Originally published on columbian.gwu.edu
From Elizabeth Taylor to Jennifer Lopez, photographer Firooz Zahedi, BFA ’76, is renowned for his portraits of the world’s most glamorous celebrities. In a new book, he reflects on making Hollywood’s brightest lights shine.
Growing up amid the political tumult of 1950s Iran, Firooz Zahedi, BFA ’76, often escaped to the movies. With a coup in the capital and turmoil in the streets—Zahedi’s own father was jailed as a political prisoner—he lost himself in the allure of the silver screen.
“I’d watch those big colorful Hollywood movies with those beautiful people and lush music and happy endings,” he recalled. “I focused on them so I wouldn’t get traumatized by what was going on around me. The movies became my security blanket.”
In the dark of the Tehran theaters, Zahedi could never imagine how his love affair with the movies would flourish beyond his boyhood dreams. In 1959, his family moved to London and, in 1969, Zahedi came to Washington, D.C. In 1974, Zahedi enrolled in the Corcoran School of Art and, while still a visual communication student, embarked on a nearly 50-year-career as one of the entertainment world’s most celebrated photographers. His portraits of Hollywood icons from Meryl Streep to Barbra Streisand have appeared in major magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. He has shot album covers for Diana Ross and posters for movies like Pulp Fiction. And his close friends and mentors have included Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor.
Now Zahedi has collected some of his most arresting portraits in a new book titled Look at Me (Pointed Leaf Press, 2020). The book not only catalogues his illustrious career but also pays homage to the golden age of cinema that helped him through his childhood.
When Zahedi came to Washington, D.C., in 1969, he attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Following his father’s wishes, he briefly took up a career as a diplomat at the Iranian Embassy. But longing to pursue creative arts, he secretly applied to the Corcoran—a decision, he says, that changed his life. Surrounded by fellow art students—“It must have been what Paris in the ’20s felt like,”he recalled—Zahedi remembers his Corcoran experience as the most formative years of his life. “Going to that beautiful school, with that Beaux Arts building and all those amazing people, it was like everything I dreamt of was coming true for me.”
While still a Corcoran student, Zahedi struck up a friendship with Andy Warhol, who featured some of his first professional work in Interview magazine. In 1976, a cousin introduced Zahedi to Elizabeth Taylor, sparking a lifelong friendship. He accompanied Taylor on a goodwill trip to Iran. His “snapshots,” as he describes them, of Taylor wearing traditional tribal outfits later became part of the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He and Taylor remained friends until she passed away in 2011, about the same time his exhibition of her photos opened at LACMA.
Taylor persuaded Zahedi to follow her to Hollywood as her personal photographer. In Los Angeles, he made his mark in portraits and advertising, creating images for clients such as Coca Cola and L’Oréal while shooting major celebrities. As a contract photographer for Vanity Fair, his work was featured alongside peers like Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts.
Zahedi’s formula for success relies on putting even the biggest names at ease. “You are working with a star but you have to take into consideration that you are also working with a human being,” he said. His diplomacy skills have often come in handy—like the time he asked Diana Ross to pose for an album cover atop a giant white horse. (She fell off, delaying the shoot.) When photographing Uma Thurman lounging on a seedy motel bed for Pulp Fiction, he added just one salacious touch: a pair of Frederick’s of Hollywood stilettos with scuffed soles to imply they’d been well-worn.
“Every photo tells a story,” he said. “You can look at a photo and tell if the subject was comfortable or not. I never wanted them to feel they were being manipulated or taken advantage of.”
Of all the celebrities Zahedi has photographed, one name remains on his wish list: Barack Obama: “I’d just like to meet him, much less photograph him,” he said. As with his other subjects, Zahedi imagines a portrait of the former president with a minimum of drama. “He has a great smile. I would just photograph him with that smile in a very natural way.”
Zahedi and his wife have stayed connected with the D.C. art world, supporting institutions including the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. In addition to his portraits, Zahedi has photographed interiors for major publications such as Architectural Digest, and exhibited his work at prominent galleries and museums across the country. He published a book of photographs and essays on Taylor titled My Elizabeth (Glitterat, 2016). His second book, City of Angels (Vendome Press, 2018), featured shots of prominent Los Angeles homes. Still, Zahedi remains best known for his celebrity portraits—a legacy he happily embraces.
“Portrait are in themselves fine art. The thought that goes into a portrait is as deep as an artist’s work on a canvas or a piece of sculpture,” he said. “If you have those creative juices in you, you need to do what your heart tells you to do.”