If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Bruce Weber’s photographs of “beautiful” young people bring up questions of cruelty, exhibitionism and the exposure of sexuality. Rosemary Carroll explores how public response to Weber’s work affects his own perspective.
For several weeks I tried to telephone Bruce Weber, tracking him from New York to Los Angeles to Maui to Las Vegas. When I spoke to him, he called me from Caesar’s Palace at 7:00 AM.
Rosemary Carroll You’ve been real busy, I take it.
Bruce Weber Yes, I’ve been on the road for a little bit.
RC What have you been shooting?
BW Well, I’ve been working as a guest editor for a magazine I like to work for a lot in ltaly—Per Lui. It’s put out by Italian Condé Nast. It’s a young men’s magazine. It’s not an issue of photographs of mine. It’s other people’s photographs and it’s all kinds of stuff, you know. It’s about architecture, painting and sculpture and the entertainment business. All kinds of stuff like that.
RC Are the photographs that you are taking for Per Lui fashion photographs?
BW Yes. Some of them, pictures that I take for fun.
RC What kind of pictures do you take for fun?
BW Hopefully, all my pictures. I never separate the two much.
RC You’ve been quoted as saying that you don’t know what fashion photography is. Do you really mean that?
BW Yes. I really don’t think: “This is going to be a fashion photograph.” I mean you know even if I’m doing a photograph of a girl in a dress or a guy in a suit, I don’t think of it as being a fashion picture. I love fashion photographs but I never think of them as fashion pictures because I just look at the newspaper and sometimes I see amazing fashion photographs. Or I look at a book by August Sander and I see a lot of fashion in those photographs. I think National Geographic has some of the best fashion I’ve ever seen. It’s always people, if they’re expressing a lifestyle or they’re wearing something that is very personal. For me, photographs like that bring something to life.
RC So there is no distinction in your mind between your fashion work and your exhibition work? What I mean is, when you do a fashion shoot, are you trying to inform the work with values different from those you bring to your other work?
BW I don’t think so at all. I think the same about all my photographs. I just don’t like to get too serious about it. I really love taking photographs and I love looking at photographs and I like a lot of other people’s photographs and I don’t think that one can get too serious about that. Because sometimes you can go out and be working for a catalogue and take a picture you love.
RC God, I think that’s so healthy. People always complain that fashion uses photographers or uses artists and corrupts them in some sense and I’ve never been completely convinced of that.
BW I think that a lot of people, especially people who work for fashion magazines, feel that their photographs at times are really pretty much discarded or thrown away immediately because when you work for a magazine people today really don’t save magazines like they used to. I just think that as long as one can work and have a good time at it and at least learn something then you’re not discarding what you do. You go out and do a photograph. It should be all about getting onto another photograph.
RC Your fashion photographs first appeared in a relatively avant-garde or sort of left-of-center publication which is the now-defunct SoHo Weekly News, right?
BW Yes, right.
RC As I remember the series of photographs of men’s underwear was very controversial. You were even told by some people in the fashion industry that you would never work in fashion again. Is that true?
BW Definitely. I still get negative responses. People call me and say, “God, I hate your photographs. Why are you photographing these guys like that?”
RC How do you respond to that?
BW It depends. Some days I’ll feel really depressed and other days I really don’t take it to heart. I’m as schizophrenic as any other person about that kind of thing. Like someone will say to me, “I don’t think these guys are so great looking that you have photographed. I think they’re really ugly and I don’t like those kind of men.” Or, “I think it’s really terrible the way women are treated in your pictures.’’
You have to earn your respect each day and I think that’s kind of nice and it’s kind of healthy for photographers. It’s like the boxers I photographed with the Olympic hopefuls. You felt their craziness and you felt their drive and you felt the fact that they always kept going.
RC You mentioned that people say to you that they don’t find the men that you shoot attractive and that there is a disturbing quality in your pictures. Is that quality connected to your admiration for Diane Arbus’s work?
BW I studied with Lisette Model and I really got to Lisette through Diane Arbus and yes, I like Diane Arbus’s pictures a lot. I think they’re real romantic.
RC I think the men that you shoot are very striking in a way but there’s a quality that they have that seems similar to many of the subjects of Diane Arbus’s portraits—it’s a sort of blankness, and a kind of vacuity. I think that they’re astounding but that they are not beautiful. Their perfection sets them as much apart from ordinary people in a way as Arbus’s subjects’ freakishness sets them apart. Is that something you feel your photographs share with hers?
BW I remember talking with Lisette about this around the time of Diane’s show at the Museum of Modern Art and we both talked about how romantic her photographs were. We were talking about some pictures Diane Arbus had done for the London Sunday Times of some Rockers. They were taken at night of couples on motorcycles and I just thought they were some of the most romantic pictures I’d ever seen and I feel that Diane really loved the people she photographed. When you photograph somebody even if you don’t like them you’re still stuck with them for pretty much the rest of your life. You know, it’s a little like getting married. I really like the men I photograph or I wouldn’t photograph them. I like them as men, personally.
RC Do you feel that the subjects that your photographs convey have a certain sense of cruelty?
BW No, I don’t feel that. Where do you feel that exists?
RC I was looking at your work in the Robert Miller Gallery, and there is a quality to a lot of the subjects that reminds me of Arbus’s famous picture of the boy in a straw hat at a pro-Vietnam war parade. I looked at the pictures and was reminded of that photo of hers, and I thought that if that kid grew up and worked out really hard and hung out in the sun he would be a perfect Bruce Weber model. There is a blankness and a banality that borders on cruelty.
BW Yes, I know what you’re saying but I don’t really feel that. I might be photographing people who have that tendency but I don’t feel that it comes from anywhere. You know we’ve just been photographing a lot of film actors and actresses and some of them are very difficult and I feel that some of the portraits that we did were quite aggressive but they were very aggressive people. In a sense that was something interesting to photograph for me. I’m usually pretty lucky though. I really like the people I photograph and if I convey that [cruelty] in them I don’t know if that’s really what I feel. I don’t think so.
RC You mentioned before that another way that people respond to your work is to comment on how you approach women. Is there anything different in your mind when you shoot women as opposed to when you shoot men?
BW I don’t know. I never felt much difference in photographing a man and a woman. Maybe there is a flip side to it that I kind of like. Recently, I’ve been photographing all these young film actresses and some girls with very strong personalities, much stronger than a lot of girls that I’m used to photographing. Some of them I thought were just wonderful because you feel that they love themselves and really felt strong about the way that they look and the way that they feel. They’ve gone through an incredible lot as young people because they had to fight so much to get where they are. I’ve always felt that women had a lot of hard times dealing with the way they look just as men did but they’ve just been more accepted. I think that acceptance sometimes makes them feel guilty or embarrassed, even. As with the men that I photograph I really like a lot of the women I photograph or I wouldn’t be photographing them.
RC I wanted to go back to what I asked you about: your start at the SoHo Weekly News. Far from not being able to get work after that controversial spread, your work is now published in the most mainstream fashion magazines. Were you surprised by the fact that your work was so accepted and so acclaimed by the fashion establishment?
BW I don’t think that’s true. I really don’t. I don’t really work editorially in a large number of magazines because a lot of magazines don’t want my kind of photographs. It’s too risky for them.
RC Do you think that the context in which one of your photographs appears is important. What I mean is that if a photograph appears in a magazine like the SoHo News was, and a similar photograph appears in Vogue it not only reaches a different audience but it is perhaps perceived differently because of the context. Do you think that’s true?
BW Yes, I think the audience is obviously different but I love magazines. I grew up on them and it was magazines that became one of the reasons why I really wanted to take photographs. When I first came to New York City and was going to NYU Film School downtown, I knew a woman, Bea Feitler. Bea and Ruth Ansell, who is now at Vanity Fair, used to be art directors at Harper’s Bazaar. Bea was very supportive of my work. She and Ruth had done such great work in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar; they made it such a free open magazine. I just think that the chances that they took were always wonderful.
RC That’s interesting because she was art director at Rolling Stone and was a tremendous supporter of Annie Leibovitz there.
BW Definitely. Definitely. I really think that Beatrice just always did wonderful things with photographers.
RC Your photographs of the Olympic athletes were astounding. They were forceful, but at the same time had an incredible sense of irony. They were so strong that they were the only images that my mind returned to when I thought of the Olympics, probably because I missed all the TV coverage. After the summer I realized that to most people the Olympics connoted a self-congratulatory, lets-feel-good-about-America feeling which conflicted entirely with the image that I got from your pictures.
BW Well, that’s true, Rosemary. All I know is that after the photographs came out and we did many more than appeared in Interview, we would get letters say from somebody from the fencing team or somebody from the handball team and they’d say we saw our photographs and we really hated them but can we have five 11 × 14s to hang up in our offices. You know what I mean, or the swim team would say we really loved the photographs want to hang them all around our building. But it was strange, most of them really didn’t like them because we weren’t selling something.
RC Do you feel that those images were in some sense co-opted by the super-patriotism of the event.
BW I think that patriotism and the commercialization of the event was something that was really needed. At first when we started on it it was something that bothered my whole team and myself because it always got in the way. Dealing with the US Olympic Committee and the different sport people and then understanding what we wanted to do and them not trusting us and then it kind of slowly turned around and the more athletes we got to know the more the other athletes would trust us and I think we made a lot of of friends from it and people that I still really adore. I am really glad I went through with it. It was really painful.
RC In what sense was it painful?
BW Well it was painful because we were photographing young people who devoted every day of their lives for say ten years or eight years or whatever. I live in New York City and I’m used to kids being so aware of movies and music and what’s happening on the street but we were photographing kids who know so little of that, who weren’t used to hanging out in clubs and who don’t look at magazines …
RC You spoke before about how much you liked the people whose pictures you took and how much you appreciated their beauty. Did you find those kids beautiful in the same sense?
BW What I found beautiful about them was what they wanted to give up for something else and even if I didn’t like them so much personally, sometimes they were really kind of obnoxious, there was something in it that made us all continue with the pictures because we really felt that we owed it to them. They had given up part of their childhood for something that they believed in and I think that when I say painful, that’s where the pain came from. We found this enormous responsibility to record a group of athletes who had given up a lot for the sport. It was funny when we first started working on the Interview piece. Robert Hayes, who really helped so much with this, said, why don’t we write all these crazy stories about these athletes and I said, “Oh wait, these athletes are like Western heroes in a strange way,” and I just wanted them to be that way and they were in a sense the more we got to know them and to know what they really go through. It was difficult and a fight every single day and there were days when we would just photograph maybe five different athletes and they were just unwilling, completely against it and screaming at you and the head of their division not wanting them to do these pictures. I was so surprised too. They’re a little bit shy about their bodies and on one hand I think that’s very nice. At first it was hard for us to get into gear because we expected these incredibly exhibitionistic people. They’re very shy about themselves and their bodies.
RC Did the political connotations of the Olympics bother you at all?
BW I felt a lot of the craziness that the athletes had gone through when they couldn’t go to the Olympics and I felt that sort of politics had really hurt a lot of people. We never really dealt too much with the political thing because I think that each and every athlete has to deal with it. We were kind of touched by it through them and not so much in a direct way.
People would come up to me, mothers would say, ‘’Are you going to do some dirty pictures of my son or my daughter?” I’d fall down. I’d go, “What?” I said, “What kind of magazine do you think has dirty pictures?” And they tried to think and they couldn’t come up with anything because they were about to say Playboy but then they felt embarrassed to say that so they didn’t say anything. I said, “Listen, what’s a dirty photograph to you?” and then I thought, “Why am I having this conversation?” I guess it was one of the first times in a long time that I had encountered somebody talking about dirty pictures. I hadn’t really heard that expression in a long time. They didn’t know how to answer me. A mother would say, “Well, you can see through my little girl’s bathing suit, I know you can,” and finally I said, “Listen, I photograph Christie Brinkley a lot and she has a pretty amazing body and I really like Christie and if I was going to see through some girl’s bathing suit I think it would be Christie Brinkley’s.” Her daughter was 12 years old and so it was kind of crazy.
RC There is a sort of down-home quality in a lot of your pictures. It’s like a sense of remembering a rural childhood or even of nostalgia for a time before childhood. Did you grow up in the country?
BW Yes I did. In a really small farm town called Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It’s west of Pittsburgh and it’s a great place to grow up. It’s really small. Everybody everybody knew each other. It’s really friendly. It’s funny because my grandmother took really nice pictures and my uncle was a lawyer but he didn’t have to work very much and he traveled around the world and took lots and lots of photographs. It was sad because when when my Uncle died, I got this bit of money but he left all of his photographs to somebody else and it hurt because I would have rather had those than the money.
RC Are you conscious of the elements of nostalgia in your work?
BW I think that a lot of my references are from things that I’ve known or from the past. Maybe it’s the way that I perceive certain people. I think it depends on who I’m photographing. When it comes to athletes I think that really changes. For example, a guy Robbie Nash, he’s a surfer and one of the greatest wind surfers in the world and he lives in this modern house and has a kind of souped up car and it has about 25 different boards and sails and I felt nothing nostalgic about him at all. You know what I mean, I think it just depends on who you’re photographing.
RC I guess maybe I was thinking of some pictures that you did for the December 1984 issue of British Vogue. They were editorial shots of women which seemed almost deliberately nostalgic.
BW That came from a time when I first started working and I went to London to work for British Vogue years ago. I had always really loved Cecil Beaton’s pictures. He had seen my early photographs and had sent me a wonderful book through a mutual friend of ours and inscribed it to me and I was really so flattered to see that such a photographer knew my pictures and liked them. So when I was in London my girlfriend Nan had gotten me a lot of Cecil Beaton books and I sort of wanted to do a little tribute to all his scrapbooks and all the amazing books that he had done. So that’s were that came from.
RC You mentioned before that you are motivated to a degree by your sensitivity to the fact that men are not comfortable with the way they look.
BW No. What I meant by that is that every time you’re confronted with photographing the man, especially today, if he’s good looking, it’s doubly hard.
RC Why is that? Why is it doubly hard?
BW I think it’s hard now because I think people are so—well, I’ll tell you, I just came back from a month in Los Angeles which can really do something to anybody’s mind, let me tell you.
RC I know. I can’t handle LA for more than two weeks at a time.
BW Then you can imagine how I felt. We had taken over a floor and a half of the Shangri La Hotel and I did a lot of different jobs while out there, including things for myself and things for this issue for Per Lui and I’ve just been dealing with people who are so nervous about their sexuality. I remember when I first started working for Gentlemen’s Quarterly and I worked with an art director, Donald Sterzin. I knew Donald well and I really loved him and we’d go out and photograph a lot of guys who were just people, who had not had pictures taken of them before. The magazine was always nervous about that. I think when people are that good looking it is always somewhat frightening to other men to look at the photograph and say, “That guy is really good looking.” And yet, that is such a healthy response. I always love it when a girl says that to me about one of my pictures and I like it when a man says that, too. I think that recently people have begun to feel easier about looking at men in pictures—whether they are good-looking has nothing to do with it in a strange way. And then what happened was a magazine like GQ started taking such a conservative view of men. I think it made people who design clothes for men and people who buy clothes for men—who are mostly women, I think, even myself, I don’t really care much about, about …
RC … about what you wear.
BW Exactly. It’s not the most important thing in my life. Anyway, I think these people now had to deal with a whole new conservatism about male sexuality and I think it’s created a lot of confused images of men. One of the reasons I’m working on this issue of Per Lui is that I wanted to work for a young men’s magazine that is not extremely popular right now. I want to help create a place where other photographers know that they can do the kind of men’s pictures they want to do and not be frightened that they won’t get hired or won’t get published. They should be able to have a place to publish their pictures of men where nobody is going to look at them and say: “I think this is a homosexual picture,” or “I think this guy is too good-looking.”
RC Is that still a response to your work?
BW Yes. I think it makes a lot of people hostile. Recently, I was photographing this young actor and dancer. He said, “Oh Bruce, I want to show you something.” He pulled up his shirt and he had this tattoo on his back. He said, “Don’t you just love this tattoo?” It really wasn’t a great tattoo so I said, “Yeah, well, it’s okay, but I really don’t think it’s something we should photograph.” So he said, “Let me show it to you a little bit more,” and he took off his shirt. I thought he was good to photograph with his shirt off because he didn’t have such a great body. It was skinny and pale. That was nice for a change, especially in California. Afterwards, he turned to his manager and said, “You told me I wouldn’t be taking pictures like this.”
RC That’s an incredible story.
BW We went through that all the time. I was amazed that so many young people, kids even, were so worried about their sexual image.
RC Do you think that your work has played into that in any way? Do you think that your photographs can make some men feel more uncomfortable, in comparison, about their own attractiveness and their own sexual image?
BW I don’t know. I would hope that any impact of my work has been positive in that sense. I think it’s really great when a guy can feel good about the way he looks, like a woman does. It’s wonderful to go to Italy, in the country, you see a 75-year-old man coming back from church, and he looks so handsome and has such strength. It’s great to have a man or woman feel that they are something to look at.
RC I don’t think I’ve ever seen any pictures you’ve taken of old people.
BW I’ve taken a lot, but you’ve never seen them. This last summer I was out in New Mexico and I did some photographs of Georgia O’Keefe. It was an amazing experience. When she grabbed my hand I looked into her face and I had such a huge crush on her. It was wonderful. People always say to her, “You have this trouble with your eyes and your sight is so bad. Aren’t you very sad about it?” She says, “No. I feel that I’ve seen so many beautiful things in my life and even though I can’t see now as well as I saw then, I still have all those beautiful images.” I think that is a good way to feel about looking at things and about looking at yourself.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.