"The difference between a great photo and no photo at all," says Jeff Vespa, "can be one second."
So says the celebrity photographer who has coaxed memorable portraits from Seth Rogen and Al Pacino, charmed Tilda Swinton and Zoe Saldana and even captured Leo DiCaprio playing with his phone at a Vanity Fair party last year, his treasured Oscar languishing on the floor.
"Everything is timing. ... You have to have eyes in the back of your head and keep track of where everyone is and what's happening everywhere in the room," says the Pikesville native, 47, from his newly opened studio in suburban Los Angeles. "That is how you get the great shots that people remember."
Timing has been key to his career: In 2001, he co-founded the photo agency WireImage, which sold to Getty Images in 2007 for $207 million.
Yet photo subjects and colleagues* also point to the goodwill and trust he engenders in his craft, which he launched as a teen punk-rock fan and graffiti artist in the 1980s in Baltimore.
Vespa was hanging out along Charles Street, from Mount Vernon to what's now Station North. Frequenting The Charles, he developed friendships that landed him a moment on screen in John Waters' "Hairspray." The then-Jeff Meyer acquired the street name Vespa — he liked the way it looked on his tag, or signature (no, it had nothing to do with the motorbike).
He also began to capture images of Baltimore's punk scene.
"I knew in my head that it was one of those moments that needed to be captured," says Vespa, who shot artfully in black and white. "I got some great stuff that I used actually to get into college with. It became my portfolio."
It was his mother, Marlene Meyer, who gave Vespa his first camera — a Canon AE-1.
"He was the hardest kid to raise in the world. I'm glad to be alive to see his success," she says from Sarasota, Fla., where she has lived since moving from Pikesville six years ago. "I would pick him up in Baltimore at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. He never got a driver's license. We lived in Pikesville, and he would skateboard to downtown. He was into it all. But he never did drugs. He never smoked. He never drank. But he did all this artsy stuff."
After graduating from San Francisco Art Institute and settling in Los Angeles, Vespa applied on a whim to a job shooting celebrity events and premieres.
The day he responded to the ad, he was shooting the "Bulworth" premiere with Halle Berry and Warren Beatty.
From that gig, he signed to a small agency and quickly became a sought-after celebrity photographer — inking deals with companies such as Yahoo, and eventually co-founding WireImage.
Kevin Mazur, a co-founder of WireImage, thinks that Vespa was invaluable in developing it for the digital age. (They both still contribute to it.)
"Jeff was very crucial to the success of the company," Mazur says. "He had a lot of great ideas when we were building WireImage. He was a visionary."
Today, Vespa's portfolio is a virtual who's who of Hollywood royalty, old and new: Clooney, Hanks, Sarandon, Kidman, Chastain, Ruffalo and Nyong'o.
Vespa's portraits exhibit emotion — a delicate balance of power and vulnerability with a continual theme of regality.
Those familiar faces are sharp and distinct — even when the subject is creeping from the shadows of black-and-white photos or front and center in dark, moody color.
He has his favorites.
"Cate Blanchett is pretty unbelievable," he says. "She works. She has incredible outfits. … Any photo you see of her on the red carpet is stunning."
Tilda Swinton — whom Vespa first photographed in 2001 at the Cannes Film Festival for the movie "The Deep End" — is tops for photo shoots.
"She's fully participatory to making art," he said. "She works. She tries to do something to make it great. I love that about her."
Vespa once convinced a sweaty, suit-draped Christoph Waltz to jump around his living room studio as part of the 2014 coffee table book "The Art of Discovery: Hollywood Stars Reveal Their Inspirations."
Mazur, who has been a celebrity photographer for three decades with various outlets such as Rolling Stone, has always been struck by how easy celebrities warm to Vespa.
"He knows how to make people relax and put people at ease," said Mazur. "He's such an approachable guy. When he's walking up he has a smile on his face. A lot of celebrities feel at ease with him. They drop their guard, and they want to be his friend."
Naomi Watts* has worked with him "countless" times dating back to the late 1990s.
"I love working with Jeff because so much of capturing a moment in a photograph relies on the energy and relationship between you and the photographer," Watts wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "Jeff has this wonderful and natural ease, he makes you forget there's a camera, so it's just two people working closely together, creating something. He seems to want to truly connect with your spirit, rather than just your image."
People trust Vespa, according to Watts.
"I find myself making a point giving him 100 percent eye contact on every red carpet because we have a relationship and a history that we have both nurtured and enjoyed over many years," she wrote.
Of course, every celebrity encounter hasn't been a success story.
Recounts Vespa: There was the time that 50 Cent ordered him not to take a photo at a Clive Davis party. A young Shia LaBeouf ran away from Vespa at a party at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. Director Paul Thomas Anderson once walked out of a shoot after one shot (he eventually returned to complete the session) while he was promoting "Punch Drunk Love" with Adam Sandler.
Besides his photography, Vespa runs Verge, a web-based magazine he founded that focuses on new talent (such as John Boyega of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"). His first feature film, "AMRE," starring Abbie Cornish, will be released this year.
Awards season is his peak period, and this month has been particularly hectic. In addition to moving into his new 4,000-square-foot photo studio, he shot the Weinstein Co. / Netflix Golden Globes after-party.*
"I have learned not to stress about things. I just keep a cool head and go through the list of tasks," he said. "Sometimes that means staying up until 4 a.m., which I don't love but it is what it is. I choose to do all this stuff so I don't have anyone to complain to about it."
Emily Meyer, Vespa's wife and a former publicist who has represented Jessica Alba and Eva Mendes, thinks the best is yet to come with her husband.
"This is the beginning for him — which sounds funny because he's so accomplished," said Meyer. "He's continued to up his game, and he's getting better and better."
She attributes her husband's recent growth to the birth of their 1 ½ year-old daughter, Genevieve Vespa Meyer.
"He cares about his art more. It's a legacy and leaving a legacy for her. It's art that she can one day look at and one day be proud of her dad," she said.
Background: Born in Mount Washington; raised in Pikesville
Family: Wife, Emily Meyer; daughter, Genevieve Vespa Meyer 1 ½.
Resides: Los Angeles
Accomplishments: Co-founder of WireImage; founder of Verge, an online magazine that focuses on new celebrity talent; director or producer of 10 films; his first feature film, "AMRE," starring Abbie Cornish, will be released this year; former editor-at-large of LIFE.com; official photographer for Sundance and Toronto film festivals; released "Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose" (2004) with Paris Hilton, and "The Art of Discovery: Hollywood Stars Reveal Their Inspirations" (2014).
* This article has been updated. An earlier version referenced "former colleagues"; Vespa and Kevin Mazur are still partners in WireImage. It omitted the first name of Naomi Watts and incorrectly said Vespa shot Damien Chazelle and J.K. Simmons this month.