A Tokyo encounter with Michael Thompson
LIVIN' & LOVIN' - Tetta Matera () - December 14, 2011 - 12:00am

I took a 10-day trip to Tokyo to enjoy the winter weather, the great food and the company of my husband and our friends after my chemotherapy and right before my radiation therapy began. Unlike previous trips when I always had a full agenda, this time I was in a go-with-the-flow “chillax” mode. I had not planned on working or attending any major social event but when the opportunity to meet celebrated American photographer Michael Thompson presented itself, I just had to go.

It was one of those unexpected, pleasant surprises; our Italian friend Loredana Diporcia, Tod’s Japan’s brand ambassador, had invites to Michael Thompson’s exhibit and since we had planned to have dinner that evening, we decided to swing by the exhibit earlier that night. The event, entitled “Michael Thompson x Kosuke Kitajima,” was held in the fashionable district of Aoyama in the equally fabulous home furnishings and design store Francfranc, which doubled as an exhibition space for the event. On display were several images of Japanese swimming sensation Kosuke Kitajima, naked and painted in red, and six photographs from the limited-edition Red Nude book of Michael Thompson, of which only 100 copies were printed. The autographed series, which were numbers 31 to 100 of the book, were on sale for Y200, 000 (about P11,500 each), along with Thompson’s third and latest book, Portraits, a collection of his most famous celebrity portraiture spanning 20 years of his career.

I had seen some of Thompson’s work but did not know what he looked like, so when I saw him inside the venue, I was rather taken by surprise. I had spied him entering his own exhibit rather inconspicuously — no fanfare, no entourage, just with Dionne Thornton, a lady from Jed Root, Inc., his agency. He had none of the arrogant swagger nor the attention-grabbing, obnoxious demeanor often associated with celebrated photographers; instead he was polite and gracious with everybody, dressed simply with a boyish charm about him. Baby-faced at 49 years of age, he was, in short, a breath of fresh air in an industry otherwise known for being a spoiled, self-indulgent and entitled lot!

 A Leading Image Broker In The 21st Century

If anything, Michael Thompson has a lot to boast about; a highly regarded and in-demand photographer, his images have graced the covers and editorial pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Details, W, Marie Claire, Allure, Mademoiselle, Town & Country, British Elle and Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. He has done advertising campaigns for luxury fashion brands Emporio Armani, Chanel, Celine, Oscar de la Renta, Emmanuelle Ungaro, and Gap. He has also created beauty and still-life print advertisements for cosmetic powerhouses like Clinique, Chanel, Aveda, Elizabeth Arden, MAC Viva Glam, Revlon, Neutrogena, Almay, Prescriptives, L’Oreal and Oil of Olay. He even directed the 2006 FiFi award-winning television commercial of Sarah Jessica Parker for the fragrance Lovely.

Thompson always wanted to be a fashion photographer and while he has established himself as a top-rate one, he has also earned respect and a name for his celebrity photographs. His images of beautiful and famous celebrities like Liza Minnelli (who, by the way, was his first celebrity shoot), Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller, Matt Damon, Sting, Jamie Foxx, Orlando Bloom, Eva Mendes, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Garner, Rihanna, Drew Barrymore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts and Scarlett Johansson, to name a few, are both spontaneous and surrealistic, a “study in the emergence of celebrity as cult object.” Thompson’s stylized, iconic images capture the reality of his subjects with such power and integrity and through his camera lens he is able to “discern the essence from artifice.” When asked who among the celebrities he has worked with would he like to photograph again, he said Cate Blanchett because “her beauty and soul are equally amazing.”

Red teasers: The six images on the wall are a sneak peek at Michael Thompson’s limited-edition Red Nude book.

A professional and very meticulous photographer, Thompson is known as much for his striking, elegant and seductive images as he is for his character. He plans ahead for all of his photo shoots and is in photographer mode the minute he shakes hands with his models. He likes to create a relaxed atmosphere imbued with humor and finds laughter “the best way to cut the ice and make a connection.” In his book Portraits, the actress Julianne Moore describes Michael Thompson as “the most unassuming, most assured photographer I have worked with. He has a light and friendly demeanor, is quick to laugh, develops close friendships with his team and refuses to engage with anyone who is difficult — and he produces absolutely extraordinary images each and every time.”

I asked Michael what got him started in photography; he told me that his father owned a portrait studio called “Thompson Photographic Arts” in Seattle and he spent summers working there. His father passed away when Michael was only 18 years old, too young to take over his dad’s business. He went on to study at the Brooks Institute of Photography in California and moved to New York City after he graduated. Upon arriving in New York, he called Irving Penn’s studio, which coincidentally was hiring. He went for an interview, not knowing for what position, and as luck would have it, was hired on the spot as first assistant by none other than the legendary Irving Penn himself, who saw the “startling maturity” in Michael’s work. He apprenticed with Penn for several years into the ’90s until he ventured out on his own. He got his first big break in 1993 with a fashion story for Allure magazine, and has been on a roll ever since, dubbed the “leading image-broker” of our time. His interest in imagery is not limited to photography as he would like to shoot music videos in the future, but only of bands whose music he likes.

Michael Thompson struck me as a regular guy, nary a trace of diva in him. While the exhibit in Tokyo was about his work, he did not engage in self-promotion; he let his talent do the talking for him.

Photo op: (from left) Dionne Thornton of Jed Root, Inc.; Loredana Diporcia, Tod’s Japan brand ambassador; photographer Michael Thompson, author Tetta Matera and her husband, Giorgio Matera

He clearly lit up when I asked about his family; he spoke candidly about his wife and their two children, Ruby and Sean, the “core of his happiness,” as he calls them, and how they decided to move to Oregon from New York City for a better quality of family life.

Will you come to Manila?

I am not sure how or why, but when I told him I was Filipina, he said, “You know, my biological mother is Filipina!” a little-known fact about Michael Thompson. “Really?” I said in disbelief. “Yeah, but I was adopted,” he told me matter-of-factly, without a trace of hurt or bitterness. His adoptive father is American while his mother is Japanese; she was with him in Tokyo for the exhibit. Of course, when he told me he was part Filipino, I asked if he had been to the Philippines, to which he replied “No.” In typical Pinoy fashion, I said excitedly, “You must come and visit. Maybe you can even collaborate with one of our local fashion retailers for an advertising campaign.” With his boyish smile he replied, “That would be a fantastic idea.” And just like that, on cue, his agent whisked him away to mingle with the other guests, leaving me to hatch a plan in my mind to have him come to Manila. I love Michael Thompson, not just for the world-class photographer that he is but also for the world-class citizen that he is.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with