An interview with Bon Duke.
Gramercy Park on New York’s west side has long maintained an air of faded elegance. The buildings here have witnessed considerable changes over the years – from cool beat poets trading rhymes on the benches, to a new generation of hipsters cashing in on past glories. In the early 1990s I was a regular in the park’s infamous hotel, imagining myself as one of Manhattan’s boho-elite, drinking vodka like it was going out of fashion, and, in lieu of dinner, grazing on the bar snacks. Times were hard, but bluff and swagger came easy. Pre-gentrification, the area seemed frozen in time, a slice of the city preserved in nostalgic aspic.
Photographer Bon Duke remembers it well. Born and raised across the river in Brooklyn; New York has always been his home. It’s the reason he takes pictures in the first place, constantly seduced by the city’s boundless charm and ever-evolving personality. As he walks through Gramercy in sub-zero conditions, police sirens blare like the melody of an urban Christmas carol.
“New York is endlessly inspiring,” he announces. “When you look down the avenues and see the skyline, it’s an incredible sight. But it’s not just the visuals that inspire me, it’s the people too. Everyone’s in their own little world here. There’s this mutual feeling of knowing you’re in a great city. Every single person here knows that they can do whatever they want. You feel the mood and energy just looking at people’s faces.”
A graduate of the city’s School of Visual Arts, Duke is fast emerging as a powerful force in fashion editorial. Shooting for a host of style magazines, he has an eye for detail, and is part of a new generation of film and image-makers influencing the fashion landscape with fresh perspectives. In 2009 he co-founded the New York Fashion Film Festival, which annually showcases short films from both students and seasoned industry professionals. To say he is ambitious is an understatement. Regularly tipped as a name to watch, Duke is bubbling to the surface with such effervescence, there seems to be no stopping this nascent, doubtless talent.
He first picked up a camera as a small child and at the age of thirteen, he started photographing his own paintings. “I was a painter originally, but not a very good one,” he laughs. “I just loved the whole ritual of getting film processed and developed, it was so instantaneous. I found painting such a slow process so I started focusing on photographs instead. It’s good to have a painting background before you start taking photos, you approach it with a lot of knowledge about colour and composition. In this digital age not having a background in another medium is a disadvantage.”
Duke is a straight talker – pragmatic and not inclined to embellishment. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, his work ethic and attitude to life is clearly defined. Yet in the shallow waters of fashion, where his photography has flourished, that openness is highly unusual.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect to end up shooting fashion, it came about almost by accident. When I first started, my aesthetic was really minimal – I had no idea about designers and who was who. My interest comes from the beauty of the craftsmanship. Obviously when I see fashion now, it’s about how clothes lay on the body, and how they compliment a person. I see them as another layer to help me composite my images. I look for details in clothes; this is what really piques my interest.”
Looking at a cross section of Duke’s work, it is the models, not the clothes themselves that stand out. My eye is drawn to the subject’s face, often captured mid-expression, caught in reverie or despair. It says more about his style than the designer apparel these characters often inhabit.
“It’s a lot about the subject,” he agrees. “I have always focused on portraiture; I always want to photograph and know someone more as a person if their character speaks to me. Creating a connection with a subject is important to me.” Who does he consider to be beautiful? “Wow, that’s difficult. When you look at someone’s face, they have to have an aura. When I cast someone, they have to make me feel speechless. There are models out there that people find very beautiful and sometimes I just don’t see it. For instance, Cara Delevigne. I just don’t think she’s amazing at all, but because she’s able to take advantage of being this Instagram ‘it’ girl, she has far more presence. For me, visually, I don’t see it.”
We chat at length about notions of beauty. The fashion industry persists in selling us an ideal, but we both agree that being beautiful isn’t enough. The nuances and gestures a model makes are often more important than the way they look. In Duke’s world, a hand can say more than any smile.
“Amazing that you noticed that,” he says excitedly. “Hands are super important to me. It’s a detail I like. People don’t realise how much is said about them through the way they use their hands. I like to capture that.”
The conversation turns technical when we try to make sense of the digital realm. In the last fifteen years, photography has changed beyond recognition with the advent of new technology. This has been a good and a bad thing. From a democratic point of view, everyone can now be an artist, and yet the ease and speed of this new medium has created a culture of blandness and repetition. For the i-phone generation there is no process, no integrity.
“It’s upsetting because it takes away the craftsmanship,” he says, obviously pained by this notion. “You have to craft an image and put time and effort into it, and yet young people don’t see that. I find it upsetting when young photographers have a second plan, where they don’t always see their initial ideas through and just see what happens on the day. You should try to do everything ‘in camera’ and right there on set because it’s so important to capture the moment at that time, not relying on making mistakes.” Does he think this laissez-faire approach is dissolving the art? “Yes, it totally dissolves the art. People that just shoot and shoot, they can’t explain it. All they can say is that it’s ‘visually appealing’.”
In recent years, as a result of studying at the School of Visual Arts, Duke’s work has transcended still photography. Now fully immersed in making short films, primarily with a fashion focus, he has developed into a fully-fledged, multi practice image-maker – something he never thought possible.
“Without even knowing it and before I even knew their names, a lot of movies influenced me. Luc Besson’s The Professional was a big one. I think it’s something about the New York feel of it. Another film that had an effect on me was Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, which is about three French teenagers living in the ghetto. It’s an interesting storyline, about escaping from the city. The films I can relate to are the ones that really stick out for me – they have a realness and a rawness to them.” But being a photographer doesn’t instantly mean you can become a filmmaker. “Absolutely,” he says emphatically. “As we discussed earlier, a lot of photographers think they can simply fix things after a shoot. But with film making you have to consider every step. They might be able to make a video technically but they forget that there has to be a great storyline or concept supporting it, otherwise it falls short. The essence of film is storytelling and people forget that.”
We talk about starting points, how in this potted world of short film making, where brands and designers demand instant gratification, it’s difficult to know where to begin.
“Music helps me visualise a storyline. I’ll put on a track and think how amazing it would be to base a film around it. I instantly start imagining a movie in my head. Whenever I watch a Quentin Tarantino or a Guy Ritchie film, there’s something that resonates with me about the music and how it compliments the narrative. So I listen to music and come up with a random storyline, and if it’s appropriate I’ll try and incorporate it for a brand and see if it fits.” Music helps, but how do you stamp your work with personality? “The first thing is colour. I am very particular about colour. It’s a basic, broad element that I stamp my films and photos with. Also I approach my work like still life, and I like to have a little bit of dark humour in there too. With a lot of my work, I don’t want to say bullshit, but I know how imagery and presentation and language can really slay a viewer. I used to research advertising, and I read David Ogilvy’s book, Confessions of an Advertising Man. It was interesting how you can say a lot by adjusting or tweaking an image, and I do that with my photography. I reappropriate elements on purpose because I know it’ll have a certain effect or message.”
Duke’s most arresting film work is surprisingly simple. Enhancing the flowing diaphanous lines of Chloe, perhaps fashion’s sweetest ready to wear line, he asked Janie Taylor of the New York City Ballet to perform for him wearing the dance inspired spring/summer 2011 collection. Duke slowed the film down to mesmerizing effect, providing a completely unique viewing experience.
“I work a lot with dancers, which is amazing because they really understand their bodies, so it becomes about shape. The Chloe collaboration was more of a study for me, rather than a fashion film, because I knew nothing about ballet. It was almost like they were performing for me, trying to explain why ballet is so beautiful. To be honest, it almost felt like I was spying on them. It wasn’t overly choreographed; I almost let them build the whole film.”
With his Film Festival increasing in popularity each year, is he leaving still photography behind?
“I have a tendency to get bored with one thing so it’s a healthy balance between the two. It’s healthy and creative to do both, and they compliment each other.”
As darkness descends on midtown Manhattan, he braves himself for the cold journey back to Brooklyn. “I’m definitely in a New York bubble,” he reflects. ‘I need to know how to break away.”
He is sanguine about the future but leaves with me a parting shot about the mood of his beloved home town. “People are really unhappy at the moment about police brutality,” he says seriously. “There’s a feeling in the city, in its underbelly, that something is about to erupt. I want to capture that feeling. It’s my duty to record it.”