“I went to the first Gulf War, to Israel, with my then boyfriend who was a war reporter,” says Stephanie Cornfield. “In fact, I was really thinking of being a war reporter but it wasn’t for me! I wasn’t strong enough psychologically.”
Since then Stephanie has gathered an impressive portfolio, gaining entrance to the homes of Hollywood stars and capturing their essence. Hollywood is in her blood since her father was a film director, her grandfather was the head of 20th Century Fox in Europe and her great-grandfather was one of the pioneers in cinema in central Europe. She has photographed luminaries such as Jack Nicholson, David Lynch and Kirk Douglas. “It’s good to be able to go to them, to their homes, where they feel comfortable. They are more at ease than they are under the paparazzi cameras.”
Stephanie holds dual citizenship, French and American. She’s of mixed origin, French-Italian on her mother’s side, and Greek-Russian-Romanian on her father’s side. Having studied political science at an American university in Paris, photography came along and, by accident, took her career in a completely different direction. “I was a nightlife photographer in Paris, London and New York, taking pictures of the underground scene. I took pictures of drag queens and druggies and I loved it, then I became the staff rock photographer for a magazine called Best. I once met Iggy Pop and got to hang out with him and the band. I really loved him.”
She opens her life’s work in thick folders – at least as much as she could carry on the Thalys that brought her from Paris to Brussels – and begins to flick through the pages. There’s a photograph of Andy Lau, for which she won the best portrait award at the Venice Film Festival in 2011.
“I went off the rails a bit when I was younger, I was a party girl. I had lost my way and by pure chance I came across a long-lost uncle, Bernie Cornfield, and he invited me to stay at his place in London. He put me up and was very generous. He opened up a whole new world and got me into all the best places!” She laughs at those memories. “A few years later, I went back for a while because that’s where I felt safe.”
She has always been caught somewhere between two worlds, the Christian and the Jewish. “I have always been very aware of it. So, I’ve always been comfortable in both worlds, in fact anywhere.”
She has taken a place in Mumbai to break into the other showbiz ‘wood’: Bollywood. “I really like the challenge. I’m out of my comfort zone, making new contacts in a place that’s culturally very different to what I’m used to.”
As she opens the next folder her eyes light up. These are images from Maha Kumbh, the meeting of the holy men in Allahabad, India, attended by 100 million people. “I went to Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela. I also took pictures at a smaller Mela – only 20 million people! It’s like it wasn’t real, like it didn’t happen.” Sure enough, these saffron-robed pilgrims appear to be no more than ghosts drifting through the morning mist; ephemeral beings soaked in dew but somehow captured for eternity by the lens of Stephanie Cornfield.
PHOTO: Tsui Hark by Stephanie Cornfield