Interview by John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski: When did you take your first photograph, Denis? What was the subject?
Dennis Piel: I don’t remember the subject. But it was with a brownie box camera my stepmother had given me. I was 15. My camera was a permanent accessory; I have this memory, on holidays at the beach. I was with a mate. I photograph a group of girls lying not far from us. They refusing acknowledgment. I had made brief eye contact with the one through lots of giggling and side glances. We were obviously the subjects of mutual conversation, neither of us daring to approach. When they with their shared laughter left we followed them. My camera on alert to capture the moment she turned. I was sure she would. And sure enough, she did. I snapped a pic and she abruptly turned back only to go headlong into a lamppost. I ran to her rescue. She was my first girlfriend.
John Wisniewski: What was the experience like working with VOGUE magazine and GQ during the 1980’s?
Dennis Piel: For me, it was my dream come true, thanks to Alex Liberman. I was given the freedoms to explore and experiment. Alex became my champion. Alex understood my need to go beyond just showing fashion. He suggested I use Vogue as my café, my place to explore ideas. There were the occasions when he had to remind me that it was a fashion magazine. For the next ten years, I navigated fashion and beauty images into stories based on a mixture of fantasy and reality. Real became my dominant thrust. What a gift Vogue offered with the luxury of the most beautiful locations, models and actresses, coupled with a creative team that were all there to help. My collaborators were always essential to the work; the aggregate of their influences shows in everything I’ve created.
“I was very much struck by what I saw, I saw someone who understood and liked women. He has a special way of catching women in personal moments…. “ Alexander Liberman, 1981
He ( Denis Piel ) wants things to feel real within the confines of the structure that he has devised, and then he wants things to happen—“real” things. I remember once trying to remove a soiled napkin from a set and he adamantly screamed: “leave it there—it’s REAL.” I cherish each and every experience I have had with him. Denis Piel is the real deal. His photographs are lush and sexually charged, yet never vulgar. Jim Moore – creative director GQ, 2012
“He believed in collaboration, brought an intelligence to his photographs, and a less posed, more natural image of a woman. There was both strength and a vulnerability to his photographs. Denis’ way of seeing, it is not like any other photographer… it’s much more real. There is a lack of anything commercial about his photos. They are often just very private moments.” Jade Hobson, fashion editor, 2011.
My best shoots were when I could take the clothes and throw them away, where the personality of the girl and the scenario dominated. This is also when I had the most fun and it showed. There is no doubt that it wasn’t the fashion that attracted me the most. Our best stories were inevitably unique trips that encompassed the challenge of fulfilling an exciting narrative. The most memorable trips from Eugenie les Bain in France, to Japan, Mexico, Mustique, Mexico, Baden Baden in Germany, New Mexico, Los Angeles, Morocco, Biarritz and the list goes on. We created portfolios of multiple pages rarely before seen in Vogue. Despite all the freedom I was given I was constantly struggling to go that one step further to capture the emotional diversity that I wanted to achieve in a single image. But I found myself walking away unsatisfied. It felt too easy. The pictures had been done too many times (although looking at them today, I don’t feel that you see that). Maybe I was being too critical. But there was an underlying issue that kept nagging me—I wanted to create something that would have a reach beyond the pages of a fashion magazine. I felt I was repeating myself and I was not managing to make that leap. Today these life-style ideas would fit perfectly into the needs of fashion magazines especially with video now a dominant element. Working with a fashion magazine and the crews was an extraordinary experience of frustration and pleasure. It certainly stamped my work into that period.
In 1988 my son Olivier was born and this had an enormous influence on the decisions I was making, including about my work. I concentrated more and more on directing and writing commercials through my film company, Jupiter Films which I had set up in 1986. In the early 1990s, I finally stopped taking fashion photographs– my need to move beyond fashion led me to create the personal film project, Love is Blind, a documentary that explored the relationship of a blind couple. It was one of the most difficult yet satisfying experiences of my life and it forever changed my aspirations. It was partly inspired by when I was in a serious car accident that left me temporarily blind. The film connected blindness to my fixation with human relationships and curiosity about how physical attributes attract us to each other. With this film, my life changed. I needed to continue developing my own projects without any consideration of the commercial consequences.
John Wisniewski: Your work has proven to be controversial at times.Do you like controversy?
Dennis Piel: Never controversial enough! It was often a battle to get the images that I felt were the strongest and sexiest used. My most controversial work was done with Italian Vogue although today they don’t even consider me one of their photographers in their historical archives. That hurts. My best work for American Vogue was when we had a total story to tell. Where I could combine lifestyle, beauty and fashion and develop a scenario that would unfold in the pages. Hopefully engaging the viewer at another level as well as showing the fashion.It was always my ambition to create an independent woman who at the same time was not shy of her sexuality and sensuality.
John Wisniewski: Who are some photographers who have inspired you?
Dennis Piel: Starting my career in the 60’s I would look to all the current fashion magazines of the time. People that inspired me from these very beginnings were Penn, Avedon, Bailey, Bob Richardson, Hiro, William Klein, Bert Stern, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Robert Frank… what made them inspirational was not any one of their individual styles but the fact that they did have an individual style. This was the most inspirational idea from them all. To develop and know one’s own individual style is what made all the difference.
John Wisniewski: How has the Photographic world changed as an art and as a business?
Dennis Piel: Renowned artists, museum curators, art critics and powerful gallery owners have dictated the art world and who was accepted and not. I feel it is still the same today although things are shifting as a direct reaction to the world’s transition to a socially connected Internet age. Today everyone is a photographer. It is now easier to create “art” and consequently we see a lot of bad art. Using technology in art has the potential to create entirely new art forms, and therefore new experiences for us that can be thrilling, illuminating, and just plain fun. Great art will always surprise us and take us to new places.
For myself, I believe the traditional ways of working will always have its place when it has a strong individual signature. My latest project DOWN TO EARTH is pure traditional work creating classical imagery with its pertinent message. Now I want to expand this project and explore “new media” to see where it takes me. It will as always be a dialogue with my past but with the aim to provoke the viewer to think in a new way, to look with new eyes. But maintaining and developing your own eye is still your greatest tool regardless of the technology. I’m excited to see what I create. Like all my work it is very much about happenchance and keeping an open and exploratory attitude. Today more than ever before, photography is considered an art and accepted and exhibited widely. Where we take it today will dictate its consideration of great art. This offers incredible opportunities.
John Wisniewski: Will you write a biography?
Dennis Piel: What an interesting idea. My life in pursuit of satisfying an inner ideal. Maybe.
For more on Denis Piel, see his official website denis piel ©, copyright 2018