Autumn de Wilde discusses the AW18 series
For more than a decade, photographer Autumn de Wilde has been the de facto, if not official, documentarian and image-maker for the Los Angeles-based label Rodarte and its designers, Kate and Laura Mulleavy. She shot their very first collection, in 2005, inaugurating a creative collaboration that has encompassed fashion campaigns, backstage photography, and chronicles of their cinematic efforts – including Black Swan, the 2010 Darren Aronofsky psychological drama starring Natalie Portman that Rodarte costumed, and Woodshock, the Mulleavys’ 2017 directorial debut starring Kirsten Dunst. This season, in lieu of a runway show, she also shot their AW18 lookbook.
A series of dreamy portraits, rife with art history references and shot over the course of three days, the photographs feature a wide array of artists, including longtime Rodarte collaborators Dunst and Miranda July, musicians Grimes, Kim Gordon, Joanna Newsom, and Chloe and Halle Bailey, actors Rowan Blanchard, Tessa Thompson, and Danai Gurira, and Reese Witherspoon’s daughter Ava Phillippe, in her modelling debut. Sadly absent was de Wilde’s daughter and Starcrawler frontwoman Arrow: “She was on tour. We were like, ‘No!’” de Wilde said.
De Wilde, the daughter of legendary rock photographer Jerry de Wilde, made her name as a rock photographer in her own right throughout the 90s and early 00s, cultivating close relationships with musicians like Elliott Smith (whose iconic Figure 8 album cover she photographed), Jenny Lewis and her band, Rilo Kiley, Jack White, Beck, and Spoon.
Since venturing into film and fashion (she has also directed several short films for Prada), she has continued to lend the same perspective to her work across disciplines: “I have always tried to make everything feel like a scene from a movie,” de Wilde says, comparing her documentary images to hyper-stylised films like the Beatles’ Help! and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. “That’s what I try to give artists, musicians, actors, designers, directors, writers, whoever I’m photographing: permission to theatricalise their life a bit.”
Thirteen years into their partnership, de Wilde and the Mulleavys are showing no signs of fatigue: “These two young women have accomplished so much in a world that’s dominated by men,” she explains. “For me, that’s a very important long-term life project – to make sure it’s not forgotten how this started and what they accomplished along the way. It shouldn’t have been possible based on how much, as women, we have to fight to find a place.”
Over the phone from Los Angeles, de Wilde took a moment to discuss the new Rodarte lookbook from every angle, including shooting the first published portraits of a pregnant Kirsten Dunst, the art references that inspired the images, and the specific thrill of photographing the women who most inspire Rodarte.
What was the initial concept behind the shoot?
Autumn de Wilde: Kate and Laura always have a really clear idea of the mood and the direction. We’ve been doing this for so many years that our process is very conversational. We have a sort of abstract way of discussing themes, colour, and mood. I really wanted to show the studio, because I’ve always loved those old Irving Penn photos and Avedon photos where you see the backdrop against the whole studio. As the lookbook evolves, sometimes you see behind the curtain in Oz – the studio – and it reminded me, personally, of actors’ screen tests from the old Hollywood days.
What was the mood you were trying to convey?
Autumn de Wilde: In their work, Kate and Laura have this amazing combination of femininity and punk. We’re always going towards a cinematic, pastoral, romantic beauty, but there’s always a dagger in there. As they were collecting the women that were willing to do this lookbook, what always becomes evident with those clothes is that someone who’s more of a rebel brings that out in the clothes and someone who’s more of an ingenue brings that out in the clothes. It’s the same collection, but there are ingenues and warriors and rock goddesses – I’ll just say it, that’s Kim Gordon (laughs).
The Twitter account Tabloid Art History was comparing this lookbook to Thomas Gainsborough portraiture. What did you think of that?
Autumn de Wilde: I loved that. We were all very excited about it – Kate and Laura and I spent a lot of time at the Huntington Library and Gardens. There’s a collection of his artwork and paintings that we love; every time I can see a Gainsborough I will go see it. I love (Gustav) Klimt – the sort of dramatic, romantic portraiture that exaggerated people’s lives to make them seem like gods and goddesses and warriors and leaders. That’s often inspired my work. The more someone stops thinking about themselves in a mirror and starts putting themselves in a movie or a fantasy place, the more it’s like kids playing dress-up. We never question the sincerity of a child. Someone’s like, ‘I’m a princess,’ you’re never like, ‘Well, shit, you’re not a princess.’ I feel like we need to be like that more as adults. We’re so confined by what we think is appropriate for ourselves.
The idea behind the portraits was “Women That Inspire Us” and a lot of those featured have really been outspoken about various political and social issues. Was that something you were thinking about as you were making the images?
Autumn de Wilde: I always think about that. I was a rock photographer before I started branching out into fashion and cinema and all the other things that I do. In music, it was really an unfair business for female artists, so when I photographed women in music, as they arrived knowing who they were and exactly what they wanted to do, I tried to help them find the confidence to present that character they’ve created – if it’s themselves, or if it’s a page of their diary, whatever it is. Whenever I photograph women, young or old, I want to encourage that and help them establish a repertoire of different ways to be sexy, to be confident, to be boyish, to be girly. I want them to feel good experimenting with me and to trust me, that I’m going to select the things that arrive at the goals they’re trying to get at, not the awkward process of getting there.
You wrote in your book about Elliott Smith of the tension between an artist and a photographer, and the conflict between earning your subject’s trust and creating a great image that can sometimes result. Do you feel you’ve got that conflict figured out?
Autumn de Wilde: My goal, originally, before I had a lot of clients, was no matter what, trust came first. That meant if someone didn’t like a photo, no matter how much I liked it, how much potential I thought it had, it would never see the light of day. That paid off because I gained a reputation among artists that I was someone they could experiment with. That’s why I can photograph someone for 15 years, like Beck, coming and going from his life, because he trusts me. Sometimes, if you just hang in there, 10 years later, they love that photo they hated – so it’s just never worth betraying that trust.
You and Kirsten Dunst have worked together so much in the past, but when you posted her portrait to Instagram, your caption was quite emotional. Why did this shoot feel different?
Autumn de Wilde: When Kate and Laura and I met, our worlds started combining. Kirsten’s been a part of the group as a collaborator for many years. Over the years, Kirsten’s trusted me as a photographer in her personal and professional life, as well. So then, to watch her fall in love and get pregnant was very moving for me because she’s an artist I admired before I met her, who I’ve admired as I’ve gotten closer. And then, I have an 18-year-old and I feel like I’m just letting my baby out into the world, so seeing a friend and artist like Kirsten start that same process was very moving.
It was also received as sort of a pregnancy announcement, because it had been rumoured but the wider world didn’t really know. Did you anticipate that response?
Autumn de Wilde: Oh, we didn’t really think about the response. Her tenderness and closeness with Kate and Laura as friends and artists and collaborators is powerful, so it felt right to make an artistic statement about this new chapter in her life. Especially because I think the way celebrities’ pregnancies are treated by the press is often so trashy. It’s fun to just do something creative to say, yes, it’s happening, yes, it’s exciting, yes, it’s beautiful, yes, I love it, but I’m still me.
“There’s a way to rebel that’s not hateful. You rebel by being a presence, by inspiring other people to give you ideas, and by feeling comfortable telling your own ideas” – Autumn de Wilde
It was Ava Philippe’s debut as a model, too..
Autumn De Wilde: It was! She has a sincerity that is unshakeable and that is hard to come by. She had been protected, which is really great, in Hollywood, to see an entertainment family wanting their child to have a childhood. Because of it, she has a rich world that she’s built; she’s not just a sheep, locked in in the system. Then, there’s Rowan, who has been in the industry for so long, and she also has her eyes open. That’s very encouraging, because these girls will help infect a system that has taught so many girls in Hollywood to just shut up and do whatever they’re told and just look pretty. There’s a way to rebel that’s not hateful. You rebel by being a presence, by inspiring other people to give you ideas, and by feeling comfortable telling your own ideas. They’re so politically involved. They’re not there just to say, “Make me look pretty”. They’re practicing and creating and thinking and they’re playing pretend and it’s not just vanity.