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Ezra Petronio, Visual Thinking & Image Making, 2023
Courtesy of Ezra Petronio and Phaidon

The new book capturing the chaos and magic of the 90s and 00s fashion scene

Legendary art director Ezra Petronio talks about taking Polaroids of upstart industry trailblazers, being mentored by Miuccia Prada, and pioneering cult fashion mag Self Service

In Ezra Petronio’s world, no man is an island and collaboration is king. Accordingly, the first words the celebrated art director and co-founder and creative director of Self Service magazine pens in his new monograph are quite literally, ‘a shared journey’. Similarly, when his publisher suggested some friends might provide quotes about his work, he dismissed the idea for something more universal. “I said no way – if you want people then I’ll ask them to answer questions about creative integrity,” he explains.

Subsequently, Ezra Petronio: Visual Thinking & Image Making features, alongside the many campaigns and creative projects he’s played a vital hand in over the past three decades, a dedicated section of industry voices reflecting on their own processes. “I’m attracted to people that have the same obsessive dedication to their craft as I do,” continues Petronio, who brought in everyone from designers, photographers and stylists to CEOs, actors and other art directors, many of whom he’s also photographed for his long-term body of work with a Big Shot Land camera [exhibited in Zurich last year as Ezra Petronio: Stylistics].

Born in New York but a Parisian for most of his life, Petronio established his first agency, Petronio Associates in 1993. Co-founding the physically imposing French title with Suzanne Koller the next year – initially stapled, modern iterations of the bi-annual Self Service read as pretty exquisite coffee table volumes – and more recently, in 2016 he launched the digital-specific agency, Content Matters with Lana Petrusevych, his partner with whom he also edited the new book.

Working across fashion and beauty predominantly, Petronio’s handwriting is all over the front pages of any glossy you might’ve grazed at the hairdressers, while if you’re a seasoned fashion girlie it’s not unlikely you’ve at some point ripped one of his campaigns from a magazine to Blu-Tack to your bedroom wall [FWIW, the Chloé SS07 campaign was a stellar addition to any house share interior]. A multi-hyphenate whose early work precedes the term’s frequency, and who has a prudent relationship with icon-focused language, below Petronio shares his thoughts on art directing, nostalgia, and learning from Miuccia Prada.

Hi Ezra! Can you tell me first about your introduction to fashion, publishing, and art direction?

Ezra Petronio: My father was an art director in the 70s and 80s and would take us on shoots – not that we necessarily wanted to as kids – so I exposed early. My mom’s a tap dancer, so I was infused with a lot of creative environments, and I think that builds something in you. In high school I started the school newspaper, then I was editor of the Parsons [School of Design] paper. I realised early that a magazine could represent the values you share with people; it inevitably led to Self Service. And fashion at the beginning of the 90s was having a revolution. England had a head start with magazines representing youth culture, and those were inspirational to my ex-partner Suzanne [Koller] and myself. We threw ourselves into it, representing a whole scene in Paris. France was way more conservative than the UK, so it was really felt like us versus them. Fashion wasn’t so infused with money then, the whole context was very different then it is today.

Thinking about art direction specifically, how would you describe the role of an art
director to someone outside of the industry?

Ezra Petronio: Art direction is an accumulation of several skill sets, that's kind of what the book is about. The way I view the job is typography, graphic design, product design, motion design, but also copywriting – you need to know how to use language – and photography, an understanding of the visual world. I wanted the book to communicate and transmit all of this, and also that image making is a combination of talents that you put together, it’s very collaborative. I’m not a solitary person, I've always had creative partners, and there’s all the people you get to meet too. It's a very privileged world, our bubble, and you need to have gratitude.

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions around the title of art

Ezra Petronio: It’s become very fashionable, and is applied to everyone and anyone. The way I grew up, I had to have many skill sets. Today, and I'm not being critical, people consider themselves art directors but they can’t design. There’s a misconception that it’s just coming up with a concept and choosing a photographer, but it's also your intellectual capacity to understand and challenge a client, or to challenge them to understand what your designer really wants and how to best express that. It's a heavy duty job, to carry through a project, and you have to be open today to the changing industry – it's no longer a
campaign but a content campaign with many assets. So you need to have a comprehension of a wide vision of things, and that requires work and being able to apply the same level of integrity to everything you do.

In a recent interview with Mel Ottenberg, you said “there’s no nostalgia looking back”.
Can you expand on that, in the context of the book and reflecting on your career today?

Ezra Petronio: I’m, hopefully, at the middle of my career, so the book was really about turning a page. Things are going so fast, I felt the desire to transmit certain things to other people. Frankly, I have no nostalgia. I'm very grateful to have lived through several eras. When I started Self Service, it was pre-desktop publishing: we had no internet, no social media, there was no Eurostar. There was a different way of accessing and processing information and culture. So, if there's nostalgia, it's more for the context of that time – it enabled you to work in a more serene way. Today, we produce a campaign and the social disappears in a void. In those days, a designer had to encapsulate all of his vision in one
shoot, and those images would exist for six months. It’s disruptive now, and it’s changed the way people build their personas or creative profiles, because they have to be really impactful immediately, whether it's good taste or bad. It’s important to give yourself time to try things, which is not easy, but to not be a victim of this appetite for novelty and immediacy.

All the different areas of your career are covered in the book, and I wondered if you could
speak on your Polaroid series and what initiated it?

Ezra Petronio: We were meeting so many people through our magazine, at one point I was like ‘we have to document these people’. I spoke to a photographer who said ‘I'm not gonna be available every day of your life, do it yourself’. I had studied photography and loved Andy Warhol’s social documentation, so I bought 50,000 flash cubes and started documenting. I took real pleasure in photographing people, and for ten or 15 years built this whole body of work documenting all the different layers of our industry, from stylists to the people behind the CEO, but also the satellite industries around fashion, like music. It was such a joy, and it kind of represented our world. You really need to have empathy and love for people
because it's a very intimate process, and I’ve shot about 4,000 people.

There’s obviously a uniformity to the portraits with the white backgrounds, but is there an image or situation that stands out?

Ezra Petronio: You show me one of my Polaroids and I’ll remember the moment. Vivienne Westwood, I shot her in Milan in a backstage bathroom because I needed a white background; Louise Bourgeois, in her townhouse there were 1,000s of things on every wall and so she had her assistant take out white gloves and for an hour remove the things on the wall. She was very generous. Tom Ford had a very precise idea of wanting his sunglasses below his eyes, looking at the camera. I always move around the person and every time I moved, he moved too. I opened the 25 Polaroids and in every one he had mastered it. He's such an image maker that he adapted his body position for every single frame.

You shot Miuccia Prada too, with whom you worked for many years across campaigns for
both Prada and Miu Miu. What was that relationship like?

Ezra Petronio: She was one of my mentors, an amazing character. She taught me about perfectionism, about never being satisfied, and always trying to go a step further in everything. It was a very intense relationship, but she’s like that with herself. She was never content, always wanted to be a modernist. Once we were doing a campaign and we’d built these huge, expensive sets. Fittings were in a little studio, which had this really cheeseball 50s wallpaper. We're sending her the looks and she calls up, ‘Ezra, this is beautiful, forget the other set let’s just should the campaign there’. The room was so small, the only way you could see the outfit was if the girl laid on the floor… Another time we wanted to do a
perfume campaign with Irving Penn. He scribbles his idea and she says, ‘I want something different’. Obviously you're not going to get something different from a 93 year-old Irving Penn, he’s a master. I have so many stories like that with Mrs Prada. 

Returning to Self Service, which you and Suzanne started in 1994. There are some really amazing covers, but can you speak on the ones that feel most significant?

Ezra Petronio: The early ones were very meaningful. For issue 13 we put Nicholas Ghesquière on the cover. We had spent several years defending, believing and supporting our generation, really putting all of our guts and love into representing them, and for issue 13 we did a series of portraits with Dutch photographers Anuschka Bloomers and Niels Schumm where we shot everyone from Jefferson [Hack] and Melanie Ward, to Sarah from Colette and Hussein Chalayan – all of the upcoming players. It was just about saying this is who we are, these are the players that are going to be leaders; there was no pretense but a lot of raw ambition. The Stars and Styles issue too, when we started to use paparazzi and backstage pictures, enlarging them to give them a contemporary meaning. Then some pure, hardcore fashion issues like Joe McKenna's guest edited issue. A lot of these were impactful because you keep on remembering them.

Buy your copy of the book here.