"Perception is an ever-unfolding mystery"

in conversation with Larry Fink


Right after the Spring/​Summer 2018 show we sat down with the legendary American photographer to discuss empathy, translating experiences into photographs, and his ongoing collaboration with Jil Sander.

One of the most fascinating things about you is that when you are photographing, you seem to enter your own dimension, your private sensual universe. Would you agree?

That’s a terrific question, because what I’m really trying to do is enter the other person’s world – through their gestures, through their face, and all the other things that describe a human being. But in order to do that, in order to have a perception which has that kind of level of empathy, you have to look into the spectrum of the event, and of the person, in a very internalized way. For me, empathy comes from being within the other, being within the kind of common humanity that we all share. I’m not interested in sympathy; I’m not interested in being an outsider. Your question creates a very interesting inquiry into the contradiction because you said I looked very internalized, and that’s absolutely true. But only through internalization can you actually perceive the external personal world of the other.

  Larry Fink

Empathy is a word that has been associated with you quite often since you started your career. Do you think empathy is an intrinsic quality of photography in general? Of your work in particular?

Empathy is not something that is inherent in photography, but it is inherent in me. Photography is a multi-level criteria. There are photographers that work very much from the outside, and gloriously so, but you don’t get the feeling of being inside the experience. The picture becomes the experience rather than translating the experience in all its physical presentness. So with me empathy is not all, because I’m also interested in form. Form is the language which has the ability to translate experience. Sometimes the pictures I shoot for Jil Sander are just pictures of ponytails. The ponytails do not represent empathy in that kind of deep psychological way, but empathy in the sense of sensual empathy – I can feel that hair flowing through my fingers. In one particular picture for Jil with a young woman’s ponytail there’s a guy in the background, and he’s really important because he sets up a counterpoint; if there was just a blank space there wouldn’t be any tension, the tension makes the thing more private, and that’s called public tension. And I am aware of all those things.


So when you photograph, you are essentially driven by your senses but you also have a structure in mind, a composition. How do you manage to find a balance between the two?

When you have been shooting for 60-something years and you have been repeating yourself over and over again without it necessarily being an absolute repetition, how is it that you can keep the translation process and the hunger for translation fresh, real, vital? The real struggle is to be absolutely connected to the instantaneous sensuality and emotionality of that moment. To try to figure out what it means to be alive, as human as possible and perceiving another person. Another picture that we published with Jil is that one of [a piece of cloth that resembles] an oval, quite beautiful formally. It occurred to me that it had a religious symbology – almost like the habit of a nun. That was in the aftermath of perception; I just went to it and tried to see if I could assimilate that shape in a way that was alive for me. But then it took on that kind of odd religiosity later on, and when I saw it again, and again. So the thing is that perception is an ever-unfolding mystery.

Do you think unfolding that mystery is something inherent to you? Do you feel like you have a special sensibility that allows you to perceive things that way? Well I could be really snotty…[laughs]

Can I share my opinion with you?


Well, I think that some people have a special kind of sensibility and some people don’t. Do you agree with me?

I do. But you can, by teaching and so on, encourage people to live a life that is more than ordinary. It doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to create photographs, paintings, or whatever it might be… I mean, I am a mediocre writer, but I’m trying to get better at it.

Actually, I beg to differ, you write poetically.

This summer, I went through some papers I wrote and I didn’t like most of the things I found; while when it comes to photography, there’s something innate in me and I have tried to discipline myself towards liberating it so that I can share it for the world to see, if the world is interested. I am more like a photographer than a writer in the sense that I gather a group of related ideas and put them all together. I don’t have enough discipline for the continuity of novels. I am more prone to concision.

Concision perfectly fits Jil Sander. The brand has always been about essentiality, pureness, straightforwardness. When you photograph for Jil, do you keep the brand’s heritage, its aesthetic and what it represents in mind? Or do you just shoot instinctively?

The most miraculous thing about this relationship is that Jil Sander is not asking me to work with the brand in mind. They have full trust in the fact that my perception is responsible to a comprehensive use, but behind that they have full trust that my interpretation will be exactly what they want, which is unheard of. I am interested in the pictures on the program board, in the hair, in the various kinds of attitudes, in the high emotions, in the coquettishness, what have you. I’m interested in all of that. We are all in one big dance together, Jil Sander and I and the whole thing.

How did it feel to shoot backstage again after almost 10 years? Is working in fashion just as you remembered it?

When I am home, in America, I don’t have much regard for fashion, but while I was working backstage at the Jil Sander show I must say I enjoyed it! There were a couple of things that were really outstanding to me: the macramé reminded me of Jewish prayer shawls; the first track of the show made me think of chain gang songs and slaves working on the railroad back in the 1910-20s, while the music afterwards had a kind of mystical, almost Chinese or Japanese presence. So there was a tremendous amount of cultural influx that was going on in the music department, which also had much to do with what was going on in the clothing. I thought that was really smart stuff.

It’s beautiful how you can be so present. How do you manage to get straight to the essence every time? You don’t miss even the smallest details. You sense everything.

I don’t think I would be able to manage to do anything else but that! When I was a kid sometimes that kind of sensibility was trouble because I thought I was crazy… Now I know that I am crazy so that’s not a problem! [laughs] With time I have been able to capitalize on my sensitivity so that I am able to make a living out of it, even though in those 10 years that I did advertising I was probably less prone to being as sensitive as I may be today.

And now you are back on track.

Now I am back to my old spirit-filled self.