George Lange has photographed the Obamas. He has photographed Steve Jobs and Bill Gates together. And he has photographed myriad celebrities from Jerry Seinfeld to Donald Trump to Sophia Loren.
But the photo this native Pittsburgher wants to talk about is one that he took just a few days ago, in his childhood home on Inverness Avenue in Squirrel Hill, in his mother’s bedroom.
The image of an 87-year-old grandmother reading to her young grandson about the history of the World Series by the light of an iPad, while snuggled in bed, epitomizes the essence of what Lange has been cultivating in his work for decades: finding connection in the intimate and the personal.
“There are these moments that are so full of love, and so powerful, and that is what that moment was for me,” he said. “The more intimate, and the more personal, the better.”
He shared the photo by posting it on Facebook and Instagram.
“I wanted people to look at it and to see themselves,” he said.
Lange was back in his hometown for a few days last week, visiting his mother, Aline, and showing his sons the ballparks and the museums (his photo of Jobs and Gates hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art). He is quintessentially a family man, albeit that identity was delayed until he was in his 50s.
“Having young kids is completely screwing up the aging process,” quipped Lange. “But the truth is, I was born to be a father. I can’t get enough of it. I have an extraordinary career, but I would give it up to spend any day with my kids or with Steffi [his wife].”
Now 60, the photographer who has made a name for himself shooting portraits for Esquire, Fortune and Vanity Fair among other magazines, says he prioritizes family time so much that he doesn’t even understand what a “work/life balance” means.
And yet, his career still seems to be on the fast track, infused with the perceptions he absorbs in every moment of being human, and evolving over time.
Kind of like a good sauce reduction.
“You know when you are reducing a sauce and the water steams off it, and you get to the rich part of what you’re doing?” he said. “Why would I be slowing down?”
He was recently named the first artist-in-residence with Creative Shop at Instagram. He is the author of the bestselling 2013 book, “The Unforgettable Photograph,” which has been translated into five languages. His clients include IBM and Cardinal Health.
But Lange holds fast to his roots and to the formative years he spent in Pittsburgh. Now a resident of Boulder, Colo., he has an affinity for the Steel City and fondly recalls Sundays spent at Steelers games with his father, Jack. They even were witness to the Immaculate Reception.
“We went to every Steelers game since I was age 5,” Lange said. “My dad would go with a 40-men block, and it would be freezing. They would sit there drinking coffee and smoking cigars, and I used to ask, ‘Which one is keeping you warm?’ It was this powerful ritual. Just sitting next to my dad and feeling his arm against mine and sharing this experience.”
His family was affiliated with Rodef Shalom Congregation, and he graduated from Taylor Allderdice, where he took photos for the school newspaper and yearbook.
Photography has been an “addiction,” Lange said, that began when he was 7 years old. He has taken pictures every day since then and recalls the darkroom in the home of Squirrel Hill neighbor Jerry Hahn, where he would spend hours when he was a teenager.
“The family would all go to bed, and I’d still be in the darkroom,” Lange said.
He left Pittsburgh after high school and graduated with a B.F.A. in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was influenced by a professor’s mantra, “Don’t think; just take pictures.”
Following college, Lange went to New York and got jobs assisting established photographers. He eventually ended up working for celebrated portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz.
“What I learned from her was choreography,” Lange said. “There’s a certain rhythm to the way we live and work and relate to each other. By being able to study her rhythm and choreography, I was able to launch my own career.”
Capitalizing on the experience he gained with Leibovitz, Lange talked his way into his first magazine assignment, for GEO.
After that, his persistence, coupled with his keen ability to capture quiet moments of truth, catapulted Lange’s career as a photographer of celebrities as well as ordinary people in whom he is able to find the extraordinary.
He clearly loves his work.
“I get to meet all these amazing people just by being intensely curious,” he said. “I get an incredible pleasure by understanding what makes them special.”
Lange peppers his conversation with constant references to the five senses. He is constantly taking in life, whatever or whoever happens to come his way. His favorite subject, he said, is always “the next person I photograph.”
“I’m just as invested in Obama in the Oval Office as I am with a factory worker in Thailand,” he said. “I’m just interested in being able to tell an interesting story.”
Although his life’s work is capturing images, those images portray much more than a mere record of the physical attributes of his subjects.
“I’m interested in the way things feel,” Lange said.
“I am paid to go out in the world and feel. There are no rules. The more personal I am, the better I am.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.