Cruising the edge of sets like a shark in shallow water, still photographer Ron P. Jaffe has spent a career using his stealthiness to capture the perfect shot. Sharing tales from times past as he sits in the serenity of his Playa del Rey home, he describes taking pictures on many of the crime movies, comedies and dramatic television series made in Hollywood during the past 30 years.
As a “stillman” — industry jargon for his profession — he has photographed everything from actors and on-set action to sets and props, and even provided the pictures for 30-foot-wide promotional billboards.
Jaffe was raised in Montgomery, Ala., after World War II. As a schoolkid, his grades were average, but he enjoyed the high school darkroom and worked on yearbook photography. He qualified for prelaw at Cal State Los Angeles in 1969 but chose to attend UCLA instead. He quit after the first day of lectures, saying the curriculum was too difficult, and turned to Pasadena City College for a degree in education.
After earning his degree, Jaffe taught English and social sciences at local junior colleges. He parlayed his credentials into a full-time position at Chapman University in 1974, and traveled to Africa by ship for the school’s World Campus Afloat curriculum, teaching advanced photography while sailing the world.
Jaffe shot glamorous spreads and high-end fashion catalogs soon after his return to Los Angeles, and by 1977, he was hired by the prestigious Elson Alexander Studios. As head photographer there for nearly 20 years, he racked up 37,000 sittings, including with six U.S. presidents (Nixon, Ford, Bush Sr., Reagan, Carter and Clinton), members of both houses of Congress and a good part of the membership of the Los Angeles Bar Assn.
By then, Jaffe had become so adept with his camera that Hollywood came calling, so he transitioned to showbiz and shot stills on a trio of low-budget films directed by his pal Jeff Celentano, including the features “Gunshy” and “Primary Suspects.” Jaffe’s career arc spiked in 1998, when he obtained a union card for the NBC-TV series “Suddenly Susan.”
He got a break at Warners, which produced “Susan,” and soon was being assigned night shoots on “L.A. Confidential,” photographing murder victims. That talent — shooting “stiffs,” as he recalls it — made him a hot commodity.
Jaffe saw TV action on series like “Veronica Mars” in 2004, and by the next year, he was on high-profile shows such as “The West Wing,” “Cold Case” and a road map of “CSI” series, from Miami to New York to Las Vegas. Shooting everything from explosions to gory crime scenes, ID photos to autopsies, he climbed into the big leagues, one fireball at a time. He also worked a host of dramatic venues, including “The Doctors,” “Jane the Virgin” and “Shark.”
Some still photographers have favorite subjects, and in 2006, Jaffe declared that actor James Woods was his. Sharing a respect for the craft, the two remain close to this day.
A certified ship’s captain, the ageless Jaffe enjoys sailing when not on set (recent shoots include “What/If,” “Life in Pieces” and “Lucifer”). He reflects on his unobtrusive profession: “You gotta stay invisible and focused to succeed as a stillman. Otherwise, the moment just swims away.”