One reporter gets an inside look at the day-to-day life of a storied celebrity photographer. Obviously it gets weird.
I got thrown out of Disneyland the other day.
The morning began well enough at the Los Angeles home of noted paparazzo Giles Harrison, head of London Entertainment. The task: spend the day with Harrison, a nearly 20-year member of the reviled/required group of Hollywood photographers, and see how he does what he does.
At 9 a.m., Harrison greets me at the door of his sizable two-story house that's only a few blocks from Venice Beach (and just around the corner from where Bradley Cooper lived until only a few years ago). Clearly the celebrity photography business has been good to him. Harrison, 45, is a hulk of a man at 6'8" and upwards of 300 pounds. Having only spoken with him briefly on the phone, I'm not sure what to expect from our first encounter. I'm certainly intimidated by his size, and when we shake hands, his envelops mine. But he puts me at ease with a welcoming smile and boisterous laugh.
Before setting out on our trek, Harrison, a native of England but a long-time resident of Los Angeles, takes me into his home office to show off some of his recent work. On the walls, almost like trophies, are framed magazine covers of some of his more notable celebrity shots, including Tom Cruise and then-wife Katie Holmes in Us Weekly, as well as Britney Spears in OK! Magazine. Outside of these, the only pictures that hang in Harrison's living and dining rooms are from famed caricaturist Al Hirshfeld. For a man who takes photographs for a living, he tells me he's not really interested in art.
Harrison opens up his laptop and shows me typical celebrity photos, including Kaley Cuoco and her new husband Ryan Sweeting outside of Barneys, Bruce Willis on Rodeo Drive, and Gavin Rossdale (a.k.a. Mr. Gwen Stefani) grocery shopping. Then he pulls up a picture I can't unsee—the Eagles' Glenn Frey purchasing porn at a Brentwood newsstand. Rather unexpectedly, the photo of the 65-year old singer/guitarist became hot property for noted purveyors of such things—TMZ, the Daily Mail, and the like.
"Anyone can take a picture, but not everyone can make a story from that picture," he says.
Just past 10 a.m. we hop in his Cadillac Escalade, which functions more like a rolling office, and head out searching for celebrities. Harrison explains that while he doesn't exactly have a route, he does try to check out the same general areas stars frequent—including but not limited to Santa Monica, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and Studio City.
"Right now I'm looking for people doing early morning activities," he says. We drive by Gold's Gym, a jogging path on Ocean Avenue, and countless coffee shops. No luck. But the day has just begun.
Harrison explains that he got into the paparazzi business quite by accident. He had just quit working in the accounting department of a nursing agency when a friend, who happened to own a then-fledgling outfit known as Splash News, asked if he wanted to shoot some celebrity video. Harrison said yes, and from that point forward he was hooked.
[Giles] Harrison opens up his laptop and shows me typical celebrity photos.... Then he pulls up a picture I can't unsee—the Eagles' Glenn Frey purchasing porn at a Brentwood newsstand.
While traveling down Montana Avenue in a tony part of Santa Monica, we discuss the occupational requirements of being a member of this unique corps. In addition to the obvious photography skills needed, Harrison boasts a near encyclopedic knowledge of celebrities.
"I'm kind of famous for that," he says.
Moments after spotting but quickly declining the opportunity to snap a few photos of former Los Angeles Laker turned actor Rick Fox ("If he's with [his girlfriend] Eliza Dushku, I would," he says), Harrison yells out, "CALISTA FLOCKHART!"
The Ally McBeal actress and wife of silver screen legend Harrison Ford is running errands in her Lexus SUV. That she's headed in the opposite direction is not a problem. He stomps on the breaks, chews out the drivers keeping us from cutting through traffic, and busts a U-turn.
With five cars separating us from Flockhart, I act as an extra set of eyes for Harrison to ensure she doesn't get away. Four blocks later, she parks in front of Rachel Ashwell Shabby Chic and goes inside. Like something divine, there's a vacant spot directly behind hers. We wait.
A key part of the job is positioning, he says. He needs to be in such a spot that his subject will ultimately face the camera. Despite having no photography training outside of a couple semesters in high school, he's clearly an expert at this and predicts exactly how Flockhart will return to her car when she does so 20 minutes later. Knowing the actress might see him and avoid the camera, Harrison reclines his seat just enough, pulls out his Nikon with an 80-400mm zoom lens, and fires off 15 shots in rapid succession.
"Bang. Got her."
He shows me the results. Then he starts up the Escalade and begins to follow Flockhart just in case she does anything interesting (like meet up with her husband). Your mind can start to race in situations like this, thinking about all the horror stories concerning paparazzi chasing celebrities. I once saw a crew speed down Sunset Boulevard after Paris Hilton as she left the famed (and now defunct) Tower Records. Will Flockhart realize she's being followed and step on the gas? Is this the start of a sad and absurd chase? Will Harrison drive erratically, endangering us both just to get the shot?
No. By the time we reach Brentwood a few miles later, he decides that little else will happen with the actress and the hunt ends.
With one likely sellable photo secured, we take a quick pit stop so Harrison can pick up some tea and a scone at a nearby cafe. Here, he reaches deep into the recesses of his mind to point out former Frasier actress Peri Gilpin seated with a friend outside the restaurant. As the shock waves created by Harrison identifying a secondary character from a showed that ended 10 years ago dissipate, he says, "If I was really bored, I'd take a picture of her. But I'd rather eat."
We get back in the car and head to Studio City, a distance of about 15 miles (or, in L.A. traffic terms, a 40-minute drive). Harrison looks into his memory bank and offers up his worst experience as a member of the paparazzi. Again, Hollywood truisms prepare you for something about mild hostilities from celebs, some Baldwin-brand homophobia or a Sean Penn roundhouse kick.
"I spent 39 days in jail," Harrison says.
In 1997, while still working for Splash, Harrison and his colleague Andrew O'Brien found themselves in a position to get the first photos and video of Arnold Schwarzenegger while the actor recovered from open-heart surgery. The Terminator star and his pregnant wife, Maria Shriver, were driving their son Patrick to preschool. From their SUV, Harrison and O'Brien followed the family around Santa Monica, and then, according to media reports, blocked Schwarzenegger and Shriver in their Mercedes, exited the car, and immediately began taking photos and video.
In her testimony from the 1998 trial, Shriver said that the experience made her feel "like a caged animal," and she feared it was a kidnapping attempt. She added, "My son was sitting in the car bewildered... I was terrified."
Superior Court Judge Robert A. Altman described the behavior of the two photographers as ''outrageous.'' They were convicted of false imprisonment and lesser charges. Harrison served his time at a jail in Pomona, CA. Soon after this, in October 1998, California passed the first law in the nation designed to protect its citizens from aggressive reporters.
"Were we overzealous? Yes," Harrison says, but he remains convinced he did nothing illegal and scoffs at any suggestions that his actions amounted to kidnapping. He said that he and his partner were really victims of bad timing, as the 1997 death of Princess Diana still loomed large. Despite ending up in jail, he says he never considered quitting the industry.
As we cruise down Ventura Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the San Fernando Valley, Harrison is multi-tasking. His cell phone rings non-stop and there's a frequent bing alerting him to incoming text messages. One catches his attention.
Word from a source is that Tori Spelling, the Beverly Hills, 90210 star and daughter of legendary producer Aaron Spelling, is at Disneyland with her children. Under normal circumstances, this might not merit such urgency, but it's rumored that Dean McDermott, the 40-year old actress' husband, recently had an affair with a 28-year-old woman named Emily Goodhand. This spins a regular photo of Spelling into pure gold.
Harrison, who estimates he drives at least 2,000 miles a month for his job, isn't keen on the 45-mile trek to Anaheim—not to mention spending the $92 admission fee and $16 for parking. But with no freelancers available to make the trip, he's left with no choice. And he knows he'll get the shot.
Thanks to Twitter, a search for Tori Spelling brings up a recent tweet, 'I JUST SAW TORI SPELLING AT MINNIE'S HOUSE.' Boom. Information in hand, we enter the amusement park and take off for Toontown.
After enduring the routinely hellish traffic on the I-5, we enter the "Happiest Place on Earth" around 2 p.m. New problem: How do you find Spelling in an area that's 85 acres and draws at least 40,000 people on an average day?
"It's like finding a needle in a haystack," I offer.
Harrison corrects me: "More like finding a needle in a stack full of needles."
He's got some ideas, though. It's a combination of logic (e.g., her kids aren't big enough for the roller coasters, so we can avoid those) and knowing what to look for. Celebrities like Spelling will have a Disney concierge, all of whom wear a distinctive checkered vest, escort them through the park and past the lines. It's not foolproof, but it's a place to start. And there's always Twitter, which Harrison says in some ways is "no different than monitoring a newswire."
Thanks to the social media site, a search for Tori Spelling brings up a recent tweet, "I JUST SAW TORI SPELLING AT MINNIE'S HOUSE." Boom. Information in hand, we enter the amusement park and take off for Toontown.
Harrison's long strides dwarf mine, and I struggle to keep up. We cut through "Sleeping Beauty's Castle," pass "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," and then hang a sharp left at the "Mad Tea Party." As we reach "It's a Small World," Harrison scans the crowd, pulls an immediate 180. He's spotted Spelling, her son Finn, and her daughter Stella, as well as the Disney guide. He runs to a spot behind a kiosk selling cotton candy, snatches the camera from his black backpack, and fires off a few shots. Harrison puts the camera back in his bag and beats a path to Tomorrowland before he's identified.
From there, he finds an area in the entrance way to "Pixie Hollow" to post up for a few more pictures. We wait for Spelling and her brood to pass the "Matterhorn" and enter our line of sight, or as Harrison calls it, "the kill zone." He takes another 10-15 shots in rapid succession and immediately reviews them. They're fine, but he isn't completely satisfied.
Harrison says that for each subject, he wants full-length and mid-length photos, as well as some in-the-moment shots. What he really wants is a picture of her on a ride that says "Disneyland." Since he doesn't have that yet, the quest continues. To make matters more challenging, Harrison isn't the only paparazzi at the park this day. He identifies five more lurking in the same area. ("Know your enemy," he says.)
We cross into New Orleans Square when the combination of the smell of churros, the piped-in music of "When the Saints Go Marching In," and the throngs of people wearing Mickey Mouse gear brings the absurdity of the moment into bright Technicolor. This is happening. We've lost Spelling, but Harrison spots the vested Disney staffer outside the Golden Horseshoe Stage. He's convinced the actress is inside eating lunch.
While we sit on a bench just outside "Pirates of the Caribbean," Harrison notices a couple of Disney security guards standing outside the restaurant. This is confirmation.
"This is the boring part," he tells me, and it sets in that all we're going to do is sit there for a while as Spelling and her crew eat.
Never one to sit still, Harrison jumps on his phone to make some calls. The most important is a follow-up to a team member he's sent over to Hillary Duff's house. Earlier in the day, TMZ reported that the Lizzie McGuire actress and husband Mike Comrie had split after just more than three years. Harrison wants the first photo of her face post-breakup. But unfortunately, there's nothing happening yet.
In between calls, Harrison talks about changes in the world of the paparazzi. He explains that digital photography has made his job a lot harder and, more importantly, has damaged whatever reputation the industry has left.
"It creates a lot of cowboys," he says, not hiding his distaste. "A lot of dickheads can pick up a camera."
Nearly an hour later, the guards clear out from the Golden Horseshoe. Spelling, who is aware of the paparazzi presence at this point, has slipped out the back and disappeared among the masses. Twitter's not turning up anything. Time to walk the park and hope for the best.
Around 4 p.m., Harrison spots some of the other photographers hovering near the King Arthur Carrousel in the heart of Fantasyland. He decides that they must know something about the actress' whereabouts and lingers for a bit. Turns out they were right—there she is, alongside her two youngest children and the Disney guide, standing just outside "Peter Pan's Flight."
The four head straight for the "Dumbo" ride. Harrison is giddy. This is an ideal place to snap the photo he's been looking for. The site lines are great, he has perfect access, and there are limited crowds to contend with. All he needs to do is walk up and start shooting once they're strapped in the ride.
Moments after the concierge ushers Spelling and her two children into one of the elephant-shaped vessels, Harrison flies into action. He grabs a spot no more than 15 feet from the actress and fires off 40, maybe 50, shots. Once the ride begins, he slides over to his right and snaps at least the same number again. At the same time, the Disney guide has now spotted him and is radioing park security. There's now a clock running on our time at the park, a clock that is running out.
The ride ends, and Harrison takes a few last photos. Realizing that Disney security, who look more like Bahamian traffic enforcement with their white shirts, blue polyester pants, and Panama-style hats, are just on the other side of the plastic pachyderms, Harrison places his camera in his bag and quickly walks away from the scene. I sprint to follow.
We exit Fantasyland hoping to avoid any unnecessary confrontation by getting lost in the crowds on Main Street. But Harrison's size makes it virtually impossible for him to hide. Despite their age, the two older guys catch up with us near the Main Street Cinema, where classic Disney short films play on an endless loop. The guards instruct us to leave the park immediately; professional photographers are persona non grata at Disneyland. They ask to see our tickets. But they aren't satisfied with those and ask for our driver's licenses. This gets Harrison's hackles up.
"Are you police officers?" he asks, knowing that they've likely gone beyond their legal rights. He tells them, "We're leaving anyway."
As we walk briskly to the exit, out of the corner of my eye I see that they're still tailing us, not confident in Harrison's word. About 50 yards later, one of the rent-a-cops stops abruptly. I turn and see he's gotten his shoe caught in the railway line for the horse-drawn streetcars. I point this out to Harrison and he lets out a guffaw they certainly hear.
'Anyone can take a picture, but not everyone can make a story from that picture.' —Giles Harrison
When we reach the exit, we wave goodbye to our escorts, like movie gangsters harassing the feds. However, the Disney employee running the turnstile hasn't been informed we're getting the boot, and she asks us if we want our hand stamped for re-entry. We both say "yes" just for kicks and do so in plain view of Disney security.
We hop on the tram and head back toward the parking garage. I ask Harrison if this is the first time he's been kicked out of Disneyland. The answer is no.
"Seal and Heidi Klum," he says.
As we leave the Magic Kingdom in the comfortable confines of Harrison's Escalade, it's impossible to miss his excitement about getting precisely the shot he wanted. He chortles again about the guard's literal misstep and calls up a few contacts to brag about the photo which will soon run in Us Weekly and E! Online, among other outlets. I can't lie, my adrenaline is up, too.
Perhaps it's the fact that we were running around Disneyland, or maybe it's the occupation itself, but it all feels surreal. People get paid—some, like Harrison, quite handsomely—to take pictures of celebrities doing everyday activities. And there's no shortage of demand for these photos, as anyone who's stand at the grocery store checkout aisle knows (not to mention the volume of online venues). Of course, with so little that's real in Hollywood, the paparazzi fit right in.
David Eckstein (@david_eckstein) is a writer and reporter living in Los Angeles. He's previously written for Grantland, BuzzFeed, The Wrap, and Zap2it. His favorite ride at Disneyland is "Pirates of the Caribbean."