She Dared to Dream
If photographer Karen Bystedt had come to Hollywood to seek a profession as a theatrical agent or a personal manager, she would have been one of the best in the entertainment industry. Instead, she came to Hollywood with a camera to photograph young actors. Karen spent weeks looking at head shots in the offices of agents and personal managers – and in the end she selected Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Robert Downey, Jr., Brendan Fraser, Christian Slater, Josh Brolin, Courteney Cox, John Cusack, David Duchovny, and Patrick Swayze, to name but a few of the many stars who were climbing the ladder to Hollywood success in the 1980s. They had not arrived when Karen aimed her camera and started shooting. I sat down with Karen Bystedt at the Wilshire Country Club to conduct a Q&A.
TT. When you were attending New York Film School, did you ever dream that one day it would be you who would be photographing Hollywood‘s A-list stars before they were famous?
KB. When I was a teenager, I would go to the movie theater and determine who in the credits would become a major star. That is how it started. Of the more-than-twenty actors I selected as a moviegoer, only three of them did not achieve stardom. The rest went on to become major stars. When I finished New York Film School, I decided I would apply that ability as a theatergoer in searching out the stars of tomorrow with my camera.
TT. Hollywood photographer George Hurrell gave glamour to the industry before it was recognized. There was something in a Hurrell photograph that is identifiable to this day. An Annie Lebowitz photograph can be identified by the relaxed state of the subject she is photographing, whether it is the President of the United States or a New York City cab driver. What separates you from all the other photographers out there, and says, upon first viewing, that it is a Karen Bystedt photograph?
KB. I am looking for a performance from the subject. Through my photography, I bring out the pain and joy. I want the real person without a makeup artist and hair stylist. I portray the person they are, or the person they are striving to be. Conversation is important for me during a photo shoot. When you look at my photos of the stars, I have captured that moment in time as I did with Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. My photos shout a message of desire.
TT. Can you give me some personal insight into some of the stars you have photographed?
KB. During my photo shoots with all of the actors who went on to become major stars, I interviewed them as well as photographed them. I will give you some snippets of today’s stars that impressed me at the time.
Robert Downey, Jr. – Robert wanted to become an accomplished actor and win the Academy Award. He talked about overcoming his self-destructiveness. We used to have long phone conversations. I actually became friends with him. Robert confided in me about his personal demons. I was the listener and at times gave advice to the best of my ability.
Sandra Bullock – Sandy and I were neighbors. We used to walk our dogs together. She was humble and she really believed she was going to make it. She never has a cocky attitude. She would go out on auditions and not get the roles. But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she would say, “I learned something from this and I’m going to be better next time.” Sandy persevered. I had tears in my eyes when she walked up to claim her Oscar. I remembered how dedicated and how much she believed in herself.
Brad Pitt – Brad Pitt was high energy. He was having a rough time when I photographed him. For work, he drove strippers around town. Brad was not happy just being a successful actor. He wanted to be at the top of the heap.
Johnny Depp – I saw a picture of Johnny in a magazine. He had tattoos and a motorcycle, and I thought “What a cool guy.” Then I found out he was on “21 Jump Street.” I contacted his agent and told him I was working on my book “They Dared To Dream.” Johnny was just starting out; he was not famous. He loved to shoot at locations and dress up in costume. He was fun to be around and made me laugh during the photo shoot.
TT. Of all the stars you have photographed and interviewed, who had the most drive?
KB. I would say Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock.
TT. I noticed in your book “They Dared To Dream” that you did not provide glamour shots.
KB. I didn’t want to do glamour shots of those people. I wanted them to appear as they were at the time and someday, like today, look back with a sense of pride in the way they were naturally photographed. I photographed in them in their own clothes, on a street and sometimes on a rooftop.
TT. Your publicist Chris Harris tells me that people have this simpatico with you, regardless whether it is a star or a struggling actor.
KB. I am there for the subject. I am there to bring out the best in the shoot.
TT. I have never been pleased with a photo shoot until you photographed me at my home. I actually felt the photos had something to offer.
KB. You are one of the most relaxed subjects I have ever had to photograph.
TT Where do you go from here?
KB. I am working on selected limited edition images of Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves for galleries around the country. I am also working full time to promote my book.