TYears ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. The prognosis was not 100% positive and there were days when I would lie in bed wondering if I could ever shoot again. I am self-taught and I began to think about the images that had changed my way of thinking about photography: work of Irving penn, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, a job that made my knees buckle with excitement.
I thought: if I ever get better, I would love to pay tribute to these greats, in a way that no one has done before.
I turned to John Malkovich, with whom I had worked for 14 years. Although he looked nothing like the Arbus twins, I thought we could make it interesting with good hair and makeup, prosthetics experts, people with wigs. He loved the idea: for him it was like the theater, he saw these images as little plays. Before I started, I spent two years researching the photos. I read all the stories about the images that I could find and looked for test shots of the sessions. One of the keys to recreating these classic images is looking at the eyeballs. If you inflate the photos on a screen, the eyeball becomes a mirror that tells you a lot about how each image was taken. You can find out where the light came from, almost what kind of light it was.
The project became very extreme. I’ve had over 40 people working on it, including seamstresses, mustache experts, and bee specialists. When They were created The Yousuf Karsh Portrait of Winston Churchill, we blew up the shot very large so that our jeweler could recreate the exact same type of hoop on the link on his pocket watch. For Picasso’s Irving Penn Photo in CannesI took the image to an amazing Chicago hat maker to find out what kind of beaver hat Picasso was made of; he knew exactly what type and he bought me the same type of hat.
Diane Arbus is one of my favorite photographers; like me, he has a dark side. It’s good identical twin sisters in 1967. I was in a small town in New Jersey and there was a Christmas party for twins and triplets. She saw Cathleen and Colleen Wade and asked them to pose for her. There is a perfect identity in her features, hair, ribbon, corduroy dresses. Then you get to their expressions: one is kind of accepting of the camera and has a slight smile, maybe even enjoying the moment, while the other is a bit awkward and really doesn’t want to give the photographer time. It leaves the viewer asking so many questions, that’s why it has become a classic.
The set builders made the backdrop for my shot. It was almost identical: the stucco wall with a crack and the paint on the brick floor. The hardest part was getting the correct expression on both girls. Before each shot, John sat on the hairstyle and makeup for at least three hours, so I put a copy of the original image in the mirror. As he sat down, he began to move his body, his nose, his mouth. He was transforming himself. Once you brought him on set, something amazing happened. It’s almost as if the spirit of John is completely gone and the spirit of this new character enters. There were times when the entire 25-person team stared in awe at this transformation. It was almost spiritual. I think he’s a genius.
For whatever reason, the twins’ mother didn’t put them in the same stockings that day, and the ones John wears don’t match perfectly. The image of Diane was created in 1967, and although we knit these stockings especially for our photo it was impossible to find exactly the same material. You couldn’t get someone to knit them exactly because they are very detailed tights, almost like lace, and we were already spending money on this project as if we were burning it. It was one of those occasions when you had to use a little poetic license.
When the project first came out, people were like, “Oh, he just took the faces and put them in these old shots.” I come from an old school background, so I was not willing to use a computer and manipulate things to make it work. Of course, with this image we had to put the two shots of John together, but otherwise I want to feel the pain that the original photographers went through. What feels great is when people go to museums or galleries to see the images and say, “This is amazing, I can see now that this was all done with a camera.
I would like people to think about how this image could be the same two girls today. Very often you see two twins in their 60s or 70s who still dress the same. Twins are very special, they have a very deep connection and they love each other.
The reaction to the images has been brilliant. David Lynch contacted me to work on a similar project. I am often asked how long it took to complete. I always say, “It took me 40 years.” I have been learning photography every day of my life to get to this point and I am still learning today.
• The exhibition Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters is on Ideas Warehouse, Trieste, Italy, until May 2.
Born: Elgin, Illinois, 1958.
Influences: Irving Penn, August Sander, Avedon, Lucian Freud, Diane Arbus.
Decisive point: “Be born.”
Low points: “Cancer Diagnosis, Trump Nominated for President, and the Past Four Years”.
Better advice: “Don’t try to become a superstar overnight. Becoming a true photographer requires years of dedication and a sacrifice of much of the rest of your life. Your Instagram feed and the number of followers you have do not determine that you are a great photographer. It just means you’re probably on social media too much. ”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism