SHOOTING THE GREATS
Celebrity photographer Tim Courtney now calls Palm Springs home after a life in the spotlight in Hollywood shining the photographic spotlight on others. Known for capturing celebrities in sometimes vulnerable and very candid ways by allowing them to be themselves in a relaxed but energetic setting, Tim has delivered iconic portraits every time for decades. Mr. Courtney recently granted me time in his penetrating lens and the images I received in return hurt my eyes they were so damn good! All of my wonderful new photos were shot by Tim Courtney! I know Tim personally so I invited him over to the house and had a very quiet one-on-one interview as the sunlight reflected beautifully through the window into his clear blue eyes.
Steven Michael (for The Bottom Line): So what was it that got you started in photography and what were you involved with that led you into this field of art?
Tim Courtney: I had started out as a music major in Southern California at a private university, originally from Kentucky, and started singing, songwriting and doing lots of studio recording work during this time. One of my first gigs was singing at Dolly Parton’s birthday party at Sandy Gallen’s house in Bel Air, Christmas 1982. Years had passed and I was at a crossroads not knowing where or what I really wanted to do next. I was looking through an LA Weekly and saw an ad for a photography class and put my finger on it and said that’s what I was going to do. The bizarre thing about it was that I knew nothing about it, never owned a camera and didn’t know anyone who did. The decision was completely impulsive.
What do you prefer to shoot? Image wise. Any preferences? And how were the classes you took?
Classic black and white images are what drew me to start. It’s important to me on a deeper level. I loved Herb Ritts’ black and whites and was very influenced so I took a handful of classes but realized that it would be my own style that would make me successful and happy, and became “self-taught.” I loved shooting classic nudes and decided that’s what my focus would be. The technical aspect of the course was important for me to learn but I didn’t stay as long as some do which can be up to four years. It was very frustrating, but I learned it. I decided not to be artsy in the class just get the core.
You even had to prove yourself at Visage, the agency you approached for representation, right?!
Yeah, they were a hard sell because since they also represented Herb Ritts. They compared me to him which I felt was a great complement having only owned a camera for two years. Plus, they didn’t believe black and white was a popular choice in magazines until I showed them the lead campaigns in Italian Vogue were of black and white images.
When did you ever finally warm up to color?
I didn’t shoot color for about three years and was sticking to my guns and holding off but got pressure from the magazines to shoot it so I did. I had to appreciate how color would work for me and which types of film to use and what opportunities they offered. When I shoot, I like to use the skills on the front side so I don’t have to do so much on the back side. With Photoshop, it’s a lot different today.
How did you start getting these jobs you’re famous for? Tell us about the celebrities you’ve shot. I’m thrilled to be part of such an elite group in your portfolio.
Well, these are people who really aren’t photographed by just anybody without something going on. I’ve been blown away walking into Queen Latifah’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton where she told me I give great direction. I was in Shirley MacLaine’s apartment in Malibu shooting her portrait the morning after she gave Barbra Streisand a lifetime achievement award. I loved doing the Bea Arthur shoot at her home that was used for Life magazine. I worshiped Maude who showed me there was a bigger life outside Kentucky. These people didn’t know me but they trusted me and that’s why the shot was so good.
I’ve shot 98 Degrees, Fran Drescher, Janet Jackson, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen. So many of them have complimented me on giving great direction. I believe that’s my forte giving something that’s natural, intimate but powerful. Not always just their image like Phyllis Diller who comes to mind. Very guarded. You don’t get anything other that what she allows. Most everyone else was very open. I always know how to enhance the career of the celebrity by the image. Also, I save companies money because I can assess situations fast and accomplish the shoot swiftly and smoothly. I shoot less and get more for my client to use.
Tell me more about shooting with Bea Arthur. Loved her! Miss her.
Well, she taught me so much about working with celebrities. Her home is divided into three separate houses and there a lot of outside area. My ideas were thrown out the window because I decided with her dogs and the natural sunlight and outside it was perfect. She had no one doing her hair and makeup for the photo shoot and wore her own clothes. I followed her and she went along and when it was over she commented, ‘That was painless.’ I loved that and had never heard it put in such a way.
What finally moved you to Palm Springs? Was it also a whim like the photography?
Oh, Steven. You’ve already seen through me. (laughs) Actually my best decisions have been made like that. Snap decisions. I’ve been told that’s what we should do. Passionate choices. It was a surprise getting here to Palm Springs. I was established in West Hollywood but wasn’t feeling that being there in the scene matched my spirit any longer. I needed more nature. I took a seven month break back to Kentucky after spending the prior year starting a photography-based non-profit organization called Picture Me Happy, picturemehappy.org, benefiting chronically terminally ill children in Southern California hospitals. I wanted to live somewhere warm and thought about San Diego but Palm Springs won.
Tim, what have you grown to love about our fair valley? How do you find Palm Springs as a single man?
I’ve found Palm Springs to be very nurturing. Either you love it or you’re going hate it. It’ll either match your spirit or you’ll be ready to leave soon. Living here makes you feel like you are a part of a community and I’m very happy. As a single man?! (laughs) When I first moved to town I was a kid in a candy store. I loved having a second round at 47-years-old. I had to put myself out there and be part of the dialogue. I think coffeehouses are a great thing. It’s a great way to meet people. I push myself because it’s important for the spirit to nurture by being introduced to others. I’ve gained some relationships here in Palm Springs that have made my life richer.
When did you have that ‘aha’ moment where you thought, I’ve made it? I’m really doing this.
Wow. Hmm, that’s interesting. The decision to start the photography was an aha moment, for sure. Wasn’t sure where it would go but was ready for it. I had an aha moment staying for three days at Maya Angelou’s home and having her embrace me, literally, and sharing our time together. She had given me more respect and love as a professional and another human spirit that overrode anything else I had ever experienced with another celebrity. She was very giving of herself to me that day. We became very close. Another aha moment I had was attending the Vanity Fair party positioned between Tom Ford and Brad Pitt. And of course seeing magazine covers or my images used for other promotional and advertising media.
You meditate every day and I envy that! Tell me more about the clairvoyance and medium aspect in your life. I’m sorry to say I’m open to possibilities but am also skeptic.
Oh, yes. Well, me too! I do a meditation every day in various way on any given day. I write and also love dancing. It makes me feel free! Sometimes I pray. I’m not into religion. I do believe we all need a belief system. Whatever works for you. In the psychic and clairvoyant work I do, I always ask for solutions. I don’t go around telling people my spin on what I feel and hear and see. I will let you know this information when it’s pro-active. I don’t know where it comes from. If I find out I’ll let you know. I discovered the ability at a personal growth workshop and it evolved from there. I’m just to here to help provide clarity in situations. I love personal readings because it’s what’s coming up right then when people are at a crossroads. I do my best to keep a real humility to that part of my life. I’ve been given a gift that can help people and that’s what I do.
What’s coming up for you? Plans, projects?
I’ve just really started getting things going since the first of the year. DiGS in Cathedral City is holding a benefit for Picture Me Happy on May 22 and we’re also having a charity pool party on May 14, as well. As far as photography goes, I’ve put my toe back in Los Angeles and have a few things happening. I’m also working on “Palm Springs, We Love It!” which I hope will become a big community photo competition. More to come on that. I love helping make people become more successful with my photography. I’m so happy here in Palm Springs but have begun to get really busy and I’m blessed for that. If I’ve made a decision in my heart, I’m going for it.
To book your session with Tim, please contact him through his website http://timcourtneyphotography.com. I can speak first hand, Tim is amazing. And I thank him for taking time with me to share his story with you.
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