CIAO MAN­HAT­TAN

An in­ter­view with Bon Duke.

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Paul Tier­ney

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.”

Pho­tos: Cour­tesy of Bon Duke.

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