Together they have photographed some of the most famous people in the world—Beyoncé in diamonds, Lady Gaga in a dress made of Hello Kitty dolls. But for Markus Klinko and Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, one of their favorite shots is a simple one: a black-and-white portrait they took of themselves the day they met.
That was 18 years ago this month. Back then, she was a model and he was trying to build up his portfolio as a beginning photographer. On a whim, they sat on the floor and took a self-portrait, sitting back to back, her with a smile, him serious.
The chemistry was instant. “We fell in love immediately,” says Markus. “Within a week, we were a serious couple.”
They had come together at his Manhattan studio from different worlds. Before trying photography, he had been a classical harpist from Switzerland. She had grown up in a 300-room ancestral palace in India.
It was the start of a creative partnership that would see them travel the world as the photography duo known as Markus + Indrani, snapping portraits of celebrities for glossy publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. This month, they have a new book out called Icons, a collection of their favorite shots. On Dec. 11, they’ll display eight-foot versions of the images at New York's Lincoln Center. The exhibit runs through Dec. 16 and then will travel the world.
Over drinks in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan, they cut quite the striking pair. Tall and thin, he’s wearing a retro “Drink Coca-Cola” T-shirt and skinny pants with leather patches at the knees. She’s all in black, her boots studded with silver spikes. A silver cuff on her wrist is loaded with spikes as well, prompting a woman at a neighboring table to come over and say she couldn’t stop staring it. Indrani smiles and says thanks, joking about how her jewelry doubles as a weapon.
Markus is quick to point out that he wants their photography to be “accessible,” noting that the new book is only 16 bucks on Amazon. “I hate snobbery,” he says. “Some people think art is only great if no one understands it. Fashion prides itself on that. We see ourselves as artists, but we’re not doing something no one understands or can’t afford.” Some of the most interesting photography today, he says, is happening far from any fancy studios, on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. “I want to cut the bullshit out of all of this,” he says. “This book goes against all that.”
His route to photography was an unusual one. The son of a French horn player in a symphony orchestra, he began playing the piano “against my will,” he laughs, at age 3. By the time he was 7, he says, “I was in love with it.” Later he started playing classical guitar and then the harp. As a teen, he studied harp at the National Conservatory in Paris and graduated a star, touring the world in the 1980s, performing solo recitals in concert halls, and becoming the first harpist with a major recording-label contract. He describes his music as “very dreamy.”
And then something mysterious happened. “In the spring of 1994, I sat down at my harp, and my thumb didn’t work,” he says. “It just didn’t snap right. The next day, it was worse. I flipped out. I went to the hospital and everybody said nothing was wrong. But I couldn’t play.” The condition did not change. Doctors said it must be psychological, a diagnosis he denied.
Markus, 34 years old at the time, decided not to let the setback crush him, but to start a new career in photography. “I had already achieved my childhood dream,” he says of his success in music; it was time to do something different. He never doubted he could make a go of it: “I was arrogant,” he jokes. “I was very conceited.”
He sold his harps and bought photography equipment, taking round-the-clock photos of a mannequin in different kinds of light. The guys at the place where he brought the film to be developed thought he had “a mannequin fetish,” he jokes.
Two weeks after his career switch, Indrani walked into his studio. And she had her own wild history, having spent her childhood in a crumbling ancestral palace—with trees sprouting through some of its 300 rooms—in the Indian city of Ranaghat, just north of Calcutta. When she was 7, her parents moved to London and then Toronto to escape violent Maoist uprisings in India.
In Toronto as a teen, Indrani applied for an internship at a photo studio, and the photographers said she should be in front of the camera, not behind it. She signed up with a modeling agency, and at age 14, started doing photo shoots around the world for magazines like Glamour and Elle.
She was 19 when she met Markus, fresh off a trip to India, where she had used her modeling earnings to turn her ancestral home into a school for poor kids. Her modeling agency had sent her to Markus for a few shots of a new haircut. The pair talked about his work; he asked for her opinion, and she offered a critique. She loved photography herself, and had taken shots around India. “It was an amazing creative meeting of the minds,” she says. She laughs when she recalls how he served her cereal from a box so old, there were ants in it.
The two teamed up soon after to start their photography business. They got their big break when iconic British fashion editor Isabella Blow noticed their work in underground fashion magazines, and tapped them to do a cover shoot for The Sunday Times magazine in London. After that, David Bowie asked them to shoot the album cover for Heathen. Then Iman came along, enlisting them to shoot the cover for her book I Am Iman. Album covers for Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah Carey followed.
In the meantime, Indrani had begun going to college at Princeton while working with Markus on the side. When she graduated, she jumped in full-time.
Their romantic relationship lasted about six years, then evolved into a friendship. “There was no breakup,” Markus says. “It was more of a transition. It was more like realizing we were best friends.” Indrani says it was difficult at times, moving into this new mode, but notes, “I was working 24 hours a day—we really had no time for anything else.”
They would later move on to romances with new people, but not for some time. “It took almost 10 years for me to be in a solid relationship,” Markus says. He admits that part of the problem may have been his close friendship with Indrani—when women met her, he says, they assumed the pair would get back together.
Throughout it all, the duo shot a slew of celebrities—Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, Katie Holmes—for glossy magazines. They also began shooting ad campaigns for companies such as Elizabeth Arden and L’Oréal Paris.
Their celebrity portraits are wildly creative. In one, Iman wears a dress that appears to be bursting into flames. In another, Lady Gaga’s eyes are closed, her eyelids painted with giant eyeballs to make her look like a Japanese comic-book character. In the new book, the duo share their secrets for creating the photos. “People always ask why we’re so open about our techniques,” Markus says. “We’re no magic show where you can’t know what we’re doing.”
Indrani adds that they have never heeded the “rules” of the trade. “Someone told me you can’t point into the sun,” she says. “We love doing that.” She also does the post-production work, like making Beyoncé’s diamond-studded top sparkle a little more. Most photographers outsource that, she says. She considers it a crucial part of the creative process, one that should be handled with care.
In 2009 their lives and work became the focus of a Bravo reality show called Double Exposure. Ultimately, neither was very happy with the show, saying the producers were always pushing for high drama.
Now they’re getting set to enter a new phase, moving their business from New York to Los Angeles. Indrani has been focusing on producing commercials and films, recently directing a short film called Legend of Lady White Snake. Starring socialite Daphne Guinness, the film won four awards at the La Jolla Film Festival this fall.
As the pair discuss their future plans, batting ideas back and forth, they seem like brother and sister. They bicker about odd things—he says she hates the ’80s, she denies it—and they are quick to challenge each other. At the same time, as their partnership approaches two decades, their mutual respect is clear. “What I learned in 18 years from being an egotistical guy,” Markus says, “is to shut up and listen.”