Andy Gotts MBE: the legendary photographer of the stars

Andy ‘One Shot’ Gotts is renowned for his honest and evocative celebrity portraiture. With his latest exhibition, ICONS, ongoing at Maddox Gallery, Ben Winstanley finds out what makes the man tick – and click

Andy Warhol famously remarked that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” The visionary artist wasn’t to know quite how prophetic his words would be, given the subsequent rise of celebritydom and its toxic offspring, the influencer. But he was well aware of the medium that would see this new social status grow in power: the photograph.

Photographs are an intensely human art form. They allow us to come face-to-face with people of renown, whether they’re movie stars, musicians, or models, and to study them passively – learning who they are, their facial expressions, their soul. From a single picture, we can glean whether an individual is funny, sexy, angry, aloof, or perhaps in a series of shots reveal themselves to be all of the above.

A photographer’s responsibility in communicating this to the viewer cannot be overstated. Take Robert De Niro, here [see below]. You can see his whole catalogue of work, from the delirium of Travis Bickle to the conspiratorial wink of Jack Byrnes, in just a couple of snaps of the camera. The man behind the lens on this occasion? Andy Gotts MBE.

For the last 30 years, good old ‘One Shot Gotts’, as he was once dubbed by none other than Paul Newman, has been the portrait photographer of choice for some of the most iconic cultural figures on the planet. You name it, he’s shot ’em. And at Maddox Gallery this September, he’s bringing some of his favourites together for his ICONS exhibition.

We sit down with the renowned photographer to find out more…

Robert De Niro by famous photographer Andy Gotts MBE
Robert De Niro by famous photographer Andy Gotts MBE

When did you decide you wanted to become a photographer?

In 1981, when my parents went shopping, I was allowed to go to the cinema by myself, and that day the 2pm movie screening was 007 in For Your Eyes Only. There was a scene in the movie where master of arms ‘Q’ took out all the gadgets and I was thrilled with the gizmos.

The next weekend I was watching a TV programme called In At The Deep End, and each week the host, Chris Searle, took on a new profession. This week, Chris was a photographer, working alongside the press photographer Mike Maloney whose mission at the time was to take a snap of Princess Diana in her Mini. Mike took out his equipment and it looked like it had just come out of Bond’s backpack. I was hooked – not with trying to capture something aesthetically pleasing – but with the gadgets and the excitement.

Could you tell us how Stephen Fry inadvertently kickstarted your career?

In 1990, I was a student studying for a BTEC in Design Photography in Norfolk. In the first year, we had to do all aspects of photography, from landscape and still life to portraits, fashion, etc. By the second year, we had to decide to specialise in one discipline, and I really had no idea what I wanted to submerge myself in for an entire year. It was at this junction that Stephen Fry attended my college to hand out some diplomas and do a Q&A for the students. On hearing this, I decided to find out which room the interview was happening in and strategically set up a little makeshift studio in the adjoining room.

I snuck into Fry’s session, stood at the back, and towards the end of his lengthy address, took the opportunity to raise my hand. When Mr Fry asked what my question was, I stuttered “Can I please take your portrait next door Mr Fry… please?” After an immediate eye-roll and my promising to be quick we popped into my studio and the shooting progressed. I took ten photographs in 90 seconds… that’s when I had the Eureka moment.

How would you define your artistic style?

Honest. Real. True. Face-scapes. I have a neutral background and concentrate on the contours of the face in front of my lens, capturing every nook and cranny. Ringo Starr nailed it when he called me “the Ansel Adams of faces!” When you see these heavily airbrushed portraits on magazine covers or billboards that have been tweaked, polished, smoothed and filtered, it makes my heart sink. Is it because the celebrity wants to fool the viewer into thinking they look flawless or is it the magazine picture editors who think an idealised version of a famous face will sell more units? Who knows?

Do you ever pinch yourself when you’re shooting a famous individual and wonder how you got here?

As I shoot alone, with no assistants and crew, and it is just myself and the talent in the room, it can be a very special and intimate place. When you are part of a reunion of three comedy legends (Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke) and there are only four of you in the room, that’s special. When you are alone with Monty Python dressed as their GUMBY character – which they haven’t dressed up as for 40 years – and I am the only person to witness it, that’s special. When I am sat sharing a glass of champagne in Paris with Olivia de Havilland to celebrate her 100th birthday, or when Paul Newman, my hero, gave me the nickname One Shot Gotts – as I was so quick shooting him! – that is special. From time to time, it’s impossible not to look back and pinch myself for all of these incredible moments.

Have you ever been starstruck?

As my very first shoot was with a celebrity – and for the next 30 years every shoot was also a celebrity – unfortunately, that is an experience I have never had. If I was to shoot a non-celebrity, I would probably get nervous.

Is there one person who you particularly enjoyed photographing?

I loved shooting Tony Curtis as we had a lovely long afternoon chatting about The Rat Pack and Marilyn Monroe. The shoot also happened to be the very last portrait ever taken of him.

Artistically, is there anything you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to?

I found a formula in 1990 to create my style and have stuck to it ever since. I don’t go in for the technical side. Instead, I just try to capture the aesthetic.

Who are your biggest professional influences – and how might we be able to spot them in your work? Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, David Lean – lots of dark and shadows even though the faces are filled with light.

Talk to us about your latest collection, ICONS. Do you have a favourite photo?

The works hanging at Maddox are a smorgasbord of images that I adore. It was really hard to whittle them down into a book, let alone an exhibition. From the displayed works, I love the Kylie Minogue shot and accompanying photographic contact-sheet. Kylie and I wanted to create the perfect hair flick, without a wind machine or any Photoshop wizardry. We wanted to make the perfect shot, au naturel. In the full frame portrait you can see we nailed this perfect flick, but in the contact-sheet you can see the poor attempts and giggles that led up to the photo. There is also a photograph of Al Pacino pulling a face that makes him look like Salvador Dali… that one always makes me chuckle, too.

Harrison Ford by famous photographer Andy Gotts MBE
Harrison Ford by famous photographer Andy Gotts MBE

How would you define an ‘icon’?

Someone that had made an impression in my life. The ICONS project, subsequent book and exhibition at Maddox Gallery, are by no stretch of the imagination a definitive display of historic icons. In some ways, the book should have been called ANDY’S ICONS as these are people that have touched me personally via their music, their movies, their fashion, or their views. An ‘icon’ can indeed be a fabulous actor like Paul Newman who spent a lifetime making classic movies and was married to the same fantastic lady for over 50 years, or Dolly Parton, who is not only a legendary singer, but also donated millions of dollars to help fund the research for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In the same light, an ‘icon’ can be a young actor, model or musician who is touching us now. Those who are in the present and helping to move this current generation through the pitfalls of life, helping and inspiring.

What does the future hold for Andy Gotts?

I’ve realised over time that karma/cosmic ordering/luck is like a radar and that sometimes if you put ‘out there’ the things you desire, they become jinxed and won’t ever happen. With that said, I can only guarantee that champagne will be involved, and that the walrus joke will return. Beyond that, I’d like to concentrate more on the fine-art prints, as the crafting of the image is just as important as the ‘click’ taking the image, but let’s see. Is there anybody you’d like to photograph who you haven’t yet? The Queen, while she is still on the throne and has the power to have people’s heads chopped off, as I’d call in a favour or two. Gene Hackman would have been great if he hadn’t retired from public life. Also, from the current gaggle of faces that I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting, I’d say Tom Hardy.

How would you like to be remembered when you hang up your camera?

I’m like a ninja artist. I would not want people to remember me by my photography, but by my ability to let the most famous people in the world indulge in being their inner child.

I would rather they reflect on my work than me as a photographer. They are the celebrity – I just have the honour to immortalise them.

Andy Gotts ICONS takes place 2-19 Sept at Maddox Gallery Westbourne Grove, 112 Westbourne Grove, W2 5RU.