Icons of Photography: Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber was born in 1946, to no little wealth, in Greensburg, a small city in western Pennsylvania. Near the beginning of one of his many books is a photograph of his (gorgeous) mother in her wedding dress and a long, enraptured letter from his (handsome) father to his own parents, written from their honeymoon, on the headed notepaper of the newly-weds’ ‘absolutely fireproof’ North Carolina resort hotel.

The essences of Weber’s photography – and dream world – are pretty much all there. Love – of people, clothes and journeying. An interest in and identification with both sexes. A distinct American-ness – open and democratic yet entranced by life’s luxuries. And, perhaps most individual, an absence of doubt, anxiety or any particular worry about the plight of the world.

There is a voraciousness in his work – an attractive one. As a child, his favourite store was Ida’s Sweet Shop, with its Atomic Fire Balls and Bazooka gum. ‘I couldn’t get enough of them,’ he later wrote, knowingly clear that his childish desire was a harbinger of his adult, professional self.

There is a deep hunger in his photographs – for the visual and for life itself. Girls, boys, muscles, painters, underwear, frocks, water, dogs, boxers, movie stars, elephants. He is enthusiastically in love with them all. His own father told him he had a ‘bad, bad case of the gimmes’. He still does. Which is probably why he’s not the best editor of his own work. There are too many – far too many – simply dull pictures, arch ones, too. 

He is forever a bit like Nick Carraway peeking into Jay Gatsby’s luxe Long Island world. He is also half in love (at least) with the English aristocracy. The strange – and redeeming – thing about his envy is its innocence. His pictures want but they don’t want to steal. 

There is an almost childlike polymorphous sexuality about them, too. He’s as happy and engaged photographing penises as breasts. His Robert Pattinson sessions for Vanity Fair sweetly evoked the adoring, embryonically sexual gaze of the actor’s teenage girl fans. Helmut Newton was a significant influence. Weber has described Newton and his wife June – professionally, Alice Springs – as his ‘second parents’. He made a lovely sexy picture of the couple, with Helmut’s hand on June’s breast.

He is rarely – and bravely – afraid to be silly. Dogs in frocks, dogs getting wed, men in frocks, elephants squeezed into Yohji Yamamoto frocks, models in Yamamoto frocks squeezing through the turnstiles at Yankee stadium. He can be daringly pretentious, too – putting some overexcited DH Lawrence prose into one of his books.

Though his fame and success came to him as a commercial photographer, things didn’t start out that way. At university in Ohio, he studied theatre. He spent time in Paris. He attended NYU film school – where a friendship with Diane Arbus led him to the European émigré photographer and teacher Lisette Model. By the mid-1970s, he was making his way – and reputation – as an art photographer.

The switch came in the late 1970s when he started shooting fashion, for Soho Weekly News and GQ. Soon he was doing campaigns for Ralph Lauren and – notably – Calvin Klein. His Calvin Klein ads were among the most influential images of late 20th century commercial photography. They made male underwear sexy. They introduced almost naked and sexually aroused men to mainstream publications, encouraging (though not forcing) the non-gay male viewer to engage his polysexuality – knowingly or unconsciously.

They established and polished a shiny monochrome advertising aesthetic – one which owed more to Hollywood’s interpretation of German expressionist cinema than it did to the earnest black and white world of photojournalism. His glorious, deep black and whites linked to a new kind of nostalgia – not for the countryside or simpler times but for the thrilling smoothness of mid-20th century romance. More than most, Weber created our modern hankering for a modern past. 

More even than all that, these images gave shape to the modern male body – at least the idealised and desired one of billboards and magazines. (Certainly not Weber’s own. He’s a big bearded bloke.) In the words of the V&A: ‘Sexy yet innocent, sculptural but relaxed . . . an image of cleancut, all-American athleticism.’ Muscles, tousled hair, chiselled chins – bodies with the eroticised glossiness of Edward Weston’s pictures of sweet peppers. The references to both the gay pornography of, say, Tom of Finland and Ancient Greek homosexual lovelies were clear.

Yet, despite first appearances to the contrary, they are not at all tongue-in-cheek or ironic. Weber’s is an irony-free world. How else could he photograph Kate Moss in a Vietnam paddy field and a vast, vast blue and white John Galliano dress standing next to an impassively, iconically peasant grandfather? His colour palette is not always restrained – he falls for tropical primaries with the enthusiasm of a young girl – but he always seems somehow uncomfortable with colour photography, as if it’s a language he can only ever speak like a foreigner. His prints have a narrow tonal range — a simple palette of New England blues, funereal shades and those boisterous primaries. Even his Polaroids have a monochrome texture about them.

He has worked for Elle, Rolling Stone and, in particular, Vogue where he has been a close collaborator of creative director Grace Coddington. Their first location project involved 100 Australian miners dressed only in underwear and work boots. Together, they brought a bruised quality to fashion. They also worked together on portraits of Nelson Mandela and Georgia O’Keefe.

His ads – and commercials – include campaigns for Versace, Revlon and Abercrombie & Fitch. His work for A&F was central to the brand’s reinvention from camping favourite to campus must-have. He has made pop videos and nine films, of which the best-known is Let’s Get Lost (1988), a love poem to the junkie jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. He has done quite lovely kids fashion for Bambini Vogue. He has made pop videos – in particular, for his friends the Pet Shop Boys and Chris Isaak.

He has published a dozen or so books of his work, among them 2005’s Blood, Sweat and Tears Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Fashion. The subtitle is, I should imagine, more than just a joke. He has always seen himself as more than just a jobbing photographer.

For the past 40 years, he has shared his life with his wife and agent, Nan Bush — in a New York loft, a lakeside camp in the Adirondack mountains, a ranch in Montana and two ocean-front homes. The dreamworld of his images made into a dreamworld of a life. 

© Peter Silverton 2021

*We are also aware of allegations made about Bruce Weber and his working practice. To find out more about this you can visit https://culturemixonline.com/bruce-weber-mario-testino-scandals-famed-photographers-accused-sexually-harassing-men-conde-nast-overhauls-policies-fashion-shoots/

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