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Jonathan Leder on 'POLAROIDS' And Authenticity

It was opening night, and the quaint Castor Gallery was packed with an assorted crowd of art enthusiasts admiring Jonathan Leder’s peculiar—albeit erotic—Polaroids. Featured in the photos? None other than Internet It-Girl Emily Ratajkowski (of “Blurred Lines” fame) and model (slash former Miss Kentucky) Allie Leggett, alongside a slew of other muses. The featured photographer and his curators had crafted a supreme setting where conversation was encouraged, glasses of rosé were poured, and any notion of speculation was abandoned at the entrance. Selling a ritzy Collectors Edition of the previously sold-out book of Polaroids (featuring the aforementioned Emily Ratajkowski), you can imagine how excited attendees were to get a copy of their own, and have it signed by the artist.

We spoke with Leder about his process, the subsequent controversy after his photo book was released, and what advice he has for those just starting out. Read the interview below, and make sure to peep the full POLAROIDS exhibit at the Castor Gallery before the exhibit closes on February 26.

Tell us a little about your journey into photography—when did you first pick up a camera?

I grew up and attended high school in Manhattan, and it was in high school where I started photography, learning the technique of film, and worked in darkrooms. I decided to attend college abroad in France and Italy but not for photography; I was interested in classical painting and that realm of art for about five years. When I came back to New York I decided against painting because I thought it would be less exciting. I actually ended up going to SVA for like six months but I dropped out. Then I got an internship at Interview Magazine; from there I got a job as an intern to later getting paid by photographer Steven Klein and worked for Filomeno—the agency that represented Steven Klein, Peter Lindbergh, and was one of the top fashion agencies in the late ’90s—for almost five years. Afterward, I had plenty of experience and started my own photo agency, Apostrophe, but sold that in 2006. Once I sold my agency, that was when I started taking pictures again. The whole time between graduating high school and 2006 I didn’t really touch cameras—I had cameras and kind of fucked around a little bit but I certainly didn’t do anything serious because I was working the whole time in the industry.

You have a distinct style. How did you figure out what you wanted your style to be? Did you have any photographer influences?

I’ve worked with a ton of fashion photographers but I don’t often feel influenced by their work because it’s too fashion-esque for me. I’m not really into shooting the clothes and I’m not usually into shooting the famous models because I feel that’s a little redundant since everyone else is already shooting them. I feel more influenced by art photographers. So in terms of finding a location, I look for things that are authentic that would be, you know, I guess you could say vintage but it’s really not about the vintage, it’s about the authenticity. You could spend $20k building a set where I could shoot but I could go to Woodstock, rent a $200 house that’s never been changed since the ’60s or ’70s, and there is my location. In terms of what I like, it’s sort of specific wood paneling, Americana, and I like the pictures to feel real. You know what I like? I like to take a picture, show the picture to someone, and they can’t tell if the picture was taken yesterday or 20 years ago. I like the pictures to have a timeless quality to them. This is where using the right location and the right model is priority. If you use a model who is popular and has a specific look that’s specific to a certain time period, then it ruins it. For me, I like to find someone who is pretty but classic looking; a little harder to find.

Do you have a team while shooting or are you usually solo?

No, maximum one person. You don’t know me that well but I’m very quiet and like to keep to myself. If there are five people around at a photoshoot, that would drive me crazy. It’s helpful to have assistance with styling, hair, and makeup, but otherwise, extra people are nonessential. For example, the shoot with Emily [Ratajkowski] was only the two of us. There was a make-up artist for a little while but the remainder of the shoot we did by ourselves. If I’m trying to concentrate on taking pictures I don’t want to have ten other people around giving me their opinion, and it’s distracting to the model. Plus, my pictures require a certain amount of intimacy obviously, so it’s unnecessary for others to be on set. Most of the shoots at the POLAROIDS show were like that. So yes, small set.

What inspired you to start shooting with Polaroids?

I used to shoot with film and once I moved to Woodstock I started with Polaroids and didn’t have a darkroom. Without a darkroom it became easier to shoot with the Polaroid: I could buy the Polaroid, have it shipped here, shoot it on my camera, scan the pictures, and then send it to a magazine, and it honestly made the process easier. After a while, I realized that Polaroid shooting was also an awesome process. Let’s say I’m taking your picture—I shoot the picture, then I show you the Polaroid, and we can look at it together, then we make a few adjustments, then I shoot a few more Polaroids and we look at them all together, and we visually see we have a good one and then move on.

Right, and it has the same effects as film.

Exactly! It has the film effects. I mean you can say digital has the same effects but it’s a lot better than digital. Plus, the problem with digital is that there are so many frames and you can go on forever. I always find that I’m on auto pilot and rarely shoot digital because you know you’re going to get something and then you can just edit it. But the Polaroid requires you to concentrate because the film is expensive and you have very few frames, so you have to make the most of each shot.

How did you select models like Emily Ratajkowski and Allie Leggett? Or did they select you?

Emily selected me really. In 2012 her agents reached out to me, and I guess at that point in her career her agency thought shooting with me would benefit her. I was happy to shoot her because I prefer to shoot models who aren’t too thin and she had that “real girl” look.

We chose Allie partially because of the whole Americana beauty pageant thing. She was Miss Kentucky and she was cute; had a nice look with blonde hair you know? It’s good to choose a girl that’s pretty but not too, too famous, because it feels weird to shoot someone that everyone else is shooting; it doesn’t seem very original to me, and I’d rather shoot with someone that only I was shooting because I think it makes that relationship more special.

So Emily Ratajkowski was apparently offended when you released the Polaroids of her. Was that a reaction you were expecting, even though she reached out to you?

I’m not surprised by her answer. She’s a very smart young woman and I’m sure she really wants to be taken seriously as an actress and an activist. Unfortunately, the nature of our society says that if you’re beautiful and half naked, then you really can’t be taken seriously. There is a very fine line. A week before she spoke out, the book of Polaroids was everywhere, all over the Internet, and she got a ton of exposure and it was all positive. She hadn’t said anything so you have to think she’s under a lot of pressure to respond and she can try to embrace them or try to denounce them and she chose to denounce them, which was unexpected because she was the “Blurred Lines” model. During the duration of our shoot, to say she enjoyed being naked would be an understatement—she was confident, comfortable, and enthusiastic about the photos. People ask if I would shoot her again because of how much her fans love the photos and in my personal opinion they are very beautiful.

How did the collaboration arise between you and the Castor Gallery for the POLAROIDS exhibit?

They approached me late summer/early fall to be a part of a group show, but I wasn’t interested in collaborating with a group show. I was doing a lot of work on the book of Emily at the time, had the Polaroids, and thought it was a good time to have a solo show. The Castor Gallery was very supportive of my work and we decided to go forward with the solo exhibition. It’s a shame that the opening was on the coldest day of the year after the snowstorm, but people still made it out and there was a lot of conversation.

What other projects should we look out for after the exhibition?

I use to publish a little magazine called JACQUES. I’m not going to do JACQUES again but I’m going to do another magazine that I have an idea for. Then hopefully I’ll get back to work on some film projects; I used to do more work with film and I have some writer and producer friends up here I’d like to collaborate with on some short film ideas. The Polaroid books and exhibition have taken up six months of my time so hopefully I’ll get a chance to work on some other projects soon. I also have a 1965 Ford Mustang that I’m finishing up the renovation of.

That’s cool! You’re super retro.

It’s a really cool car from Southern California. It’s that gold color like when the sun hits the paint for 30 years and it fades in a certain way. It has a nice look.

Do you have any tips or advice for amateur photographers?

I think photography is a great way to express yourself. It’s something that’s geared toward older people, but if you’re young and you’re doing it, I would just say be patient because it’s something you’ll probably want to do for decades. The other thing to remember when you’re young is that it’s hard to have the perspective of how tastes and trends come and go. I mean I could list for you dozens of really well-known photographers from the early 2000s, you know people that were shooting for W, The New York Times, doing major editorials, and you’ve never heard of them. It just goes to show you that things come and go in fashion and you can’t look at your career as, ‘Am I trendy now?’ That’s not the real meaning of your work; you have to look at it from a 30 or 40-year time frame. Try to make a body of work that you as an artist will be happy with for a long period of time. Going back to the show, I’ll be able to live with those pictures until I’m 60 or 70. In fact as time goes on I just like them more. That would be my advice to a younger photographer—make the photos meaningful. Rather than doing ten shoots, do two shoots and put the same effort into the two shoots that you’d put into the ten shoots. It’s not about quantity—it should be about quality.

Images via Vogue France, Info News For Your, and The Urban Silhouette 

Stay tuned to Milk for more artistic endeavors we love. 

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