“They’re so used to moving all the time,” explains Jonathan Leder. He’s telling me how experienced models are constantly in motion during a shoot, flitting into pose. He guesses it’s because of the digital shooters that “just keep on firing” that have led seasoned models to perform in such a way. A film photographer himself, he prefers his subjects more inexperienced—they’re the ones that listen. The listening is important, especially when constructing such alluring photographs as Leder’s, which require what he says is a “certain level of trust and fearlessness.”
The acclaimed New York photographer’s body of work is almost reactive to this digital-era speed and frequency. Literally, Leder operates almost completely with film, and his work emanates an erotic warmth that feels retro and pre-blue screen glow. His photo exhibit at LA’s Superchief Gallery ending this Saturday, 92 Photographs, consists of polaroids all shot over the last 4 years, with Emily Ratajkowski and Kayslee Collins among the models featured. Leder basks in the limitations of this medium. First, the finality of frames—”When the film is done you’re done. You’re not going to keep going,” he says; second, setting up the photograph almost trumps the moment’s capture—”by the time you go click, the picture should be done.” It’s representative of his painterly understanding of composition and a patient craft that might be why Leder has lived in Woodstock for the past 4 years with his muse and partner in life and work, Amy Hood. Isolated by acres of land between them and their neighbors, they work together on films and books under their publishing house Imperial Publishing, where interested parties can acquire the 92 Photographs exhibition catalog (one-off Polaroids can be purchased via firstname.lastname@example.org).
I recently got the chance to talk to Leder and Hood at his temporary Los Feliz home away from home during the weeks leading up to 92 Photographs, about one-on-one photographer/subject dynamics, and his slow, sculptor-like approach to his work.
ALINA NGUYEN: I read that you said your shoots involve a “certain level of trust and fearlessness.” Can you talk a little bit more about that relationship?
JONATHAN LEDER: The idea is that the shoots are usually very small crew and very informal. And if you look at the pictures, a lot of the women are doing things that are a bit untraditional. A lot of the shoots are not like a typical shoot—a typical shoot in my mind is you rent a studio, hair, make up, stylist, photographer, model all show up at a certain call time in the morning. They do some prep work, the guy shoots, you take a break, and you’re done... I’ve never liked to work that way. It doesn’t work for me.
You have to feel comfortable with each other. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but at the same time I need to take a certain type of picture and I need the person who I’m photographing to understand that I’m taking a certain type of picture and to be comfortable with that as well.
How do you develop that type of understanding?
Communication—I would think. If you’re dealing with someone who’s knowledgeable about art history, aesthetics, they might be more comfortable, because we’ll say, “Just like Courbet,” you know, “Lie back and do this.” Or, “This is the reference picture of Richard Prince’s Bikers, get it?” But if the person is really not knowledgeable, then it can be more difficult.
“TAKING SOMEONE’S PICTURE IS A REALLY INTIMATE PROCESS. IT’S INVASIVE.”
I think the communication is very important. And working with people that are able to collaborate with you. I mean, I’ve been lucky—the girls in the show have all been girls good at doing what they did. Amy is a great model. Marlo Lavonne is a fantastic model. A lot of the time it’s the girls pushing me. Emily [Ratajkowski] was walking around naked the entire shoot for two days and two nights—that wasn’t me, that was me just kind of trying to play catch up.
What type of energy is in the one-on-one dynamic that you’re drawn to, since you prefer shooting that way?
Well, it’s the honesty and the intimacy and the comfortability. The idea is that if you look at photo history, look at Diane Arbus, she took her pictures one-on-one. Look at Carlo Mollino’s work—those pictures are taken one-on-one. Most great portraits are... if you’re here and you have a stylist and an art director and a make up artist and three assistants and all that—dude, I don’t even want my picture taken as it is necessarily but I certainly don’t want to be an ostrich in a zoo, on top of it half naked with my pants down, bending over. It’s sort of a respect issue, almost, for human nature. Taking someone’s picture is a really intimate process. It’s invasive.
Somebody was saying, “Why does Terry use all the people? Is it just to create a party atmosphere?” I’m not really a party person. And people annoy me to be honest. If I’m taking your picture, I want to focus on you and I want you to focus on getting your picture taken. I want to focus on the communication between the two of us… So it’s just sort of that level of connection. I mean, I think that’s what it is more than anything. Sincerity.
What was the selection process for the works in the show?
Well, it’s all work that I’ve done since 2011. I’ve never done these Polaroids before and then in 2011, I’ll show you the camera [goes to get his camera]. I bought this [Land Camera] in 1999. I’ve always had it and I never used it. I was doing all that Jacques Magazine stuff and whatnot. I said, “Oh, maybe they make film for this thing,” and I got the film that they make. And I did the first shoots with it with no flash just to kind of try it out. And I think there’s a couple pictures in the show from that first one or two shoots, but I didn’t really like it without the flash—it was a bit sweet. It was too soft, daylight filtered in whatever. And then I put this bracket and put the flash on it, and once I [did that]… it just worked. I didn’t want to put the flash on originally because I don’t really like Terry [Richardson]’s kind of like pop flash work. But this was different because it was 3000 speed film with a flash [and] more like a fill flash… the sort of retro look. Since then, I’ve been doing that for a while now and I still like it. I mean, it’s still great.
Sometimes I’ll shoot on film, but when you get these and you peel them, you can see immediately with the person. And it’s a great way to work with your subject. The subjects really like it and they get excited about it— that’s also part of it too.
Like being able to show the subjects immediately?
Yeah, it’s cool for them. And that helps build the trust too, you know. And I like the limit. I used to shoot on SX70 for a while in the city. But I don’t mind the limited number of frames. If I know the model is coming, I’ll buy a certain amount of film depending on how much money I have at the time, which could be five packs, two packs, twenty packs, whatever it is. And that’s the shoot. When the film is done you’re done. You’re not going to keep going.
“THE ONES WITH LESS EXPERIENCE TEND TO LISTEN MORE.”
I think the show is nice because I really wanted to see this body of work together in one space—it is nice to see all the work together. It looks good. And it’s interesting for me… these shoots were done over four years. Sometimes I was in a good mood, sometimes a bad mood, sometimes it was at 4:00 in the morning, sometimes it was at 10:00 in the morning, you know. But the consistency of the pictures over the four years is actually really strong. And so that was kind of interesting. It doesn’t really feel like—I mean I don’t really feel that much, I must switch into a different mindset while I’m taking the picture because I almost don’t really feel like the person that took those pictures, now looking at [them], but they’re nice and they’re consistent. That’s good.
I was reading a recent interview where you were talking about how at the time you found inexperience in your models attractive?
Yeah. They listen better. I still agree with that. Because the fact is that I studied painting and I’m used to posing people. I know the kind of picture that I want. So the model serves the purpose for the most part of being able to achieve the picture that you want. So if they can’t listen, it’s hopeless.
The ones with less experience tend to listen more. You say, “Move your head a quarter of an inch.” They’ll move their head a quarter of an inch. You tell a girl who’s been modeling for 10 years, “Move your head a quarter of an inch,” you’re probably going to wind up with a completely different pose. And a lot of them back in the city when I was working with more regular models, the older ones get into this click, click, click. It’s kind of like a thing that they do.
Like for look books or for catalogues. They’re so used to moving all the time I guess because people shoot digitally and they just keep on firing. But this technique is so different and the frames are so important that the majority of the work—of the picture—is not pressing the button, it’s the setting up of the photograph. I mean, by the time you go click, the picture should be done.
Can you talk a little more about your recent work? Has your approach to framing been any different?
I’m a little more efficient because I know more and more as I look back over the work, I can see the pictures that work versus the pictures that don’t work. And it’s like with a wine, especially over time and having some distance from the pictures that you’re taking, you can really see [that].
I don’t like to rush and I don’t like to shoot all the time. And I’ve always thought, you know, the thing I like about photography [is]… this is not a game that young people are very good at. Most photographers in their 20s probably suck. In your 30s you’re probably okay. In your 40s maybe you start to achieve something and by 50 or 60 is really when you’re peaking. That’s what’s nice about it is that you could do this potentially for another 40 years… So I’m not really worried about rushing, I’m more worried about creating pictures that are really going to last for a longer period of time. I worked in fashion, I’ve worked with a lot of photographers. I’ve seen ups and downs and people come and people go. I can mention you 10 photographers that were popular in 2006 or ’05 or ’04 that you’ve never heard of and they were really famous back then, and you can probably tell me 10 names of people today that I’ve never heard of. But these things come and go. The thing is the long-term.
“I LOVE TO REPEAT MYSELF… LIKE A SCULPTOR, YOU JUST KEEP CHIPPING.”
Do you enjoy the isolation of living in Woodstock?
Complete isolation, yeah. I don’t mind it. I mean, it’s a little boring. A tiny bit boring, [but Amy Hood and I] wind up working a lot. We’ve put out a lot of work this past year because there’s nothing else to do.
Do you prefer that same sort of isolation when it comes to the Internet and social media?
I never did the Facebook and I do Instagram just because it’s kind of suitable to the phone. I just got this cell phone two weeks ago. I didn’t have a phone for a long time again, but I had to get it for the trip just because we’re busy. I don’t really spend a lot of time on the computer. That’s part of the reason I shoot film. I just don’t prefer to be on the computer.
Do you often pay attention to what’s trending?
Not really. I mean I’m too old. Gone, it’s over. I grew up in Manhattan, so I paid attention to that stuff for a long time growing up… I repped photographers—I’ve worked with photographers. I have a lot of experience in the industry. So I try to apply that to my own career. [I worked with] Peter Lindbergh and Steven Klein at this agency like a decade and a half ago. I ran my own photo agency for a while after studied painting. It was cool because you see the whole industry and you see what works and what doesn’t work.
For instance, one thing that never works is—in my opinion and maybe more in New York, I should preface all this with, but—everybody specializes. If you see a photographer’s website and he’s doing portraits, still life, fashion, wedding, you know what I mean. In New York, that’s hard because people want to know what you do and they do tend to specialize. If you do think of Ellen Von Unwerth and Bruce Weber, William Eggleston or Diane Arbus, or any of these people—immediately you get one picture that comes into mind. So you know, I learned that really early.
Do you feel limited by that?
No, I don’t mind. I love to repeat myself. It’s not even repeating but—
AMY HOOD: Developing, fine-tuning.
Fine-tuning. It’s just like a musician might do. That was a good thing to learn. Like a sculptor, you just keep chipping.
Left: Amy Hood; Right: Jonathan Leder.
Visit imperial-publishing.com for the entire exhibition catalog for purchase, and for more info on purchasing the one off Polaroids from the exhibit 92 Photographs, email, email@example.com. All above photos by Jonathan Leder. Amy Hood & Jonathan Leder portrait by Joshua Escueta.
See the show in person at Superchief Gallery, located at 739 Kohler St, Los Angeles 90021. Open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 12-5pm or by appointment.