His work is analog, black and white, with a poetic sensuality. Vincent Peters believes that photography is about authenticity and passion, and that a photographer’s survival comes down to resisting new technology – and resisting in general.
Text: Karolina Modig
Photo: Vincent Peters
He got kicked out of high school, was too young to get in to art school, and didn’t make a penny of his photography until he was almost 30. Twenty years later, Vincent Peters has shot the world’s greatest models and actors, and worked for all the big names in fashion. How did it come to pass? A kinder time, a big decision, and an unfailing passion.
– I came into the business in the nineties, when people wanted a more personal expression. I never had to draw a line between personal and commercial work; there was room to grow in my connection with editorial staff and buyers. People taught me what I needed to be able to do so that I could work with them. It wasn’t like today, when everything has to look the same, and everyone just copies each other and tries to make as few mistakes as possible.
The way we imagine famous people, he says, is really just a projection of the things we imagine them to be.
After getting kicked out of high school, he applied to an art school where you could get in without a diploma if you could get twice the average score on artistic ability. Peters was one point short, but he would have gotten in anyway – if he hadn’t been too young. He was encouraged to come back when he had some industry experience, so he took an assistant position.
He never did go back. Photography grew into a passion that couldn’t be put on hold. But on his 28th birthday, still unable to pay his bills, he made a decision.
– I didn’t want to keep living like that, and I wanted to see if I could get really good at something. Back then, you could do tests in New York, shooting young models who needed pictures for their portfolios. I kind of bluffed my way into that and got some work, but I was told that you could tell I wasn’t sincere, wasn’t putting my heart and soul into it. So I decided to do just that, and stop compromising on my voice.
“I don’t care about just making a beautiful woman look beautiful, or making a naked woman look sexy. That’s too easy.”
Once that decision was made, things moved quickly. He describes his way of portraying people, especially celebrities, as a product of his own imagination. The way we imagine famous people, he says, is really just a projection of the things we imagine them to be.
– The title of my first book, I Thought I Knew You Until I Met You, is very true. I present famous people based on how I imagine them. My work is very theatrical – the subjects may be very authentic, but they’re also acting based on the role I’m ascribing them to. A photograph is an interaction with a real person, but also an interaction with a created idea of them, an idea I’ve created within myself. It’s a very personal process. Every image is personal. Sometimes almost too personal.
Vincent Peters’s images walk the very fine line between sensuality and objectification, and in recent years that line has gotten even finer and maybe impossible not to question. He claims to manage that balance by illuminating the baser notes, creating something interesting from things that aren’t so in your face.
– I don’t care about just making a beautiful woman look beautiful, or making a naked woman look sexy. That’s too easy. What’s interesting is shooting them in an unexpected way; shooting a naked woman and focusing on her person, not her nudity. What’s interesting is the vulnerability, the tenderness, in the person being portrayed. If you can convey that, it’s a much better shot. The same goes for celebrities. If you just make them look good in a way that people are expecting, you’re going along with a cliché that’s just going to be boring.
Vincent Peters talks a lot about being true to yourself, and not giving in to trends and shifts in the industry. Success can’t be controlled – what you can control, he says, is your own authenticity and artistry. He shoots analog and is wary of letting new technology set the tone of photographic progress.
– There’s a crisis in photography. Five or six years ago maybe three or four percent of the population were amateur photographers. Now, with smart phones, it’s more like 70 or 80 percent. And with that you get an impermanence, every new style quickly loses traction. There’s no authentic feeling on the photographer’s part anymore. Things that are very new and advanced stand out, but that focus on technology can only be exciting for a short while. Pretty quickly it’s just everyday and unremarkable. Any innovation in photography right now is only about technology, not about substance. I want to show something beyond the frame, something that stays with the beholder. Good photography takes you somewhere inside yourself that you wouldn’t be able to find otherwise. It’s a bridge to hidden emotions, it teaches you self-understanding. But it doesn’t work like that if you just look at a picture for two seconds on your phone; it needs more time. Nothing digital will ever be able to convey real emotions. You really have to fight back. Anything is possible, but you have to resist. A chef has to resist cooking in a microwave. You have to lean into the difficulties.
Born in Germany in 1969
Moved to New York to be a photographer’s assistant. Back in Europe at 25, he did intermittent gallery shows of abstract photography. In 1999 he started working as a fashion photographer and broke through within the year.
He’s worked for fashion houses including Miu Miu, Saint Laurent, and Bottega Veneta, and some of the world’s largest fashion glossies, like Vogue, Numéro, The Sunday Times, and GQ.