Hollywood cameraman insists he invented selfie
LOS ANGELES — In the photographs, Lester Wisbrod is a constant: He always appears on the right, with a big smile and a satisfied look about him. On the left, a cavalcade of famous faces flashes by: Clint Eastwood, Jennifer Aniston, Charlton Heston, Renee Zellweger.
The A-listers look perfect, captured in a single moment of stardom. But as the photos flip by, it is Wisbrod who captivates. Crow’s-feet deepen. Hair turns gray. Jowls set in.
It is a portrait of a life — an unvarnished one.
For more than two decades, the longtime Hollywood cameraman snapped photographs of himself and celebrities he’d meet on television sets. In all, Wisbrod has about 150 of the shots, most of them taken in the days before digital cameras, never mind mobile phones with front-facing lenses.
Ellen DeGeneres’ famous photo of herself with several actors at the Oscars — which was actually snapped by Bradley Cooper — became the quintessential selfie in an Instagram world of cellphone auteurs, self-obsessed teens and celebrity culture. But Wisbrod insists he invented the celebrity selfie. And now he wants his due.
“Generally I am not that ostentatious,” said Wisbrod, now 67 and semi-retired. “It just seems like it is bad form to be bragging. But what the hell.”
Wisbrod began taking the photos in 1981, shortly after the introduction of Canon’s Sure Shot 35-millimeter compact camera, one of the first autofocus models to hit the market. It would allow him to take a self-portrait that he could count on being in focus.
Still, his first Sure Shot selfie — with humorist Art Buchwald — came out blurry. But Wisbrod quickly got the hang of it, and termed the images “silly shots,” though his friends would eventually call them “Lesters.”
The photographs capture Hollywood in all of its mystifying allure. For every enduring star there’s a has-been, and plenty of former cultural touchstones who long ago faded to obscurity. Viewing the images now makes Wisbrod wistful, and even a little bashful over having aged.
“I guess I was better-looking then than I thought I was,” he deadpanned.
Wisbrod said he never harbored dreams of working in Hollywood, or cultivated a childhood interest in movie stars. He was raised in Oakland in a working-class family and joined the Air Force after high school. He served in Vietnam, working in radar operations.
In 1968, Wisbrod enrolled at Nevada Southern University (now UNLV) and, needing work, found a job listing posted by local television station KLAS-TV, which was looking for a cameraman. The gig paid $2 an hour.
He was soon hired and began work on the local broadcast of the children’s show “Romper Room.”
“I fell in love with it,” Wisbrod said. “I could not believe my good fortune — it was glamorous, and it was fun.”
He would later work at other Las Vegas television stations over the course of a decade. In 1979, Wisbrod moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, once he’d gotten a toehold in Hollywood, Wisbrod — who worked on shows including “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and “A Current Affair” — began taking selfies.
With time, Wisbrod developed a routine. First he’d “chat up” his subjects — many of whom he’d already been working with on assignment as a cameraman — before asking for a photo.
“That warms them up,” he said, adding that celebrities nearly always obliged — and happily. Wisbrod was turned down only once.
He said “M*A*S*H” actress Loretta Swit told him he could have a photo only if someone else shot it. “I awkwardly withdrew,” he said.
Many of the women in the images have their cheeks pressed up closely to Wisbrod. Several of the men have their arms draped around him. Wisbrod believes that the physical act of holding his trusty Sure Shot with an outstretched arm — which required he and his subject to gather closely — disarmed the seemingly untouchable actors.
“It just puts people in a whole different mood,” he said.
Steve Domier, who worked with Wisbrod on television shoots in the 1980s and 1990s, said his colleague’s approach was “unusual at the time, and it was novel.”
“When you want a picture, you ask someone. Not Lester, because he is a cameraman,” said Domier, vice president of distribution marketing for the CW Television Network. “He wanted control. And then he’d know how it’d come out.”
There were technical aspects to the Lesters. Wisbrod, who’d almost always take a photo with just one other person, knew he’d need to hold the camera at least 18 inches from his face — the bare minimum for an auto-focusing camera. Wisbrod would also hold the camera at an angle slightly above him, “simply because it would tighten up my neck,” he said, laughing.
On a recent afternoon, Wisbrod sat in the dining room of his woodsy Hollywood Hills home, shuffling through a file of old photos. He marveled at each, holding up the glossy 4-by-6 images and reciting the names of the celebrities. Sometimes, he couldn’t remember them. Others triggered warm memories.
He flashed a picture with Steven Spielberg.
“Spielberg said: ‘Are you sure you want to take it that way? You may not get another chance,’” Wisbrod recalled. The photo came out perfectly.
Admiring a picture with Anthony Hopkins, Wisbrod recounted having asked the “Silence of the Lambs” actor to autograph a bottle of Chianti — a playful nod to his turn in that film. (Hopkins obliged.)
A photo with President Ronald Reagan, taken after he’d left office, made Wisbrod chuckle.
“That was a tough one to get, because I had to slip in between the Secret Service and the dignity of the presidency,” he said.