From Kanye to Leonard Cohen, Video Director Mark Romanek's Photos Give Intimate Glimpse Into a Guarded World: Exclusive

Courtesy of Mark Romanek
Kanye West

When it comes to the medium of music videos, Mark Romanek is a giant. And though his name may not spark instant recognition to the casual pop culture consumer, the 57-year-old’s projects have left an undeniable footprint that spans decades and genres.

His was the creative eye behind the videos for Johnny Cash’s tearfully nostalgic “Hurt,” the mercilessly creepy “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, Jay Z’s “99 Problems”, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and many, many more. The Chicago native first stepped behind the camera in 1986 — a career that’s earned him over a dozen MTV Video Music Awards and three Grammys. 

A select few of the creative minds who have crossed paths with Romanek will be on display for the next month (until February 11) as Romanek highlights his collection of never-before-seen photos at the Paris boutique, Colette.

Though not a photographer by trade, Romanek has been snapping photos of colleagues and associates for decades on his trusty Contax T2. “They were sort of personal photos of friends, or things I just took while we were having fun working,” Romanek tells Billboard.

At the urging of his wife, he finally decided to sort through his boxes of photos to pick around 30 black-and-white prints to display. His subjects, like his work, don’t stick to any one genre, and range from Paul McCartney to Gwen Stefani to Kanye West. The only thing the photos have in common is the ease and candidness of their subjects, a quality Romanek attributes to always using his first photo, a technique developed to capture his media-trained subjects before they have time to “put on their picture face.” Each photo comes with a story as rich as its subject.

Like the Yeezy shot, for example. Romanek photographed Mr. West while he was working in the studio. Kanye had invited him over to hear an unreleased track he was working on, which turned out to be an early-stage “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” 

“He was still mixing it, I think, and we started talking about the politics of diamonds," Romanek explains. "I had just read a bunch of articles about blood diamonds and the diamonds in Sierra Leone, and the situation there. We started talking about all that stuff, which he wasn't necessarily aware of.” 

The conversation must have stuck with West, because it ended up altering the direction of the song. “I think he ended up writing a bunch of different verses, and I think he changed the name of the song to ‘Diamonds of Sierra Leone,’ and he incorporated some of the political aspects.”

Romanek finds the photo of Kanye memorable because it offers a rare glimpse into the heart of his creative process“You could see on his face that he was very happy with his own work, which is a nice thing to capture when somebody has that feeling of satisfaction and pride in something they've created.”

Some of Romanek’s photos carry heavier sentiments. There’s a particularly heartbreaking 2003 shot of Robin Williams -- who starred in Romanek's feature-film thriller One Hour Photo -- in the collection. The late Leonard Cohen, a personal hero and friend of Romanek, is also featured in a photo taken in Los Angeles from 2005. The two share a rather interesting origin story: About 30 years ago, Romanek was wandering around the campus of his alma mater, Ithaca College, when he saw a man who looked an awful lot like Leonard Cohen striding towards him. 

“As I got closer I went, ‘Oh, my god. That is Leonard Cohen,’" the director remembers. "Suddenly he was two feet in front of me, and I just impulsively said, ‘Mr. Cohen, my name is Mark. Your music is so important to me, and I'm such a fan of yours.’”

Cohen thanked him for his kind words and then -- in an act that nearly gave Romanek a panic attack -- invited him out for ice cream. “He was with some friends — a beautiful woman and some other person — and he said, ‘Hey, we're going for ice cream. Why don't you come with us?’ I was sort of shocked, and I almost was afraid… Somewhere in the back of my mind I said, 'Well, you'll regret it for the rest of your life if you turn him down.'”

Sadly, Romanek does not remember what flavor Leonard Cohen ordered. 

The honor of his favorite photo goes to a charming shot of a shaggy Spike Jonze standing alone in a strip mall parking lot on the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights in 2003. Romanek can’t quite explain why he likes it so much, but it stuck with him.

If the response to these photos is deemed worthy enough, Romanek plans to make moves towards releasing a book with his pictures. Some of his fans might be slightly dismayed to learn that he’s moving away from music videos in favor of feature films, like One Hour Photo, and 2010’s Never Let Me Go. But he says he does keep up with modern music through his daughters now — who enjoy Rae Sremmurd, Drake, and most hip-hop — and cites Jamie xx’s “Gosh” and Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” as the best videos he’s watched recently. 

Romanek hasn’t seen his Paris display in person yet, but hopes to make it over before February 11. He’s hopeful those who do catch the gallery at Colette (213 rue Saint Honoré, Paris) will feel connected to these artists in the same way he was.

“I can't necessarily explain the impulse to take these pictures," he says. "I guess at some point a light bulb went off and I said [to myself], 'You're in a position where you're constantly meeting these talented and charismatic people, and you like to take pictures. So if you don't start taking them, all these opportunities are going to get missed.'”