40 Years of Sundance: A Look Back With Photographer Jeff Vespa

TheWrap’s creative director reflects on his time at the festival with photos of young stars Ryan Gosling, Naomi Watts, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

2024 marks the 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s winter refuge for actors, filmmakers and indie studios who flock to Park City, Utah to celebrate cinema away from the franchises and nine-digit budgets of Hollywood.

It is also, apparently, a place for those celebs to have some snowball fights.

This pic of a 29-year-old Ethan Hawke slinging a fistful of frozen water was taken back in 2000 by photographer Jeff Vespa, who now serves as the creative director of TheWrap. He recalls meeting up with Hawke and actor Kyle MacLachlan, who were in Park City for the premiere of their modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” directed by Michael Almereyda, and took this spontaneous photo.

“Since we were shooting film at the time I didn’t even know i captured that moment until the day after I took it,” Vespa told TheWrap. “This is the most quoted Sundance picture I’ve ever taken. It was in ‘People’ and I think it was in ‘Entertainment Weekly,’ too. Even years later, when Entertainment Weekly was sponsoring Sundance, they’d have the photo in their official festival space.”

Vespa parlayed photos like these into a job as the official photographer for Sundance from 2003 to 2017, taking tens of thousands of photos of the festival’s big stars.

“I took around 2,500-2,700 pictures each year at the festival,” Vespa said. “So, overall, I have around 50,000 pictures online just from Sundance. I’ve probably taken more photos at the festival than anyone else.”

Vespa has been a regular at Sundance going back to 1995, after just graduating from the American Film Institute and went to the festival as an attendee. Two years later he met veteran photographer Randall Michelson and offered to help him take photos at the festival.

“He had this prepared speech about how people say they are going to help him, but they’re only there for half an hour and don’t do anything, but I insisted. ‘No, I’m really going to help you!’” he recalled. “So I came up with him in ’99, and that year I really understood the lay of the land when it comes to photography.”

Many of Vespa and Michelson’s photos in 1999 and 2000, like the one with Hawke, were shot out in the Park City cold; but in 2001, Vespa began taking photos in studio spaces and at festival parties and screenings. Those pictures served as the basis for WireImage, a successful entertainment photo company that was acquired by Getty Images in 2007.

“My whole career has been really built around Sundance and I often say that I don’t think Robert Redford completely understands what he’s done, not just for filmmakers, but for various other people in entertainment,” Vespa said.

Vespa shared his photos of today’s big stars when they were still on the rise at Sundances in the early 2000s, including “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig and “Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan at the dawn of their careers. You can check out those photos below.

More than two decades before he enchanted the world with his Kenergy, Ryan Gosling enthralled Sundance with “Believer,” a drama directed by Henry Bean in which Gosling plays a young Jewish man who hates his own identity to the point that he becomes a Neo-Nazi. Vespa’s photo of him above has never been published until now.

Vespa: “I just remember my friend was really close with him, and he was like, ‘You gotta photograph this kid, he’s gonna be huge. I knew I’d done this picture, but when I searched for it I couldn’t find it in my folders. I had to go all the way back to the raw images and I finally found it and thought, ‘How did this never get posted?’”

20 years ago, a teenage Kristen Stewart appeared at Sundance in the teen drama “Speak,” in which she played a high school freshman who goes silent after being raped by a senior. She has two movies in the festival this year.

Paul Giamatti has slowly but surely gained momentum for a possible Best Actor victory at the Oscars for his performance in “The Holdovers,” but Vespa notes that even decades after he took this photo of him at the 2003 Sundance, he still seems nervous about the current awards season.

Vespa: “It’s funny because he’s appeared at festivals and award season to promote ‘Sideways’ and ‘American Splendor’ and all these films but, when I was at Palm Springs [film festival], he said, ‘Oh, I’m so nervous, I’ve never done this before.’ I had to remind him that, yeah, he has done this before and that I’ve shot photos with him, and he said, ‘Oh, no, no, this is totally different.’ I guess because now there’s social media and campaigning is so much more intense, he’s thrown by it all.”

Check out all our Sundance coverage here.


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