Cinematic Eye

Denis Piel: A Legendary Photographer Finds His Moment

Denis Piel, famous for his highly sexualized fashion spreads of the 1980s and 1990s, publishes a steamy, new monograph this month. He talks to Isabel Wilkinson.

© Denis Piel, Courtesy of Rizzoli New York, 2012

These days, fashion spreads are Photoshopped and tweaked to perfection. Models are removed from reality; they float in front of solid backgrounds with glistening limbs and undetectable expressions.

Denis Piel sees things differently. A prolific fashion photographer, Piel made his mark in the pages of Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair in the early 1980s and ’90s. He has photographed hundreds of models and actresses, including Uma Thurman, Andie MacDowell, and Christy Turlington, in shockingly intimate poses.

Then again, all of his photographs are portraits of intimacy: a woman sits on the toilet, staring off into space. Three male beauticians examine a woman’s body under a towel. A woman sits by herself in lingerie on a couch, playing with a video camera. These are worlds and characters unto their own—strange and sexually charged mysteries caught fleetingly on camera.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that they’re all part of a book called Moments, released by Rizzoli next month, that contains a generous survey of Piel’s pictures taken between 1979 and 2007. It’s a striking collection of images that is simultaneously high art and vaguely erotic; at once nostalgic for the libertine feel of the 1980s and 1990s—and also entirely timeless.

The women in his pictures are both painstakingly specific (we see the contents of their bathrooms) and yet entirely anonymous (she could be anyone.) “We are talking about a very sophisticated eye,” writes Polly Mellen. “This comes from Denis’s heritage and constant searching. It comes from an awareness of life.” Piel, who came to New York from Australia in the 1970s and now lives in Paris, explains that the book conveys “stories of how I see real life.”

Eventually, Piel says, he wants his pictures to convey a larger message about humanity. “I think the question is, what is erotic, and what is pornographic?” Piel says. “And I think erotic can go an awful long way.” He pauses. “One of the basic elements of humanity is sex,” he says. “And for that to be an element in my pictures is absolutely essential.”