Books: On Photographing Elizabeth Taylor

By David Schonauer   Tuesday December 7, 2021

Was it her famed violet eyes?

Was it her skills as an actress, honed from childhood?

Was it her turbulent private life and the glamour that surrounded her? What fueled the public’s fasciation with Elizabeth Taylor? Perhaps, suggested photographer Gary Bernstein recently at The Independent, it was pictures.

“There was no brighter star than Elizabeth Taylor in front of the camera,” said Bernstein, whose work appears in the new book Forever Elizabeth: Iconic Photographers on a Legendary Star (ACC Art Books). Coming a decade after Taylor's death, the book provides evidence of the remarkable interplay between the camera and the woman who embodied Cleopatra, Maggie the Cat, and other memorable characters onscreen. Besides Bernstein, the book features images from photographers Norman Parkinson, Milton H. Greene, Douglas Kirkland, Gered Mankowitz, Eva Sereny, Terry O’Neill, and Greg Brennan.

"Everyone will have their favorites and there is no accounting for taste; and, as beautiful as she was, let's face it she had some tacky moments too. But even those fashion fails captivate our eyes because it wasn't just her physical beauty that we loved, it was her vulnerability," notes the illustrator and caricaturist Robert Risko, who wrote the forward for the new book.

Taylor by Douglas Kirkland, 1963

Taylor photographed by Norman Parkinson, 1953

Famous since her days as a child actress in films like National Velvet, Taylor became a gossip-magazine staple with her various romances and marriages, most spectacularly her romance and marriage to her Cleopatra costar Richard Burton. Paparazzi images of the two spending time together on the Italian island of Ischia during the filming of the movie fueled a media frenzy, in part because both were married to other people at the time. Even after they were married the public couldn’t get enough stories and images revealing their private lives.

“Taylor would lean into her image as a powerful Hollywood icon, and her personal style became ever more lavish and high camp. Where many famous people today strive to be relatable, the eight-times-married Taylor was resolutely unrelatable, reveling in the old Hollywood constructions of extravagant, escapist glamour,” notes the Independent.

Taylor and Burton by Terry O’Neill, 1971

Taylor by Gary Bernstein, 1989, for the launch of a cosmetics line.

What was it like to photograph a star with such a persona? “It was Elizabeth, never Liz,” photographer Terry O’Neill, who died in 2019, once wrote, notes the Independent. “And no matter if there were 50 other people in the room or two, she was always the center of attention.” Nonetheless, O’Neill once glimpsed her vulnerable side at Paramount Pictures’ 75th anniversary photo shoot in 1987, when he found her hiding in the dressing room.

“She said, ‘But there are so many stars out there,’” O’Neill wrote. “I couldn’t help but laugh. Here she was – Elizabeth Taylor – one of the greatest actors, ever, nervous. I looked at her and said, ‘But Elizabeth, you are the biggest star in the room.’”

With photography, Taylor later leveraged her fame as an early advocate for AIDS research: She sold photographs of her eighth wedding in 1991 to People magazine for $1 million and used the money to launch the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
At top: Elizabeth Taylor by Douglas Kirkland, 1961

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