NYC Through the Dark Lens Of Chris Von Wagenheim
After three years of immersing yourself in the work and life of Chris Von Wagenheim, you’re allowed to call him Chris. That’s one of the most important things you learn in an interview with Mauricio and Roger Padilha whose upcoming book “Gloss: The Life And Work Of Chris Von Wagenheim” delves into the cult photographer’s dramatic rise and tragic end. While Von Wagenheim only worked for thirteen short years before he passed away in a car accident, he’s cited as a major influence on modern photographers like Steven Klein and Terry Richardson. In Roger’s words he’s “a photographer’s photographer.”
Between brotherly banter and planning their upcoming book launch/giant party on September 10th, the brothers sat down with Milk’s Kyla Bills to talk about Chris Von Wagenheim and how his work changed fashion photography forever.
So, can you just give us a little overview of what the book is about?
Mauricio: Basically the book is more so on the Work of Chris Von Wagenheim rather than his personal life. His images always like made us stop when we were looking at magazines, they were so provocative, so we decided to really just put all of his work together and make it into a book.
Roger: The interesting thing about Chris Von Wangenheim was that no one has seen this work in about 40 years. He was killed in a very tragic car accident in 1981 when he was 39 years old. His career really only spanned 10 years. When he passed away his wife was left with a very young daughter to take care of, she left the fashion industry — she was a model — and basically the work got buried. The only work that people have seen of Chris’s is through vintage magazines. His contemporaries like Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, when they died had estates that put out books and did art gallery exhibitions so their names are really well known. But Chris was virtually forgotten. He had no one doing his legacy. So he’s kinda become this cult photographer.
M: The images start out very fashion magazine. And that is when he was working in Europe. Then he comes to New York and back then New York in the 1970s was gritty and, crime-filled — I mean no one went on 42nd street it was all porn theaters. It was a very dangerous city and you’ll see some of that in his work.
“It was a very dangerous city and you’ll see some of that in his work.”
R: Basically, Chris really responded to what was happening around him. In the 70s there was a lot of stuff going on: there was the gay liberation movement, the women’s lib movement, pornography was being destigmatized — people were going with their families to watch movies like Deep Throat — New York City specifically was in bankruptcy. And it’s all reflected in there. We sort of set up the chapters that way.
M: There’s “Jetsetting” which is very like Studio 54. It’s very celebrity driven. He also did a lot of celebrity work for Interview Magazine, American Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, as well as Italian Vogue and Italian Bazaar. So he was shooting for all these different publications and shooting ad campaigns for Dior.
R: At the same time he was doing all this stuff he was shooting for Playboy and Vivo which are kinda like men’s… I don’t want to say porn but… they were. He was kinda able to cross the bridge. He was the edgy, young photography of the 70s. It’s funny that it looks very clean and beautiful now, but this stuff was hugely controversial at the time. This stuff caused national debate. He was in Time magazine and they called him the “porn terrorist photographer.”
You’ve done a couple other books of artist. How do you pick what artists you want to make books about?
R: But to us, when we pick a subject for a book we basically… Books take three years believe it or not, from start to finish. And we are basically married to this subject. We have to live, breathe, eat it for years. People come up to us with book projects and are like “Oh, we liked your last book would you do a book on this?” And unless you’re in love with something….
M: You can’t deal with it everyday.
R: That’s all you’re going to be thinking of for three years. Like I love the Gap for example, but if they came and offered us money to do a book? You have to think about the Gap first thing in the morning and last thing before you go to bed. So for us it was always this mystery. We were so excited to see this work. And then to learn about it. For us, every step was really fun.
“Books take three years believe it or not, from start to finish. And we are basically married to this subject. We have to live, breathe, eat it for years.”
What is most of the text that accompanies the pictures?
R: It’s a real book.
M: Roger writes the whole text and basically it’s the story of Chris.
R: What was interesting about this book compared to the other books I’ve written is that our first two subject were really colorful people. Their artwork was amazing, but their personal lives were equally — if not more — interesting than their work. Chris was kinda… a photographer. And he married a model and had a kid and then died. There wasn’t much to it.
M: Chris would go to Studio 54, he would go to Max’s Kansas City, he would go to CBGB’s but….
R: He wasn’t part of any one scene. He would kinda just travel. So, we had to really think differently about how to write a full book on him. This book is much more about New York in the 70s than it is about Chris Von Wagenheim. Basically the writing is history of New York through the way Chris photographed it.
So, Steven Klein wrote the foreword. How’d you get him onboard for that?
M: We contacted him and just told him that we’re doing a book on Chris Von Wagenheim and we wanted to see if he’d be interested in writing the foreword. And within twenty minutes I got a phone call and he said “Absolutely!”
R: And within three days we got the text!
M: It basically just talks about how he was totally in awe of those images, how he was totally inspired.
And your book opening party at the Tunnel night club on the 10th was thrown by Marc Jacobs!
M: Marc has been so supportive. Marc and Roger are really good friends and they talk a lot about the book. Marc, pretty much every step of the way, has been there.
R: Mark has actually been hearing about this for the last…
M: Three years!!
R: He’s had enough of the the “Gloss” book.