Interview by Kyle Buchanan for Movieline
As a photographer, Bruce Weber’s impact has been unmistakable: He’s shot covers for every top magazine, ushered in a new era of mainstream homoerotica with his Abercombie & Fitch campaigns, and immortalized in portraits some of the biggest stars and supermodels of the last few decades. As a filmmaker, though, his work has been harder to appreciate simply because it’s less available, a problem the Sundance Channel hopes to rectify this month by bringing eight of his films to television for the first time ever (including his Oscar-nominated Chet Baker documentary, Let’s Get Lost).
I spoke to the legendary photographer and raconteur for Movieline, and discussed his films, his famous subjects, and photography in the age of digital narcissism.
The Sundance Channel series is premiering your short documentary Liberty City is Like Paris to Me, which you made in Miami Beach on President Obama’s Inauguration Day. Were you so busy shooting that you couldn’t appreciate the enormity of the occasion until after the fact?
No, when I’m working, I’m really experiencing what’s going on around me, and it was a magical place to be that day. Sometimes there’s a sense of closing yourself off on a shoot, and I try not to do that. Sometimes you have to, like when you’re in a studio and you’re doing fashion shooting, but I don’t even do it then. I was just photographing this wonderful girl, Gabby, who’s in this new movie called Precious…I don’t know if you’ve seen it?
Oh sure, Gabby Sidibe. She’s fantastic, and so is the film.
I was photographing her for German Vogue, and just before she arrived, Heidi Klum had come in. I was kind of concentrating on what I was gonna do with Heidi and what I was gonna do with Gabby — it’s for the anniversary issue of German Vogue, and they’re doing three separate issues, one with Karl Lagerfeld, one with Peter Lindbergh, and one with myself.
Anyway, I just wanted to photograph Gabby because of the movie, and because she’s a really great person to photograph. So instead of closing myself off and thinking about the fact that there’s ten, fifteen people in the studio, I thought, “Wait, oh my God! Heidi, why don’t you give Gabby some modeling lessons?” And Heidi’s such a sweetheart and Gabby was so great. Gabby got a crush on one of my assistants — he happens to be German and he has all these beautiful tattoos because he’s a martial artist — so we got some pictures of them together.
So I don’t close myself down. The older I get, the more and more I feel I have filmmaking to thank for that. When you make documentaries or short films, you have to have eyes and ears in the back of your head and on the sides and all around you. I like that in my films.
Is that openness necessary to put your subjects at ease? I’ve read so many interviews where your models talk about how relaxed they were in front of your lens.
It’s nice that you say that. I don’t know how relaxed they are. [Laughs] Especially a lot of actors and actresses, I don’t know how relaxed they are with me — I think there’s always that tension, that sense that the media or the magazine is something to distrust. I like to tell young actors a story that means something to me, because then they get a sense of who I am, and they get a sense of what another actor once felt: One time many years ago, I was working for Life magazine in California when Jeff Bridges called me [before our photoshoot]. I kind of didn’t know him at the time — we both had places in Montana, but in Montana, your neighbors are two hours away.
Anyway, I’m staying at the Shangri-La hotel down by the beach, and Jeff calls me and says, “I’d like to come by and meet you. I’d like you to see this pair of shoes I’d like to wear, and I’d like you to see these paintings I’m doing and choose some of my photographs and we can talk about how we can make this much more interesting. And I said, “Yeah, come on over.”
Jeff helped me so much with my pictures. I was just starting out and I was very nervous working for Life, they had very strong viewpoints on sittings that were very different than mine. Jeff relaxed me, he made me feel comfortable. So I always try to say this to actors. I’m surprised that you’ve read that [they’re often comfortable]. I didn’t know this was the truth.
I’m just about to go to an Abercrombie & Fitch shooting — and I’m working with kids who’ve mostly never been in front of a camera before in a more serious way. Or more unserious, I should say, since they seem to be very serious about the pictures they take for the Facebook.
Have you seen a change in your younger models recently? Nowadays, with cell phones and digital cameras, people are so much more used to being photographed than they’ve ever been before.
I think that’s true, but I don’t think they know how to touch. I don’t think they know that feeling of intimacy. I go on these shootings — I’m just about to go to an Abercrombie & Fitch shooting — and I’m working with kids who’ve mostly never been in front of a camera before in a more serious way. Or more unserious, I should say, since they seem to be very serious about the pictures they take for the Facebook. I’m dealing with about fifty kids, and it’s so hard to get them to just have a conversation with somebody or put their head on somebody’s shoulder or shake their hand, you know? I’m always so happy at the end of a shoot or a movie when people become friends. It’s one of the best compliments you can have as a filmmaker or photographer, that people walk away and know that they’re going to have a long relationship.
Kate Moss had to write this thing about me, and Kate’s a pretty private person. She doesn’t seem like she is, but when I say “private,” I mean she doesn’t write about her feelings or do a lot of interviews. Anyway, she said something that she liked best about working with me is that even thought it was her first job when she first started, those people she worked with, she still emails and they’re all good friends. So maybe it’s about having that experience. That’s what filmmaking helped me understand about taking pictures.
I’d imagine you’re pretty attuned to what works for your eye, but do you ever put somebody in front of the camera and what you’re expecting to find isn’t there?
Well, it’s a little like yourself: You’re a journalist and a writer, and sometimes you talk to a person and you expect them to be one way and they’re quite different and you’ve got to turn a total 180. I always like the fact that if I can do that, then I’m equipped to do that technically and emotionally. I was once making a little series of films about New York City, and I was filming this young Italian actor and his girlfriend, and they were really messing up a lot. He wasn’t the person I believed him to be.
He was kind of a thief. [Laughs] He stole stuff from the stores we were in. He was kind of crazy and rude to people. In a sense, I had to kind of turn my film around, and that’s a challenge. I thought this was going to be this romantic story about this young Italian couple who are lovers and they grew up together, and all of a sudden it’s about wine and drama and feeling. It was kind of violent.
Some people you’ve shot for years on end, and some people you have maybe an hour to shoot, tops. Obviously shooting a film lets you stay with a subject for a while, but do you feel like you have to put on different hats to establish a rapport with your subject, based on the amount of time you have?
True, but it’s not necessarily about the time you have with somebody, it’s about whether they’re open to having a new experience. For instance, one time I was in Dublin, and U2 has this space they recorded in and I was using it as a studio. I was with an old pal, Marianne Faithfull, and we were taking pictures and Van Morrison was there. He was wearing all black and sitting in the coffee shop of this building with his girlfriend, who was like Miss Ireland or something.
So I said, “Van, let’s go outside and take a walk [and I’ll shoot you].” “Oh, I can’t. There’s too many crazy people out there,” he said. “You never know what’s gonna happen to you.” There was nobody on the streets of this neighborhood, but he was frightened and couldn’t go. He was very paranoid, and when I look back at the pictures, I see what I did and I see what I could have done, which was maybe even better. I had some time with Van, but I’m not sure my pictures are so good of him.
When a tribute to your work is put together, like the one the Sundance Channel is doing, do you see an evolution in your technique throughout your career?
Hopefully, you try to get better each time. You know, my dad wasn’t a photographer or filmmaker by profession, but on Sundays, he would take pictures of me and my family or his pals horseback riding, and it was a means of communication and affection, a means of not being so dysfunctional with each other. I just hope I can get better and take pictures that mean something to me and the people I care about.
You know, it’s weird talking about photography and filmmaking because I come from a different kind of school. When I was first starting to take pictures, most people didn’t know what Richard Avedon or Irving Penn looked like. I knew what they looked like because I was very interested in photography, but now this idea that photographers have to go and talk so much about themselves and be somewhat of a personality…I don’t think it’s so healthy and I don’t like it so much. I go to these towns where — unlike the fashion world — I can ask people questions and photograph them and they don’t know who I am. I think that’s great, and I kind of like it that way.
Are you worried about compromising a certain anonymity you want to bring to your job?
Well, my life is so centered around the people I care about, my animals, and my work. For instance, I was doing this assignment where I was working with French Vogue, and this woman I photographed, Vanessa Redgrave, was to be there with her sister. I went there to take a more offhand picture of her with her sister and I kept seeing all my friends, and they all kept talking to me! It was like a party after a film opening. I went, “Oh my God, don’t talk to me! Pretend you don’t know me!”
It’s strange. It’s strange for me to even give this interview. Every time I have to mention someone’s name, I feel like, “Well, I guess I’d better try to make it more interesting and important.” Do you know what I’m saying?
I guess it’s a role reversal, isn’t it? Now I’m putting you under my lens, and you have to perform for me.
Well, yes. I have friends who are writers or journalists, and I’m always teasing them — “Oh my God, I don’t know if I can tell you this!” When I do something like this interview, it’s usually more for my film work than for my photography work. That’s sort of the nature of filmmaking. Sofia Coppola and I were laughing — it was like, God, once you make a movie, it’s really like your baby. Your baby grows up and goes to college, but you’re still defending its screw-ups and talking about its virtues for years and years to come.
Why is it more acceptable for you to do interviews for your film work?
I think for films, you’re always having to do press, just so that movie theaters feel that more that three people are gonna see this movie. With photography…like, at Christmastime, I love to go to bookstores — I have a great book collection, a great library. But if I see one of my books at a bookstore, I have to leave. I feel like I’m naked.
Well hopefully, this interview hasn’t been too much of a bother.
You know, actors always say to me, “Why am I doing this photograph?” and I go, “You should be doing this for your history. You should be doing this for the experience, not just to push a film or something like that.” So, don’t worry about it. You’ve been good to me.