Photographer George Lange on Shooting the Perfect Moment

Russell Scott
Photographer George Lange at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder

Photographer George Lange, known for his celebrity portraits, has been shooting photos since he was a seven-year-old kid growing up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Now 63 and living in Boulder with his wife and sons, he cherishes a photo of himself standing in the driveway of his childhood home, holding a camera. It reminds him of how he got his start.

“There was a chute where they used to keep the coal for the furnace before I was born,” he recalls. “It was kind of disgusting, because there was still coal on the walls, and I scrubbed all that off when I was in seventh or eighth grade and built a darkroom in there. I took pictures just because I liked how the paper felt in the chemicals — this heavy German paper.”

After graduating from high school and doing a brief stint at Ithaca College, Lange studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and then moved to New York, where he spent a year as an assistant to famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. By religiously knocking on office doors in the Condé Nast building in the early '80s, Lange started freelancing for magazines while living in a $7-per-night YMCA room. That feverish work ethic helped him find success shooting for Entertainment, Esquire and other popular magazines.

Lange's career, far from linear, took him around the world.

“One of the problems with my work is that because I wasn’t obsessed with my legacy or obsessed with celebrity, it bounces like a pinball," he explains. "I’d be doing [television and movie stars] one week, and then I’d be out in Paris shooting some fashion one week, and then I’d be shooting brand work for some pharmaceutical company. For me, it didn’t matter who I was shooting.

"I get just as much out of shooting the kids on the playground at Whittier [Elementary in Boulder]," Lange continues. "People say, 'Oh, wasn’t it amazing shooting this person?' and I go, ‘It was amazing taking pictures of another human being.’”

Although Lange is now a family man and not so much of a jet-setter, he's still busy doing "brand work" and shooting events and portraits. Standing in front of First Run Reruns, an exhibit of his photography from ’90s sit-coms on display at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, as part of the Month of Photography, Lange gets excited talking about pictures he shot of the Seinfeld cast at the height of the show’s success.

“We had built this whole set in the studio [in Los Angeles],” he says. “Sprinkler, green grass, the whole thing. And Michael Richards walks in, and he says, ‘I’m not doing it. I’ll go to someone’s house. But I’m not doing it here.’ So we go driving around and we knock on doors, and he goes, ‘I’m Kramer. Can we use your lawn?’ Of course the answer is yes — and that was the cover of L.A. Magazine.”

While the photos on display in Boulder primarily look at Lange's relationship to ’90s television, his connection to photography is immensely personal. That became most clear after his mother passed away last year. As he was getting ready for her memorial at his childhood home in Squirrel Hill, he found old pictures of her from her fifth-birthday party, running down the same driveway where he had posed for a photo at age seven with a camera.

“I thought, ‘These are so beautiful,’ and I made big art prints" — something he had never done before, he explains. "So I put the prints on the garage door at the memorial, about ten feet from where I had that darkroom. And it’s all full circle.”

The experience of hanging those photographs helped him figure out what he loved about photography and what makes his work special.

“I realized I was so happy on that street, in that house, growing up there,” he recalls. “When I take a picture, it’s not just this moment we’re having, which is really powerful; it’s all this experience that I bring to this moment.”

Over the years, Lange has shot photos of everyone from David Byrne and George Lucas to Sophia Loren and the Obama family. He even took the only posed photo of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates together. Back when he was shooting iconic pop-culture figures, people would ask him who his favorite person to shoot was.

“My stock answer was, ‘The next person I shoot,’" he recalls. "They’re all great. I just had a really fun run, and the reason they liked me is that when they looked at my pictures, they said, ‘This is who I am. It’s not the most glamorous picture of me, but this is who I am.’”

Month of Photography at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, runs through April 14. Lange will also participate in a discussion at the Dairy on March 20 at 7 p.m.; tickets are $15 to $17. The gallery is open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays noon to 7:30 p.m., and Sundays noon to 5:30 p.m.