"She just has it. I’ve photographed a lot of young people – they walk in and sometimes there’s just this star around them, this energy they have. Of course, part of it is beauty, but a large part of it is their presence – and she had that.”
Photographer Stephanie Pfriender Stylander is talking about Kate Moss – aged 18. At the time, Moss was unknown. Indeed, she was hired as arm candy for the star of the shoot, Marcus Schenkenberg. “But she stole the show that’s for sure.”
The resultant Italian Harper’s Bazaar shoot helped catapult Moss’s career as well as seal Stylander’s position as one of the most influential photographers of her generation. We caught up with her ahead of the launch of her new book, The Untamed Eye.
Who’s been the most fun person to shoot?
Keith Richards, because I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan and have seen them many times in concert over the years. It was a dream to be able to meet and photograph him. He was just a very colourful, interesting and open guy.
I only shot him one time but that was enough – I got some really wonderful photographs. We had a whole evening, four or five hours. He was a beauty – we had a big black limo, right in front of the studio, and out he comes with his long black tattered pirate coat, cigarette dangling, sunglasses, and a “Hello love”, that kind of vibe. Classic Keith.
What was he like once you got him on set?
To put him at ease, I created a set that I felt he would feel comfortable on – something that just looked like a stage set. It was a big open white studio, so we created a black room as I wanted to use movie lights. I knew of course he would be smoking, and then the smoke would stay inside the lights, which created a lot of mood and atmosphere.
We used the props to light the space as part of the set, and it looked like a kind of a work in progress. I think he liked that, because it was loose, and easy, and he just took to what I wanted to do. And of course, the Rolling Stones were blasting on the stereo.
For those subjects who aren’t so easy, do you have any tricks that you use to help them relax into the shoot?
Yes, I do have some tricks. Sometimes I’ll bring in an animal – usually with an animal trainer – as that really helps disarm the celebrity because then all the attention is focused on the animal, and so they don’t have to feel perhaps insecure or defensive. They relax a little bit and it seems they have a partner on the stage. If it’s a wild animal, it’s really great because there’s a lot of energy and attention given to working with the animal – it’s kind of a decoy. I’ve used birds from Costa Rica and Brazil, I’ve used lions, I’ve even used a panther.
When you first met Kate Moss in 1992, did you have any kind of inkling of how big she would end up becoming?
It’s funny, I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and she said, “I’ll never forget when you called me after the shoot, and you said ‘this girl is going to be a star.’” It’s so interesting because I don’t remember saying that, but I do remember thinking that she had something uncanny. At such a young age, and with relatively not a lot of experience, she was able to just get what I was saying.
The characters I was using as reference I realised would be from the old French films, who I’m sure she didn’t know at the time, and I would act out what I was saying, and she understood the direction. She was very sure of herself, she had a tremendous amount of self-confidence. But it translated not as being cocky, she would work it, she was very present in the pictures, she just understood the direction, and I think that’s really what made her become who she is, in the beginning of her career, because she worked hard and she would understand and give something new to each photographer and client. She just has it.
I’ve photographed a lot of young people as actresses and actors, and they walk in and sometimes there’s just this star around them, this energy that they have. Of course part of it is beauty, but a large part of it is their presence, and she had that. She was unknown at the time, the guy who was known was Marcus Schenkenberg who was in the pictures with her, he was the star, but she absolutely stole the show that’s for sure.
Is there someone that you know at the moment who could be the new Kate Moss of that sort of age, who’s really impressed you?
I like Gigi Hadid, she’s a very interesting and ahead-of-the-times model. She’s very smart, tech savvy, got something in front of the camera which you can see is beyond her years. That’s what I like and am drawn to, when someone tells a story through their eyes.
She has that and she carries that really well. It’s such a different business today. It’s hard to compare it, but she’s a new type of model. I’ve not photographed her, I’m just looking at her and feeling that from her.
What was your favourite fashion shoot?
One of my favourite fashion shoots was with British GQ and [creative director] Jo Levin. Her idea was to go to Taormina in Sicily, with really high-end, beautiful custom suits from Valentino – incredible tailoring. We arrived there, just me and my assistant with a bag of cameras, and Jo and her assistant with a bag of suits. She had a contact from Dolce & Gabbana who used to live there and knew the local guys. We get there and one of them takes us straight to the café, to the gelateria, to the little fashion store in town, we go to the market…
He yells “Franco, Franco!” and the guy comes out of the bar with some friends, and their faces just have this crazy, gorgeous character. And we’re like “OK! You’re booked!”. Within ten minutes, we had ten guys to shoot. It was incredible to work with these locals. I like models not to be ‘perfect’, not to be beauty queens. I really like to have a lot of character. A little bit older, a little bit wiser. And they’ve all become dear friends since.
It was great to photograph all these guys together, they just had this great chemistry and reportage. It was black and white on the streets of Taormina, with the gold rock and walls; beautiful textures. Something like that is a great thing to do, there are so many unknowns, and I like that. I like to go to a place where there’s a sketch and an idea, and really trust the editor I’m working with.
How has editorial photography changed over the course of your career?
The big change came when we all started losing film, and the digital wave came in. Everybody had to get on board. Of course there are photographers out there that don’t, but let’s face it, the majority are 99.9% digital; if they are working commercially then they are working digitally. I feel like that changed the medium.
Photography was always magic, and being a photographer you were holding the magic, but it was magic for you too because even though you do your polaroids, it would be on film, then you would take it back to your space. You’d have some contact sheets done or chromes to test, and it was a slow process. And then you would see the film, and then you would edit it, and then you would get it to your client.
The retouching and the look of fashion photography has completely changed
There’s an interruption in working now where everybody weighs in, or everybody sees it, and it’s really disruptive to getting the image. Because even I – and I’m sure many photographers will agree with me – see it and say, “OK, I got it, now let’s move on.” Whereas once you would have worked it, worked it further, and you would go past the point where you would have it because you weren’t sure that you did have it. So you would always push yourself. And I feel like that’s gone.
The need to have everything instantaneously is really disruptive, to move at this lightning speed. Designers can’t keep up with all the fast brands that are ripping them off, making clothes within a day, and then they’re out there. They can’t keep up with the lines, and the seasons – everything moves so fast.
The retouching and the look of fashion photography has completely changed. When I graduated from high school in the late 1970s, the photographers I was looking at had long careers. The Sarah Moons and the Deborah Turbevilles… all these guys had long careers in one style. Today to keep up with the speed you just have to knock it out, and they may just want you to do what they want you to do. This goes for the top guns too, that there’s been a lot of loss of identity and control. So all of the magazines look much the same, and there’s not a lot of individuality.
You mentioned retouching earlier, how much do you tend to do?
Very little. I really am not a heavy retoucher, and sometimes I do none at all. In the days I was shooting film I never did retouching – ever.
How long have you been digital for?
Two years after it starting coming into being I went digital. I still shoot film, and I still shoot polaroid, but that’s really for my fine art work; it’s not for any kind of commercial work. Also with Instagram it’s crazy, the concept is so foreign to me when people say, “They’d be good to work with, they’ve got a lot of followers…” I’m like, what?
Do you feel that the cult of celebrity has now just gone too far?
Yeah, I do. It’s become this certain kind of person who has this famous person in her family, or wealth in the family. They become an ‘it’ girl, and there’s this PR machine. Before you know it they are doing major campaigns and editorial. It’s become so excessive and watered down. It doesn’t have the beauty any more.
As a society are we now too image obsessed?
I think we are too fame obsessed. It’s got too excessive with the speed, and these people who all of a sudden become spokespeople for beauty, and products, and youth. It’s all a bit much.
How rife do you think the abuse of models is? And were you surprised at the allegations levered against Mario Testino?
I was surprised to hear some of the allegations. To hear them from some of the models that I’ve worked with, that was really sad. I think that if anyone is abused – especially these young kids, – there’s a real problem that needs to be dealt with, in more ways than one. I’m pretty serious when it comes to that. It’s about time the big people in this business – and in all the businesses not just fashion photography – spoke up and hopefully some sort of regulation would be able to be put down so that these really horrible situations can’t occur. It needs to be taken seriously. It’s disgusting. I, too, over the years as a female photographer have been in difficult situations and it’s scary when you have people in power who pretty much give you an ultimatum to advance your career.
Has a subject that you’re photographing ever done that to you?
No, not a subject, never. But as you’re young and you’re moving through a career – just as in any career – you’re given these gifts, at least that’s what they think they are, and they’ll move on your career, and you have to navigate this. It has always been around, and always probably will be around, but I think that the business could have more openness and honesty. It’s time. Let’s not put it back in the closet; let’s really look at it and make some changes. Especially when it happens to these kids who are so young and so vulnerable. That’s what drives me crazy.
Finally, do you think that photography will ever catch up to contemporary art when it comes to auction value?
I do. I think that it’s absolutely wonderful that some photography has become iconic and is sold by top galleries around the world and is looked at as art. It becomes memorable in the canon of time. It is an art form, and I’ve been fighting for that since college. There’s absolutely no question about it.
There are some photographs that speak to the history of the time, that speak to the history of the photographer, the model, the subject, and the fashion. When I put The Untamed Eye out, I decided to do fashion credits in the back and have these great pieces of styling and fashion which so determine a photographer’s final image.
I think you appreciate that time of photography so much more, especially in contrast to what is today: it’s there, it’s gone, people are investing, they’re buying, putting it on the walls, giving it to their kids, it’s going into institutions, it’s going into corporations, it’s a really big market.
A lot of serious photographers bring as much to their visual art as a painter does, it’s just a different medium. So I do think that prices will continue to rise.
The Untamed Eye by Stephanie Pfriender Stylander brings together more than 130 of her photographs from 1990 to 2006. (MW Editions, September 2018.)