Movies + TV

Bruce Weber on His New Film Retrospective, the Impact of Chet Baker, and Erotic Photography

Long before 2(X)ist and Marc Jacobs were papering bus stops with skin-baring ads, legendary fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber was snapping risque pics of models like Marcus Schenkenberg and pioneering a new wave of erotic photography. In addition to shooting portraits and spreads for magazines like GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Details, Weber has been active in motion pictures, helming a series of essayistic, predominantly black-and-white films, most notably Let's Get Lost, his hauntingly beautiful, 1988 chronicle of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. The Oscar-nominated documentary, along with a handful of other Weber movies, is being screened as part of a one-week, retrospective festival at New York's Film Forum, from Friday, Nov. 15 through Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Shortly before the festival kickoff, Weber, 67, spoke to us candidly and passionately about Baker, changes in the fashion biz, his unabashed approach to sexuality in all its forms, and why lugging around that camera has been an utterly essential part of his life.

DETAILS: For you, what's the key difference between shooting still photography and shooting for film, beyond the obvious distinction that one's a moving picture and the other isn't?

BRUCE WEBER: It's really kind of the same. Emotionally, you start the same, but you can't control the film as much [with filmmaking] as you can with still photography. I learned from filmmaking to open up with my photographs and be freer. With film, I was able to experiment, and I've found the courage to continue doing so.

DETAILS: Do you find it rare in your business that photographers are able to make the leap to film, like you have, and grasp both mediums?

BRUCE WEBER: I kind of have this philosophy where I'm just beginning as a filmmaker, and I'm still beginning as a photographer.

DETAILS: Even after all this time?

BRUCE WEBER: It has to be that way for me because I don't want to carry all that stuff on my shoulders. All that pressure. It's so weird—I was thinking about a lot of photographers whose work I really admire, and there's so much disappointment and so much sadness in working on pictures and making something really great and bold and beautiful, and then having it go nowhere—just into a drawer. You've got to be able to abruptly go out and have fun, get drunk, get laid, go for a run, whatever. And then, it's off your shoulders. And you can face everything your way and not carry it. Because if you carry it, it'll just eat at you. That's how I feel, at least. I don't know how anybody else feels. And I don't care too much.

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DETAILS: As someone who helped pave the way for a lot of the erotic fashion advertising we commonly see today, do you ever look around and think, "I helped break down these taboos," or "Thank god these taboos aren't such a big deal anymore?"

BRUCE WEBER: There are pictures that I've done and people have been like, "Wow, that's so wild," and I'll say, "Well, not in my world it isn't." I've had a pretty open world. I remember when I was making a film called Gentle Giants, I included a discussion about when I first went to Stonewall [Inn, in NYC] and how I saw all kinds of people—men with men, women with women, guys and girls, drag queens. All these people were dancing with each other. And I thought, "Wow, there's such a freedom here." It was freedom of expression, and I was so shy in my own life. I decided I wanted to try to capture some of that freedom in my photographs and my films.

DETAILS: You mentioned something about "your world." With the abundance of Bruce Weber-esque marketing we have now, does it feel like "the world" has become your world?

BRUCE WEBER: I don't think they have a choice. Because I think the people who are younger and experimenting with things, whether it's in their work, or in painting, or films, or their own sexuality, are marking the trends. The world has to accept it.

DETAILS: How else do you think the fashion world has changed, for better or worse, throughout the course of your involvement with it?

BRUCE WEBER: I think the biggest loss is that all of these fashion houses and designers are big corporations now. When I started working for, say Calvin [Klein] or Ralph [Lauren], I would talk to them like we're talking right now, and we would all have an idea. I remember talking to Gianni Versace, and we would talk not so much about the picture, but about a play or something dramatic that he'd experienced, and there was such a connection. And I would then interpret what they felt through my work. And what was so great was that if you did something that they never imagined, and they turned around and said "I don't understand that; that's not my image," you could sit down with them and explain to them that maybe it would be good if they had this image. I think that's the way a lot of my pictures happened. It was a small, tight group of people, not a corporate thing that was judged in a board room. That's the way I think it is with fashion right now.

DETAILS: You've done some work with Details in the past, particularly in the December 2000 issue, for which you photographed Sean Penn and Eve. There was also a fashion spread in 2001. What do you remember about these shoots?

BRUCE WEBER: I was crazy about Eve. I worked out of Philadelphia for that one. I loved working with her; she's so great and so loved in Philly. It was my first time in that city. I love the people and I love that street where they sell all the food—South Street. And I liked Allen Iverson a lot, so I was really obsessed with him for awhile while I was doing that shoot. With Sean Penn, I feel like I already knew him pretty well because I'd photographed him a lot. He's the kind of guy who's very intimate with you instantly and very powerful because of that. He has a lot of burning things happening in his head and his heart that he wants to express to you. And he's always in some turmoil about his work, whether it's pressure about showing a movie to an audience or not knowing how to feel about the tone of a film he's done. That's what you photograph.

DETAILS: How is photographing a man different from photographing a woman?

BRUCE WEBER: It's pretty much the same. Those are the kind of questions you can't really answer, but usually lead to good stories. James Franco asked me that question when I first photographed him. I was putting him in pictures with Michelle Rodriguez, so he said to me, "Bruce, it's the first time I've ever done pictures with a girl—what it's like?" And I said, "It's just like doing pictures with anybody else." We got to Jersey City and Michelle was there, and she came with her new girlfriend, and her ex-girlfriend who had a baby, and her ex-girlfriend's girlfriend. So that was James's introduction to doing pictures with a girl.

DETAILS: Of all the men you've photographed, have there been any who've especially reminded you of Chet Baker, in either looks or demeanor?

BRUCE WEBER: Yes. You know, years ago, when I first started, I was completely inspired by Clint Eastwood, so I started to try to make every man and woman look like Clint Eastwood. He was a rock. That was a pretty trippy thing. One time, a girl was looking at the photographs I had taken of her and she said, "I look like a guy in these pictures. You pulled my hair back, and I have a really strong face. You made me look like, I dunno, Clint Eastwood." I was kind of embarrassed, but that's what I was into. And I guess a similar thing happened with Chet. Peter Johnson, who I did the film Chop Suey with, reminded me of Chet. And Andy Minsker reminded me of Chet a lot. I constantly see people who remind me of Chet. All the time.

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DETAILS: I have a movie poster book here published by Posteritati Gallery and I'm going to read a brief quote from it about Let's Get Lost. "Weber's most famous film essay, Let's Get Lost, a meditation on the beautiful but doomed jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, combines outdoorsy Americana and forthright homoeroticism into a style that suggests a gay, hip Norman Rockwell." What are your thoughts on that observation?

BRUCE WEBER: Wow. That's a lot to live up to, or live down maybe. Who said it?

DETAILS: Dave Kehr. He's a pretty prominent film journalist.

BRUCE WEBER: I don't feel very seriously about all that. I think it's kind of funny when people say "that's erotic," or "homoerotic." I don't know if it's so important to be specific about gender or sexuality. I've just been photographing a lot of transgender people, and their bravery has been so incredible to me. It was such an amazing experience. And I hadn't really processed if they were dressed as men or women. I feel like any time anyone sees a beautiful picture of a guy, or a photograph of a guy with no clothes on, it's "homoerotic." Well I hope that somebody likes it, you know what I mean? I think this sort of ghetto-izing of what you feel sexually is a little strange. I had an acting teacher in college who said to me, "Don't worry so much about your feelings about a man or a woman. Every day you can fall in love with somebody different. That's always stayed with me.

DETAILS: Can you think of a time you were chastised for depicting "homoeroticism"?

BRUCE WEBER: I had this weird experience in England on the BBC. I was on live TV and this man totally attacked me for my book Bear Pond. He said, "You made this book. It's so homoerotic; these guys are nude, running around. What do you think about that? Weren't you just embarrassed and ashamed?" And I said "No, I'm really proud of it." That was an amazing experience for me. I was going on these canoe trips with those guys, and I just adored them. They were friends of mine. And that book earned a lot of money for the AIDS Resource Center. What do I have to be embarrassed about? I just find it amusing that people take sex so seriously. And they always think because you're in the fashion industry you're having this wild time. These pictures that me and thousands of other photographers do are really not sexy situations. They're hard work. I'm dealing with the human body, and I want to do a good job, and that's really difficult.

DETAILS: There's a line in Let's Get Lost that invokes the title. Chet says "We sure do know how to get lost on a sailboat." How do you like to get lost? Is it in your work?

BRUCE WEBER: Yeah. I do like to get lost in it, but then I need to find myself again. I like to say to my assistants "Don't do what I do. Take Saturdays and Sundays off. Don't be so involved in your work." So I think it's good to get lost a little, but you've got to be able to let it go, too.

DETAILS: Given that Chet's aging is so pronounced in Let's Get Lost, do you often think about Chet as you yourself age?

BRUCE WEBER: Totally. There isn't a motel or a bus station that I see without thinking of Chet. I think about him all the time when I'm driving the car and there's music playing. There's another line in the film that goes, "There's a thin line between love and fascination," and I think that's very true for all of us. You see somebody and you want to meet them, and I'm so lucky to have had a film camera with me, or I never would have met anybody. I would have been so alone in my life. I've been able to fall in love with so many people with my camera.

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Bruce Weber's All-American Volume Thirteen: Born Ready is available from teNeues. You can see screenings of his films at Film Forum through November 21, 2013.

—R. Kurt Osenlund is an arts and entertainment writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @AddisonDeTwitt.

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Also on Details.com:
Domenico Dolce's Photographs of the Private Life of Soccer Star Leo Messi
See The Long-Overlooked Kolor Images by American Photographer Elliott Erwitt
Q&A With Photographer Michael Dweck on the Secret Life of Cuba

Photos courtesy of Little Bear Films; William Claxton/Photofest.
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