An Interview with Celebrity Photographer Michael Caulfield

Michael Caulfield’s first camera was a gift from his mom. He had just started at a new school in Petaluma, California and she gave him the first semi-pro camera he ever owned with the hope that he’d use it to go out and make some friends.

“Sure enough I got on yearbook and then it was just a natural thing for me to take pictures of people,” Caulfield said. “Everybody wanted to get their picture in the yearbook. All the jocks wanted their pictures playing football, so it was a popular thing to be involved with. It allowed you to be behind the camera but allowed them to be popular. And then I became known as the photography guy in high school.” 

After graduation, Caulfield majored in photojournalism at San Jose State University and then found work as a photographer for a small newspaper in Northern California. While he was there, he had a dispute with the editor over some photos he shot that would have made one of their advertisers look bad, so he got a job as a contract photographer with the Associated Press (AP) in San Francisco instead. Shooting for  AP allowed Caulfield to maintain journalistic integrity while building a portfolio of high-speed sports photos.

“I was a contractor, but for my first published AP photo, I actually beat their staffers. It was Jerry Rice. Touchdown pass. Not bad,” Caulfield said.

Fast forward to 2007 and Caulfield was in the middle of his highly successful career. The company he co-founded, MediaVast, and it’s entertainment photography subsidiary, WireImage, had just been snapped up by Getty Images for a substantial sum of money.

“We sold WireImage to Getty for two-hundred-and-seven million dollars,” Caulfield said.

Caulfield founded WireImage with a team of other famous freelance photographers in L.A. who were tired of selling their work to national and international publications that made millions off of their work in exchange for modest commission checks.

“I had been with the Associated Press for about eight years when I resigned to form WireImage,” Caulfield said. “I got tired of covering earthquakes, fires and floods and always being sent to a beautiful place that’s been messed up by Mother Nature, so I started talking to some other photographers who were getting tired of getting screwed on royalties by their agents because they weren’t getting proper commissions. Nobody knew if these were the real commissions. Did they really sell your photo for a-hundred-fifty bucks or was it two-hundred-fifty bucks and he lied on the commission statement?”

This became obvious to Caulfield when he realized that the iconic photographs he took of the 1989 San Francisco Earthquake and 1994 Northridge Earthquake gained national and international use - and even more so a few months after the Northridge quake, when he got assigned to cover another seismic event that took place in L.A. 

“I guess you can say OJ Simpson made my career,” Caulfield said. “Back then, you didn’t have blogs - there was nothing like that. You had the wire service and local newspapers. So I had a lot more access because there were fewer people out there doing that. You can actually see me on tape taking pictures for AP. I’m the only photographer inside Parker Center actually photographing [Simpson] walking out with the famous white shirt and going to his car. Those pictures ran everywhere.”

At the time of the civil trial, the industry was beginning to make a shift towards digital photography.

“AP was the guinea pigs of Kodak and Nikon morphing the camera. I remember [the camera] was called an NC 2000 and it was a film camera blocked with a digital body. It was huge. They actually had spinning disks inside. They didn’t have flashcards. At the time, they had an AP photographer named Nick Ut who I actually studied in college. Now Nick was the primary photographer on the trial and he was shooting digital. I was the secondary photographer shooting film. Nick Ut is that Pulitzer Prize photographer who shot that photo of the Napalm Girl in the Vietnam war. Well, I was shooting over his shoulder the whole time getting all the same pictures. During that trial, the film-runner - the guy who actually had to [physically] run the film back [to the bureau for processing] ended up dropping the disks and the photos weren’t recoverable. They were fried. They had no images on them. So they used my photos instead. My shots are right on the cover of People Magazine. It’s that shot of the Goldmans crying because they won the second trial on liability.”

If you run a search of Michael Caulfield’s name on WireImage.com’s search bar, the results at the time of press include twenty-three pages of photos of A-List celebrity portraits, coverage of high-end entertainment events like the Academy Awards and GRAMMY awards, and countless celebrity portraits and photoshoots.

“Every Sunday night, every staff photographer at the AP had to sit on the desk and actually read all the transcripts and press releases of the stories coming out that would be faxed in from studios that want you to cover [actor’s] careers and I said ‘Hey there’s a market here for wire-for-hire!” Nobody was covering all these premiers because we didn’t have the staff to do it. [The AP] is not a PR service so it wasn’t a priority of ours. In those days we were going to cover stories that were either news, sports, or maybe entertainment-related if it were something big like the Academy Awards but [the AP were] not gonna cover every premier. I’d been talking to one of my friends, Steve Granitz, who was People Magazine’s number-one photographer, and he wasn’t happy with what was going on with his agency because of the image sales. I knew that I had just made AP a lot of money on OJ because I contacted the library and found out how much they were making off my images and I was only getting a day rate. So then I started thinking, if we can get someone who believes in wire-for-hire, we might have something here. So it was me, I was the AP guy. Steve was the People magazine guy and then we got Kevin Mazur, who was the number-one photographer with Rolling Stone. He had all the contacts with people like Springsteen and Bon Jovi. Those guys wanted [Steve] around because they trusted him. There was also Jeff Vespa, who could cover all the movie festivals, and then there was Lester Cohen. Lester Cohen was the record label’s number-one photographer. And I thought, ‘we can be AP, but entertainment-wise.’ We actually got funding from David Bohnett, the guy who had just sold Geocities to Yahoo! for billions of dollars, as an Angel Investor. It all got funded on my birthday, Jan. 2, 2001. Because we had such good guys, in our first year, we had 65% of the market share.”

Caulfield said the first thing he did when he sold the company was make “a very significant donation to my sister’s cystic fibrosis foundation. Because of the sale, I wanted to make sure I got off right.”

Caulfield said the funniest person he ever did a portrait of was Don Rickles.

“I shot [Rickles’] portrait when I got hired to shoot his book cover,” Caulfield said. “We shot it in Malibu and the funniest part was that I could not hold my camera still. He was making me laugh my a** off so hard! I had to tell him, ‘Don. Shut up. Just stop talking, please!’”

Caulfield said Rickles wasn’t used to being told to shut up, but said “All right, all right, I’ll do it for you.”

“And he gives me this face,” Caulfield said. “It is the typical, quintessential Don Rickles face... His nickname was Mr. Warmth [because of] his personality. He’s definitely the funniest guy I’ve ever shot.”

Caulfield said the weirdest person he has ever shot pictures of was Hunter S. Thompson.

“[Thompson] was doing something with the Vegas Film Festival with a launch or reboot of ‘Fear and Loathing,’” Caulfield said. “The publicist for the Vegas Film Festival told me, ‘You might have an opportunity to shoot Hunter S. Thompson. But you’ll only have five minutes. It’s going to be in his hotel room and we are not responsible for anything that happens.’”

Caulfield said the publicist informed him at the last minute that the photoshoot wouldn’t happen, but he told the publicist he wanted to talked to Thompson.

“The publicist says ‘Fine, but I’m going in the room with you,’” Caulfield said. “So I walk into the hotel room and I see Hunter S. Thompson and he’s got this funky hat on and he’s got a cigar or something. In the other corner of the room is Benicio Del Toro and the Playmate of the year is in there!”

“[Thompson] looks at me and he asks ‘Are you the photographer?’” Caulfield continued.

Caulfield said he introduced himself and then Thompson asked how long the shoot would take.

“‘It’ll take as long as you want it to take,’ I respond,” Caulfield said. “‘That’s the right answer,’ he says.”

“I start to shoot some pictures and he picks up a mannequin head. [I’m thinking] what the h*** does he have a mannequin head lying around for? Where is this going? What is happening here?’” Caulfield said. “Then [Thompson] asks, ‘Are you shooting?’”

Caulfield said he told Thompson that he was shooting and Thompson started “waving the mannequin head around in front of my camera.”

“He’s getting closer and closer, then he lunges and hits my camera!” Caulfield said. “It actually cracked the lens hood off my camera and cracked the filter on my lens!”

“‘What are you doing here? What’s going on?’” Caulfield said he asked. “‘You get the picture?” [Thompson] asked.”

Caulfield said he then checked his camera.

“I’ve got this shot of him lunging at me and hitting me with that mannequin head!” Caulfield said.

After that, Caulfield said Thompson gave him a few hundred dollars for repairs.

Caulfield said he also enjoyed shooting photos of Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.

“Dennis Hopper was a really cool guy to shoot for,” Caulfield said. “I shot him several times at the Vegas Film Festival [because] he was basically the MC for 10 years before he passed away. He was always game for a photoshoot. He was a photographer himself, in his spare time. He appreciated taking a challenge. He was really good to work with. Nicholson was a good person to shoot for because I was told that I wasn’t going to get that portrait.”

Caulfield said Nicholson is good friends with Hopper and he wanted Hopper to set him up to photograph Nicholson.

“It’s the very first day of the film festival and the producers of the film festival are saying ‘Oh [Nicholson’s] not going to do [a portrait],’” Caulfield said. “[Nicholson was] receiving this lifetime achievement award - he’s the point of the festival! So they agreed to get a picture of him with Dennis Hopper but they weren’t sure I was going to get a portrait.”

Caulfield said he saw Nicholson alone while Nicholson was walking to dinner with Hopper at the Venetian.

“I approach him because he already knows that we’re going to do a photograph,” Caulfield said.

Caulfield said Nicholson thought the photos were being taken after dinner and he told Nicholson they were doing a portrait now.

“I’m setting up he says ‘You look really familiar,’” Caulfield said. “I’d met him five or six years earlier when I was shooting courtside at Lakers’ games for AP. Back when we shot film and had to process it, Jack Nicholson would come into the press room during half-time at Lakers games and look over everyone’s shoulder to see what pictures they were going to run. He would try to convince us to run certain pictures that he liked.”

“I was in the press room after the game, then Jack Nicholson walks in, looks over my shoulder and asks ‘You gonna run that?’ I say, ‘Yeah, that’s the best play of the game.” He says, ‘Yeah, but I like that one better.’ I say, ‘I’m running both pictures.’ He says, ‘Good I’m glad.’

Caulfield said he reminded Nicholson of how they met just before the photoshoot at the Venetian. He then posed for a test shot.

“He closes his eyes and lets me take a photo. I think he closed his eyes so we couldn’t use it later,” Caulfield said. “I had to wing it in this hallway in the Venetian. I wanted to get this Shining-esque light on him with this cool red light behind him.”

Then, it was time for the real photo.

“He puts on his sunglasses and flashes this big, quintessential, Jack Nicholson smile,” Caulfield said. “I look at the back of my camera and I go ‘We got it!’ ‘All right, we’re done’ he says and he walks off to have dinner with Dennis Hopper.”

Caulfield also shared the time he was once kicked off his own set by Nicki Minaj when she was “first breaking out” and not “that big yet.”

“I was shooting Portrait Gallery for the American Music Awards,” Caulfield said. “[Minaj]  comes in with this huge entourage. Part of her management says ‘Miss Minaj would like you to leave the set.’ I’m like ‘What? What’re you talking about? This is my set.’ I’m mad because I’m like ‘Who is he to tell me to leave my set?’

Caulfield said he left, the drapes were closed behind him and he had to sit outside for five minutes, watching Access Hollywood film b-roll.

“Then the drapes open and I said ‘What was that all about?’ and she says ‘I wanted to give you something different,’” Caulfield said. “I guess she had a friend that was doing shoes and she wanted to showcase the new shoes. And I thought, ‘this is better!’ She just wanted to change her shoes for the photoshoot. She didn’t want Access Hollywood shooting the b-roll of that stuff. So now I understood, and it turns out she gave me a much, much better picture.”

If you’re interested in having Skyforest resident Michael Caulfield shoot photos of your family, event, or business you can get in touch with him via his website at www.mcprophoto.com