Bruce Weber Profile
There is no photographer more adept at creating their own world and vision with photography than Bruce Weber. His world is filled with Newfoundland dogs, the fashion and celebrity elite, buff boys and sexy girls. But who is the man behind the images? Peter Silverton delves deep to find out.
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, in an ‘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. There is an almost childlike polymorphous sexuality, too. He’s as happy and engaged photographing penises as breasts — or a dog wedding. Or elephants squeezed into Yohji Yamamoto frocks. He is rarely – and bravely – afraid to be silly.
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 when he started shooting fashion in the late 1970s, for Soho Weekly News then 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
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.
This 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 clean-cut, 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 gay pornography 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?
He has worked for Vogue, Elle and Rolling Stone. 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 camper 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 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.
For the past 30 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 dream world of his images made into a dream world of a life.
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