Jack Pierson has long been revered in the fine-art world for his intimate, color-saturated photographs, along with his quick-hitting word sculptures, collages, drawings, and installation pieces. Recently, Pierson and his camera took on the high-fashion world, booking the spring 2012 Bottega Veneta campaign and a cover shoot with Channing Tatum for British GQ Style. But, the artist says, "it wasn’t a conscious [move], like, I'm going to try to hit this fashion thing." For The Cut's second-ever Depth of Field feature, we spoke with Pierson about some of his most memorable images to date and why, "on a certain level, yes, the mere act of taking the picture to [him] is sexual somehow." Click ahead to see how his work has evolved from his exposures on the road in the eighties to his latest batch of commercial photos, accompanied by commentary from Pierson himself.
In Every Dreamhome a Heartache (From Angel Youth Portfolio), 1990.
"I began my career with pictures that looked like this; the snapshot period, which, you know, it wasn’t just snapshots that I was trying to capture — it was every aesthetic of low-grade photography. And in this case, I thought I achieved, like, a paparazzi shot of Jackie Kennedy or something because those were [the] pictures I grew up [with]. So, to me, I found myself in this situation with a friend of mine, Pat Hearn, who was a gallerist in New York who died early of cancer. It was one of my first exposures to [capture] 'luxury.' We went to this beautiful house in Jamaica, and she had a cool swimming suit on; and I just sort of knew, like, Oh, if I take this picture, I could make it look like it was a telephoto lens taken over the fence of a movie star in a grand place. Yet, at the same time, it is my friend, I was there, it’s a real picture. You know, it’s not good somehow — it’s not in focus, there’s a brown spot on the lawn, but whatever, I think it gives you the feeling of decadence and isolation."
Pink Badlands, 1992.
"For one thing, it was taken in 1983 [during] probably my first road trip across the country. I had honed my costume down to just that denim vest and the Levi’s cowboy thing. It was another one of those situations where like, If I take this picture, it will look like I am a badass man of the road in the Badlands somehow. And I guess, there was the movie Badlands. It was like trying to throw myself into a cinematic situation that would look authentic. And, kind of, it is because I was like an itinerant kid on the road somehow. But I was also self-aware. So, you know what I mean … It’s real. It’s not real. And then the pink is just — I made an edition of this where it’s just natural color somehow, and I was like, 'Well, let’s throw it really magenta and see what that looks like.' And so we did that. This picture actually sat in my drawer from 1983 to 1990 before I could really work with it. I tend to [do that] with the art pictures … when they come back immediately, I’m like, Uh, this sucks, and I don’t look at it again for a while. [But] then I can go back, look, and edit it."
Nat's Back, P-Town, 1995.
"There was a book when I was a teenager in high school, Sleeping Beauties by Ken Haak, and it looked like [all the men] were in Fire Island taking naps. It was kind of the first mass-market book of half-naked hunks; even before the emergence of Bruce Weber. I think this picture definitely references an early level of that book and how it’s just, like, handsome guys in the summer hanging out. What’s not to like? Now, there’s millions of those books, but at the time, there was only, like, one. I’ve long been a proponent [of] intimacy [as] a style. And nothing happened — he’s my friend — nothing happened before, nothing happened after. But I feel like I can contrive the situation to make it look like that somehow, you know? People always ask, ‘Do you have sex with the models?’ But on a certain level, yes, the mere act of taking the picture to me is sexual somehow. And so, it’s not like bringing home trophies somehow. Maybe I am, but, like, it’s not like it didn’t work if I didn’t have sex with them. The whole thing is sexual to me."
(Bust of) Andrea Carrano, 1996.
"These square format pictures that I took were sort of a response to [my] early pictures, [which] were very raw [with] a rough aesthetic; it looks super snapshot-y and super unpresented in a way. People would write about them in terms of being found photographs that I just blew up, which I considered a big success because that’s kind of what I wanted. [At this time], I adopted all these tropes of being a real artist, with the square format camera, and trying to get it considered so you can tell that I was an artist with a capital A. I spent a couple weeks in Naples one time, ostensibly to take pictures. And because of the language barrier [and] I’m shy, I couldn’t really — I didn’t really photograph any boys. And then the last night, I met this guy Ernesto Esposito, and he looked at my work and he was like, ‘Have you not photographed the boys of Naples?’ ... He later introduced me to Andrea Carrano when he was in New York. His face, everything just seems very classical; it looks to me very sculptural and Italian. And I think, he was 16 maybe, even though he has the little beard trying to look older. I don’t know it just felt like it had a hallmark sort of style of mine — which is the soft focus and a little overexposed — I’ve always liked it. I kind of think this is one of my favorite pictures I ever took. It’s just as good as it gets somehow."
Pink Towel, Positano, 1996.
"I love stuff like this. It’s sort of [like a] quick, off-hand photograph; sort of like a quick Matisse sketch, somehow. Pink has been a color I work well with. I like my pink. [When you look at the photograph] don’t you want to be in a place where the towels are that color and hung out to dry with bushes in front of them? To me, that’s what this is kind of about. I don’t know if there is a further narrative than that, even. It could be anyone’s towel. It could be the next time you look at a towel, you’ll think of that. That’s another thing: When an artist really hits it well, or a movie director, don’t you sometimes feel like if the movie is really good and it’s got a complete vision, then you walk out of the movie theater, and you [feel] like you’re still in the movie?"
Tony Ward in Vogue Homme's spring 2008 issue.
"You know, if you can get a good smoking picture, it can work, and [Tony’s] a guy that can smoke and make it look authentic. So it just happened like that. It wasn’t like, 'Oh my God, look at that.' It was like we’re sitting there, he’s smoking, I’m like 'Okay, exhale slowly.’ It was funny doing this shoot because Tony is a photographer, too. I used to know how to run cameras, but I sort of let go of the light meter and all that stuff. I realized that I used this automatic camera that does everything automatically, so when I do a fashion shoot, I have an assistant. [Tony] actually knows all this stuff, so he was amazed at how little I knew because I was always asking the assistant questions in front of him."
(Pyramid, Pink), 2010.
"[This is] the last big photo statement I made a couple years ago with the folded prints, which I like. And that was me coming out of probably a five-year hiatus of … I hadn’t really been making prints for art somehow because I was just so distraught by framing and, you know, whatever. Framing, I guess. It just made it seem so, Oh, you really had to have a big idea and every picture had to be so good because it’s going to costs two grand to frame it and ship it. And then everything would have to be done six months in advance to get it to the framer so that it could be shipped. [So] one day I just sat there with my head in my hands saying like, I would like to show some of these pictures, but I don’t want to engage with this whole like stupid expense. And sometimes every once in a while, I’d get smart and I’d say to myself like, ‘What would you do if you could do exactly what you want?’ And then, I would have them printed really big and then just fold them up and pin them to the wall because that would be great, and that’s how I like them. And, luckily, I can do whatever I want. So I did that. So that’s where I’m at with that. I’ll probably continue to do that because I just really like it as a thing. And I fortunately don’t have to make my money selling prints, so I can do whatever I want."
Joe Manganiello in GQ Style U.K.'s fall 2011 issue.
"[This] picture fits in with the image of the woman in the swimming pool and the picture of me in the Badlands. It just looks like a snapshot of a situation that could be kind of real. I don’t know — who knows — if the car was a 1968, it could look really like the sixties, but I think in this case I don’t know what makes it so — I mean he’s hot, right? [Joe’s] a very big guy — he’s six-foot-five, and the jeans were practically the only pants that would fit him. I just saw the outfit [and] I was like, Let’s take him to the highway, and – nobody really thumbs anymore, do they? It just all seems like a sixties porno movie. For me, the dumb hard part in fashion that I always forget is that I never shoot a horizontal because whenever I shoot a horizontal I always put the [subject] in the middle. So, that’s just a pain in the ass because I think I could have a great spread, but he would be right down the middle of the page."
Tommy Kristiansen in AnOther Man magazine's spring 2012 issue.
“This kid is a genius model, as far as I’m concerned. Because he’s, like, what a 19-year-old kid from Norway? I don’t think he probably even knows who James Dean is. But I handed him the stick and I said, ‘Put it over your shoulders.’ And in two seconds, he just had all this attitude and swagger and [it] made the whole thing seem realistic. And on a certain level, I don’t know, it seemed totally real to me. But I also know that it was like a freezing day and overcast — and it just worked out. I feel like he’ll be huge because he just has such a cool vibe about the way he models. He just is there. [This was shot in] 29 Palms, California, in a little subsection — an unincorporated part of 20 Palms called Wonder Valley, which is really the end of the road. It’s basically [a] bare desert every place, so to find one element of interest like this that wasn’t … people shoot there a lot. Like it’s a standard place for everybody — European fashion magazines — everybody shoots in 29 Palms. So it was fun to find a way to make it look different or like me.”
Patrick O'Donnell in GQ Style U.K.'s spring 2012 issue.
"I’m kind of super proud of this last round of fashion work because [this image] has everything that makes it a Jack Pierson to me. And you see the belt, the little bracelet, the scarf. It still has everything on display, but it’s still mine, and it’s in focus, and not too dark. You know what I mean? So I feel like wow, I really was able to — because usually you get like one or the other. For me, it’s taken me kind of 20 years to get it all in one frame and still be a picture. It [might be] a little styled up to be in art shops, but it’s pretty damn close to what I’d want to give you [in] an art shop, you know what I mean? And I think I had just come off the Bottega thing, and I was feeling all empowered. If you consider the top [of the image] — that piece of fabric at the top hanging off the fruit cart, like one of my towel things or a piece of printed fabric, it’s got that or it’s got a little fruit. It’s got a Renaissance-y feel. It’s kind of [similar] with the [(Bust Of) Andrea Carrano] picture where it’s a little bit sculptural and classical somehow. It’s a very, to me, Renaissance-y, Caravaggio thing – a boy with a piece of fruit in his hand eating it. Yet he’s wearing sunglasses."
Bottega Veneta with Karmen Pedaru, spring 2012.
"Here’s the thing: I don’t know what’s what in fashion. So, like, everybody else told me, like ‘Oh my God, this is Karmen [Pedaru], da da da da.’ I don’t know stuff like that. I just think on a certain level when you’re doing stuff with fashion people, I feel like they know what’s going on — like the stylist knows. I would say that’s the one weird thing; like when you think they know what’s going on and when they really don’t, it’s sort of a shocker. But in this case, they knew what was going on. What makes this a high-fashion image … [is] a high-fashion model. If you put her in the jean vest and the same jeans [like Pierson’s Badlands self-portrait], it would be a high-fashion picture. Tomas Maier [Bottega Veneta’s head of creative design] had prepared a pink backdrop that they copied from one of my pictures. We wanted to use this at some point, so it was just like in there. They sort of guided me into making my own picture somehow, and it came out really good, I think."
Bottega Veneta with Alex Cunha, spring 2012.
"[Alex] was lovely, and you know, I love a male model. This picture to me, except for the high-fashion sweater and $30,000 piece of [the] leather good, looks exactly like a picture of mine. And on a certain level, part of what makes it look like a picture of mine is [that] I don’t think one of your ten top fashion photographers would have let that darkness be in his eyes. It’s homey and not that 'professional,' even though it looks — he brings the professionalism, and the graphic design brings the professionalism. But, they would have balanced his face so that there were no dark shadows. It looks like work of mine, so it was okay with me. That’s the other thing — if I had shot someone — you would have been shitting bricks because I don’t focus that well. And a lot of the times when I shoot film, the edit comes down to the one where the eye isn’t closed, and it’s in focus, kind of. And that defines my style, somehow. But, in this case, yes it’s all in focus [because] there’s somebody saying it was in focus."
Channing Tatum on the cover of GQ Style U.K., spring 2012.
"I periodically dip into the fifties, which is one of my favorite periods. I usually will pitch a studio [shoot] to editors, and they’re like, ‘No, you’re not studio.’ And somehow, I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I could be; just let me try.’ And so, I pitched this and they liked the idea. You know, I’m pretty proud of this cover, too. I had to fight with my assistant and retouchers because I did all these solid backgrounds, like, ‘It’s fake, it looks like you just Photoshopped it in.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I want it to look like that.’ And they’re like, ‘No, no. People will just think all you did was choose a color.’ I’m like, ‘We are doing that.’ And somehow they just couldn’t get it ... [Channing’s] just such a dreamboat that I thought I was trying to make it look like, something from the early sixties where he was like a teen idol and dreamy, and girls would love him. And even though it’s a men’s magazine, I was trying to make it look like, ‘Oh my god, he’s so dreamy I’m going to buy this.' You know, I like my movie stars, so I still get nervous. I feel like I get all impressed, so I don’t try to hang out with them. I was trying to animate him, and all I could think to say was, ‘Can you use your tongue a little?’ And he sort of freaked out. I just meant like open your mouth. And he’s like, ‘Uh, yeah, no.’ I don’t like to boss people. Male models, you can get them to do whatever you want. But movie stars are always like, ‘Oh my god.’ They either freak out or is the agent going to … so that could be a lame anecdote, but that was as close as I got to a thing. Because basically, I’m just shy. I don’t try to talk to them, ‘What’s up? Do you know Paris Hilton?’"
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