Interviews

Drew Altizer Takes the Spotlight (For Once!)

By Janet Reilly

Drew Altizer makes a rare appearance in front of the camera. (Spencer Brown)

He’s at every glitzy gala and swanky soiree in town, but you’ll never see him in the party pages. He works the room with the ease and deftness of a seasoned politician. And, though he tries to be discreet, beautiful women vie for his attention wherever he goes. No, he’s not a movie star. He’s photographer Drew Altizer, who has been photographing high society in the Bay Area for the past 15 years. Born in Martinsville, Virginia, Altizer came to San Francisco in 2001 looking for an adventure, and what he found was a passion for photography and a reputation as the go-to person to chronicle your most important event. I sat down with Altizer recently at my home. Looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands, we talked about getting a foothold in San Francisco, the benefits of not having a mentor and the dress he just can’t forget. Meet Drew Altizer …

You’re from the East Coast originally. Where did you grow up? I think of myself as being from Virginia because that’s where I was when I was really little and it’s where I went to boarding school. But then, in college, I ended up in North Carolina.

And, what brought you to San Francisco? I worked for my family’s textile business [in Virginia]. I did that for several years, but I wanted to do something other than the family business. I wanted to see what else was out there, so I came to San Francisco thinking I would design products for maybe Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn or some other home goods brand. It didn’t work out that way. I became a photographer instead — by accident.

Where did your love of photography come from? I had a friend who had a store in Austin. She liked these [vintage] linen mats from France. I found some for her [in a store in North Beach]. I wanted to take pictures of things I thought she should buy. So I borrowed somebody’s camera … one of the first real digital cameras. I just kind of got — right away — how a camera sees.

It was super exciting because I’ve always drawn and painted — but not well. I could never really get on a piece of paper what I had in my mind. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the craft. But with a camera, I could get it immediately. That was really exciting. I wasn’t working at the time and I didn’t have much money, but I spent the next year just running around learning to take pictures.

So, how did you become the City’s premier society photographer? Tom Kelley and I became friends, and he [was involved in] an organization called Project Inform. He was going to photograph a gala, and I thought, “Well, I’ll take a camera along and just try to take some pictures in that environment and see how that goes.” Afterward, Laura King Pfaff called me. I went and took pictures for her for a few bucks and next thing you know … the phone kept ringing, I just kept showing up and doing my best. That was the trajectory.

That’s great. The truthful answer is I came along at exactly the right moment. There were a lot of people doing society photography — you remember Tom Gibbons and Scotty Morris …. They were mostly still shooting film and that was the thing. We were the first ones to have a real website. Nobody had ever seen a website where you could get your pictures from last night the next morning and acquire them immediately. With Tom, people would tell me all the time, “We [hired him to take] pictures for our wedding and it took six months before we ever saw them, and we’re still not sure where they are.” He was a nice guy. but we were [offering] a different experience than anybody had ever had before. That was really our competitive advantage.

 Altizer loves this image he captured of Vanessa Getty and designer Stefano Pilati deep in conversation at an Yves Saint Laurent in the mid-2000s.

Did you have a mentor? No. That’s the thing. I didn’t have anybody to [teach] me, which probably was great. I’m glad I didn’t have a mentor because I never would have taken the chances I took. I just assumed I could do it. It never really occurred to me that I couldn’t use a camera to make a living.

What makes you a good photographer? I think I’m good at this because I want to be good. This is what I chose to be good at, so I work at it. I wasn’t struck with a lightning bolt of talent. I’m not sure I believe [in that]. I think people may be a little bit predisposed to think visually or may be a little bit predisposed to seethings [a certain] way. That’s probably true. I had a background in seeing things for a living and doing visual work. Honestly, this is a discipline like any other discipline. You learn how to do it. It’s a craft more than anything, and you just practice at it.

Where did that confidence come from? What are the alternatives? Either you have it or you quit. … So you know, if you don’t have it, you pretend you have it, until you have it!

That’s great advice. What are your favorite events to photograph? I don’t really have specific favorite events. I like the ones that are high-profile and [those that are] a little different somehow than the others. I like a lot of events for different reasons. There are grass-roots kinds of organizations whose events are not lavish and who are genuinely doing all they can to serve a population of some kind. How do you not appreciate that?

The type of photography you do takes not only skill, but a certain amount of diplomacy and equanimity, which you have. Do you think this plays a role in your success and longevity in this business? Yes, there’s something to that. I don’t need someone to be important, in quotes, for me to take their picture. They’re important to that event on that day. … For people who are throwing a more modest party, it’s a big deal. It’s as important to them as throwing the Oscars to the people throwing the Oscars. A little theater company down on the Peninsula throws a party — it’s a big deal to them. They’re doing all they can to make it as nice as they can while raising a little money.

So, do you feel like part of your job is to elevate organizations? I do. I think a part of our job is to make [any] party look at least as good as it was — maybe even better. That’s a really big part of it, because our job is not about promoting individuals. In [the Nob Hill Gazette], there are people that appear all the time. We all know who they are. They’re the regular social crowd. But our job is about the fundraising cycle… If I take a picture of you and a magazine runs it, it gives your philanthropic friends permission to also get involved with that organization. You’re lending your credibility to the organization. We are the mechanism for people seeing that.

That’s interesting, because one of the things we’re trying to do with the Gazette is expand the coverage of the people who are doing really important, often unseen, philanthropic work in the City, on the Peninsula and beyond. There’s just so much generosity and so much good work being done every day. And you just don’t see it all. You couldn’t see it all, there’s too much. I think about organizations that get so little attention. One that comes to mind [is Lava Mae, which brings mobile shower trailers to the homeless in SF and Oakland]. Just giving some people the dignity of a half an hour of privacy to have a shower. God, it just makes you want to cry to hear about it. It’s unbelievable. …There’s a reason that it has everything to do with human dignity. It makes me so frustrated when I hear people talk about the City being so horrendously filthy. They don’t talk about human dignity. What about the people who don’t want to be on the street?

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be doing? Oh Lord, I can’t imagine I’d be employable. I don’t know what I could possibly do. People keep trying to get me to go into real estate, but … I’m not sure that’d be for me. I was a theater major in college. Now that I have enough life experience to understand what it is we’re play-acting about, I think that would be a much more interesting endeavor. I just didn’t have enough life experience to know how to be an actor really.

 Altizer adores the outdoors and photographing landscapes — this gorgeous love letter to the California coast is one of his favorites.

Is it true you met your wife, Camille, on-stage? We were in a play called Buried Child by Sam Shepard, which is like a really dark play. I was the dad in that play and she was the girlfriend of my son, I think. I was playing this grandfather practically — I was 19 years old. It was laughable. But I was really lucky that at this little liberal arts college I went to, Guilford College, we had abetter theater program than we deserved — put it that way.

But you and Camille didn’t date then. No, no we were buddies. We were buddies for a few years.

Fast-forward to … Facebook being invented. I thought, “OK, well, I haven’t talked to Camille for 20 years” or whatever it had been. So I just said hi, and now she lives in my house.

And you’re wearing a wedding ring! And I’m wearing a wedding ring, and so is she. Camille has been the most unbelievable support to me. Just unbelievable. And has really sort of helped me find some balance in my life.

I imagine in your line of work, finding that balance isn’t easy. [Before Camille] I worked day and night — just literally day and night. I’d just outwork you. You know, somebody told me once that you can have anything you want in life if you’re willing to give up absolutely everything else to get it. Now, that’s not a great approach, but there’s something to it. I was willing to do whatever. I just decided I could do this, which is exciting, but I would run my company all day, shoot at night and then I would edit all night and get up in the morning and start again. … It’s not that interesting to be close to somebody like that at some point.

San Francisco still has formal society traditions, but with all the changes in the City, do you think we can sustain it? Who knows? I think that it’s definitely changing. The sort of most traditional version of philanthropy, that’s certainly changing. … The children of the traditional philanthropists are, increasingly, moving to other places, trying other ways of living, not looking to emulate their parents, [necessarily]. They may like to emulate their values, but they don’t want to present in the same way. … People [today] don’t have endless time for lunches and then have dinner engagements. … They have families and work and other aspirations.

You’ve photographed a lot of beautiful events and beautiful people. Who wore the most show-stopping gown you’ve ever photographed? Wow. There are so many. Sako Fisher wore the most interesting gown. … She wore black trousers, sort of, and the dress at the top was like a red coat. It was like a soldier’s coat that draped over her backwards. … I had never conceived of a dress like that… Every couple of years, I’ll remind her of that dress. It was really something.

How would you describe your style? Oh, I’m square. My job is to blend in.

What inspires you? I get inspired by other photographers or artwork. … I don’t know, for me, just getting a break — honestly, just having a break from time to time. My brain will just start moving. I will start getting all kinds of new ideas and I’m always thinking about how we can develop our company. I’ve got an idea for something in the political realm with photography. I’ve got 10 good ideas on the burner. I’m inspired. I just got to …

Find the time to execute? I don’t have the time to execute it.

So, last question: In an era of selfies, do we really need Drew Altizer? Have you seen the quality of selfies? They’re terrible. Seriously, you know what I mean. We’ve got Facebook for selfies. Selfies and what we do are two different things, if for no other reason than just the self-centeredness of selfies. What we do is about other people.

The Lightning Round

I’m happiest when … I’m taking pictures in nature.

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken was … moving to San Francisco.

My biggest regret is … not taking better advantage of education.

If I had a magic wand I would … I don’t think I want a magic wand. If I had one, I would use it very selfishly.

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