Abercrombie & Fitch Photographer

The renowned fashion photographer, having consented to a rare interview, has been standing in his Golden Beach back yard overlooking the ocean, telling stories of celebrity adventure, when the mere appearance of a Canon pointed in his direction drives him to fidget. His hands flutter and he seems uncertain what to do with them. He scurries back to the house.

He returns cradling his own camera, a Rolleiflex, as if for security, while waving a broad-brimmed straw hat, which he threatens to lower over his eyes if his unease persists.

"I hate being photographed," says Mr. Weber, whose fame lies in observing, not being observed. "I like to hide behind the camera."

What the world knows of Mr. Weber is how he sees the world: celebrity portraits as varied as Brad Pitt and Eudora Welty, film documentaries of boxers and jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and most familiar of all, the Elysian photos of beautiful youth with which the world's leading fashion houses -- Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch -- present their brand on billboards, bus benches and the slick pages of W, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

His fashion shoots, for which he charges as much as $75,000 a day, have dominated the magazines for nearly two decades. They strike the eye most with models of unconventional beauty, arrayed according to contemporary standards of sexual expression and nudity, all strangely overlaid with an aura of innocence -- there's often the spirit of '50s Americana and rugged landscapes. The images are nearly always more arresting than the clothes.

Moreover, while stuck behind his camera, Mr. Weber has led a sexual revolution: He was among the first fashion photographers to pose men as sex objects in mainstream ads, bringing a gay sensibility to the broadest possible audience, most famously in 1983, capturing Olympic pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus in his Calvin Klein underwear. In effect, Mr. Weber was casting men in the passive sexual roles long relegated to women in advertising, and as controversial as that was, today "pecsploitation" is everywhere.

His other work is often more overtly gay -- his about-to-be-released book, The Chop Suey Club, features young model Peter Johnson in an array of poses dismissed by some as voyeuristic trash. As a recent New York Times essay put it: "Bruce Weber's the name, beefcake's the game."

For all the controversy, however, Mr. Weber, out from behind the lens, roaming around the Golden Beach home he stays in five months of the year, appears affable, rather shy, often funny at his own expense.

He is disposed to answering questions about his work by telling stories -- we hear of graceful Nelson Mandela and cranky Paul Newman and Matthew Modine before he was famous -- and he talks about the ordinary South Florida places he visits because, among other things, they stimulate his visual interest: the Rascal House, Le Tub in Hollywood and the Krispy Kreme doughnuts place on Northeast 167th Street, where he just finished shooting a major campaign for Abercrombie & Fitch.

At 53, he speaks with a teen-ager's casual indecision -- it is rare that he utters a thought without resorting to a "kind of" or "sort of" or "you know?" And he has a teen's habit of making declarative sentences sound like questions.

"One of the great things about being a photographer is that you can be shy," he says, his voice rising, as if testing the idea. "You know what I mean?"

Famous subjects

To hear his stories, in fact, it would seem that Mr. Weber is continually gathering up his moxie to confront his famous subjects through his lens, referring constantly to the trepidation with which he has forced his camera into the faces of the famous. Take the time he was assigned to photograph Paul Newman in 1988.

"My dad was really ill, living in Palm Beach, and I was taking care of him. I get this call from Esquire that Paul Newman is in the area and he's racing cars and we'd like to do a cover story on him. . . .

"So I get out there to his trailer at the race car circuit and this man arrives -- and he's nothing like Paul Newman. I go into his trailer and he's eating this tuna fish sandwich that he made himself. He sits down and starts reading the newspaper. He puts on not one but two pair of glasses to read.

"This is not like Paul Newman in the movies, right? Then he turns to me and he says, 'I'm so tired of people telling me my eyes are blue, how beautiful they are.'

"I said to myself, 'Do I want to just make a record of this man who wants to hide?' Then I thought, 'No. I don't believe this. I believe this man was in front of that camera because he really wanted the love and adulation. So I said to myself, 'Man, I'm not going to leave you, you . . . [expletive deleted].' "

So Mr. Weber dutifully followed Mr. Newman around the race grounds "putting my lens right up in his face. I was like this far from him," Mr. Weber says, holding his hands 6 inches apart, with teen-age can-you-believe-this bravado.

"But he's still not being Paul Newman.

"Then he says to me, 'Do we have the cover?'

"Now that is a strange reaction for a man who does not want to be seen, and I knew then that all along he wanted me to be able to think that he was as beautiful as he was in Hud and Sweet Bird of Youth and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So I just turned to him and said, 'Newman, my dad is really sick, and I accepted this job because he looks a lot like you and I really love my father a lot. I really need to get these photographs done soon because I really need to get back home to him. I really want you to concentrate. For the next 10 minutes, I'm going to get out of your face. But you've got to be there for me. I want you to stop worrying whether your eyes are too blue or you don't look good enough.'

"He stood there, and he was so shocked that he just started acting like Paul Newman -- just like in the movies. I lay down on the ground -- I'll always remember it -- and he started looking at me like he looked at Patricia Neal and all those other women in the movies. This was Paul Newman."

Or take the time Mr. Weber was assigned to shoot Nelson Mandela. As is often the case with the famous, the photographer was given a very short time to work -- six minutes. So prior to the appointed time, Mr. Weber planned the shot: He positioned a chair, calculated the angle, gauged the light.

"Then it's my turn and all of a sudden the light changed. Everything was wrong -- and this guy was like an idol to me. I could feel my heart beating. I thought: What am I going to do?"

Mr. Weber, flustered, felt very small in Mr. Mandela's presence.

"I thought: I'm just a wacky photographer who grew up in small-town Pennsylvania and this man has done and suffered so much. What am I going to do?

"But everyone's life shows on their face. I decided to get very close to him, to look at his skin, into his skin, into his eyes that looked like they had cried a lot. Having a camera gave me the courage to get close to him. I was right there in his face."

Then Mr. Weber, who clearly attaches some significance to the proximity of the camera to the subject, stands eye-to-eye with a visitor and declares, "Like, I was this close to him."

First wave

Mr. Weber first went to South Florida for a 1985 shoot in South Beach, one of the first major photographers to do so, leading a wave of the glamour industry here that would become a key element in its renaissance.

"It was pretty weird -- we were working for Calvin Klein," he says of his first South Beach visit as a photographer. "We had come down with about 40 models and bodyguards because we had heard it was dangerous at night. But it turned out to be this great scene, this great mix of people. I started seeing the bodyguards hanging around in bathing suits and I said, 'Why don't you get in the pictures?' The next thing is we have the policemen in the pictures, too. That's how pictures happen. They're not so serious."

A sense of precious spontaneity is one of his hallmarks -- he is fond of saying "Everyone has a moment."

But Mr. Weber is also credited with a cinema director's fine sense of casting, story line and intuition about his actors. Even while shooting a friend's recent wedding at the Bath Club in Miami Beach, Mr. Weber insisted on introducing a live elephant as background. He frequently relies on books as his inspiration.

"Books and words help me a lot to form an understanding of what I want to do," he explains. "For instance, I was a great fan of Willa Cather, and I would spend like months reading everything that she wrote.

"So I called a friend of mine, Liz Tilberis, who was then the fashion editor of English Vogue, and I said, "You've got to read [the Cather novel] My Antonia and let's go to Red Claw, Nebraska, and let's join the Willa Cather club. These people know the tree where "My Antonia" stood. Let's bring some clothes and let's take some models that we'd like to photograph and let's do a story about Willa Cather.

"Meanwhile Liz was just adopting a child, so this was a big moment for her. So we met all the children in Red Cloud, Nebraska, so we put them all in our pictures. Then Matthew Modine, he was a young model then that nobody booked, and we took him and we took these girls that we knew -- they weren't like normal models but they were very, very beautiful, and then we met this kid who painted churches. So we had this whole experience about Willa Cather."

The results appeared in English Vogue.

Male call

Another of Mr. Weber's hallmarks is the fascination of male allure.

Although Mr. Weber has created some memorable images of women -- of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on Vanity Fair's cover and the recent Perry Ellis campaign for men that featured only women models, "you'd have to be blind to look at my pictures and not think I like men," he says.

But while bulging, hairless pectorals are commonplace in advertising today, back in the '70s, even simple pictures Mr. Weber took of a man in underwear in bed caused a stir. His insistence on these images made him a pioneer.

"What was really incredible was that when those pictures came out the editor and art director at GQ and other places where I had just started working said, 'You'll never work again. These pictures are really disgusting. How could you show a guy like that?"'

Even today, however, Mr. Weber coyly downplays the erotic nature of many of his photographs, turning attention to the outrage he considers signs of intolerance.

"Homoeroticism -- I don't really know what that word means, but I kind of know what homophobia means."

And while Mr. Weber in much of his photography lingers over the bodies of teen-age males, he insists that youth is not required for a sexy photograph.

"If you asked me what the sexiest picture I ever took was," he says, "I would tell you Robert Mitchum, and I shot it when he was 72."

His work has provoked other philosophical questions as well. Is a photo of a young pretty just beefcake? Is fashion photography art? (His work will hang at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach in 2001.) But Mr. Weber is inclined at first to shrug these off as highfalutin and inessential: Words, not images.

"I mean, I think photographers talking about photography is just so out of it," he begins.

"When I first wanted to be a photographer, photographers were seen but never heard -- they were like children -- and I kind of liked that. I mean when I looked at works of Cartier Bresson I knew he worked with a Leica and he lived in Paris and he grew up as a rich kid. But I didn't really know, like, what his address was in Paris. I didn't really know, like, who he was having an affair with. It kind of wasn't important because I felt like I knew what I needed to know from the pictures.

"Anyway, I've never felt that photography has to be art -- it just has to be photography.

"I think of all these great pioneers in American photography who did work selling -- pianos, beauty products, dresses. Edward Steichen put as much into those [commercial] photos showing buttons as he did photographing Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon.

"If you really love taking pictures, it's not going to matter that the photo will be used for an ad. I mean, the question is not 'Is it art?' The question is: 'Does it move you?"'

Source: Dallas Morning News, January 5, 2000

No comments: