Denis Piel, superstar fashion photographer from the 80s, brings his “game” to Wonderland.
Feted for his sensual, cinematic narratives starring supermodels from Gia Carangi to Christy Turlington, Piel recently premiered his retrospective show at Rove Gallery, where he discussed with us his latest project, and the supreme importance of “game” in front of the camera lens – along with previously unseen Polaroids of Kelly LeBrock and Donna Karan muse Rosemary McGrotha.
Do you have a favorite among these polaroid series?
I always respond that my favorite is the one that I’m going to do tomorrow.
Why is there so much nudity?
Dont get me wrong, erotica is not out of my vocabulary. Its just not my primary focus, which is humanity.
And sensuality is just one aspect of that?
Sensuality is a very important aspect of that.
How should we view your polaroids?
As sketches. With digital, we could do many more preliminary sketches, but what people are inclined to say is, ”Oh, that’s good. Lets stop.” But they haven’t fully explored where they could go. Polaroids show the cinematic concept that I have in mind when I start shooting: I’m always trying to tell the story within the whole shoot, and each individual picture as a story in itself.
Do you consider erotic moments a key part of your stories?
There’s a certain sensuality that I look for. Its about relationships, trying to connect as two people. I try to do that with the people I work with. So when somebody’s in front of my camera, they take part in a role, or a game, it gives them something to center themselves on. They’re not working in a void – which often modelling is.
What do you mean by calling a shoot a ”game?”
I’m directing like a film director, but what you want out of your actors is participation. I don’t want to say, hold your hand here, put your left foot there… I watch, talk, and move them in areas that I can see they’re going, help them go a little further or hold back. It’s like a script, depending on what clothes we’ve got and what the situation is.
Why haven’t you produced the same amount of work using male models?
I’m much more interested in women than men. It’s also understandable because my shoots have often been for magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair, which are female-dominated. My wife is a strong feminist, as is the curator of this show. They always challenge me: “Where are the men?” When am I finally going to show some cock?
Who were your favorite supermodels to work with in the 80s?
I had a session with Uma Thurman when she was sixteen, with two other girls, and it was one of the great shoots. It just kept on going. But I also often used someone like Rosemary McGroth, who is certainly not famous today, because there was something that worked every time. A lot of these people were unknown and starting out, like Christy Turlington. But of course, they got established quite quickly.
Did you know when you shot someone like Christy that she was going to become a supermodel?
Not at all. It doesn’t interest me. When I’m working, I don’t necessarily want to work with a superstar. I’m reluctant to take girls that have done so much work, because they tend to go into automatic mode; and that’s the last thing I want. I don’t want them to pose for me – I want them to live for me.
What was it like shooting Gia?
She was fantastic, a bit nuts, but that was the fun. She could surprise you, and that was exciting. And besides, she was damn beautiful. Once she was in some fancy dress, and I got her lying on the floor and her tits dropped out. Okay, they (Vogue) didn’t use it. But it created an energy and gave that whole dress another sense.
Who was your ultimate muse during the 80s?
It would be Rosemary (McGrota). I would have shot anything with her. She always managed to give me some game.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m planning a project called ”Down to Earth”. It comes out of where I live, on a farm in France, but also in a 12th century chateau, so you’ve this culture and earth, and the conflicts between them. Its about getting back to nature, and recognising that we need to do so more and more as a society. I can’t be more specific because I work instinctively. But its about making raw images, because that is essential.
Piel’s retrospective show, Essence, runs until May 9th 2013 at Rove Gallery in London. denispiel.com
Words: Christine Jun (www.weaponsoms.blogspot.co.uk)