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Small-town photographer hits the big time … every year

Noel West, a photographer with Great West Newspapers, savours freelance Oscar assignment

By: Scott Hayes

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Mar 19, 2014 06:00 am

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  • MOMENT CAPTURED – Best Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong'o accepts her newly-engraved Academy Award trophy at the Governor's Ball after the 86th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 2.
    MOMENT CAPTURED – Best Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong'o accepts her newly-engraved Academy Award trophy at the Governor's Ball after the 86th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 2.
    NOEL WEST-THE NEW YORK TIMES/Supplied photo
  • HAVING A BALL – Musician-actor Jared Leto mugs for the camera at the Governors Ball after the 86th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 2.
    HAVING A BALL – Musician-actor Jared Leto mugs for the camera at the Governors Ball after the 86th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 2.
  • PHOTO OP – Noel West, a photographer in the Great West Newspapers chain, poses on the red carpet on Oscar night.
    PHOTO OP – Noel West, a photographer in the Great West Newspapers chain, poses on the red carpet on Oscar night.

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Noel West is a mild-mannered, small town newspaper photographer but once a year he puts on the hat of a big city, high falootin’ red carpet paparazzo.

West is a staff photographer for Olds, Alta.-based Mountain View Publishing, which also publishes papers in Carstairs, Didsbury, Innisfail and Sundre (and is a subsidiary of the Gazette’s parent company, Great West Newspapers.) But for one night each year he takes on a new identity freelancing for the New York Times for the biggest event for fans of the silver screen: Oscar night.

“It’s a bit of a transition coming back,” he remarked, still sounding like he’s riding a wave of enthusiasm and energy from the March 2 Academy Awards.

“You kind of get used to the temperature change. It’s 30 degrees down there! That’s an adjustment,” he said.

He’s not just talking about the weather. For one night every year for the last several years, he travels south to California to be one of only seven photographers who are allowed to be on the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

He has all the training, equipment and security clearance to catch the celebrity posturing and posing before the big event as well as the glamorous Governor’s Ball afterward, where the winners get their golden boys engraved.

The 33-year-old British Columbia native studied photojournalism at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, a 90-minute drive from the stage where Ellen Degeneres stood 10 days ago.

He snagged the choice gig because his first teacher once told him, “Oh, if you ever need anything, just give me a shout,” he recalled. “I said that I’d like to get some experience.”

A few months later the Oscars were coming up and she was a freelance editor for the event. She asked if he wanted to help out as a fill-in for another photographer who was on leave. Being a movie buff already, he only had one answer.

“I said sure! It sounded kind of exciting. I hadn’t been to anything like that before.”

He started by assisting with setting up shots. That went well enough and the work kept getting him invited back. Then he started shooting features himself.

Four years ago was the first time he shot the Governor’s Ball, the massive party at the end of the awards ceremony. There are 1,500 people in attendance, including many of the nominees and other celebrities and important people in the industry. It’s also where the Oscar statuettes themselves get engraved with the winners’ names.

West’s photos represent the sheer emotionality and star power of the event. He captured new Best Supporting Actor winner Jared Leto giving the photog a cocky thumbs up with a wink. In another moment of magic captured for the ages, Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o is shown with energetic outstretched arms as she reaches for her trophy back from the smiling engraver.

“She was just absolutely ecstatic! She was clapping her hands and had this look of pure joy on her face,” he said.

“It’s almost like winning the lottery to become an actor and to become a successful actor or actress. It’s like winning the lottery again to win an Academy Award. It’s a pretty momentous event for these people.”

Stressful assignment

The gig is no walk in the park, however. There’s a lot of stress on the photographers that evening as they must race around to make sure they snap the right people at the right time then submit their work in a timely fashion to meet their newspapers’ deadlines across the country.

This is a particular bit of nuisance for West since there’s a three-hour time difference between Los Angeles and New York.

He admitted that his position was originally assigned to another freelancer back at the beginning but that person took a photo in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“The academy kicked her out,” he said.

This was his first year on the red carpet. He said it’s great to catch all the mugging for the cameras but he prefers the more relaxed atmosphere of the ball.

“As a journalist, I enjoy capturing natural moments as opposed to having people just mug for you on the red carpet. It’s a situation that lends itself to great photos.”

You might think that being a film fan might make him prone to being star-struck but he says it actually helps him to navigate through the crowd to get the images he needs.

“It’s funny. It’s helpful. I watch all the movies – you kind of need to know who’s who. There’s definitely that element of being star-struck. I think I’ve done it long enough now that I’ve almost gotten used to it. The first year I was just hanging out waiting for something and Steven Spielberg was standing next to me. In my head, I’m thinking, ‘this is crazy!’ It’s a bit surreal, for sure.”

West will be back in Hollywood again next year on Feb. 22 but for now he’s back taking pictures in south-central Alberta.

He said he really appreciates the chance to take on the enviable but arduous Oscar-night assignment, especially because it helps to give him a name in the industry, but he still loves his small-town job.

“It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “You shoot quite a bit. Doing things like the Oscars and working for a well-known company is helpful, hopefully, career-wise.”


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