Mark Abrahams was standing in his studio preparing for a shoot when he heard the expensive growl of a Ducati Monster. It was Joaquin Phoenix, running a little late. Taking off his helmet, the actor got right down to business, asking, “So, what do you want to do today?” Like the armchair Freudian Abrahams is, he turned the question back on his subject: “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” Phoenix smiled. “I want to light myself on fire.”
Most photographers would balk at a multi-millionaire movie star suggesting he risk life and limb without a stunt team, much less an insurance waiver. Not Mark Abrahams. He doused a Hugo Boss suit with lighter fluid and threw a lit match. As flames rippled across Joaquin’s chest, Mark snapped away. When they died down, Joaquin looked deflated.
“OK, now I want to throw myself into a wall,” he said. “You want to be a conduit for that,” Abrahams tells me. “That’s the ultimate thing — having this guy expose himself and then being flexible enough to say, ‘Ok, I’ll try that. Let’s do it. Let’s go. Let’s push.’”
Mark doesn’t do research or plan set pieces. There are no lavish costumes in his portfolio. He is trying to probe beneath the surface like a surgeon, cutting away skin with his lens. “Everyone has a preconceived idea of what it means to be photographed,” he says. “How they see themselves, what their best angle is. I don’t think we’d be human if we didn’t have a little bit of vanity. The challenge is to take that consciousness away and try to grab the subconscious.”
Mark’s longtime friend and neighbor, the photographer Annie Liebowitz, says he makes “psychological portraits.” He thinks she’s on to something.“I like to capture the person as themself, not playing a character,” he says. “When an actor or actress is doing a role they’re adopting mannerisms and physical stylings, but they’re not being themselves, at least not in their mind. When it comes down to a photograph, they are.”
Thirty-five years ago, Mark was a truck driver in California. There was a group of old guys who played poker at a sand and gravel pit on his route that cracked him up, so he bought his first camera — a little Nikon — to take their pictures and show his friends. One of those friends was so taken by them that he hung a few on the wall of his coffee shop in Orange County. A Warner Music executive saw them there, and hired Mark to shoot an album cover. “I know it sounds corny, but before that I had honestly never thought ‘professional photographer’ was even a job.”
Today, Mark’s success lies in his ability to bring larger-than-life types down to earth. He doesn’t have a bag of tricks or know any secret spells. “I just talk to them,” he says. “I like people.” He shot Daniel Craig in the T-shirt he was wearing when he walked in. They played pool, drank a beer and smoked cigarettes. The result: “It’s just a picture, you know? It’s not meant to be James Bond. That’s just Daniel being him.”
With Paul Dano, things were more challenging. Paul isn’t exactly an extrovert, and Mark wasn’t getting what he wanted. But instead of becoming frustrated, he used it as an opportunity to find his own truth. “I just decided that him not being expressive is sorta him being expressive, you know? Instead of trying to take him somewhere, I said ‘Where you are is good’… You have to celebrate that.”
But every once in a while, his flexibility backfires. Like when a client decided they wanted to shoot Tom Hanks in a Groucho Marx costume. “I said, ‘OK, that’s one idea, let’s see where it goes,’ but I wasn’t totally sold.
“We pitched it to Tom, who said, ‘You know, guys, I’m kind of a better Tom Hanks than I am Groucho Marx.’ And I thought, ‘You’re right. You are.’ That’s what I want to get. I don’t want Tom Hanks being Groucho Marx. I want him being Tom Hanks.”