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Celebrity Photographer Peter Sorel Ditches Hollywood For Chicago

 Images from Peter Sorel's 50-year career photographing celebrities, landscapes and other subjects.
Peter Sorel Photography
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RIVER NORTH — Hungarian-born celebrity photographer Peter Sorel made a name for himself in Hollywood. But whenever his work brought him to Chicago, he always dreamed of staying.

He said he loves the city's climate (shocking, we know), amenities and most of all, its people: for one thing, Hollywood types "never keep to a schedule," said the 65-year-old artist, whose work will be featured in a new exhibit opening Thursday at Hilton Asmus Contemporary in River North.

"If you want to meet someone, you say 'OK, meet me at 10 o'clock,' and unless they want something from you, they'll be half an hour late." he said. "And nobody returns phone calls. If you want to ask a question or question something, then forget it — he or she is in a meeting forever."

 Left, actor Orson Welles, captured by Peter Sorel during his career photographing celebrities in Hollywood; right, Peter Sorel, now a Streeterville resident.
Left, actor Orson Welles, captured by Peter Sorel during his career photographing celebrities in Hollywood; right, Peter Sorel, now a Streeterville resident.
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Courtesy Peter Sorel

"You don't get that here," said Sorel, who has lived in Streeterville for the last six years. "Here, you call somebody and they're either there, or they're not there."

Sorel now lives a quiet life, walking almost everywhere from his home on North Water Street and photographing his new favorite subject — Lake Michigan — from season to season.

In what he calls his "previous life," he captured stars like Annette Bening, Clint Eastwood, Nicole Kidman and more. He's photographed more than 100 films in his career, and in 1996 was awarded a lifetime achievement honor for still photography by the Society of Camera Operators.

Both subjects will be featured in the new exhibit.


Sorel's eye was behind many distinctive portraits that are instantly recognizable: Salma Hayek, glaring from under a unibrow as "Frida," Kristen Stewart nuzzling Robert Pattinson for "Twilight" and Jack Nicholson sporting a wool cap for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"I love movies, absolutely," Sorel said, and he regularly treks out to the Landmark Theatre and Gene Siskel Film Center to catch screenings of old, new and foreign gems, like his current favorite, "The Best Offer."

He may never have left the business were it not for the growing popularity of adding special effects digitally in post-production — frankly, it leaves very little to photograph, he says.

"The movie business has completely changed," he said. "There's nothing worse for a photographer than visual effects films because it's always in the way. Everything is created months later in a room with a computer, by other people."

His brightly-colored portraits for "Life of Pi" were his "goodbye to the industry," he said, "because that was 90 percent blue screen."

To some degree, it soured his taste for big-budget action flicks.

"I don't see any more films which are made for teenagers," he said. "I never see a special effects film anymore" — except for James Bond movies, because he's loyal to the series.

 A lipstick smeared Dominique Swain for "Lolita" is one of Peter Sorel's iconic images.
A lipstick smeared Dominique Swain for "Lolita" is one of Peter Sorel's iconic images.
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Courtesy Peter Sorel


The River North show will include some of Sorel's more iconic images, and less recognizable shots from his years in the movie business.

His favorites include a scowling Orson Welles snapped with a cigar in his mouth, and a head-on portrait of Dominique Swain, lipstick smeared, for "Lolita."

"It's a very provocative picture, but it tells the story right away — it wasn't for a poster or a movie still," he said, of the latter image.

And in the former shot: "I worked on a magic show in the 60s and [Orson Welles] was there, because he was into magic. I just said 'hey, can I shoot a portrait of you?' And he popped the cigar into his mouth and gave me that look."

That kind of spontaneity is something Sorel likes to capture since his retirement from the movie business.

He describes his portraits of Chicago's urban and natural landscapes as "somewhat surreal still-lifes." Many are tightly cropped or shot from unconventional perspectives, rendering subjects like the intersection of Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive nearly unrecognizable.

Sorel says that while he might be done with film, he sees a long future for his photography career with a focus on new subjects.

"I am fascinated by all kinds of photographic expression," he said. Right now, he says the inspiration for his work is the same thing that drove his move to Streeterville in 2006.

"I know it sounds corny, but: my love for the city," he said. "I'm a city boy, not a suburban person ... [and] I just love this place."

"Peter Sorel Photographs: Hollywood to Chicago" will be on display Feb. 20 – April 12 at Hilton Asmus Contemporary, 716 N. Wells St. An opening reception with the artist will be Feb. 20 from 5 – 9 p.m.  Gallery hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 12 – 6 p.m.