Regarded as one of the most influential photographers and film-makers of the last 40 years, Denis Piel has placed the celebration of the body at the heart of his production.
On display at ROVE Gallery until May 9th, Essence brings together a selection of shots from his commercial and personal projects, offering an unmissable insight into his unrivalled work and reflecting the artist’s preoccupation with the indispensable qualities of photography.
Born in France in 1944, Piel spent his childhood and adolescence in Australia where he began working in photography before moving back to Europe in the early 70s. In the early 1980s he settled in New York and embarked in a years-long collaboration with Condé Nast. In September 2012 Rizzoli published a retrospective of his work shot between 1979 and 2007; Piel currently lives and works in the south-west of France.
How did you get into photography? I read you became a printer’s apprentice at a very tender age.
My stepmother bought me a brownie box camera. It was my first camera. She encouraged me to look and to look again. I left school at the age of 16. At 17 I become a printer’s apprentice. Looking at the images that came to the printing house stimulated my critical senses. I felt the images really were not very good and that I could do better. The printers from the printing house were very concerned that I was giving up a secure career for one of total insecurity. They were incredibly generous with their advice but did not manage to convince me not to move. I secured a position with a commercial photography studio thanks to my brother who was in advertising. And so began my new adventure with a great sense of daring and ambition which I guess has always stayed with me. At the studio we did everything from industrial, portraits, real estate, aerial, still life, fashion. If there was something to be photographed we did it. It was an incredible school.
And when did your interest in fashion photography first begin?
I started my own studio at the age of 22, and I continued in the aforementioned vein until a modest assignment for Australian Vogue inspired a concentration on shooting and exploring fashion possibilities. It certainly seemed like the most creative place to be working within photography and certainly the most fun. I guess also my experience as a kid looking at my stepmother’s fashion magazines, which she got regularly from Paris, with their naked boobs used in advertisements for bras and various creams and the beautiful women encouraged my hormones and my desire to be part of that world. And then I had the good fortune to find a mentor who encouraged me to explore and develop my creativity for the magazine with which she worked. And so I concentrated on fashion whilst still do some advertising.
Speaking of fashion, how did your collaboration with Condé Nast coma about?
I did a spread for the New York Times Magazine and Alex Liberman the Creative director of Condé Nast invited me to shoot a Vogue story. There is no doubt that being discovered by Alex made an enormous difference to my career. Again I had found a mentor. He then offered me a contract which allowed me the freedom to explore and enforce my creative vision. And Alex would encourage me with his “Dare! Use Vogue as your Café”. And so I tried always to push the images and the stories a little further.
After having left Condé Nast, you embarked on a new career in the film industry; how would you rate the overall experience?
I was always preoccupied with creating scenarios that could seduce and touch an audience, images of relationships, touching on our humanity and sexuality. I was attempting to do this with my photography. I felt film offered me innumerable more opportunities to do this. I set up a film company, Jupiter Films with the idea of using this as my base to allow me to be an independent filmmaker. Our principal operation was commercials with a group on in-house directors. I was exploring another visual field and had fun directing and creating some memorable commercials but gradually my time was overtaken by this work. My real motive was to find my independence as a filmmaker. I had visited Hollywood on several occasions for power breakfast presentations of scenarios that I had created. It was not an atmosphere which suited me. I eventually closed the film company to produce, create and direct my independent film “Love is Blind” which I’m very proud of. Then the thirst for independence and the excitement of the internet and it’s possibilities encouraged me to create Umbershoot and theideabank™ both geared to develop interactive collaborative communities where people could create together and remain independent. The dot com crash bought an end to that and bought me back to creating for myself which is what I have been doing since.
The whole experience provided me with the challenges of seeing in new ways and exploring other venues of creativity. But today I’m happy to get back to my basics of photography and filmmaking and using my understanding of what basics mean to develop my newest project Down to Earth.
If you had to name a few artists/photographers who has represented a constant source of inspiration for you, who would these be?
I’ve always admired Penn’s exploration away from Fashion not that it was better than his fashion but that he took the time and pleasure to do it. His sense of curiosity, constantly exploring his visual field. And I’ve always appreciated Robert Frank’s voyage through America and his subsequent exploration and experimentation with film, not wanting to be typecast. I also like Stanley Kubrick, Satyajit Ray, Bernardo Bertolucci, Akira Kurosawa and the list can go on; all these people were who I most admired with the way they touched and explored humanity via telling stories which ultimately is what I was interested in doing.
What are you working on at the moment? Can you tell us more about your ongoing project, Down to Earth?
Down to Earth is my ongoing project for probably most of the next year.Itsuggests a “realistic” perspective, a straightforward attitude, the Earth as basic - essential; it also implies gravity, and by inference, the human body. Down to Earth encompasses the idea of returning to the source, to the origin, returning “home.” The project is a celebration of living closely with the natural world, an exploration of embodied experience in an elemental environment which also draws upon the rich cultural history of our relationship to the earth; from inscribing the earth with mythical narrative, to our physical interaction with the earth in the form of cultivating the soil, growing food, to the cultural expression of cooking. As the world’s population crossed a watershed in 2007, we find ourselves in a liminal space where the urban population, for the first time in history, exceeds the rural population. During this period of transition I acknowledge my own journey against that tide, moving from the urban to the rural, to a life closer to the natural world, to that which I consider to be essential. Historically, as the city developed and evolved, a dichotomy arose between the urban and the rural, and in many ways that dichotomy is being maintained when thinking about the future from the perspective of the rural; that the rural environment will become the food lands of the progressive cities. Today rural/urban are not binary opposites, the rural exists in the urban, and the urban exists in the rural; nature and culture co-exist. The main location and inspiration for the work Down to Earth is Château de Padiès and the surrounding gardens and grounds. The project will draw upon the mythological narratives which inspired many of the carvings on the early 17th century Renaissance Château facade, which include Pan, nymphs, animals and manifold symbols of fecundity. Down to Earth will be shot over the period of a year, engaging with the changing light and colour of different seasons, and the changing growth within the landscape. I have undertaken preparatory studies of light and colour. Secondary research has focused on cultural dialogues with the natural world in the form of architecture, mythology,writing and fine art. Over the course of 2013 it is my intention to resolve my research into a significant body of work, a re-imagining of the natural world in our increasingly urban imagination.
As a last question, what does the future hold for you? What other projects have you got lined up for 2013?
My mind is filled with ideas. Once an idea is in place I allow my instincts to develop it. It develops it’s own life. I want to concentrate on my project Down to Earth and it’s subsequent book and exhibition. I’m also developing three other books from my previous work that I feel I need to do to complete that history. I’ve also agreed to do some editorial work which will be exciting to see where it goes.