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Interview with Bruce Weber: “We had to work fast—and run”

Photographer Bruce Weber has spent seven years recording the plight of Miami’s Haitian community

Miami Beach

Since the late 1970s, photographer and film-maker Bruce Weber, 64, has been capturing the zeitgeist. From the Calvin Klein ad that catapulted Brazilian Olympic polevaulter Tom Hintnaus in white briefs to a Times Square billboard in 1983, to his disturbing 1988 film about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, “Let’s Get Lost”—which received an Academy Award nomination—his work is instantly recognisable.

Now Weber has turned his lens on the plight of one of his country’s most impoverished and neglected communities, not far from his Florida home. In a new exhibition, his first in over a decade, “Bruce Weber: Haiti/Little Haiti” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami (until 13 February 2011), Weber documents the struggles of Haitians in that part of Miami.

“Bruce has gone beyond putting a human face on unfair immigration laws,” says Bonnie Clearwater, MoCA’s executive director and chief curator. “The images are in the tradition of Walker Evans but they go beyond that. You connect with the figures and he challenges the viewer to want change,” she says.

The Art Newspaper: What led you to focus on Haitians, a subject so removed from your fashion work?

Bruce Weber: Alfred Stieglitz said you never had to travel far away. A lot of his images are from his own backyard and I come from that school, too. Jonathan Demme’s 2003 documentary [“The Agronomist”, about the life of Haitian journalist Jean Dominique] was my call to arms. I asked Jonathan what I could do. He really pushed me to explore the problem of immigration. From there, Alberto [Ibarguen, former publisher of the Miami Herald] approached me to focus on the people of Little Haiti for a magazine. There are entire families who are detained under armed guard. In one photograph of three generations of a family, every one had been in detention.

TAN: You seem to be referencing Henri Cartier-Bresson?

BW: At film school in New York I kind of started on the streets. They were my school and Lisette Model was my mentor. Photographing the people of Little Haiti and working with them brought me back to my beginnings. I’d grab my old Rolleiflex and my Canon with just a normal lens. Sometimes the people were too shy. I couldn’t change them and say: “Comb your hair.” But I liked that immediacy, that physicality. Their response was so moving. I went with Nan [his wife] and a few others to the local church in Little Haiti. Father Gerard spoke of our need to make a record of the people’s lives and tribulations. They got up from their pews and gave us a standing ovation. I haven’t been so welcomed since I was in a school play.

TAN: You have created so many different styles, from homespun scenes for Ralph Lauren to the electrifying glitz of Hollywood stars. Can you say how those experiences impacted on the Little Haiti images?

BW: My life is pretty crazy. One day I’m photographing my dogs and the next a personality for Vanity Fair. I want them all to be about a certain quest. The Calvin Klein [underwear] images were done out of friendship with Calvin. I never thought of them as sexy. But I wanted to make a record of that young man [Tom Hintnaus] so he could show it with pride to his kids. I wasn’t thinking of a billboard. That kind of work has helped me approach all kinds of people. I’ve used both Liberty City [home to the majority of Miami’s African-Americans] and Little Haiti as locations for magazine assignments.

TAN: With the government cracking down on immigration, there had to have been difficulties capturing the plight of the Haitians?

BW: One time, armed guards stopped us from photographing mothers and their children in detention. We had to work fast—very quickly, like on a newspaper—and run.

TAN: You grew up far from cities with major museums. What has influenced your work?

BW: My family was very open and we would all paint together. I kept wanting my watercolours to be better. Early on, I was drawn to Thomas Hart Benton paintings I saw in books. His physicality drew me in.

TAN: What do you collect and how do you display your collection?

BW: I have a big collection. The first thing I bought was a George Platt Lynes from Ileana Sonnabend. I knew there were others in line to buy it but she let me pay the bill off gradually. I have Paul Strand, early Stieglitz, Edward Weston, John Marin watercolours as well as work friends have given me. I buy at flea markets and all over because I have a feeling for the work. I keep my dog pictures in the bedroom but others with people in them are all around the house. I put an image of Lisa Fonssagrives [Irving Penn’s wife] alongside one of Irving by Cecil Beaton. People who saw them together felt their spirit.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“We had to work fast—and run”'