winners sign. There is a bar where winners can have a drink and gather their thoughts before facing the deadline press. Then, after a quick drink, they pose for an Academy photographer, face a gauntlet of screaming deadline photographers, and then stand on a small stage in front of a massive ballroom full of newspaper and television journalists and answer questions for ten minutes.

It kind of brings to mind an abattoir, where cows are guided systematically through a series of chutes leading toward their slaughter.
[Laughing.] Yes. And only then does a winner get to go to the Governor’s Ball. Or if the evening isn’t over yet, they would head back to their seat. That’s why your experience as a winner might lead to a disassociation, or an out-of-body feeling. It’s a whirlwind, and time is compressed.

How has the backstage experience changed over the years?
There are more photographers than there used to be. And I feel more pressure to come up with something I haven’t done before—to take a picture that I haven’t taken before. That’s the real challenge. That said, every year affords me different visual opportunities.

Do you work completely solo?
I am very fortunate to be able to have an assistant while working backstage. I work with my first assistant, Elaine Browne. Her presence enables me to get the strobe off of the camera; she holds the light off to the side, so I can avoid that paparazzi-in-your-face glare. But while Elaine can be with me Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, on the night of the Oscars, because it’s become so crowded backstage, the Academy doesn’t permit me to have an assistant. And it changes the look of my pictures. Which is a bit of a bummer, but I get it.

In the run-up to the show, though, when Elaine is there, we are on walkie-talkies, so she may be in the wings while I’m onstage, and she’s in my ear telling me Leonardo DiCaprio just walked into the house and is at stage left. Then I have a decision to make: Am I better off getting the shot in the wings? You have to be OK with missing something. And I am, for the most part.

You also manage to be out on the red carpet during arrivals—though, again, shooting from an area that most photographers aren’t privy to.
The red carpet is a war zone in tuxedos. Not only is it wall-to-wall people, but there’s actually now a red stanchion divider that runs along Hollywood Boulevard to keep the stars separate from…

The riffraff?
Your words, not mine. No, the ticket holders who might not be well known to the public. The members of the Academy, Amy.

Yes, yes, my mistake. The voters! The people who make the world go round.
Thank you. So there are, I think, 900-something credentialed international media who are behind a row of hedges on the carpet. It’s each actor or actress’s responsibility to stop and talk to them. I’m either walking backward in front of the nominees and presenters as they are walking the red carpet, or I am often kneeling down in front of the hundreds of photographers and news crews who are yelling at the celebrities. If I stood up, they’d be yelling at me. It’s like open season. My very first year doing this, one of the paparazzi photographers in the scrum had Velcroed a little rubber duckie to the top of his flash. As the celebrities would come by, he would scream, “Tom, look at the duck! The duck! The duck!” And Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, all the Toms, would look. They really will yell at the actors and actresses: “Over the shoulder! To your left! To your right! Who are you wearing? Who made those shoes? Who’s your date?”

You have a whole series of photos of the Oscar statuette itself, in all its glory. It really is a stunning artifact, isn’t it?
Yes, I am fascinated by the look of the statue—by Oscar’s nobility, calm, and perseverance. There are all kinds of different-size Oscars that are used as decor onstage, backstage, in the wings, and on the red carpet, and as they’re unwrapped, painted, and placed in position, they get put into some fairly amusing situations, and I love to document that. I’ve got hundreds of photos of these oversize Oscars. I’ll be mounting a show of selected images from this collection at Smashbox Studios in February in the month leading up to Oscar night.


Photograph by Art Streiber

The Oscars statues themselves are eight-and-a-half pounds. They’re heavy. And the Oscar the winners are handed onstage has no identifying marks on it. Your plaque with your name and your category isn’t on the Oscar. In a brilliant move, the Academy has placed the engravers at the entrance to the Governor’s Ball. So you, the winner, have to go to that party. You can’t bail on the Governor’s Ball and just go to the Vanity Fair party.

After it’s all over, what condition are you in?
I’m beat. I’m starving. I carry a fanny pack with a couple of apples and energy bars, but I really never have the chance to eat them. It’s not until the next night, Monday night, that my wife and I sit down on the couch and watch the entire broadcast.

Meanwhile, for the actors, even after the ceremony ends, it ain’t over. They still have parties to go to. And the next morning they’ll get up at 4 a.m. and do the morning shows. And they may be working on another movie and have to get on a plane the next day to go back to work. So, yes, it’s glamorous and, yes, it’s fabulous, and yet I have empathy. These are working actors and actresses. I have a lot of respect for them.

So when will you publish a book of these photos?
I want to do it after 20 to 25 years. Year One is 2000. I’d like to go to 2020 or 2025 to be able to show This is what it was like at the Academy Awards at the beginning of the 21st century. Imagine if we had these kinds of photos from the very first few years of the Oscars? They would be incredible! These pictures are part of the historic record, of Hollywood history.

Photograph by Art Streiber