Byline: Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — Bruce Weber has been on a biographical bent lately, first with his film “Chop Suey” that sampled the lives of noteworthies ranging from Jan-Michael Vincent to Twiggy, and now with his new book, “All-American.” A kind of photo-textual companion piece to “Chop Suey,” “All-American” probes seven lives ranging from that of photographer Pirkle Jones to football coach-hunk Cyrus James Ellsworth to prize golden retriever True Blue.
For a photographer known for nabbing the limelight with Calvin Klein boy-toy campaigns and homoerotic Abercrombie & Fitch raunches, Weber’s biographical focus seems so very vicarious and self-effacing. But as he explains, scratch the surface of a voyeur and you’re liable to unearth his true motivations.
“There is a sense of ego in what I’m doing now, because I chose each of these subjects to be in my life,” says Weber. “And what attracted me to all of them is that they each had a great romance in their life: for Pirkle, it was photographing the Black Panthers in the Sixties. For Matt Archbold, it was surfing the waves as if he was skateboarding.”
Ultimately, Weber confesses, delving into the lives of others is simply a roundabout way of reimagining oneself. “You’re always returning to your own backyard, so to speak, and when I was growing up, I was always on the sidelines. I couldn’t play football, so instead, I chose to chronicle it and live it that way,” he says. “I once took photos of Tom Landry, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, before he passed away, and that made me feel like [former Cowboys quarterback] Roger Staubach. I imagined that I was there, with the team, in the locker room.”
Significantly, “All-American” contains a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, a president known for his advocacy of “the strenuous life,” his testosterone-laden vision of virility and idealism. Those convinced that Weber’s not-so-hidden agenda centers on femming up traditionally hetero male enclaves often overlook his overriding thematic interest in people who live hard. In that respect, his other pending projects are illuminating. “I’ve been working on this film about Robert Mitchum for four years,” says Weber, “and my friend Joel Schumacher said to me, ‘I think it’s really interesting that you’re doing a film on Mitchum.”‘
Mitchum, the quintessential cinematic tough guy, is an ideal candidate for Weber’s pantheon of rough living.
Weber’s imagination seems particularly captivated by athletes, cowboys and virile Americans of all stripes, but what about the world of fashion? What fashion luminaries would he consider including in his ongoing biographical mosaic? “The designers I find fascinating are those whose home lives are as interesting as the clothes they make,” claims Weber. “On that level, there are two people I particularly love. The first is Piero Tosi, the costume designer for Luchino Visconti and Pasolini, who worked on such films as ‘The Damned’ and ‘Death in Venice’ — and [costume designer] William Ivy Long, because I love his imagination and sense of humor.”