I wasn’t sure how the legendary, legendarily private photographer Hans Feurer would react to my call. But he answered with a friendly tone. It seems he was ready to talk, maybe for the first time in a while.
Motwary: It was very hard for us to track you down!
Feurer: I have a bit of a phobia with anything virtual, like computers. I try to keep away, because I can see that humanity has totally jumped into virtual reality, forgetting or ignoring what happens to our planet in reality. I keep all of that away from me, so that my ideas are fresh and not influenced by the synthetic. I have to use the computer to choose my photos, but I work with an analogue camera, and I read emails on paper but don’t send them myself. I don’t have a website—I don’t work like everybody else.
Motwary: You are in the States right now?
Feurer: I am really an artisan-mercenary. At the moment I do a lot of editorial—for French Vogue, Vogue Nippon and Vogue China. I have been spending a month between the Bahamas and Miami doing a lot of different stories.
Motwary: How did everything start for you? How did a Swiss native end up working for the biggest English, French and American fashion publications?
Feurer: (laughs) I have quite a history. I was born into a relatively poor family in Switzerland. My parents divorced when I was very young and I had to look after my two younger brothers, as we were in great difficulties. I was doing all sorts of jobs to find money and pay for my Zurich art school. Then I became a graphic designer and illustrator and left Switzerland for Paris. I was around 20 at the time and got a job at an advertising agency as an assis- tant art director, which quickly became art director. I then moved to London, where my career grew fast. I became art director of the Telegraph magazine and then creative director for a big agency. During all this time, I was taking pictures for myself, just as I did drawings. Photography was part of the visual experience.
Around 1966 I decided my life needed a change, so I bought a Land Rover and shipped myself to South Africa. I spent almost two years travelling through Africa, sleeping by the fire most nights whilst having a lot of adventures.
Motwary: I assume you were taking pictures too?
Feurer: No, I wasn’t! I was just living the experience, the magical moments. At one point I decided that the most exiting thing to do would be to become a fashion photographer, especially for all the beautiful women it involved. When I came back to England, I spent the rest of the money—after I sold the Land Rover—hiring studios, experimenting with light, making myself a portfolio. It was around the end of 1967, and I was successful very quickly. I took off like a rocket. Don’t forget it was “swinging London”; at the time, everything was possible. I immediately worked with the best magazines; most of all Nova. It was an extraordinary publication. The art director who created it, Harri Peccinotti, was a good friend of mine and I worked pretty closely with him right from the beginning.
Motwary: How different was being a photographer back then compared to what you are asked to deliver today?
Feurer: To me, there’s no difference, because I approach it in the same way. When I started as a photographer, I thought a lot about fashion—“what does it mean?” I discovered that it was a need, for women especially—and for men, I guess, as well, though not so much at that time—to project their dreams or to become somebody else, to become whomever they wished to be. When a woman dresses herself a little bit like a prostitute, in a very promiscuous way, it is very different from if she dresses herself like a nun. So you can project a different personality through clothes. I guess it’s similar to the carnival: if one plays a role for a certain time, one becomes it. I got very interested in trying to discover the dreams behind certain styles of fashion. Whenever I do a story, I try to understand what the dream is behind it, and project that, maybe in an exaggerated but convincing way. I want the pictures to be completely believable, almost like if they were out of National Geographic.
The other thing about my photography is that I never use any tricks. At the beginning I did some experiments with filters and so on but I quickly abandoned that. My pictures are unpolluted. I don’t use filters, I don’t use reflectors, I almost never retouch. I want the pictures to look very real, and the people in them to be living beings, with breathing, sensual skin instead of plastic.
Motwary: How has your work evolved through the years?
Feurer: It hasn’t evolved, it’s the same! It’s the dreams that have changed; people and culture are always changing. But me, I still do the same dream projections; I photograph women who live a certain lifestyle in a very convincing way.
Motwary: Nova is one of the strongest examples of visionary fashion, even almost 50 years later. Why do you think it has endured?
Feurer: Nova was a very honest, uncompromising magazine with a lot of journalistic integrity. For example, a story I did for Nova back then, I photographed a naked woman lying down with a baby rubbing some cream on her back. The article was about Johnson’s baby oil, which was a very cheap product that everybody knows and you can buy every- where; the point was to show that Johnson’s was as effective as a luxury product that costs maybe 100 times more. As a result, all the big cosmetics brands removed their advertisements from Nova. After a few other similar moves, Nova was left with almost no advertisers and had to close down.
Motwary: Do you feel advertisers exert a greater influence on magazine content today, as compared to back then?
Feurer: Totally! All magazines are dominated by advertisers; even the big magazines have most of their pages pre-decided.
Motwary: What are your fondest memories from your collaborations with Caroline Baker, Helmut Newton, Harri Peccinotti and the rest?
Feurer: Harri Peccinotti is a friend. I just saw him in New York at this big gathering of the Pirelli calendar people. You know I did one of those in 1972. Harri, of course, was one of the pioneers, and he was there too as he did one of the first Pirelli calendars. Of course then came Caroline Baker, whom I still regard as one of the most talented fashion editors, the most creative I have ever come across. She was an unbelievable visionary. Once we had this idea of dressing all the girls in surplus army clothes and that created a very strong trend. Before, you wouldn’t see women walking around in army jackets or pants, and then all of a sudden you saw them all over. It lasted for many years. In those days you could really inspire people.
Over the last 10 or 15 years many photographers have copied stories that we did for Nova. That is why I finally decided to do a book, which is now in its final stages. I was very lucky to have probably the best living creative director, Fabien Baron, to do the layout. I’m hoping to publish it in spring 2013.
Motwary: What about your legendary tribal collaboration with Kenzo back in 1985?
Feurer: Kenzo was the first designer who really expressed love for all kinds of ethnic clothing—the way African women dressed, Indian women, Chinese women and so on. He brought all these wonderful materials from all corners of the world. You mustn’t forget that this was also on top of the hippy period of the 1960s and ’70s. A lot of “alternative” people were wearing clothes from Afghanistan, Native Americans, the Navajo. Kenzo was integrating
this into fashion and this was what I loved the most about him and his work, as it was exactly what appealed to my sense of beauty, my aesthetic. So when Kenzo asked me to do pictures for him, he gave me carte blanche; he said, “You can do what you want!” I had absolutely no obligation, nothing! Also, there was no art director, so I asked Françoise Ha Van [Kern], now a filmmaker, who was a very talented Vietnamese stylist. She went and gathered all the clothes and scarves and accessories from the personal collection of Kenzo, we chose some interesting models and went away to Morocco, or wherever we went, and we did the pictures. I decided to do some dream images featuring women from around the world, and we created a dream story, a fairy tale like One Thousand and One Nights, but in a modern way.
Motwary: Why were the 1970s so sexual, do you think? Why is your work so erotic?
Feurer: Well, you have to see it in the context of all the movements that were happening back then. It’s a long story that started with the beatniks in the 1950s, then ’60s flower power and the hippies…all of society was breaking up. The world was throwing old stuff away and rethinking everything. So the ’60s and early ’70s were the years in which every- thing was possible. This slowly got suffocated in the ’80s by total materialism.
My work can be erotic sometimes, as you say, though it depends what it is for. I would say “sensual” is more correct, though “erotic” is special. What I do is project human beings who smell; who are warm and alive. I try to photograph women who are dressed in a certain way. I give them a scenario, something to do, and then I photograph it almost like I would photograph it for a culture magazine. For me, the thing that is the most important is to show a free woman who’s scared of nothing—a woman who has her own will and who is not just an object of desire: Amazons, warrior women, free women not in the service of men. So sensuality comes along naturally.
For me, beauty is interesting only if there is a disturbing element present, because that will give the measure for what is really beautiful at the end. Ugliness sometimes has to go hand in hand with beauty in order for beauty to be present.
Motwary: Do you see any reflection of your childhood in what you do?
Feurer: No, not really. Although I was a very observant child even when I was very small. I remember when I was a baby in the pram, and the sun was coming in though the window on the pram’s little veil, and a little fly was buzzing, “zzzzzzzzz”, going through the light. I was always watching to see what was going on and I guess that’s why today I do pictures in a certain way.
Motwary: So this is why you use the telephoto lens?
Feurer: Philosophically I am a Zen Buddhist, and I have the tendency to simplify and eliminate so that at the end, it is only the essence that stays. The telephoto lens allows me to crystallise things and to leave things out and keep only what’s behind, like the scent of a perfume, an atmosphere.
Motwary: When you shoot so far away from them, how do you direct the models?
Feurer: Models can be convincing actresses. I talk to them beforehand about what I have in mind, about who they should become. Sometimes I take pictures of models posing, but on the whole, they come to life and become somebody. They walk, run, jump or whatever, and I document what they project from a distance.
Motwary: You rarely photograph men—why not?
Feurer: I am not so interested in men’s fashion. If I could photograph a man who is really a wild guy or a true adventurer, then it is something else; I would like it. In the modern human race, it’s the women who are the brilliant, colourful impersonators and performers. The men are doers; more in uniform.
Motwary: You always sketch out each image before you shoot it.
Feurer: Yes, when I think of ideas I make little drawings, because I come from that background. Usually I have a little piece of paper in my pocket with sketches, and every now and then I take it out and say, “Let’s try this, or that.”
Motwary: You never want to be spontaneous on set?
Feurer: I sometimes do, but I always like to work on a concept, an idea. I don’t just go and shoot without knowing where I am going. It’s like hunting. You would have a hunter that shoots everything that moves, from little birds to cows. I’m not like that. I am very precise in what I want to do.
Motwary: Are you ever afraid of failure? Do you sketch in order to control?
Feurer: Always! Every time I start a series of pictures I am afraid of failure. I think, “This time it’s going to be terrible and banal and boring and totally false.” I’m shit-frightened every time. (Laughs)
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 05, February 2012; Special thanks to André Werther