Celebrity photographer now paints in Anna Maria

Bradenton Herald – Chances are, if you’ve picked up a magazine, newspaper or book having anything to do with celebrities, you’ve seen a David McGough photo.

His portfolio of the famous — featured in publications such as Vanity Fair, People Magazine, Rolling Stone and an assortment of books and films — includes David Bowie, Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.

High-profile presidents and princesses.

Actors and actresses.

The list goes on and on.

McGough, an Anna Maria Island resident who lives in a quaint, fashionable home overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, has some of those celebrity photos on display at ArtCenter Sarasota in conjunction with its newest photography exhibition — the sixth annual Florida Open Juried Photography Exhibition, which runs through Jan. 9. On display is a 16-piece collection of music idols. It’s just a taste of the thousands of photos he’s shot in a career that spans more than 25 years.

The 50-year-old photographer has a lifetime of tales to go with them.

“They are beautiful, iconic photographs that will speak to our memories,” said Fayanne Hayes, the center’s executive director. “Some of our newest photographers can learn from one of the greats.”

Photographic memories

These days, though, McGough, who is also a musician, often sets his camera aside to pick up a paint brush.

The former Pratt Institute student has a collection of large, colorful paintings he’s created that hang in his gulfside home. He’s excited about his newest art project, using photo images on canvas and then painting around them. They will be very Warhol-ish, he said.

Warhol, the prolific pop artist icon of his time, was a friend and mentor to McGough. He appears in many of his photos. McGough was honored when Warhol asked him to submit a photo project for his publication, Interview Magazine, in 1979.

Their friendship began via the United States Postal Service. While living in New York, McGough, a New Jersey native, constantly sent Warhol his work. For a while, he never got a response back.

Then, they ran into each other at parties.

“I would see him a couple times a week,” McGough said. “He was a kind of golly-gee type of guy. For being so hip in so many ways, he loved celebrity. He was fascinated by it all. He really felt like he was so lucky to be around the celebrities — the bigger, the better. He loved big stars and he loved to be around them. He’d get excited like a little kid.”

McGough has been mystified by fame, too, but not in the same way as Warhol. He’s literally read thousands of books on the subject. His photos and stories have appeared in many of them, including biographies of stars such as Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. McGough worked for Taylor for five years, snapping behind-the-scenes photos of her on the road.

His career began as a college freshman at the Columbus College of Art and Design. A local newspaper in Ohio asked him to shoot a Dan Folgelberg concert at Ohio State University.

After that, McGough realized he could merge the two things he loved most in life — music and photography.

After graduating from Pratt in 1979, he covered New York’s gritty punk rock scene, covering Lou Reed, Talking Heads, the Ramones and others. He shot rock stars in New York clubs and later branched out to film stars. He was doing so well that he started his own freelance company, DMI Photo. His aggressiveness for his craft got him noticed by The New Post and other publications.

In the early 1980s, there were about 10 photographers who made a name for themselves covering the stars.

Only 10. This was before MTV, the Internet, an onslaught of cable networks and celebrity magazines — what McGough calls the evolution of our celebrity- obsessed culture.

The heightened obsession bothers McGough sometimes. Most people in America seem to know more about Lindsay Lohan than Iraq.

“It’s kind of sad to see,” he said.

Celebrity through the lens

Behind the camera lens, watching celebrities in the limelight, McGough discovered the makings behind these larger-than-life industry machines. At their core, the stars were just normal people, who worked hard to craft their image. And the stranger, more outlandish or risque the better, because it would keep celebs in the spotlight. The key was to make it look like normal behavior for them, McGough said.

As he talked, Michael Jackson came to mind.

The photographer met Jackson just before his legendary solo career — before the surgeries, before Neverland. McGough said he was “a sweet, shy kid,” who later tried his best to be “weird.”

The tape around his fingers, the veils he wore — it was part of an image; A persona he tried to create for the public.

“His goal was to be as weird as he could be,” McGough said. “He thought that he would keep his name in the news. And it worked up until a point and then it backfired because people got sick of the weirdness.”

Manipulating the media is a card many celebrities play, McGough said. He’s seen it too many times. Scandals, leaked photos, tapes. Celebrities will often tip off the media about their unannounced appearances. It’s just part of the game, he said.

McGough’s roughest encounter: He got punched once by Ryan O’Neal, Farrah Fawcett’s long-time partner, outside of New York’s popular Elaine’s restaurant in 1980. O’Neal hit him and broke his camera.

The photographer particularly enjoyed covering the Monaco royal family, who often visited New York. Photos of them were highly sought among the international media. Princess Caroline, the daughter of actress Grace Kelly, was one of the most beautiful people McGough said he’s ever photographed.

And when it came to classy, Jackie Kennedy broke the mold in McGough’s eyes. He took many photos of her, too.

“She was beyond classy,” said McGough, who worked with paparazzi god Ron Gelella, who found fame through her photos. “She really was one of those very special people that really affected our culture. These first ladies now really all want to be Jackie, especially the one we have right now. But clearly, they all don’t hold a candle to her.”

When it comes to the world of celebrity, four deaths shook McGough.

The first was Warhol, who died after a gall bladder surgery in 1987. McGough framed a headline from his death that appeared in the New York publication. It reads: “Andy Warhol Dead at 58” and sits on a shelf in his home.

The second, Princess Grace, who died in a tragic car accident in 1982.

Both deaths were unexpected, he said.

Then there was Jackie Kennedy, who died of cancer in 1984.

“It really was an end of an era,” McGough said. “There was no one that was going to come up and replace them. You could say that about anybody really, except that these three were really one of a kind. They weren’t actors. They weren’t movie stars. They had more cultural impact.”

The other death was Princess Diana in 1997, which changed the way celebrity photographers were viewed by the public.

“They had nothing to do with her death,” he said.

But since then, things haven’t been the same for his industry, he added.

Expanding his talents

McGough sold the rights to his extensive photo collection to Time Life. The portfolio features millions of celebrity photos.

When he moved to Anna Maria 10 years ago, he found time to paint. His work hangs at the Village of the Arts’ Divine Excess Gallery. More will be showcased in an upcoming exhibit at the Palmetto Art Center in March.

Though he enjoyed the hustle and bustle of celebrity photography, McGough finds new solace in painting.

“I just like paint,” he said. “I like to put paint on canvas and move color around. It’s really a very liberating feeling.”

Still, a rush of memories flow back when he thinks about the first photo he ever took — before being a professional photographer entered his mind.

It was of the Rolling Stones as they were leaving a concert in New York.

“I still have that picture,” McGough said. “That sort of planted the seed for me — that this would really be fun and exciting.”

And it has been.

posted Nov. 20, 2009

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