Jeff Vespa has been the Sundance Film Festival’s official photographer since 2003, a post that gives him the unusual privilege of capturing his mega-famous subjects in a more informal, unguarded atmosphere than most.
Vespa, known as a co-founder of WireImage, founder of the digital magazine Verge and former editor-at-large for LIFE.com, is himself an indie producer as well—but portraiture is his most prominent work, featured in his lush coffee-table book The Art of Discovery as well as publications around the world (to wit: He shot MovieMaker‘s Winter 2016 cover image of Michael Shannon). For his ongoing series of festival shoots, though (besides Sundance, he’s also the official photographer for the Toronto International Film Festival), Vespa adopted Instagram as his medium of choice. Early 2015, Vespa set up the account @portraits to house his classically shot, mostly black-and-white images. Filled with luminous gravitas, the feed is a stream of snapshots of cinema’s most talented and beautiful.
“I have the [personal] account @jeffvespa,” Vespa says about the initial idea, “and I realized every year when I did the festival that all the images together look really great. But then I would start posting other pictures and it made the account more personal again. That’s when I was lucky enough to get the @portraits account, and I decided just to use it for strict portraiture with the black background that I use. I love having these all together. That is what Instagram is great for: curating a simple idea and sticking to it. Like a good gallery show of all the best work.”
In Park City this year, Vespa shot for four days straight—Thursday, January 21 to Monday, January 25—with around 100 subjects a day filtering into his studio. This volume, he says, “gets exhausting; it’s like a marathon. We schedule casts of films to come in every 15 minutes, and that can be one director or a cast of eight. So you have to try to get great stuff in the middle of controlled chaos. Even though I only have a few minutes with each person, I have to make sure I take the time I need with each person to get a good shot.”
His favorite shoots from Park City 2016? Actresses Jena Malone (at the fest with So-yong Kim’s feature Lovesong) and Natasha Lyonne (who appears in an impressive three features this year: Yoga Hosers, The Intervention and Antibirth). “Jena because we have know each other since she was a teenager, and we have a funny story about our first shoot in Sundance where she almost punched me. Now she’s pregnant. Natasha, whom I have known as a teenager and who used to sleep on my couch. She has been though a lot and has come out on the other side.” He throws in Kristen Stewart, too, “who I also photographed as a kid at the festival and again this year.”
Indeed many of Vespa’s fondest memories are tied to what he calls “full-circle moments,” seeded during early Sundances (his first was 1995). “Maybe,” he says, “I am just getting old.”
With his film-school background, Vespa is interested in going beyond still photography, and is preparing to teach a U.C.L.A. class called “Video for Photographers.” He believes that moviemaking ability will define the next generation of photographers. “Photography is in a huge traditional phase. Over the next few years, the real money in this business will be coming from video. It is already happening—it is harder and harder to make a living as a photographer. Video is the future. Every company out there is trying to figure this out. Brands need people who know how to do this.”
“It doesn’t mean stills are dead; it just means you have to do both motion and stills to get the jobs,” Vespa adds. His experience shooting at Sundance proves this. “Even in this short about of time I have been able to take some astounding shots, photos that I feel can stand the test of time.” MM
For more of Jeff Vespa’s photography, follow his Instagram @portraits. Click through these 11 favorites of ours from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.