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Shari Belafonte Is Back in the Picture

She opens up about her love affair with photography

Shari Bellafonte

Ari Michelson

Shari Belafonte, 62, is an actor, director and former model. Her latest film is "Primrose Lane."

My first camera — my grandmother gave it to me when I was 3 1/2 — was a Kodak Brownie. I would photograph my older sister, Adrienne. Nine years later, at boarding school, I shot a lot of black-and-white pictures, mostly brooks and pine trees, but I’d graduated to a 35-millimeter by then. To this day, I swoon every time I see an Ansel Adams landscape. I must have spent half of high school in the darkroom.

I grew up around show business — my dad is the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte — and I had always planned to be behind the camera. But after a Hollywood makeup artist told me I could make good money modeling and doing commercials, I found myself in front of a camera, being shot by Richard Avedon for my first Vogue cover in 1982. Unlike other photographers, Richard didn’t shoot roll after roll. And the way he could get me to react when he was shooting was inspired: He would say something funny, then — click! — I’d be caught by surprise. After five or six frames, he would say, “OK, we’re done.” It was two hours in makeup and 10 seconds before the lens. That’s the mark of a master.

Not until I married my husband [the actor Sam Behrens] in 1989 did I pick up another 35-millimeter camera, a wedding gift from Sam. Before long, I was shooting headshots for friends. Then I started getting jobs shooting stills for movies.


Shari Belafonte

I’ve had several exhibits in the past few years. Right now I’m shooting comical portraits for a project called “Gimme Your Goofy-est.” I asked a bunch of people — everyone from random concertgoers to well-known celebrities — to give me the worst face they could possibly come up with: crossed eyes, fingers up noses, tongues sticking out. Part of the proceeds will go toward the Lili Claire Foundation, which serves children with neurogenetic conditions such as Down syndrome. And the project captures what a lifetime of photography has taught me: People show their truest selves in their most unguarded moments.

— As told to Stacy Jenel Smith