Paul Rowland: Model Maker
For Paul Rowland, “pretty” is not enough. Not that he has anything against a good-looking girl—Rowland is, after all, the founder of the modeling agencies Women and Supreme. Over the past 20 years he’s helped launch the careers of models Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Elle Macpherson, and Carmen Kass, to name a few familiar faces. So he sees “pretty” all the time, but it’s the stuff going on behind those cheekbones that gets Rowland’s heart racing—especially when he’s taking pictures. Building on his work as Supreme’s house photographer, Rowland has carved out a second career for himself behind the camera: As well as shooting Supreme’s keepsake show packages each season, his work has been featured in V and EXIT, and in December Rowland mounted his first-ever solo show at Miami Art Basel. Titled Transformations, the show spotlighted his obsession with getting his subjects to tell a story before the lens. “Models can be very hard to photograph,” Rowland notes. “Their job is to make clothes look good, and more often than not, all they can give the camera is a pose. My challenge is to coax a girl into giving something of herself.” Tonight, Transformations takes up temporary residence in New York City, opening at the Women/Supreme space in west Chelsea. In advance of his debut before the hometown crowd, Rowland talked to Style.com about the art that goes into making faces.
I understand you moved to New York city to be a painter. How did you wind up one of the grand pooh-bahs of the modeling business, instead?
Oh, you know how these things happen—you move to the city to do one thing, and then you wind up waiting tables. I wasn’t crazy about being a waiter, so when I got to know some fashion people and the fashion people told me I should model, I jumped. The modeling led to booking, and the booking led to my opening Women, and so on. There was never a grand plan. For a long time I just figured I was stashing money away so I could paint.
Both Women and Supreme have earned reputations as go-to agencies for girls with an unusual look. Was that happenstance, as well?
No, that much was purposeful. I’m not really interested in apple pie, all-American beauty. I appreciate it, but it doesn’t compel me. Whereas I have this art background seared in my head, so when I look at a girl and there’s that instant reference—like, she’s got a Modigliani face—that’s the beauty that takes me in. At the time I launched Women, unconventional beauty needed a champion. Now, I look around at who’s working, and it’s clear that I’ve managed to change our ideas about what’s beautiful, at least a little bit. But you can always push the envelope. That’s why I opened Supreme. We take some very edgy girls there.
When pictures of potential new models cross your desk, do the ones that could be stars jump out at you immediately?
Yes and no. You learn to spot potential. For one example, I remember seeing Polaroids of Kylie Bax—she was just this kid from Australia, 20 pounds overweight, with a bad perm. But you shape that, because you see something there. It’s a gut instinct.
What led you to take up photography? Were you looking for a creative outlet?
I got into photography for entirely practical reasons. You sign a new girl, it’s not like she’s out working with Steven Meisel the next day. You have to help her build the book. I’d always have these ideas in mind, the image of a girl that I wanted to convey, but no matter how hard I tried to explain what I wanted, the test shots other photographers took always came back not so great. Some of them were pretty hideous, in fact. As far as I was concerned, I could do better myself—I mean, if you’re a creative person, at some level you figure you have the ability to apply that creativity however you want. So I hired an assistant and started shooting. There was lots of stuff I did like that. I’d cut hair, too.
Many of the images in Transformations are taken from the Supreme show packages you shoot each season. Those show packages are always so ornate—they go way above and beyond the demands of, you know, here are a bunch of headshots.
I had this idea a little while ago—why not create this directional book twice a year that people would actually want to keep? I’d like them to be collectibles. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet, but that’s where my head is.
It’s great marketing. Those show packages definitely make an impression.
People really get into them. And they’re satisfying to work on, on a lot of levels. I mean, I get to work with my girls, which I always like to do, and they trust me, so I get a lot out of them. It was when I began sending out the show packages I’d shot that I began to feel
like I was on to something with photography—the feedback was generally great, and people started asking me to shoot other things, too. And the whole Transformations show at Basel came out of someone seeing a show package and being intrigued.
Do you have any particular favorite images in the show?
There are a set of four nudes, one of which we used as the photo on the invitation. EXIT magazine asked me shoot a nude series, which I’d never done before, and I was really pleased with how they came out. It’s sort of an Arbus take on a nude. The lighting and everything is pretty classic, but there’s just that something that’s a little off. A little sinister. I like that. That’s what tells a story.
Those shots are very revealing. I mean, not just in the physical sense, but also in that you got something quite weird and personal from the model.
That’s what I’m always trying to capture—that weird, personal thing. And it’s the hardest part of the job. You have to convince your subject to go on this trip with you. You have to make them understand that they’re telling the story, too. The good models, they get that eventually. And the great ones, like Kate Moss for example, they get it instantly. They go somewhere off in their own heads. That’s why some people make millions and millions of dollars, and some other people fade away. Trust me, it’s got nothing to do with being cute.