Q&A session with the legendary Bruce Weber on filming Wet and Wild featuring Simon Nessman for Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio Essenza:
Bruce Weber, you are well-known for your fashion shoots and highly naturalistic photos of idyllic youth. Water often plays a part in your work: is it an important component for you?
I’ve always felt the freedom that the sea inspires. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and there was no ocean, obviously; there were a lot of lakes but no ocean. So water has come to be synonymous with getting away from it all, travelling and getting back to nature. I use water a lot in my pictures, whether people are wet or they’re swimming or they’re in the bathtub or the shower… Wet skin is a tremendous subject for photography. As far as the models are concerned, I like to photograph young people and I love to photograph really elderly people. What I look for more than anything is beauty.
Isn’t beauty ageless?
Not necessarily. You know, I’ve met some people in my life who were much older than me at the time, but their spirit was so young. I met the poet Allen Ginsberg, for instance, and he was so open and so free of expression, as a person and in his poetry. This is where beauty really lies, in my opinion. I think each day brings you a different experience it and you try to make something personal out of it – something you can share.
Your pictures tell a story, too. You’re a photographer and a storyteller rolled into one…
It’s like that old song. Every picture tells a story. Sometimes the story is one that you’ve made up in your head. And sometimes it’s the one that’s happening, right in front of you. But the story’s what it’s all about. And you’ve got to keep your eyes wide open so that you can see it and tell it.
What was your source of inspiration for the Acqua di Giò campaign?
I thought a lot about Mr Armani. I grew up on his photographs, of his clothing, his fragrances, which I have always greatly admired. Sometimes it was just a portrait of a person, but I felt that person had a history. I wanted to explore this ground, more in an emotional way, in the sense of detail, generosity… I’ll explain what I’m talking about. Years ago, I went to an Armani fashion show in Milan. Afterwards, we were invited to a party in a very old house. As we walked up the monumental staircase, there were people dressed in 18th-century costumes to greet us, holding candelabras. The light was incredible, and in the dining room, on each of the chairs a little cushion was placed that Mr Armani had made himself. This is what I wanted to get across: this kind of hospitality, giving people so much pleasure, that incredible sense of refinement.
Is this one of the characteristic qualities of the House of Armani?
Most definitely. And one of Mr Armani’s above all. He has always been very passionate in his work and in his life; he has a lot of desire to make things beautiful and strong. And share it. So I thought about that and the fact that he has a house on an island: and I thought about that island, and what brought him to it: the peace and serenity of the place. And from there, I thought up a story with Simon Nessman in it, to embody the fragrance.
You’ve been working with Simon for quite some time now…
I’ve known Simon since he was 15 years old. When I first met him – he was fresh from Vancouver – he was playing rugby and basketball… I took his first pictures, and I very much liked his elegant sensibility right from the outset. There’s something strongly masculine about him, great spontaneity, and a sort of hidden fragile quality. There’s the courage – and you have to have a lot of courage to be in front of the camera – the shyness and caring. And there isn’t just his great beauty, he also has a lot of soul and natural elegance.
In the digital age, you still work with film. What’s behind this choice?
I don’t know if it’s actually a choice but on that score I’m old school and I’m fine with that. My grandmother took beautiful pictures and painted, and she used film and my uncle used film. My dad made movies and took pictures: they all used film and I grew up that way. I like the quality of it, of when the light hits the film, and the fact that you can touch the picture and almost touch the person in the picture.
What sort of light did you set out to capture?
I wasn’t looking for any type of light in particular… early morning or sunset. I just wanted it to feel like Simon and I had spent the day together. It isn’t a specific moment, frozen in time. It’s more of a linear narrative, an adventure that we experienced together, just the two of us, in the course of a day.
You also produced the film for the campaign. How did you go about conceptualising it?
I thought a lot about yoga when I was working on these pictures and how the fragrance connects you to the world around you. I liked how it gave Simon the courage to get close to the camera and be fearless that way. I thought about the water, nature and the setting. It’s more about creating a mood or an atmosphere than a series of sequences per se. Let’s just say that moving on from this idea, my imagination got into gear: I’ve got lots of imagination, but that’s surely what’s expected of me!
And how did you work on it?
Once again, it was very spur of the moment. I’m not one of those people who downs tools because there’s a cloud in the sky. I like imperfection and mystery, the unexpected – these are themes that both Bergman and Pasolini explored a lot. I had a great team, with Peter Zuccarini, a master of underwater filming, who also worked on Pirates of the Caribbean. Here too, the point was to capture the subtle nuances and freshness of the Armani world. I didn’t think of it as a fragrance, I wanted to go beyond the product. I think I know well enough how Mr Armani lives and works, and that’s the experience I wanted to get across in the pictures.
You mentioned some of the great film directors. Does film inspire you?
Absolutely! When I was growing up, every Sunday night my family would jump in the car in this little farm town in Pennsylvania and we would drive to Pittsburgh. And we would go and see a foreign film. A lot of those films were Italian, that’s how I got to see Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. I was fascinated by Anna Magnani’s magnetic appeal on screen. The leading names in Italian neo-realism are still major sources of inspiration to me. As are its great actresses, Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale to name but two.
Hence the use of black and white?
I was told that that’s what Mr Armani wanted and I was fine with that. Black and white was right for the job, for Acqua di Giò Essenza, and, more broadly, in keeping with the Armani spirit. When you take pictures like this, it’s really important to keep it intimate, and black and white is perfect for that.
It also gives Simon a very filmic quality …
It does indeed. I hear all kinds of things about Simon. People say that he’s like a Greek god. What’s great about Simon is that he has that fragile quality, a little bit like Alain Delon in the early days – at that pivotal moment in your life when everything’s still possible, but you don’t know what the future holds. I think that some of the directors I mentioned earlier would have looked at the footage and been keen to have Simon work for them. Well, at least one of them.
Which one in particular?
I’ve thought a lot about it and the answer would have to be Luchino Visconti.
Does the campaign have a very Italian feel about it?
I don’t think so. It’s part of a much bigger world, even if I brought an “Italian touch” to it, with the light and filmic quality… Again, it wasn’t about emulation: the idea was to capture, in my own way, that Mediterranean feel, the connection to water, the sea, and bodily freedom on a beach… I really love that country. I feel that way about France, too; it’s one of those places where you can just walk down the street in a city or village and discovering somebody – like a character – that walked out of a novel.
We come back to the storytelling…
Yes, because that’s where it all begins. And beauty. Simon’s beauty in particular. I know it sounds a little crazy, but from experience I think the camera’s really human. It likes certain people and it doesn’t like others. The camera really loves Simon. It likes his body, his poise, his mindset. So these pictures are also a way of creating a record for him, a memento.
In what way?
Let me explain. I lived in Paris when I first started to take pictures. I met all kinds of people, artists and so on, who wanted to photograph me, I was this broke American kid. I thought that it was sweet and nice but I really in my heart wanted to be a photographer and a film-maker. I was meant to go behind the camera. I didn’t want to be photographed, I wanted to be the man with his finger on the shutter button … When I got back to America, I was still poor, and was just starting out and photographing rock ‘n’ roll musicians and poets and so on. I realised that I didn’t have to be so serious. And when I photograph people who are the age I was when I first lived in Paris, it makes me very sensitive towards them and makes me want to give them a record of themselves as young people. This advertising campaign for Acqua di Giò Essenza, is like a piece of history for Mr Armani and Simon.
Visit armanibeauty.com to learn more.