Bruce Weber is about more than just pretty faces and well-toned bodies.
“Far From Home,” the largest exhibition of Weber’s work since a 1999 survey at the National Portrait Gallery in London, opens Saturday at the Dallas Contemporary and examines the photographer’s 40-year plus career through a different lens.
Famed for his iconic advertising images for brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein — often featuring barely clothed or naked models — Weber says of his style, “I don’t really think about that too much. I’ve been photographing girls and guys in clothes and out of clothes for about 40 years.”
There also is his editorial work for the likes of Vogue, W and GQ and “Far From Home” juxtaposes fashion photos from Weber’s trips to Vietnam, South Africa, Morocco, Brazil, Sweden and more with images of locals working, relaxing and playing. Weber says he thought of his fashion sittings as the starting point for a broader exploration of each place’s culture and unique characters. The show features more than 250 photographs – many of which have never been seen before – as well as a selection of Weber’s short film work.
“When I first started [working for magazines], we’d always take a writer with us and it opened up this whole world,” he says. “We’d meet a painter, musician or statesman. I’d do portraits of them and sometimes we’d just throw them into a fashion spread.”
Weber broke editorial conventions with the portraits — and palm trees, balloons and close-ups of craggy old men — and advertisers cried, “Where’s the merch?” But the practice was established. “What is a fashion picture and what isn’t?” he asks. “Portraits are sometimes very much the real fashion picture.”
Working in the late-Eighties on his first commercial for Lauren, filmed by “Sophie’s Choice” cinematographer Néstor Almendros, Weber had an epiphany. “Néstor was filming a gardener, this really handsome guy with his hands and clothes all dirty, who was planting vegetables. [Néstor] was able to see something else in the pictures he was filming for me. Someone will say, ‘Why are you photographing the clouds,’ and I say, ‘This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?’”
In Vietnam with Kate Moss for a Vogue story, Weber visited orphanages and photographed street children. He captured Iman and David Bowie on the beach in Cape Town, and shot them with Nelson Mandela. “It was interesting being in South Africa just as apartheid was ending with a couple — one white and the other black,” he says. “Because of their personalities, they were so admired. All that stuff went out the window.”
So does Weber believe that fashion is frivolous? “I enjoyed working with [stylist] Joe McKenna, who’s not just interested in the clothes, he’s interested in the people and what’s going on in the kitchen. We kind of explored houses and gardens together.”
One of those houses in Chatsworth, England, which belongs to the Duke of Devonshire. “I was doing a story with Stella Tenant at the [late] duchess’ house. The duchess and the rest of the family were arguing. They didn’t want her to be in the picture. We bonded over her love of Elvis Presley. She said, ‘Come on up. Do you want to start in the bathtub?’”
Weber has strong feelings for Kate Moss. “When I look at some pictures of Kate, she’s still kept that mystery about her,” he says. “She’s never done an interview about her life and that’s why photographers really loved her. We’ll never know another Kate in my lifetime. I was really lucky and honored to do so many trips with her.”
Weber was nostalgic about a shoot with Moss in Vietnam for Vogue. “We had this big ballgown that we carried all over Vietnam,” he recalls. Moss was standing on a grassy lawn wearing the pale blue striped gown with an enormously long train, when serendipitously a white-haired Vietnamese man “just walked out of the mist in his pajamas, which really pretty closely matched Kate’s dress. People were really open to showing a little bit of their lives and also the sadness. So many people suffered so much in the war.”
Weber’s camera was an ice-breaker over the years. “I only felt comfortable traveling when I had my camera,” he explains. “You’re more than a tourist then, you can sort of walk up to anyone.”
People are more guarded today, he says. “On my first trip to Italy with Isabella Rossellini, so many people embraced us. They came out of the kitchens and came out of stores. They opened their homes and hearts to us because they remembered the romantic time when her mom [Ingrid Bergman] and dad [Roberto Rossellini] were in love and made the film, ‘Stromboli.’
“We took the car with her family and drove all over Italy,” Weber adds. “Isabella was so open and free, not because she’s an actress, but because she’s that way as a person.”
One thing Weber doesn’t like is when subjects turn up with an entourage. “Actors who used to come to my loft now show up with 10 people,” he says. “If an editor asks me for a portrait of an actor, I can’t promise. I was working for Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue and a young actor said, ‘I only want to do pictures when I’m promoting something.’” Weber sarcastically replied, “I only do pictures when I’m recording your life.” Luckily, there’s Kim Kardashian, who showed up last summer with only her baby and her mother, Kris.
Weber has some lingering doubt about whether the exhibition will appeal to a public focused more on celebrity than world events. “Maybe the show [at the Dallas Contemporary] will only mean something to me,” he says, then adds, “Maybe the show is a record of that time.”
Weber is cautious about where he travels. “Sometimes I don’t think it’s right to go to a place until you feel it’s emotionally right,” he says. “I like to have a personal reaction to a place.” He’s also cognizant of how transmutable the world has become. Better to keep his memories intact. “Sometimes it’s good if you don’t go back,” he says.