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Ava Gardner

London, 1984

In 1983 I was working on the set of a made-for-TV miniseries, one of those religious and historical epics with a cast of thousands, in a small town on the Mediterranean coast of Tunisia in North Africa. Ava Gardner, who had not appeared in a film for many years, was to play a starring role. In fact, she had been a recluse. Her appearance in this production was a very big deal, and the producers wanted as much publicity as they could get.

Ava Gardner

Everyone in the cast and crew, from the director on down, was integrated into a tight and sociable community. After all, we had to live together in the same hotel as an expatriate community of Yanks and Brits in a non-English-speaking country for several months. There were some other big stars in our little village. We all ate, swam, played tennis, and got drunk together. No one put on any airs. Neither did Ms. Gardner when she arrived, but this lady really was a Star from the Old Hollywood. She had major charisma. When she walked on the set, all eyes stayed on her alone. She was always the center of attention, rightly so for a woman who was once—some would say of all time—the most beautiful actress on the silver screen, let alone in Technicolor.

Although she was still a glamour-puss in her sixties, she was concerned about how she would look under the scrutiny of a camera. I was assigned to do a "gallery," a series of portraits of her in period (Roman) costume for publicity purposes. The producers also wanted to depict her socializing with everyone else on the set, i.e., behind the scenes stuff. She would have none of that. All the big shots failed to get her to agree to a photo session despite their obeisance, then pleading, and finally begging. Then they asked me to speak to her, as if I could offer her something they could not. I couldn't imagine what that might be. I was in a pickle again.

One evening I knocked—well, you couldn't knock on a tent flap (the dressing rooms were inside the earthen walls of a semi-ruined, Biblical-era fortress in the desert). She was alone. I was invited in. I had brought along my portfolio. She knew why I was there. I think she started to look through it just to avoid being rude, flipping pages quickly until she stopped at Mickey Rooney. Then she hesitated.

Her voice melted from West Coast Show Biz to the North Carolina lilt of her youth and she softly repeated the name "Mick" several times with an expression of fond reminiscence in her face. (Mickey Rooney was her first husband. Then came Swing-era big bandleader Artie Shaw, with a nuptial finale from Frank Sinatra.)

Somehow, the fact that I had photographed Mickey Rooney in a sensitive way persuaded her to allow me to photograph her too. (Boy, did I win brownie points from the director and producer!) Not only did she allow me to do the publicity shots everyone needed, but she invited me to visit her at home after the filming wrapped to do a series of glamour shots in her London flat.

Several months later, after first having returned to Los Angeles, I made the pilgrimage to London to photograph the great Ava. (I could call her Ava now.) We had laid on the whole shebang, from makeup artist to fashion stylist and photo assistants. She hadn't done a still-photo shoot like this (out of character) in fifteen years or so. It was her coming-out-again party and she was nervous. What was to have been a three-hour shoot turned into eight. A lot of time was spent listening to Sinatra records and sipping scotch between shots. Finally, when we thought we were all through, and I had put away most of the lights and Hasselblads, and she had changed out of a formal gown and into her sweats, I made one candid shot which turned out to be, in my opinion, the best photo of the whole bunch.

Nikon F4; 55mm f3.5 Macro; Ektachrome 100; Elinchrom and soft box

© 2003 Tom Zimberoff