Bruce Weber on the Adventures that Inspired his New Exhibition 'Far From Home'

Bruce Weber on the Adventures that Inspired his New Exhibition 'Far From Home'

With over 250 photographs and several short films, Bruce Weber's 'Far From Home' will be his largest solo exhibition in over 16 years. Here, Stephen Gan sits down with the legendary photographer to reminisce about the stories that inspired the show, from Moroccan love affairs to Sumo wrestlers in Japan.

With over 250 photographs and several short films, Bruce Weber's 'Far From Home' will be his largest solo exhibition in over 16 years. Here, Stephen Gan sits down with the legendary photographer to reminisce about the stories that inspired the show, from Moroccan love affairs to Sumo wrestlers in Japan.

Photography: Bruce Weber

Text: Stephen Gan

STEPHEN GAN Welcome, Bruce. You’re currently mounting your Far From Home exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art. Why is it called Far From Home?

BRUCE WEBER Well, you know, when I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents would leave my sister and me and they would go away for months at a time. And they would buy a Mercedes and travel around Europe. As we got a little older, my grandparents, who also went to Europe at least once a year, would take my sister for part of the summer and I was left alone. And so I kept saying, “Hey, why can’t I go?” And my grandfather said, “When you’re old enough and you can tell a good story.”

SG And do you feel like you’re doing that now?

BW I hope so! I don’t know if I’m a good storyteller, but I try to put that into my pictures.

SG Right. Well, one of my biggest pleasures as an editor, as someone who runs a magazine, is whenever Bruce Weber calls me up and says, “Hey, I just spent the best three weeks in California. Can I send you some pictures to look at of my trip?” And every story with you does feel like a voyage so that makes perfect sense to me now.

BW Good. So you don’t think I’m too crazy I hope.

SG No, not at all. You might be a little “far from home” every now and then but, we love you for that! I’m reading about the exhibition. It’s the largest presentation of your work since your 1999 survey at the National Portrait Gallery in London. So it’s the biggest exhibition you’ve shown in over 16 years. Is that true?

BW Yeah, but it’s really big just because we are showing pictures from a lot of different countries, a lot of different trips. When I first started working, going on trips to shoot fashion or portraits and things like that, we would always take a writer with us. Like when I would go away with Grace Coddington or Liz Tilberis, it was so amazing to have that writer because they opened up the whole place for us. They had written books about it, they told us about these books, they’d have us read them. They would tell us about these films, and we would watch them. We were almost on a school field trip in a way, and it was nice that we could go to a country, and we would spend one or two days just feeling the lay of the land, going shopping, getting to know people, just taking rides. Like what you would do with your family, you would just take rides and drive around and stop and get an ice cream cone, and it was done really as innocently as that. It was nice how everybody went out during the day and came back and reported what they saw, and usually the hair and makeup people were always having the best time, which made us really jealous. And then we’d get together and they would introduce us to people and those people would end up in our pictures.

SG So is that sort of the way you describe the work that you’ve chosen for this exhibition? Everything that’s important in the world of Bruce Weber…

BW Yes, definitely. I think it’s all things that kind of touched me, that I was moved by, that I had a crush on, that I was really excited about knowing and learning, that drove me to that, you know?

SG Those were driving forces in you taking the pictures, but are those also driving forces in your selection of these images?

BW Well a lot of these were done for magazines originally. And some of them were printed, in other words, worked. It’s like, for instance, when I went to Norway with Dennis Freedman for W and we went and had these two girls with reddish hair who were Norwegian. One girl has tons of freckles and the other girl was just this amazing beauty. We met Liv Ullmann there—she’s originally from Norway, even though all of her films were done in Sweden at first before she went to Hollywood. And then I met Peter Johnson, who I photographed and filmed for my Chop Suey Club. So we asked him, and a young boy we met, and we all went up to Fiore to vacation up there. I’m saying vacation because that’s what it was like. We didn’t have to do a hundred pictures a day and have to show a lot of credits. We really got to feel if the clothes were appropriate and sometimes not appropriate, which is sometimes even better for the places we were at. It was like a free-range circus. I was looking yesterday when we were hanging the show, which has sections that deal with Morocco and Tangier, and I had gone to see Paul Bowles, the writer, and his friend Mohamed Mrabet and Paul was telling us one day that Muhammad was the most widely read writer who didn’t know how to write. And what they’d do is they would sit at these little cafés, and they would smoke kief and drink tea, and brandy, Muhammad would tell stories and Paul would translate them as he told them. He got them on a little tape recorder. And he tells all these funny stories about how the expats are there, a lot of English moved there, and they had kind of a wonderful, decadent life. Paul, for instance, I have a picture to show, of Paul having his lunch in bed. He always loved to have lunch in bed. And Mohamed would come and make the lunch for him and serve him in bed and it was so funny, he had all the windows closed—it must have been 120 degrees in his apartment—and he had plants all around the place that were dead, he never watered them. And his door was always open and there were always a few intellectual types from colleges and everything in America sitting there, hoping that he would meet them. And I say this story to you because I think it involves a lot about the pictures. A lot of his friends didn’t like Mohamed Mrabet—they thought that he was using Paul and they didn’t think he was a good influence on Paul. Meanwhile, his wife Jane Bowles, had met a witch and fallen in love with her…

SG A witch?

BW Yeah, a witch. And they had fallen in love with each other. She was very much under her spell. So Paul kind of went on his way a little bit, and Jane did too, but they still had a great love and affection for each other, which in a way is very Moroccan, very understanding. And she eventually got ill and she died. And Paul was alone, he still had Mohamed Mrabet, but all his friends persuaded him to leave him and for a long time I would go to Tangier to see Paul and he would be very sad. But then they hired this man, an older man, who was very together, and more like a companion who would keep the house better, water the plants, take care of himself, you know. But Paul always had this one thing, and I really loved that about him, he was such a great dresser. And even if he had a lot of money, or no money, he would always dress beautifully. I was there when they were photographing The Sheltering Sky, one of his books, and [Bernardo] Bertolucci asked me if I would like to come by the set and there’s a picture I did of Bertolucci in the show. So I said, “Paul, how do you like being in a film for one of your books?” And he said, ‘Well I was really disappointed because I only did it because I knew I’d get a beautiful suit, but the suit they gave me was polyester.” And I just loved how all these kind of coincidences happened in the simple, kind of relationships of people I met, people I hung out with, and it gave me a whole feeling about Tangier. So when I went there to photograph Paul once again, in fact with Grace Coddington, who also has a great love for Morocco, we were able to jump into it right away. And it wasn’t just about like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do like ten or twelve or fourteen pages of credits.’ We were reporting our own life there.

SG That’s beautifully put. Bringing up one of my all-time favorite Bruce Weber images, it’s Bruce Hulse and Telisa Soto on the back of a boat. I think to so much of the world it symbolizes the beauty and the romance that are associated with a Bruce Weber photograph. What’s the story behind that picture?

BW Well, Teresa was a girl from Puerto Rico, and when I first met her, she was 15 years old. She didn’t speak very much English, she had longer hair, and when I went to do the couture with her for British Vogue in Paris, they’d given her that short haircut. We were doing a story out on Bellport, Long Island dedicated to Edward Weston, the photographer who lived out on California and he always had these very complicated relationships with women. So it was something we kind of wanted to show in our pictures. Telisa was very shy, and the first part of this picture is that Bruce took his clothes all off and dove in the ocean. And Telisa had never seen another man nude, so when he came out of the boat, she was like in shock and she was laughing, we were all laughing and Bruce just threw his clothes on without even drying himself off and after the wind dried him, he sat there and he was partially dressed and I think that at that moment Telisa became a woman in her head.

SG That’s so sweet. And so his picture on the boat was a few minutes after that?

BW Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. I hope someday I can show the picture of him nude!

SG [Laughs] And how did you get to pick the image that you used as the poster for this exhibition? I’m talking about the picture of the two male silhouettes in Capri.

BW Oh that one! That was taken on a Versace job in Naples. We had a big party there the night before, and the chief of police came. All of these policemen came for some strange reason, and here they were mixed with this whole fashion group. Some of the girls and some of the guys fell in love with the policemen, and they all started having affairs with them. It was so funny and it could only happen in Italy really. So we knew we had a lot of protection, and we were never worried about getting our clothes stolen, nor jewelry or our cameras. So the next morning, we all went back down to this cave behind the house we were renting, and it was right by the sea. That’s where I took that picture of the two guys who were models and who were just swimming.

SG Wow, how incredible. I take it that it was never used as a campaign image—it was just something you took.

BW It’s something Gianni [Versace] used for his booklet that he used to do every season. I believe it might have the cover. He really spoiled me that way. He never said, “I can’t run that picture.” He would say, “I don’t like it” or “I love it,” but he would never say, “I can’t run that picture.”

SG Right. When you look at that image today and you think, for a designer to run that as part of his statement on their clothes of the season and what he wants to say, it’s such a great thing and it’s such a strong statement to make. It’s so beautiful.

BW About Gianni, a lot of people don’t know this about him, but he was such an experienced traveler. He went to Vietnam way before anybody was there. He went to Africa before it was very popular to go there. And he would go to these places and he would do the most interesting things. He would find a place where they made things, or he would go to a local museum. He was very interested in the arts, like if there was a ballet company. And he wrote really beautifully about it. One time, Franca Sozanni had an exhibition of my pictures from Vietnam, and she had a show and she had a booklet, and Gianni paid for the booklet, and the only place he had his name was in the introduction that he wrote. And he wrote the most beautiful introduction. It made me almost go back to Vietnam, almost more so than my pictures.

SG Wow. Bruce, what are you feeling as you’re mounting this exhibition?

BW Well, it’s a way for me to be able to have experiences again, and to think about them the way that I did when I was in these places. I was looking through the pictures of Japan, when I would go to the sumo wrestler fights, and also to the little Dojo where they practice and eat special foods. I met this one very young sumo wrestler, he must have been around 20 or 21, and he was so handsome. They have the most extraordinary faces, they almost looked like babies. They have their own hairdressers, and their own dressers, and they travel almost like a pop star in a way. They are kind of like pop stars in Japan. They all have tons of girlfriends, they have huge fan groups, the clothes are carried in these huge baskets with beautiful cloths around them. One of the men whose picture is in the show, he is one of the greatest sumo wrestlers. His hair would go all the way down to his waist, and then it would be rolled, almost like you would see in a picture of Alexandra years ago doing hair for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s quite amusing and beautiful and has a lot to do with culture and everything. It’s really great. So anyways, I met this guy, this sumo wrestler, and I loved his face, this other guy. He was really huge, and he had this amazing smile. We were doing our own clothing line at that time called Weberbelt, and we were sort of making stuff in our garage down in Florida. So we were doing some underwear, and I wanted him to be our underwear model. But I hadn’t done a size big enough to fit him. He was just starting out and everything, he was really nice. So I was photographing him on the street one day, and I thought, “Why do I even need to show underwear? I’ll just show him.” So I had this bicycle, and I met this woman on the street with a little tiny dog, and I asked, “Can I put this dog in a little basket on this bike in front of you?” and he said, “Oh no, I’m really frightened of dogs.” And I said, “Please do this for me” and he said, “Okay.” I just thought it was really funny to see a man this huge size with this tiny little dog.

SG That’s hysterical. So you’re saying you got to relive these experiences through your pictures as you get to mount them?

BW Yeah! It would be like going to a party for me and seeing a lot of people I really adored, like the Duchess of Devonshire, Stella Tennant’s grandmother. I was there for Italian Vogue with Stella and we were photographing her grandmother and we said, “Let’s go outside.” And she said, “Yeah, why don’t you come? I’m gonna feed the chickens. Why don’t I wear this evening dress from the 50s?” She thought that would be great. So Joe Mckenna and I were there, Stella started getting her ready. We went down and she started feeding the chickens, so that was good to have in my show. She said to me afterwards, “Well what do you want to do next?” and I said, “Well, what would you like to do next?” and she said, “Well why don’t you photograph me in the bathtub?” And it really makes me laugh because you know how nervous everybody is about what I’m doing in the picture, what it has to do with my fame, what is the meaning of all that. I didn’t photograph her in the bathtub, but I could have if I wanted to. Instead, we spent a lot of time looking at her Elvis Presley memorabilia, which was immense.

SG This makes me think that this exhibition is like one big documentary for you.

BW Exactly.

SG “My Life in Pictures” by Bruce Weber.

BW Wow. I don’t know, maybe it would only mean something to me. I always feel that as photographers, I think we’re pretty selfish. We always think, Oh people are going to love this, and then nobody says anything to you. You just realize, Wait a second, did I just do that for myself, and for people close to me that I love, and maybe people I work for? That’s what I think, you know.

SG Well that’s sort of what I wanted to say most of all. The reason we’re doing this interview is because I always think of Bruce Weber living in such a perfect world. Everywhere you go, it’s sort of like Weber World, and I feel like it’s hard for you to see sometimes how many people you affect and lives you’ve touched. I just feel for the younger generation that V speaks to, you know, how you and I met Gigi when she was 19. It just feels like we’re surrounded by these young people who in the past year or so have come into their own in fashion. You’re new to them as they are to you, which is a beautiful thing too. I just heard your name so much by this generation in the past year more than I have ever heard it used before, thanks to social media. I don’t know if that’s thanks to Bruce Weber finally having an Instagram. I don’t know what I should attribute that to. But for me, as someone who worked in the magazine business for years, the Bruce Weber to me has never changed and the Bruce Weber to me has always been as great as he was when he first gave me some pictures to publish, I think they were pictures of clouds, almost twenty years ago. You know, when I was starting out in this business, when I had no idea what I was doing, I waited in your waiting room on Watts Street right then, I just wanted to meet Bruce Weber and maybe one day he’ll give me pictures to publish. You’re still that person to me, as in huge then and huge now. You know, to a whole other side of the audience, they’re just getting to know you.

BW I think that photography really lets you always be like a kid. I remember, years ago, I was going to London to work with Liz Tilberis, and she said, “Who do you want to meet?” and I said “I want to meet Norman Parkinson,” and she asked why and I said, “Well because his pictures are so kid-like.” And when I think of all the photographers that I got to know, like Helmut Newton, we would always talk about stuff. Helmut, he would always take pictures like inaudible you’re a kid, same thing with David Bailey and Dick Avedon. And Irving Penn, because every picture he took would have that scholastic feeling of a guy in school who got good grades. He was always the guy that would always let you look over his shoulder, so he could help you pass that test. So I think there’s a feeling of that in photography, and also in the world of fashion, where it keeps us open to things, open to meeting people. When you call me and say, “Bruce, I found a girl,” like Kate Upton at the beginning. I said, “Well, okay, let’s do it.” And we did it and she was really wonderful and beautiful and sexy and open. You have a great knack, and I think that’s why I think all these pictures that we do are really like collaborations. We’re not like a man on an island. I think that those collaborations are what keep it all alive. It makes me really sad to see a lot of really good photographers not work anymore, I really miss seeing their pictures, and I really hope a lot of younger photographers really try and go back to the magazines from 10 or 20 years ago and look at some of the pictures that were taken. I keep thinking, I could show pictures like this to my assistants, but there should be a museum or some magazine once a year, or even a reissue, which runs ten pages of a fitting or something, so that people could learn about it, because that’s our foundation, that’s artistry. I really felt that I knew a lot of men and women who took great pictures.

SG That’s a great parting message, Bruce. This is why exhibitions and books are important. It’s not just about seeing an Instagram post, it’s about being able to really hold a print in your hands and it’s the feel of a magazine, and it’s the way that something is framed and mounted, and put on the wall. All of these things are so important, and I really think that’s something the new generation really needs to hear about and definitely, your call out to everyone in the business, to remember that this may have been in the past but it’s something that should be treasured. So thank you, Bruce.

BW You’re spoiling me! Thank you, Stephen. There’s an old jazz term from New Orleans that they would say when someone gives you a compliment: “Ah, get outta town!”

Bruce Weber's Far From Home will be on display at the Dallas Contemporary from September 17 through December 18.

Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1995.

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