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Timothy White

Become – High Profiles
February 2, 2018

“Having a tête-à-tête with Timothy White feels like a leaf being carried along a shallow mountain stream. The slight huskiness and low, mellow pace of his speech is instantly soothing as I listen to him recount personal anecdotes of celebrities, and fabulous tales of pyrotechnic hijinks in a ghost town he used to own. One gets the sensation of being drawn gently into his stream of consciousness, and in the course of our conversation, we glide lightly with an easy current over clusters of expansive topics like Life, Love, Age and Experience. At other times, we get caught in mini eddies, swirling around each other as I struggle to delve deeper into his mind. It is only with a slight relent each time, that we find ourselves spinning delicately onto a new trajectory.

Perhaps the slight abstraction and Buddhist detachment that one senses in Timothy, is a reflection of his most current state of mind. The native New Yorker who moved to L.A. in recent years, acknowledges a change. “I have friends from New York who’d want to beat me up, listening to me now,” he laughs. “They say I sound so Zen, like an L.A. you-know-what. And I used to joke that I hated the city—that I was just there to take their money and go home. . . Hollywood people, you know? But I like my lifestyle in L.A now.”

When I playfully suggest a switch in his loyalties between the East and West coast, he is quick to clarify: “Look, New York is the greatest place in the world—it just is. But when I finally moved to L.A. and stayed longer than just a few days, a couple of months into it, all of a sudden—I got the beautiful nuance of the weather, and the lifestyle difference that I didn’t really appreciate before when I was just in town for work. If New York is like a river, then L.A. is a lake. Because in New York, you don’t have a choice; it takes you and drags you along with it. But in L.A., you float.”

The multi-hyphenate photographer, television producer and curator (among other roles), is however not content with floating idyllically. On top of an already prolific career photographing Hollywood luminaries like Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford and Audrey Hepburn, plus American music legends like Tom Jones, Beyoncé and even a young and then-unknown, Jay-Z, the 62-year-old is embarking on a slew of new projects. Among them is a personal memoir as well as a joint venture with local legal eagle and noted patron of the arts and fashion, Tan Min-Li.

In his self-confessed “aggressive approach” to a “tumultuous existence”—one filled to the brim with travel, new experiences and constant endeavours, Timothy shares with me his memory of pressing his hands into a freshly cast sidewalk as a nine-year-old. “I guess there’s another way of looking at it. I was already trying to leave my imprint, literally and figuratively, on life.”

Conversations with Timothy White

Celebrity Portrait Photographer
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: Which image of yours do you feel changed your life?

TIMOTHY WHITE: My photograph of Robert Mitchum.

REN FENG: How so?

TIMOTHY: I'm working on a memoir with a ghostwriter and thinking about figures of influence in my life who have at some point, for some reason, defined my life. So I started rattling names off to my editor, and one of them is Harrison Ford. He’s someone I’ve known for 32 years and has been a big influence on my career—we’ve worked with each other the most, as photographer and subject. And then there’s Robert Mitchum, whom I spent just 2 hours photographing, early on in my career. I’ve spent 32 years with Harrison Ford, and yet those 2 hours with Robert Mitchum… that photograph changed my life and my career. I realised during those 2 hours that I could make, not just take, a creative portrait.

REN FENG: It shaped you as a portrait photographer?

TIMOTHY: It was the aha moment where I kind of went: Wow. I get what I can do here. With something as simple as a big headshot of someone, I could not only bring out their personality (through my lens), but turn it into something creative too. 

REN FENG: So photography as an act of artistic creation rather than the documentation of blunt fact.

TIMOTHY: Yes. It’s an illusion. It’s a medium similar to painting; photography is about an instant, whereas painting is the layering of time. But both are really about the artist's point of view and what they see in their subject. It’s not “real”, but it is the truth though. It’s about capturing something in people.


REN FENG: Could you define your photography in a single word?

TIMOTHY: Timeless.

REN FENG: What makes your photos timeless?

TIMOTHY: I don’t want my photographs to simply be just about the moment, stylistically or fashion-wise; it’s never about what you are wearing in the picture. In my mind, it’s more about taking something from a person in that moment in time that I’m saving… which will never expire.

I’ve said to my subjects before: You will never look this way again, and you will never be this person again that we are creating today in this photograph.

REN FENG: What are you documenting?

TIMOTHY: Pop culture history. I spend a lot of my time on my archive these days, publishing, exhibiting and culling from it, because it’s important to preserve that. I’ve been aware that this whole time, I’ve been documenting history. And I’ve said to my subjects before: You will never look this way again, and you will never be this person again that we are creating today in this photograph. I'm at a place now where I can look back on this treasure chest that is essentially my life’s work.

REN FENG: What first drew you to working in the music industry and Hollywood?

TIMOTHY: I was born in 1956, and I had older sisters who were consumed by Beatlemania and the whole era. The mid to late sixties and seventies were all about music and youth culture, which I was really into growing up. I started playing the drums when I was eight, and album covers used to be art. Those 12-inch squares were a really important space. So when I saw it being made, with photography as an option, I was like: Yeah, this is where I want to beThis is what I want to do. This is me. The imagery created a bridge between being a musician and growing up in that culture. I was never particularly celebrity-minded or even really interested in being a musician.

REN FENG: Speaking of celebrities, who's the most difficult person you've worked with?

TIMOTHY: That’s not the dynamic that I have between me and my subjects. It’s a collaborative effort between the subject and artist—I always try to find a place where we connect and meet. Certain times can be more challenging than others, but it’s not negative. It’s better actually and forces me to be a bit more creative.


REN FENG: Well then, which celebrities have been great to work with in particular?

TIMOTHY: There are definitely moments that I share with individuals, who leave me feeling so good. And I realise why certain people are in the position that they are in—it’s not simply because of their talent, but the whole package of who they are. Brad Pitt is one of the people that comes to mind, and Michelle Obama too. She’s someone that I admire greatly; it blew my mind to be with her. She’s so intelligent, so warm and focused, and she makes you feel like you are the only person in the room. The Dalai Lama… to watch him laugh has been one of the greater joys of my life. He’s someone who seems to have such deep insight into life, yet he can be giggling and laughing about simple things. It makes you want to be the same way. 

I’m very aware of time and history, just by the nature of my career and what I do.

REN FENG: You’re not just a photographer. You produce, curate, publish and wear many other hats. So what would you say is the love of your life?

TIMOTHY: I think, the love of Life. I embrace it fully. “Love” can mean a lot of things. I can put my work into that interpretation or other things, but ultimately it’s about putting your heart and soul into something, and sharing your beliefs on politics, art or whatever. Anything less would be a waste when we’ve got such little time. I’m very aware of time and history, just by the nature of my career and what I do.

REN FENG: You’re a little bit of a magpie for history—I read you even bought the cornices of the city jail that your uncle went to in the 1950s. 

TIMOTHY: Yes, but it isn’t really a matter of holding onto “stuff”. There are emotions involved. I have a ridiculous collector piece, which is a slab of sidewalk that has imprints of my hands on it. I remember doing it on the wet concrete. It was 1965 and I was 9 years old.

REN FENG: How did you get your hands on that?

TIMOTHY: It was crazy, and probably illegal too since it really is public property. My father and I went knocking on someone’s door and said, “I'm going to cut your sidewalk up.” I did it on a Sunday, with a concrete saw that created dust all over the whole neighbourhood. They looked at me like I was nuts. I guess my father and I are similar—we’re a little crazy. He means so much to me and I like to think of how we shared that fun, silly moment. I see him sitting on the ground with me while I was ‘cutting’ away at concrete.

REN FENG: I understand that you photographed your ageing parents for a period of time.

TIMOTHY: Yes. My father passed away 2 years ago, when he was 96 years old. My mother is 98 years old and I think she's going to outlive us all.

REN FENG: What was it like to consciously witness your parents ageing?

TIMOTHY: I’ve learnt a lot from the past 10 years of my parents’ lives. Watching life go full-circle—that's really been a big perspective changer. And part of the reason for my memoir is what I've learnt about life in a way. It’s not about my celebrity career, even though that might be a reason for someone to read the book.


Whatever obstacles are in our way or whatever turns we have to make—the only thing that we really have any control over is our attitude.

REN FENG: What’s changed for you?

TIMOTHY: We think a lot about gaining when we’re younger… like taking on more, adding this or that… that sort of thing. But I think when you get older too, you're more willing to let things go and simplify your life. Because you start to see it more clearly—career, friends, stuff [laughs], none of it matters. What matters is Love and Health. Those are the only 2 things in life that matter. And without Health, even Love is difficult. I watched my father become an infant again. It is really about the love of family around you, and your health.

REN FENG: Do you have a fear of ageing?

TIMOTHY: No. I embrace it and frankly, after watching my father accept life for what it is, even when he had dementia, gave me a newfound perspective. I believe that life just happens to us. Whatever obstacles are in our way or whatever turns we have to make—the only thing that we really have any control over is our attitude.

REN FENG: Is relinquishing control difficult for you?

TIMOTHY: I’m OCD. I think we all are, to some degree. But the beauty of life is not knowing. If we knew, life would be different. But because we don't know, we try and control. That’s OCD, and I can take that to a much higher degree, which I do in my work: controlling what’s in my frame. That inadvertently spills into my daily life too… Everything is about a frame, everything has to be ordered in some way. Not to a really nutty degree [laughs], but I recognise that it's there. 

REN FENG: If you could have one superpower, what would that be?

TIMOTHY: To foresee the future. Yes, I'm a walking contradiction. 

REN FENG: So what would you tell your teenage self?

TIMOTHY: [long pause before laughing] Ummm, the answer would be for the wrong magazine. It’s a metaphor anyway. 


REN FENG: I would love to hear it.

TIMOTHY: Did you ever see the movie, Little Miss Sunshine? Alan Arkin played the grandfather and was shooting up heroin in the bathroom in all his ‘elderly-ness’, before turning to his 16-year-old grandson to say: “Just fuck as many young women as you can.” [laughs] It’s a metaphor for living life to its fullest. That’s what he was trying to impart, which is so funny to me—it's the first thing I thought about.

REN FENG: What preoccupied you the most as a teenager?

TIMOTHY: Getting attention? [laughs] I’m trying to be witty, but I think it’s probably the truth. I was preoccupied with being involved and taking it all in. I’ve always tried to do so much, and I think that’s what I’ve created with my career. Even when I’m on a photoshoot, I’d be up on the roof, trying every possible thing to get as much out of that moment in life. It’s not like I’m racing the clock, but it’s just... maybe I am. Maybe I've been aware of that since I was a young boy. So, it’s always about the ‘now’.

REN FENG: Then what about the past? 

TIMOTHY: Holding onto those emotional moments like taking a 4-day helicopter ride with Harrison Ford from New York City and landing in the backyard of his ranch in Wyoming. That experience is just one of many, probably hundreds with him alone. In moments when I'm photographing people like Audrey Hepburn, meeting the Dalai Lama, being with the President of the United States or the President of Colombia, I look at myself and think: I don't belong here—how did I get here? What is it about me or what is it that I've done that has taken me to this place? How rich is this experience, memory and moment going to be? I’m overwhelmed with memory. My father used to say, “Any day above ground is a good day.” And maybe that is the raison d'être. Gratitude.



Edited by Wy-Lene Yap