Last Shot: Denis Piel

Raw Sensuality from a fashion master

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Considered one of the “wonderboys” of American fashion photography, Denis Piel produced sensual, cinematic pictures that helped define the 80s. He worked with supermodels and actresses including Christy Turlington, Charlotte Rampling and Uma Thurman, his distinctive photography always alluding to what was happening off-camera. Based in New York during the 80s, Piel shot for Vogue and Vanity Fair and created significant campaigns for Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, among many others. His new monograph, Moments, collects his favourite images from 1979–2007. Here, Piel tells Dazed about this early photograph of model Suzanne Accosta.

“I shot this photo in 1979 in Key West, Florida, with Suzanne. I love this picture – it tells a story whether you see it or not. It’s a very intimate moment in a formal occasion. You have to use your imagination. There are a lot of couples in my pictures – the relationship between man and woman is something that continues to fascinate me.

Creating a cinematic scene for the model is really important. What was interesting with Suzanne was that she wanted to become an actress. No matter who the girls or boys are, I really do use that as the basis of the work. Often I’ll say, ‘You’re not modelling for me, you’re playing a role.’ They can develop that role and then it becomes a collaborative work. It’s to engage the person in front of the camera so they’re not working in a void, so they’re bringing themselves to the shoot. 

I’m always trying to tell a story beyond the picture. Obviously taking it to the actual location is not that interesting, it’s about where they’re coming from or where they’re meant to be going to. And in-between that, it’s a very important moment. I want to feel the women behind the picture. It’s not that I need a big name or anything, I just want some sensuality. The physical body is not what is most important, it’s how they are, think and feel and what’s going on with them.

At the time we were going through a period where women were becoming heads of corporations, and that idea that the woman could now play any role was very important. So that independence of women was probably coming through in some of my pictures.

I was always interested in capturing the woman behind the picture but sometimes I’d be frustrated because there would be a smile line, or something else that gave the picture more authenticity, and it would be taken out. Looking at pictures today which have been Photoshopped, I find that it’s all become much more plastic. I mean, the pictures are perfect, you can’t say they’re not beautiful, but I think Photoshop in many ways kills that authenticity and personality.

Part of my work is about relationship and humanity, how people are with each other, even when it’s a fantasy. I always want to put reality in there. I was always looking for some humanity. I find that with girls in a raw state, that’s when she’s at her most beautiful. Often, make-up becomes a mask; it’s that rawness, which is part of the humanity, that interests me enormously. That’s what I’ve always loved.”

MOMENTS is out now. Rizzoli and Somerset House invite you to a book signing by Denis Piel to celebrate the publication of his new monograph: 1-2pm, Tuesday 18th September Rizzoli Bookshop@Somerset House, East Wing, Somerset House, Strand, London

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