Leigh Wiener was passionate about photography. He made a career of it, first of all, shooting more than 300 assignments for LIFE and many more for the Los Angeles Times and other publications. But he was an advocate for the craft as well. He was the creator and cohost of a television show called Talk About Pictures, devoted to the practice of photography. His guests were either fellow professional photographers or celebrities who liked to spend time behind the camera as well as in front of it, and the show aired from 1978 to ’82 on NBC regional affiliates and then on PBS. Wiener’s dedication to the finer points of the craft also comes through in his book How Do You Photograph People? which serves both a collection of his portrait work and also an instructional guide.
Wiener was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and built his career in Los Angeles. His range is such that he published a limited edition book on the death of Marilyn Monroe and also had an exhibition staged of the photos he took on the last day of Alcatraz Island. He died in 1993, from a rare skin disease that may have been the long-term result of his photographing atomic tests and other nuclear related subjects in the 1950s. His collections are managed by his son Devik, himself retired from a four-decade career working in lighting for film and television shows in Los Angeles.
Many of the stories about Leigh Wiener reflect a dedication to getting the picture right. Take the photo he shot of Simone Signoret at the 1960 Academy Awards, the moment before her name was announced as the winner of the Oscar for Lead Actress for her performance in Room at the Top. Photographers were not supposed to be in the auditorium at all, but Wiener had bribed his way into a light stand location with three bottles of Scotch. As he told the story on an episode of his television show, he snapped his photo at the moment the presenter was saying “And the winner is….” After the photo ran in LIFE, Wiener received a letter from Signoret, saying, “I think your photograph just goes to prove the old adage, that in moments of crisis, we reach for those things we treasure the most.”
Some photos here show how Wiener used his technical prowess to achieve artistic results. For instance, his dark, moody photo of John F. Kennedy was taken at 3:30 a.m. in April 1960, when the then-presidential candidate was on an airplane reviewing a speech, and they had just been served a late dinner of fish stew. The portrait captures the particular grind and loneliness of the quest for higher office. “How can you take a picture of me in this light with no lights or flash?” Kennedy asked. Wiener told Kennedy, “It’s the oysters.”
The actual explanation involved exposure time and a steady hand. Devik tells a story about a time his father was shooting in low light, and the subject was Miles Davis. They were in a dark club and Wiener wasn’t using a flash. The legendary jazz man questioned whether the pictures were going to come out. Wiener joked to Davis, “When you blow your horn, does anything come out?”
Wiener considered building a rapport with his subjects as important as knowing the technical aspects of his camera. Devik relates that when his father photographed art collector Norton Simon, he educated himself on Simon’s favorite painters, turning what was supposed to be a forty-minute photo session into one that lasted hours.
Wiener’s ability to find the best picture in any situation even extended to baby photos of Devik. Leigh Wiener recounted the story of the photo of Devik that appears below and in How Do You Photograph People? : “At four weeks old, I photographed him on a print-covered couch. I made a 16 x 20 enlargement of the print and, a month later, photographed Devik again, sitting on the couch in front of the first picture. Again, I made a 16 x 20 blow-up, and four weeks later he was back on the couch in front of this second picture. I repeated the procedure every month until I had a single photograph showing Devik from four to thirty weeks old……What started as a joke and changed into a challenge evolved into an idea that resulted in two pages in LIFE magazine.”
The story calls to mind what Leigh Weiner once identified in an interview as a guiding principle: it’s not the camera equipment or the situation that makes a defining picture. It’s the photographer.