Bruce Weber on David Bailey, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model and Romance
I recently got the chance to interview legendary photographers David Bailey and Bruce Weber. The two photographers – who are old friends–had spent a day together shooting in Harlem with the new Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone, taking photos that Nokia is showing in an exhibition and in their marketing. The day after the shoot, as PR people hovered near us in the rooftop bar at New York’s James Hotel, I was given precisely 30 minutes to interview both photographers for The Telegraph Magazine, which published the interview and several photos from their shoot this weekend. Half an hour turned out to be enough time for the photographers to tell me more good stories than I could fit into The Telegraph article.
For example, Bailey told a story that demonstrates the usefulness of keeping a pocket-sized camera with you at all times.
Once he was shooting a commercial in South Africa. Model Naomi Campbell turned up for the shoot three days late. (“The crew was very happy,” he said.) To make it up to Bailey, she offered to bring him along when she had breakfast with Nelson Mandela. Bailey was told by Mandela’s handlers he couldn’t bring any cameras. So, Bailey said, he stuck a video camera in one pocket, and a still camera in the other. When he arrived, President Mandela greeted him with open arms and said, “Ah Mr. Bailey, I hope you’re going to take my picture.” And he got a portrait.
Weber said, “Isn’t it funny how many times …you’re told, ‘You can’t bring a camera’? You have always got to stick one in your pocket.” Bailey said, “I always think: What do you mean, ‘Don’t take a camera’? That’s like leaving my head behind.”
The day in Harlem shooting with the Nokia Lumia 1020 was not only Weber’s first time shooting with a phone; it was his first time ever shooting digitally. But the two talked less about the tools they use to shoot photos than about the personal feeling they try to express in their images. Bailey, for example, said he doesn’t care what his subjects think about the portraits he takes, “I just take the picture that I want to take in that moment.” He said his motto is “Be true to yourself.”
(For more on Bailey’s attitude towards his picture taking, see PDNOnline’s Legends Online interview with him from 2001 here.
When asked what they admire most about each other’s work, they said it’s that their images always bear a personal stamp and style. Weber said he can see Bailey’s feelings and curiosity expressed in all of his portraits. He calls Bailey’s images “romantic,” a description that surprised Bailey. “Romantic” is also the word Weber uses to describe images by his mentor, Diane Arbus, whom he met when he first moved to New York City.
After Arbus got him enrolled in classes with her old teacher, Lisette Model, Weber says, he and Model sometimes talked about Arbus’s work. “We would meet at Howard Johnson’s after class and have hot fudge sundaes and talk about the romance in Diane’s pictures.” That sounds like an amazing teacher-student conference.
Weber said Model was one of several people who encouraged him early in his career to express his emotions in his photos. “I think that most photographers are basically pretty shy, except for David maybe,” he said, laughing. Model’s classes, “gave me a lot of courage to go out and speak the truth about my feelings about what I saw and what I wanted to see.
Another important mentor was Bea Feitler, the renowned art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Once when he showed her some portraits, she asked if he liked what he’d shot. Not really, he had to admit. She said, “Do your pictures. I don’t want to you to do what you thought I’d like. I want you to do what you have in your head and your heart.”
Weber also said that when you look back over the history of photography, all great photographers “like Cartier-Bresson and Lartigue” have something in common. “Their pictures, no matter what they’re photographing, are really portraits of themselves.” Thinking of the sexually adventurous teens photographed for Abercrombie and Fitch and old-money aristocrats he depicted in Ralph Lauren campaigns, I asked Weber if his photos are autobiographical. “I hope so,” he said.
I tried to ask about Weber and Bailey how they created the commercials and ad campaigns that have made them famous. Bailey insisted that he shoots what he wants to shoot, no matter how the photo will be used. Weber agreed, and said he gives his assistants the same advice about shooting advertisements that Richard Avedon once gave him: “Always take a picture for yourself, so you can go to bed at night and go to sleep soundly.”
The Telegraph article includes Weber’s tale about the making of the ground-breaking Calvin Klein underwear ad in which athlete Tom Hintnaus posed in tidy white briefs against a blue sky in Santorini. The story is so cute and innocent, it’s hard to believe. He also told a story about one of the many shoots he did over the years for designer Ralph Lauren. The location was a farm by the sea in California, and Weber took time to photograph the landscape. When the producers told him several models were being kept waiting, Weber said, “Yes, but this is the farm that Ralph always dreamed he would have.” Lauren chose to include some of Weber’s images of the farm in the campaign.
Having learned to express his own aspirations and dreams in his work, clients like Lauren were willing to entrust Weber to express their dreams as well.
The photos from the photographers’ day-long shoot can be seen in The Telegraph Magazine. The exhibition “Weber X Bailey by Nokia Lumia 1020” is on display through September 21 at the Nicholls and Clarke building in Shoreditch, London.
Legends Online: David Bailey