One Of Kate Moss’ Earliest Champions Speaks: “I Told Her She’d Do Giant Campaigns. And She Was Like, Wha-a-t?“
If you’ve never heard of Gene Lemuel, that’s partly by design. Back in the early nineties, Lemuel was on a fast track to the A-list of fashion photography—shooting for The Face, scouted by Italian Vogue, hip-pocketed by Helmut Newton’s former agent. Then Lemuel just about disappeared. His name is still a buzzword to a chosen and well-steeped few—Terry Richardson is reportedly a fan—but he’s stayed, by design, under the radar, spending the intervening years in his native California, surfing and taking photos (for himself, pretty much). Now he’s stepping back into the limelight, joining photographers such as Bruce Weber, Juergen Teller, and Mario Testino in The Kate Moss Portfolio & Other Stories, a show of shots of the super-duper super that opens at New York’s Danziger Projects tonight. Turns out, Lemuel was—along with Corinne Day—one of the first people to shoot Miss Moss, and the nine portraits of her he’s exhibiting at Danziger Projects represent a very small part of that never-seen series of photographs. Here, Lemuel talks to Style.com about the girls he’s championed (not only Kate, but Milla, too!), his unconventional path, and his nose for talent (it’s all in the aura).
The Kate Moss Portfolio & Other Stories opens tonight at Danziger Projects, 527 W. 23rd St., NYC, www.danzigerprojects.com, and runs through June 30.
How did you meet Kate Moss?
Well, it’s kind of a funny story, actually. The people at French PHOTO knew I had an eye for talent, and they’d asked me to look for faces for a new top-models story they were running. So I was looking all over for girls, and one day in London, at this casting, this little person walks in. I don’t even know how Kate got to that casting—every other model there was big, like, physically, and also, you know, more established, and as far as I knew she had never even been shot before. But I just looked at her, and instantly I knew—that girl’s going to be incredibly famous. I told her that, I told her she’d get shot by Bruce Weber and do giant campaigns. And she was like, wha-a-at? I think she figured I was crazy.
What did you seen in her?
It’s hard to say. Her smile. Her eyes—I mean, very vibrant, but with this kind of ancient gaze. She was pretty young and innocent at the time, but even then there was a knowingness, a cunning. It was compelling. And she had this unbelievable poise, too—when I shot her, I took some pictures of her getting out of a cab, and the way she holds herself, you’d figure she was already rich and famous. She just seemed like a star.
So, if she thought you were crazy, how did you wind up shooting her?
She was game. I’d managed to convince her mom to fly her out to New York or L.A.—I was like, she’s got to get seen by more people!—and in the meantime I was trying to get this agency in Los Angeles to fly her out, and they looked at her and they were like, eh. Too short. So I’m about to leave London, and Kate suggests we go out to this place she liked, in Chinatown, and we were just hanging out and it was sweet, you know? And I thought, I should just shoot her here, hanging out. I shot three rolls of film, 108 shots, nothing but natural light, and I’ve got to tell you there is not one picture that isn’t great. It wasn’t long after that, I heard she’d booked the Calvin Klein campaign.
That agency in Los Angeles must have been kicking themselves.
Oh yeah—they totally called me up and were like, so, um, remember that girl? They should have trusted me; I’d already discovered Milla Jovovich.
Yeah, Milla. She’s like my little sister. I went to this modeling agency one day to ask if I could shoot some of their girls. This was before I’d really done much, and they were skeptical; they were like, how are you going to pay for the film? I said I’d sell my blood. I meant it, too. Anyway, I’m hanging around the office, and I see a photo in the trash can. I pick it up. It’s Milla. She’s really young at this point—I mean, really young. But I could see something. And there was a number on the back of the photo, so I called, and I got her mom, and I said, “I’d like to shoot your daughter.” We went and did some Polaroids. Then, a little after that, I go out to LAX on an errand, and Tatjana Patitz is there. I thought Milla looked a lot like Tatjana, so I go up to Tatjana and I say, hey, there’s this girl, you should talk to Herb Ritts about doing a shoot with the two of you, together. Again, she looks at me like I’m crazy. Maybe a night or two later I’m at a party downtown, and lo and behold, Herb Ritts is there. And Tatjana. And some Vogue editors, because I guess they were doing a shoot in town for the magazine. Anyway, I had the Polaroids with me, and I go up to Herb and I’m like, you have to shoot this girl. He looks at my Polaroids, and asks to keep them. The next thing I know, he’s shooting Milla for Interview. Which is what I had wanted to do, actually. But then, hey, that’s the game.
How did you get into photography?
Sort of by accident. I used to do hair and makeup sometimes, and I had some friends who were photographers and they asked for my help on a shoot. When the photos came back I was like, I can do better than that. So I started shooting. The first thing I did, actually, was that I went to this modeling school, this place in a shopping mall in Cerritos, and I asked to shoot their girls. The day after I do the shoot, one of the girls says to me, hey, we’re going to Milan—want to come? So I went. And a week later, I’m like, meeting people from Italian Vogue. And that was when I started steeping myself in other photographers’ work—Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, especially.
So everything started out gangbusters. What happened?
There was a path, and I didn’t want to be on that path. I see myself as a maker of portraits, not as a fashion photographer. I didn’t want to be the creature of a few art directors, you know? So I went back to California to work on my craft. I’ve been shooting all along. It’s only now I’m really feeling like, yeah, this work is at the right place; I’m ready.
How did you wind up with your Kate photos in the Danziger Projects show?
James [Danziger] heard about the photos and reached out to me. These images, I call them the divine nine. I’ve made special display boxes for them, they’re locked and there are only two keys, one for Kate and one for the collector who buys them. But I’m going to show the rest of the series, too—I’m planning shows in L.A. and in London, too.
Apparently you’ve got this sixth sense for identifying talent. Is your radar still active? If the next Kate Moss came strolling by right now, would you pick up on that?
I think I would. I’m not sure what that’s about, exactly. I think, maybe, it’s just that I have this creative force, and that attracts me to a certain kind of presence. Or maybe I’m just picking up on the energy that’s gathering around someone. Like, there’s this aura around a person, when it’s all about to kick off.