The Trick to It All: A Conversation with Photographer Henry Leutwyler

Henry Leutwyler on portraiture and the magic of inanimate objects.

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | October 2016 | 12 minutes (3,326 words)

 

Born in Switzerland in 1961, the portrait photographer Henry Leutwyler was told he wouldn’t make it as a photographer. He was rejected from a top Swiss photography school, and when he opened his own photo studio in Lausanne — photographing watches and chocolates and cheeses — he went bankrupt in a swift year-and-a-half.

But at age 25, Leutwyler moved to Paris and began apprenticing with the French photographer Gilles Tapie, who helped him find his stride as an editorial photographer. A decade later, in 1995, Leutwyler moved to New York City, where his portrait photography began to appear in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Time, among others.

Since then, Leutwyler has photographed the top-tier of global talent, including Martin Scorsese, Michelle Obama, Julia Roberts, Misty Copeland, Tom Wolfe, and Rihanna.

In 2010, Leutwyler published his first book with the German imprint Steidl called Neverland Lost: A Portrait of Michael Jackson, following it with two editions of Ballet: Photographs of the New York City Ballet. This year, he completed his most extensive project yet. After 12 years in the works, Document was released on October 25, 2016, by Steidl and will be accompanied by a show at the Foley Gallery in New York City, from November 3, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

The one-of-a-kind project is comprised of 124 photographs of seemingly ordinary items whose history renders them extraordinary: the gun that killed John Lennon, Bob Dylan’s harmonica, Andy Warhol’s paintbrush, Julia Child’s madeleine tray, Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Fred Astaire’s tap shoes, Janis Joplin’s guitar, Michael Jackson’s sequined glove, a hand-sewn Civil War-era flag, Mahatma Gandhi’s cracked leather sandal, among many others — all of which Leutwyler managed to round-up and photograph on his trademark white background.

Recently, while Leutwyler was in Palermo, Italy, I spoke with him about the trick to portrait photography, the magic of inanimate objects, his laughs with Julia Roberts, his awkwardness with Helmut Newton, and how he manages to stay creative after decades of universally adored photography.

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What was your first foray into photography?

Back in the day, my initial love was music. Record covers are the perfect format: square, 33 by 33 centimeters, the perfect ratio for photography. That’s why I became a photographer. I wanted to shoot record covers, which I did, and I wanted to work for magazines. My entire room was plastered with magazine cutouts when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. When I was a kid, without knowing and without realizing, I was already working on my photographic and visual culture.

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett

You began your career with a string of failures — you were rejected from a top Swiss photography school and you started your own company that went bankrupt in a year-and-a-half. How did you get from there to your current success?

Well I learned that failure is not necessarily a bad thing, and if you are resilient enough, like a cactus with little water, you will survive. It’s more about the passion. When you’re young you don’t know any better. Many, many young kids, including myself, thought, Okay, you know what, I failed to get into photography school, oh my God, what am I going to do now, you know? And then I also realized that if you try — without much knowledge — to open up a little photo studio with a friend, you realize that you actually really don’t know anything about billing, profit, delivering on time, and above all — what is good photography. You have no idea. So the failures taught me that I had to study really, really hard, that I had absolutely to open up and share my thoughts and my fears, and I had to seek advice from my colleagues, which I did. And you know, decades later it paid off.

Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about how a photographer’s first 10,000 photos are usually his worst. Have your images significantly changed since you first started, or has there been an underlying similarity?

I hope they improved. There is a lightness to the beginning. I think Cartier-Bresson is right: there is less commercial pressure and more freedom. I think the secret to longevity in professional photography is to remain open, fresh, free, and once in a while — unfortunately — you have to make enemies and say, “No, this is not going to be done the way you think; it’s going to be done this way.”

We are so much under pressure lately, and the older you become the pressures become bigger. As a young photographer, you have one camera, a one-bedroom or studio apartment, a tiny fridge, no kids, no wife, no employees, no nothing. So I think that the danger of doing the ten-thousandth-and-one picture is to compromise — and compromises are dangerous. I have been compromised very little and unfortunately made a few enemies on the way.

John Lennon's glasses

John Lennon’s glasses

How does an artist maintain his creative freedom as he ages?

Let’s put it this way. Basically I’m a magazine photographer. I was never a huge advertising guy. I have always thought that I could retain the most amount of freedom by earning less and working for magazines. The moment you start working more, doing more advertising, getting paid therefore more, you have to follow guidelines. I’m not a guideline follower. I have never been; I never will be. Photography is not about following guidelines. Photography is an art of free spirit in my opinion.

So how I retain my freedom? I say no to a lot of jobs. This makes me not immensely wealthy. If I would have said yes when I was 25 to tons of advertising jobs a year I would have a big, fat bank account. But I think I would have become a sellout, and I never want to become one. I think creative freedom comes at the hefty price both financially and professionally. People don’t like when you say no to them, but unfortunately you have to.

You’re world-renowned for your portrait photography. What’s the trick to getting the perfect shot?

I go in with this attitude that it is never my picture, but it is the picture of the person in front of the camera. It is the sitter’s photograph. I always make sure not to get in there with an attitude. I try to make them laugh. I’m open to their ideas. And if they are very, very, very difficult, which happens once in a while, I stick them in a corner and make sure they can’t move. And at that point they might feel threatened that they have no choice besides either collaborating or behaving or, I don’t know, screaming or laughing; but that’s the trick.

Still, first most and foremost, it’s about respect, kindness. And again, I think if you manage to make someone laugh the first five minutes of when they come on set, you’re halfway there. You know, portrait photography and photography, at the end, are not considered open-heart surgery. We should take this a bit lighter.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland

But surely there is a particular difficulty when you’re shooting people of the caliber of Julia Roberts, of Michelle Obama, of Rihanna. Is there a particular difficulty in getting world-famous people to let down their usual guards?

I, most of the time, make fun of myself; I make a fool of myself; I laugh with them; I make stupid jokes. I don’t want to be in front of a camera. So you have to be gentle to people, even professionals, even models, even movie stars. You really have to be understanding of the fact that standing or sitting in front of a camera, even for a movie actor, is difficult.

Julia Roberts, when I photographed her, was probably one of the biggest stars in American movie history. I had fifteen minutes to do a billboard when she came on Broadway for the first time. Fifteen minutes. It wasn’t fifteen minutes in front of the camera; no, she would walk in to the set, dressed, made-up; I would photograph her; she leaves. So Julia arrived at the door of the studio, and I walked towards her; I greet her; I shake her hand, and I say, “Hi Julia, I’m really, really happy to, after all these years, finally meet you. But most importantly I’m really, really happy that I am no longer 35.” I was probably 46 or 47 back then. And she said, “Why not?” I said, “Because I think I would have peed all over myself. Julia Roberts for fifteen minutes!” The next fourteen minutes, she was my friend. She knew that I knew that she was the star.

You know, we have to forget that there’s only one percent of photographers worldwide — some of them unfortunately have died, but I would include Mr. Penn, Richard Avedon, and many more — that have this same stature of fame as Julia Roberts or Roberto Benigni or Wim Wenders or Spielberg, who are real superstars. The others — that I am part of, the 99 percent, not the one percent — we are not the stars; we are not the famous people. The problem that young photographers and maybe a few older professionals have is they think they’re the boss, that they are famous people, that they need to be respected, and they have an attitude. They will fail because that’s not the right attitude on set.

Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts

Have you ever had an experience where getting a good portrait was impossible?

Not impossible, but I was on an assignment in the south of France, and I was photographing famous people in Monte Carlo for a magazine assignment. And I have to be honest, the most famous person—and the person I really wanted to photograph — was not on the list, and that was Helmut Newton. So I picked up my courage, located his phone number, and called him and said, “Mr. Newton, how are you? I am Henry Leutwyler. I’m a young Swiss photographer. I’m very, very disappointed because I am here on assignment, and of these famous people of Monte Carlo, you are not on the list.” He said, “I am not on the list?” I said, “No, you are not on the list.” “I want to be on the list.” I said, “I agree!” We agreed that I should photograph him.

Of course, Helmut Newton said, “Let’s do this picture at the casino with two naked women next to me; I will be wearing a tux; I will look cool, be at the roulette.” And I said, “No, Mr. Newton, it will have to be in front of a white background.” And he says, “Well I’ve yet to know a young photographer with no ideas.” And I said, “No, it’s not really about ideas; it’s about the fact that everybody else has been photographed on a white background, and so I have to follow through.”

It was probably July in Monte Carlo. And he says, “Okay, fine. I will come at noon, but I will be photographed in the shade because it’s too hot and I’m too old.” So you know, photographing when you have a small budget, at noon, and trying to find shade is difficult considering the fact that the sun is exactly above your head, and the shade is underneath your shoes. So I was thinking about how to do it, and I asked him to take his camera with him; it would be fun to have him holding a camera.

Anyway, he arrives in his Honda four-by-four or something like this — a very funny car. He was dressed in green, wearing white sneakers; he looked like a German pervert tourist, with a leather case around his neck and all that. So we greet each other: legendary, older Helmut Newton meeting non-legendary, young Henry Leutwyler — it was a clash of professional generations.

I start photographing. And this was film, so one roll of film — two-and-a-quarter, twelve frames, color — another roll of film — two-and-a-quarter, black-and-white. I take a third roll of film, and at that point I had taken 24 frames, which is not even a roll of film, 36 frames. And he said, “Well are you done yet?” I said, “No, I’m not done yet, I need one more roll of film.” And he said to me, “You’re too close. You want to get away. You’re too close.” I said “No, no don’t worry, I’m fine.” “You have the wrong lens.” “No, no, no I don’t have the wrong lens.”

And then I tell him, “Would you mind please, Mr. Newton, showing me the camera in your camera case?” You know, just to have more time. And I kept on photographing. And he said, “Henry, come on. Photography is all about illusions. Do you really think at noon in Monte Carlo in summer at my age it’s a camera in the camera case?” So even that failed. And then, in the end, he said, “Anyway, if you don’t have it within seven minutes, you never will.” We shook hands and he walked off.

He’s right: if you don’t get it in seven minutes, you never will. And most likely the good picture is the first one, and you walk your way through to get the two last ones, which will be the good ones too, if you’re lucky. The trick is: don’t keep people in front of the camera for too long. You need to get them in and out quickly.

Helmut Newton

Helmut Newton

Let’s talk about your new project, Document. How did it come about?

My mother made my father wait 10 years before she got married — so I’m going to be 55 at the end of the year; I could’ve been 65 — and the idea is that if everything would have panned out the way it could have, I could have met my childhood heroes and photographed them. Jimmy Hendrix, John Lennon, James Dean, Laurel and Hardy — I never met them. And I thought, one day, this is the project that I want to do. I want to photograph my heroes of my childhood and a few villains, because obviously there’s a few villains in the book too.

How’d you manage to get a hold of these precious and rare objects? The gun that killed John Lennon is a particularly famous photograph of yours.

For that one, I got a call from a magazine I really love called Mother Jones. And Mother Jones commissioned a still life. The story was about the illegal guns that are funneled from Miami up to New York City and the five boroughs through the I-95, and the picture I took is of 25 guns in a single picture.

For that story, I went to a police precinct, where I picked the guns I wanted to photograph. I set them up, photographed them, closed my equipment cases, and on the way out of the police precinct, I saw a small paper clipping on a chair with a gun on top of it, and it said it was the gun that killed John Lennon. I asked the sergeant, I said, “Sir, is this really the gun that killed John Lennon?” He said, “Yeah, that’s the gun that killed John Lennon.” Just like that? Just in a corner on a paper clipping? This is the gun that killed another dude? And I was like, “Do you mind if I photograph it?” And he said, “Okay, but quick.” So we unpacked everything, set up the whole shebang again, photographed the gun, both sides, and left. When I got home, I realized, again, this is the right project.

Susan Sontag wrote that all photographs are a form of memento mori. Are your images of possessions a kind of a counter-argument? A claim that parts of us might live forever through our possessions?

Every single object has a history. Every single object is loaded with memories. Every object talks. The life of its owner, the imprint of the life of its owner is within the object. One of my earlier books was on Michael Jackson, and it was called Neverland Lost, and while I often photograph objects on a white background, when it came to Michael Jackson’s project back in the day, I decided to photograph it on black.

One of the reasons for that choice was there is a Japanese philosopher called Jun’ichirō Tanizaki who wrote, among other things, a book you can read in a day called In Praise of Shadows. And if you read in between the lines you learn the differences between East and West in the world. The West puts shiny objects in the sun; and in my opinion, they don’t shine. The East puts them in darkness. If you go to Japan, you walk around the temples, the Shinto temples, you realize that those statues are in total darkness, and that’s why they shine.

The second reason was I was photographing hundreds of objects that belonged to Michael Jackson who, in my opinion, back in the day, had a short-lived childhood for the reasons we all know. I photographed the first edition of Peter Pan that was owned by Michael and the sadness that I realized at that point when I saw the book made me decide to shoot on black. I was thinking — can you imagine? — the musical genius of this kid that didn’t have a proper childhood recreated a childhood at Neverland. I was documenting Michael’s life through his objects while he was alive, while his house was being emptied and prepared for auction. Disaster. Heavy, heavy, heavy load of history, every single object.

Marilyn Munroe's valises

Marilyn Munroe’s set of Goyard luggage

Is there a purity that these possessions have? Did you find that your photographs of objects captured their owner’s soul in some fundamental way?

It’s like going to the shrink. You lie on a couch and you talk. And objects talk. For me, yes they are inanimate, but they are really alive. They don’t lie. Let’s say you’re photographing a good-looking model. By the time the picture has been delivered to a magazine, it looks ten times better than the good-looking model we had in front of the camera. Hair, make up, Photoshop, and God knows what else. An object? Well it is what it is, and I really like it.

King Kong's hand, 1933

King Kong’s hand, 1933

How do you maintain the energy it takes to be a photographer as you’re climbing to an age where people traditionally begin to retire?

Once in a while, you know, there are difficult moments, and I try to dig in within myself and figure out and find again how did I feel the day I got my first assignment? How did I feel when I saw my first picture published? What did I do? And when these dark moments come — because they do come; times have changed; it’s no longer 1980 — then with that thinking process I just manage to feel the youth, the fun, and the strength to keep on going, and I hope that I will be lucky, maybe like Avedon who died on assignment, and Helmut Newton who died climbing on assignment. I don’t want to die in a nursing home; I want to die with a camera in my hand. Photography is a great excuse to share your passion with other people. What’s greater than that? Trust me, I wouldn’t want to be a heart surgeon. I don’t want to play with other people’s lives. I want to give them pleasure, or I want to give them information. And I do believe that if photography is well applied — and we both know that this happens — it can change the world.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.