Dear iDEALS, 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: Mr Feurer, thank you for your kind participation in Dapper Dan’s 5th issue. You see it was very hard for us to find more information than the usual available on Wikipedia and some links spread on Google about you. Thanks to your agent it became possible to reach you...
Feurer: You see the reason is because I have a bit of a phobia with anything that is virtual, computers and synthetics and I try to keep away since I can see that humanity has totally jumped into virtual reality to forget and ignore what happens to our planet in reality. I keep all that away from me so that my ideas are fresh and not influenced by the synthetic, the virtual … I have to use the computer though to choose my photos. I also work with a numerical camera I read emails rather than sending them. I don’t have a website and I don’t work like everybody else.
Motwary: Your agent informed me you were in the States working on some projects. What are they about?
Feurer: I am really an artisan mercenary. At the moment I do a lot of editorials, for French Vogue-I just did a story for Vogue Nippon and Vogue China as well; I have been spending a month between the Bahamas and Miami doing a lot of different stories
Motwary: How did everything start for you really? How did a Swiss end up working for the biggest English, French and American fashion publications?
Feurer: (laughs) I have quite a history. I was born in a relatively poor family in Switzerland and 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 the money and pay for my Zurich-based Art-school. Then I became a graphic designer and illustrator and left Switzerland for Paris, I was around 20 years old at the time and got a job at an advertising agency as an assistant Art-Director, which quickly changed to Art Director.
I then moved to London where I had a fast career in that field, I became Art Director of the Telegraph magazine and after Creative Director for a big agency.
During all this time, I was doing pictures for myself, the same as I would do drawings. Photography was part of the visual experience and around 1966 I decided my life needed a change, so I bought a Land Rover and shipped myself to South Africa from where I spent almost two years travelling through Africa, sleeping by the fire most of the nights whilst having a lot of adventures.
Motwary: I assume you were taking pictures also?
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 and experimenting with “Light”, making myself a portfolio, which was around the end of 1967- and I was very quickly successful. People liked a lot what I did and I took off like a rocket.
Don’t forget it was “swinging London” and at the time everything was possible and everyone was open to new ideas and I immediately worked with the best magazines; most of all NOVA magazine. It was an extraordinary publication you know. The art-director who actually created it, Harry Peccinotti, was a good friend of mine and I worked pretty closely with him right from the beginning.
Feurer: To me there’s no difference because I approach it in the same way. When I started as a photographer I thought about “what is FASHION”, what does it mean?” and 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. And I imagined that when a woman dresses herself a little bit like a prostitute, in a very promiscuous way, is very different than if she dresses herself like a nun. So you can project a different personality through clothes and I guess it’s almost 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 fashion story I try to understand what the dream is behind 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 quickly abandoned that. My pictures are always “un-polluted”. I don’t use filters, I don’t use reflectors, I almost don’t retouch the pictures and if I do its in a very minimal way. Even now that I work electronically I avoid the possibilities that the computer would give me. I want the pictures to look very real and the people in it to be living beings with a breathing, sensual skin instead of plastic.
Feurer: It hasn’t evolved, it’s the same! It’s the dreams that changed, people and culture is changing. But me, I still do the same. I still do dream projections; I photograph women, who live outside a certain lifestyle in a very convincing way.
Some of my photos from the 70’s seem to be timeless whilst others show fashion, which is very typical for the time they were shot.
Motwary: And why do you think its still considered as relevant?
Feurer: I have no idea! (Laughs)
Motwary: Nova magazine is certainly one of the strongest samples of visionary fashion, even almost 40 years later. You were one of the reasons people still refer to it. What are the facts about Nova that put it in such a position?
Feurer: Nova was a very honest and uncompromising magazine with a lot of journalistic integrity. In those days there was not such a strong influence yet from the advertisers.
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 and the article was about Johnson’s baby oil, which was a very cheap product that everybody knows and you can buy everywhere and doesn’t cost much; and the point was to show that Johnsons was as effective as an expensive luxury product that costs maybe a 100 times more. As result all the big cosmetic brands removed their advertisements from Nova. Keeping this as an example along with a few other similar moves, Nova was left with almost no advertisers and had to close down.
Motwary: Do you feel there is a greater impact compared to then from advertisers on the content of magazines, as we know them today?
Feurer: Totally!! All magazines are dominated by the advertisers; even the big magazines have most of their pages pre-decided.
Motwary: What are your fondest memories from your collaboration with Caroline Baker and the rest of the team: Helmut Newton, Harry Peccinotti etc?
Feurer: Harry Peccinotti is a friend. I just saw him now in New York at this big gathering of the Pirelli calendar people. You know I did one of those in 1972.
Motwary: Yes I’m going to ask you about it.
Feurer: So, yes Harry of course was one of the pioneers and he was there too as he did one of the first Pirelli calendars. Of course then comes Caroline Baker whom I still regard as one of the most talented fashion editors and 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 didn’t see any women walking around in army jackets or pants and all of a sudden you saw them all over and it lasted for many years. In those days you could really inspire people whereas today most fashion magazines are really in the service of the advertisers. Caroline then decided to change direction. Now she works as the Fashion Director for the Sunday Mirror magazine. I would have wished that she would be part of the big fashion magazines. She does belong there as she has influenced a lot of other Fashion Editors, even today. Over the last 10-15 years many photographers have copied stories that we have done together for Nova.
This is why I finally decided to do a book. Although there are too many photography books out there not worth the paper they are printed on. I decided to do the book as a reference of where all these ideas come from. The book is now in its final stages. I was very lucky to have probably the best-living Art+Creative director, Fabien Baron, to do the layout and probably Rizzoli with SCHIRMER/MOSEL will publish it, though it is not confirmed yet as we are still negotiating. Possible publishing date: Spring 2013
Motwary: Why were the 70’s so sexual you think? Why is your work so erotic?
Feurer: Well you have to see it in the context of all the movements that happened back then. It’s a long story that started already with the beatniks in the 1950’s already, then the 60’s flower power and the hippies…the whole society was breaking up. The world was throwing old stuff away and started rethinking everything. So the 60’s and the early 70’s were the years in which everything was possible and this slowly got suffocated in the 1980’s by the total materialism and the “money money money” ideal. It’s really a phenomenon what happened in the 60’s and 70’s.
My work can be erotic sometimes, as you say, though it depends what it is for. I would say sensual, at least is more correct, though erotic is special. What I do is project human beings that smell, are warm and alive. I try to photograph women that are dressed in a certain way, as I said before. I give them a scenario on what to do and then I photograph it almost like I would photograph it for a culture magazine. For me what is the most important in the first place 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.
Motwary: Also, allow me to say that many photographers today, especially when photographing women, tend to get inspired from photographers’ works as were presented between the late 1960’s until the early 1980’s. Why not the 90’s for example?
Feurer: Well, the 90’s were not very creative, at least not as creative as the previous decades. That’s why people tend to get inspired by what was done in the 60’s and 70’s since there is a lack of new ideas. Everything is now repetition of what has been done back then. It is rare that one of them brings something new, which of course is natural, thinking of how the fashion business works now. Sadly, it’s the age of Lady Gaga…
Feurer: Its not so much photographers that inspire me(laughs). It goes back to philosophers like Lao Tse, Chuang Tse, Nietzsche, Darwin, Taoism, some Sufis, Omar Khayamm, Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt, Kant, Schopenhauer so many people have inspired me.
Of course when I was Art Director I worked a lot with Helmut Newton and other photographers and it was a good experience but I don’t think this has influenced so much my photography. What I do is very simple and very pure. No tricks really, what you see is what you get.
Feurer: Well if you do something good why repeat it? Of course if they asked me again now, after so many years, I would probably think about it. Again for the Pirelli calendar I was trying to project dreams and I approached it differently from what others did before and after and this is just my way of doing things. 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.
For example when you have certain faces that are completely overworked on the computer they are in a way beautiful but they are cold and stay completely on the surface. One has to wonder what makes certain things touching or what makes them so special to be remembered.
If lets say, you look through a magazine carefully and then you put it away. Then you try to think what you remember about it, whether anything has touched you or stimulated you and unfortunately, these days there is not much to remember. If there’s indeed something that you remember it means that the magazine is worth to be given some attention. And probably one should wonder why it stayed in the memory instead of something else.
I am always thinking in these terms. Certain images touch you and certain others don’t. Search the why, what makes them different. Ugliness sometimes has to go hand in hand with beauty in order for beauty to be present. Does it sound complicated?
Motwary: No not at all, I wonder then do you see any reflection of your childhood in what you do?
Feurer: No, not really. Of course all my experiences are reflected in it. I was a very observant child since I was very small. I remember when I was a baby in the pram, I must have been very very young, 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 tele-lens, as you said you are observant and the lens in a way gives access to distance..
Feurer: Philosophically I am a Zen-Buddhist and I have the tendency to simplify and eliminate so at the end it is only the essence that stays. The telephoto lens allows me to crystallize things and to leave things out and keep what’s behind only, like the scent of a perfume, an atmosphere. I can totally concentrate on what matters and what is important to me and this is the reason the tele works so well for me.
The photos were breathtaking! What was the real concept; do you have any memories from that collaboration?
Feurer: It wasn’t really a concept but I understood what Kenzo was trying to do. Kenzo was the first designer who really showed and expressed love for all kinds of ethnic clothing, the way African women dressed, Indians, Chinese and so on. He brought all these wonderful materials from the corners of the world, integrated it. You mustn’t forget that this was also on top of the whole hippy period that was hype in the 60’s and 70’s, where this tendency had already started to become visible. A lot of these alternative people were wearing clothes from Afghanistan, American natives, Navaho etc.
All this was part of the hippie’s way of dressing. 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 and aesthetic. So, when Kenzo asked me to do pictures for him he gave me “carte blance”, he said, “you can do what you want!” and I had absolutely no obligation, nothing! Also, there was no art-director so I asked Francoise Ha Van, now a filmmaker, who was a very talented Vietnamese stylist.
She went and gathered all the clothes and personal collection of scarves and accessories from 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 1001 nights but in a modern way.
Motwary: You are a very private person, people do not really know a lot about your personal life. How can someone like you be so successful in such a field (fashion) or even work with a team of people each time?
Feurer: By keeping away from things and refusing. You think you can’t be a photographer without working with the Internet and all that? Well I do work with that too but I keep it minimal. Photography is more a “by the away” thing you know, I’m more like an adventurer. During my travels I rarely take pictures. I look and experience only. I have other interests like collecting African art, I am extremely fond of fishing and I have been fishing in all the seas of the world, in most lakes and rivers of Africa. Even during periods when I worked a lot, I tried not to spend more that 1/3 of the year on photography. The rest 2/3s of the time I prefer spend on other adventures.
Motwary: Do you mind if I ask what is your routine at home. Which country do you consider as your home anyway?
Feurer: I live in a little village in Switzerland, about 40 minutes away from Zurich, on the edge of the village right by the forest in the nature for more than ten years now. People don’t really know what I am doing here and they leave me in peace. I managed to buy a little factory there and I have a big loft and a lot of spare space for all my stuff. Though I am always going someplace, I always come back. It’s like an eagle nest. I like being home, listening to music and plan my next steps.
Motwary: What kinds of music do you like Mr Feurer?
Feurer: I like a lot of ethnic music: African, Indian, Chinese. Classical, Modern Jazz. The only kind that doesn’t interest me at all is POP music and what is considered as trendy by the masses. I listen to Reggae, Blues, Rock n’Roll …
Motwary: Lets go back to your photography. You have chosen to work with super telephoto lenses…
Feurer: Not only, I have done a lot with wide angle in the old days. Indeed recently though I have been mostly using the tele.
Hans Feurer, portrait by Filep Motwary. Paris 2012
Motwary: Wouldn’t you agree that the tele-lense could be limiting at points.. No?
Feurer: No, why?
Motwary: Because of the distance lets say..
Feurer It’s the person I’m interested in and not what is around. I am trying to reflect this individual in a very intimate way.
Motwary: What made you adopt this photographic approach?
Feurer: Zen Buddhism… Making things simple and leaving away what needs to be gone until you have only the essence present.
Motwary: One of the peculiarities that comes to my head is the fact that you shoot far away from your subjects. How do you direct the models while you shoot? How many takes do you do for each shot until you get it right?
Feurer: Models can be convincing actresses. I talk to them beforehand about what I have in mind, about who she should become. Sometimes I take pictures of models posing but on the whole If they come to life and “be somebody”. Walk, run or jump or whatever and then I document what she projects from distance.
Motwary: You rarely photograph men, why?
Feurer: Yes, 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 its something else and I would like it. Within the modern human race it’s the women who are the brilliant and colourful, impersonators and performers. The men are doers, more uniform Though I did a story I quite like for a magazine in Germany where I photographed a wild guy.
Motwary: Will any men be included in your book?
Feurer: I don’t think so.
Motwary: Do you let your subjects view what you are doing when you're shooting them?
Feurer: Yes, it’s possible. In the older days, I used to always send little postcard pictures of the shoot to the models and the rest of the crew. These days, I try if it is possible time wise. If I manage to choose the pictures while we are still on set, I let them see what we have done. But it is not always possible.
Motwary: Also, you tend to shoot on location; personally I am not aware of many studio works carrying your signature. Why on location, how do you find these places?
Feurer: …and with daylight or available light. I like the reality of things and I like to see the light of our sun on a face and the reflections of the blue sky in the shadows. Or even grey skies or the feeling of raindrops on the skin.
Motwary: Being someone who is used to work in print, do you feel any threat from online media?
Feurer: I never spend any thoughts on that.
Motwary: What is your relationship to technology?
Feurer: It’s a bad one. I refuse any computers, Internets and virtuality. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I follow only necessary steps like emails and so on… choosing my pictures but that’s all. For example I have a handy with no number.
Nobody can call me though I don’t mind to call myself. I don’t want to be disturbed while I work and I use an answering service to call back when I am available.
Motwary: I recently read somewhere a quote saying that your style of photographs became relevant once more since certain bloggers started photographing street fashion some years ago. Do you agree? Are you a blog reader yourself?
Feurer: My photography is the same as when I first started in the late 60’s. In those days there were no bloggers around.
Motwary: You always sketch out each image before you actually shoot it. You never want to be spontaneous while on set?
Feurer: Yes, when I think of ideas I make little drawings because I come from there and I draw fairly well. These drawings help me put together what I want to do. Usually I have a little piece of paper in my pocket with little sketches and every now and then I take it out and say, “lets try this or that”.
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 goes and shoots everything that moves from little birds to cows. I’m not like that. I am very precise in what I want to do.
Also, I am very conscious of the light and shadow and I always try to get a genuine reflection of this planet on the faces I photograph. I like reality.
Feurer: Always, every time I start a series of pictures I am afraid of failure. I think this time its gonna be terrible and banal and boring and totally false. I’m shit-frightened every time (laughs)
Motwary: Are you never tempted to break your own boundaries?
Feurer: I am not into tricks. I do the simplest kind of photography and I like it like that.
Motwary: Are there any goals you still want to achieve, and if yes what are they?
Feurer: No, not in particular. You know I see that the world is moving towards it’s self-destruction and its happening in an accelerated way. I see that everybody now lives happily within virtuality, in front of his or her computers and that’s naïve, ridiculous and stupid.
Motwary: Your future plans?
Feurer: The book of course and a number of different stories I just did for French Vogue, with whom I am very happy to work with but, that’s another story.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan, Issue 05, February 2012. Thank you André Werther