I first encountered Denis Piel’s work in college while interning in the photography department of American Vogue. Tasked with preparing visual research for upcoming photo shoots (pulling existing images that could be used as references for the photographer and editors), I found time and time again that Denis, during his tenure in the 1980s as one of Condé Nast’s most prominent photographers, had created an image that conceptually embodied whatever theme I was searching for. Denis’ fashion photographs were unlike anyone else’s, especially anything from that time period. He broke through the boundaries of the single frame, instilling his subjects with personalities and motivations that told a story. Much like the photographs in Cindy Sherman’s seminal Untitled Film Stills, each of Denis’ pictures contained a narrative that allowed the viewer to create their own stories about what was happening. There was an incredible sense of movement in Denis’ photographs–you imagined what happened just before a picture was taken and what was about to happen in that next unknown moment.
A little over a decade later, after 8 years of working in Annie Leibovitz’s studio, I started my own photography agency and production company and began collaborating with Denis. By this time Denis had left New York and the world of commercial photography to live at Château de Padiès outside of Lempaut, France, in search of a life that was more closely connected to the earth. While his wife and son created a working organic, sustainable farm on their property, Denis, in negotiation with his new environment, did what Denis does: he made pictures. This body of work became his recently published book, Down to Earth.
During a summer production session at Padiès for Down To Earth, Denis and I began experimenting with layout concepts for his archival fashion and portrait photographs intended to highlight the cinematic nature of his work. He had previously done a retrospective book in 2012 called Moments, but we were interested in truly showing the full scope of his shoots’ narratives. We played with laying out multiple consecutive frames to show the models’ movements, drawing inspiration from Eadweard Muybridge, and selected images from the shoots that embodied the “film still” aesthetic, adding supplemental photographs around them to complement their narrative structure. While working on the project we discovered so many strong, previously unpublished pictures that truly exemplified Denis’ unique vision and his ability to tell a story through still imagery.
Keeping with the nomenclature of a number of Denis’ previous photographic projects (including Platescapes and Facescapes), we named this new format of viewing his work Filmscapes.
Jesse Blatt is a photography curator and archivist who lives and works in New York, USA.
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