Actor Edward Norton plays several pop-culture legends in this re-creation of the painting “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

The stories behind those iconic ‘SNL’ photos

Photographs by Mary Ellen Matthews
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN

Actor Edward Norton plays several pop-culture legends in this re-creation of the painting “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

They’re the first thing you see when “Saturday Night Live” comes back from a commercial break: Those iconic celebrity portraits, so bold and fun and quirky that they almost seem to jump off the screen.

They’ve been a staple of the show since 1975, highlighting each night’s host and musical guest and setting the mood for the entertainment to come.

“I like to think of it as a billboard of sorts,” said photographer Mary Ellen Matthews, who has been in charge of the shoots since 1999. “It's just such an opportunity to showcase the host and their personality.”

Matthews said Tom Hanks is a frequent host who is easy to work with and up to do just about anything. “I love the absurd. And I love a rubber chicken,” she said of this photo from October 2016.

For comedic talents like Tom Hanks, it could be a funny portrait of him carrying a briefcase full of rubber chickens. For “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, it could be a shot of him imitating Gene Kelly from “Singin’ in the Rain.” And for versatile actor Edward Norton, it could be him playing four pop-culture legends — including Marilyn Monroe — in a re-creation of Gottfried Helnwein’s painting “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

In the composite photo, seen at top, Norton also portrays James Dean, Humphrey Bogart and Elvis Presley.

“I thought it would be great for (Norton) to kind of dig into that and kind of play all those different characters, and he just loved it and we really did well with that idea,” Matthews recalled. “Tom Broecker is our costume designer, and he's a genius and I couldn't do it without him. … He really, as he always does, helps make these things come to life.”

Before becoming President, Donald Trump hosted “Saturday Night Live” in November 2015. His hair was a natural focal point for one of his portraits.

Matthews is constantly thinking of ideas for her “SNL” shoots, whether it’s re-creating a famous piece of art or just playing off her subject’s public persona. She also keeps things flexible on set and lets the celebrities take a concept and run with it.

“It's a great collaboration,” she said. “If they're enthusiastic about something, it's fun to work off of them, and I come with more than enough ideas that we can kind of go through them and pick a few or modify them. I usually come armed with lots and lots of things to kind of jump off of.”

This Tina Fey portrait, from September 2013, is a re-creation of this classic cover of Esquire magazine. “It was fun to see her own take on it,” Matthews said.

Each week’s photo shoot usually takes place on the Thursday before the show. Matthews has to come up with eight or nine portraits for each host, depending on the layout of that week’s show, she said. There are three portraits needed for each musical guest. After the shoot, about a day of post-production is needed to make sure the photos have the graphical treatment and colors they need to “pop” for the live broadcast.

In the last few years, Matthews has also started doing a few animated stills as she builds on a tradition that was started by her predecessor, Edie Baskin.

“I just try to live up to what she started and represent the show and represent the host in the right way and just bring a lot of fun into it,” she said.

Dwayne Johnson

Air date: May 20, 2017

“Another nutty idea I had,” Matthews said. “I just thought it'd be funny, almost like a romance cover, right? He's riding a white stallion and his hair's blowing in the wind. And then it became a unicorn somewhere along the line. I'm not sure where. He was so wonderfully game to do it, so hats off to him.”

Alec Baldwin

Air date: February 11, 2017

Baldwin channels “Hamlet” in one of his many “SNL” appearances. Matthews said he hosts so often that she has a special Alec Baldwin folder. “Everything goes in there when the idea strikes. And that seemed about the right one for the times.” Baldwin won an Emmy for his Donald Trump impressions on the show.

Melissa McCarthy

Air date: May 13, 2017

The inspiration behind this photo was Diane Arbus’ photo of identical twins in 1967. “A very famous image, so we just redid that one and (McCarthy) made it her own,” Matthews said.

Justin Timberlake

Air date: May 9, 2009

“Just a different perspective, shooting through a piece of Plexiglas,” Matthews said. “Super fun, obviously. (Timberlake is) always game. He’s another cast member, almost.”

Louis CK

Air date: April 8, 2017

“We made him look like a Renaissance painting, which is so cool,” Matthews said. The photo was animated during the show. “He looked like a proper formal portrait and he had his glasses on, and then he picked up his hand and started rubbing his eye. It’s just so funny.”

Amy Schumer

Air date: October 10, 2015

The comedian’s mischievous side is seen here, a play on the phrase “the cat that ate the canary.” Matthews said: “I decided to use some locations around the building and just have fun with what we have. I kind of thought of her as a bellhop, and then it just became more and more with the birdcage, and then she's swallowed a feather. We made it into this animation where she spits the feather out. We had so much fun doing that.”

Chance the Rapper

Air date: December 17, 2016

Matthews remembers Chance “bringing big energy” to the shoot, and she made this collage of him jumping. “It's kind of fun to play with multiple images. I love doing that,” she said.

Lady Gaga

Air date: November 16, 2013

“That’s one of my favs,” Matthews said. “I wanted to have (the little piano) on set, just to kind of play with. I usually have a bunch of props and a bunch of ideas, and that was one that I put in toward the end and she kind of found that position. It came out beautifully I thought.” The wardrobe belonged to Gaga. “At the time that was definitely part of her look,” Matthews said.

Will Ferrell

Air date: May 16, 2009

Knowing Ferrell is “somebody who really is game for a lot,” Matthews stuck him in the middle of a couple rows of daisies she made. “You can let someone like him find it, you know? Just give them the general idea. And that's obviously what collaboration is all about.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Air date: October 8, 2016

Miranda does his best Gene Kelly in this “Singin’ in the Rain” re-enactment. “We probably did that within seven minutes,” Matthews said. She said there often isn’t much time for these shoots, “and to really throw that together in a couple minutes shows all the support that everybody gives to each other on this show to get things done.” A special-effects team chipped in to get the rain going, and a props team wheeled in the lamppost.

Paul McCartney

Air date: December 11, 2010

“That was an honor and a privilege and earthshaking for me to photograph someone like him,” Matthews said. “He did a musical rehearsal before that and he played and played for everybody, and then he came up to my set and he was very sweet and told me right away that his wife used to be a photographer, which is obviously something I know — just kind of a way to break the ice and make it easy for me.

“He did a John Lennon medley during the show and it was so perfectly produced because the song ‘Give Peace a Chance’ ended and it went into that photo. It was just perfection. What a poignant moment.”

Mary Ellen Matthews has been the photographer for “Saturday Night Live” since 1999. She is based in New York. Follow her on Instagram.

Photo editors: Brett Roegiers and Bernadette Tuazon