An Erotic Life: A Candid Conversation with Photographer Jonathan Leder

Photography was invented so that we can experience the erotic fantasy worlds captured by photographers like Jonathan Leder. Never has a woman looked so supple and beautiful – either draped over a flower patterned motel bed, straddling a motorcycle or perched like a kitten in the grass - than in Leder's dizzyingly tantalizing images. Like a bee searching for the prettiest flower, Leder technically discovered Emily Ratajkowski before her big break in the Blurred Lines music video. His current muse and lover, Amy Hood, is not only lightning-strike beautiful, she is also a creative collaborator behind many of Leder’s recent publishing ventures, like Bang! and Fetishisms Manifesto. Based in Woodstock, New York, Leder’s polaroids are the kind of illicit material that would fall out of your math textbook in slow motion. Tomorrow, 92 examples of these highly charged polaroids that he has taken over the last five years will be on view at Superchief gallery in Los Angeles. Autre was lucky enough to catch up with Leder and his partner in crime Amy Hood at their temporary summer cottage in Los Feliz. In the following conversation, Leder talks candidly about his photographic deflowering as the assistant photo editor at his high school newspaper, his getting fired from his own magazine (Jacques, which has gained a cult following in its afterlife), the discovery of his unique lo-fi photographic style that has gained him some renown, and his struggles with trying to get girls to smile in his photographs.

Oliver Kupper: Do you remember when you first picked up a camera? What inspired you to start taking pictures?

Jonathan Leder: I got into photography pretty seriously at about 15 or 16 years old. I went to a private school in Manhattan, and the school had its own darkroom. There were at least three enlargers there. They had a budget and a staff. The photographers that worked there were the ones who did the yearbook and the newspaper—the newspaper would come out every two weeks. This was way before the Internet and way before digital cameras. They had a little photo staff, and I became a part of that. I was the Assistant Photo Editor in the tenth grade, and then I became Photo Editor. I was doing it for a long time. By eleventh and twelfth grade, I was busy in the darkroom all the time. We would roll our own film on 100-foot rolls and cut it up in canisters. When I graduated, I didn’t want to pursue photography because I thought I knew how to technically do it. I went to school for painting instead, which I thought would be more challenging. I didn’t want to do painting after a while, because I felt like it wasn’t relevant to anything.

OK: When did you get back into photography?

JL: When I was about 24, I went back to doing photography. I moved back to New York after living abroad in Paris and Italy. I went to school for one semester, but it was terrible, so I dropped out. I got an internship at Interview Magazine. That’s how I got hired at Steven Klein Studios. Then, I got hired by the agency that represents Steven Klein—Peter Lindbergh. I did that for ten years. I worked for fashion photographers—doing productions, casting, that sort of thing. They were shooting Madonna, Brad Pitt. There was an exhibition in Milan. All the photographers were doing campaigns—they were in the pages of Italian Vogue every month. It was one of the best agencies in the city at the time. They had an office in Paris, so I would go to the couture shows and produce shoots over there. I saw a lot of fashion photography.

OK: So you really learned about the industry?

JL: It was a really good point of view. I saw the industry. You had guys like Peter who were making four million dollars a year, and then there were other photographers that were really struggling. You saw what worked and what didn’t work. I learned the idea of specializing. When you think of a photographer—say, Ellen Von Unwerth—you got it. Bruce Weber—you got it. Even if you go into art photography—Diane Arbus, you got it. Robert Mapplethorpe, got it. The guys have to specialize. Young people are confused. They think their work needs to change or it needs to improve. That’s the worst thing you can do. You don’t change it every three years. The idea of representation is really what becomes important. Bruce Weber has always taken the same picture, but that’s his signature. That’s what really works.

OK: Speaking of styles, you’ve developed a very unique style. It’s hard for photographers to develop a style because they don’t know where their identity is. But it seems like you’ve found your identity.

JL: It took a little while. I didn’t start shooting until 2006 or 2007. To be honest, in the beginning, it was not so great. But certain people have been encouraging over the years. That’s why this body of work—which really started in 2011—is important. I bought this Polaroid camera in 1999 and never used it professionally—a land camera with a modified lens. Then, one day, I just thought I would try it. I tried it, and in the first couple of shoots I didn’t use the flash. But then I decided to try with the flash; it’s a little romantic with the flash. The second I strapped the flash onto that camera with that film—that’s it. I still have a specific technique. If I use it at nighttime where it’s all about the flash, I find it harsh. So I try to use it with a little bit of ambient light so it’s more of a fill flash feeling. There are pictures where it’s all the flash, but I prefer the ones with more of a fill flash.

OK: Was there a specific photograph that you peeled away and said, “This is the one?”

JL: I remember vividly. When I started shooting those polaroids when I first moved to Woodstock in 2011, I had never done them before. That was also the first time I bought the faster Polaroid film. The first few pictures—which are still in the show—have no flash. Marlo—the girl on the motorcycle—was probably the first shoot where I used the flash. That was it. From that point on, until now, the style has remained fairly consistent. There are little things I try to do. Because I have such a history of taking pictures, I find I’m over-composed, over-perfect. So often I try to step back, to tilt the camera—to make it feel more amateur-ish. That’s intentional.

OK: It’s your process. It’s intentional in its amateur-ness.

JL: When I look back at the pictures, the ones that are the most successful are not the ones where I’ve totally posed it up to get it perfect. The ones I like the most are the bloopers, the outtakes. You have more smiling pictures. I tried to include as many smiling pictures as I could, but I wish I had more. Amy doesn’t smile that much, so I don’t have a lot of smiling pictures of her. Emily didn’t smile at all, but she was pretty popular. She’s not a great smiler either. Casey Marie has a great smile. Janette had a good smile. Those are nice moments to capture.

OK: Is there a specific atmosphere that you have to conjure when you’re shooting?

JL: There used to be. I feel like I’ve gotten the technique down pretty well at this point that it’s not entirely necessary anymore. I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true, though. The photos you see in the show are not, in general, the first time I’ve ever worked with a person. They’re at least the second, the third, the twelfth. So it’s not really the atmosphere, but rather the presence of certain relationships. I did this shoot recently with this girl Casey Marie, but I worked with her last year for four or five days. When she came back a couple of weeks ago to do the shoot, we nailed it in forty-five minutes. We knew exactly what we wanted going into the shoot.

OK: So its pretty informal?

JL: Oftentimes, it’s pretty informal. There’s no real crew. It’s just me and the model, or maybe me and Amy and the model. There’s never more than one extra person. I never have a lot of people around me. It bothers me. I’m not big on shoots. When I lived in Williamsburg, I lived a block away from Fast Ashley’s. There would be huge crews. I never understood how that was conducive to making a subject feel comfortable.

OK: I think for Terry Richardson, the crew is about having more of a party atmosphere. There’s no utilitarian purpose besides that.

JL: I’m not really a party person.

OK: You live in Woodstock, so you’re pretty far away from the New York nightlife scene.

JL: We cook dinner, we sit down, and we talk. It’s more old school. I prefer to take my time with things. I prefer people who will take their time with things—that’s the best situation.

OK: Your work seems more focused because of that. It’s been more beneficial to your work. A lot of people burn out because they’re part of this scene with so much social responsibility. It makes photography look like it’s not unique anymore.

JL: That’s true. Probably, people shoot a lot more than I do. I don’t shoot very much, in terms of the frequency of it. There are periods—like if we’re producing a publication or something—that I might have to do a half-dozen photo shoots in six weeks. But that would be a lot. In general, a month could go by, and I won’t do a photo shoot.

OK: Speaking of publications, I want to talk about Jacques Magazine. What happened to Jacques Magazine? It was great, but short-lived.

JL: Unfortunately, I made the mistake of putting the company that Jacques Magazine was published under in Danielle’s name. When we split up, she technically fired me, and I didn’t have any legal recourse. Danielle was very young when we started that and really had no experience. I was much older and had more experience. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to make her editor-in-chief. The Luft Media Group was the LCC, and I decided that she could be the chief director. I would be the vice president. When you have a partnership, you have to make those kinds of decisions. We did that, and that worked for her advantage. I really didn’t have any recourse to fight for it. It would have been a hopeless battle. I think she’s published one issue since we split up. 

OK: It seemed definitely a product of your creative output.

JL: She was encouraging, though. I don’t want to say she wasn’t encouraging. But I don’t think she’s capable of putting something like that together on her own.

OK: It seemed like it ended on a very high note. And now, they’re collectible.

JL: I think it ended on a high note. We did seven issues, and that was that. In truth, by the seventh issue, I was tired of doing Jacques Magazine. It was a lot of work. The photos started feeling repetitive, not in a good way. I like those photos, but I like this current body of work a lot more. I would never make these photos for Jacques Magazine. It was too shtick-y.

OK: And it was of that time. Aesthetics change all the time, especially if you’re making images for magazines.

JL: I am surprised people still remember it. It must have been more successful than we realized. We didn’t make that much money from it. It was pretty cheap—$9.00. And the production costs were actually pretty high because, for a long time, it was this huge format. Even if you try to not pay anybody to produce a shoot, it always costs hundreds of dollars.

OK: Printing alone is a fortune.

JL: The problem with Jacques, when Amy and I started doing these newer publications, was distribution. It has to be small if it’s going in the mail. It’s lovely to do something like 14 by 18 inches, but I remember standing at the Green Point post office with these huge bags. And it’s expensive to mail, because you’re in the large envelope class. I have a lot of experience now in publishing. Between doing Jacques, now we did Fetishisms, we did Bang!—we’ve done a lot of stuff in the past year. The cool thing that I’ve noticed is that the Internet has come a long way since 2009. You really don’t need a distributor at this point.

OK:  I want to ask what the selection process was like. 92 photographs is a lot of photographs.

JL: It was pretty easy in that there were a lot of photographs. We did the catalogue first. We published a 100-page, 8 by 5 catalogue. It made more sense, so that we could see what worked on the computer screen. There were way more than 92. We could have easily done a 150-page book. The selection was more, which ones don’t we include? I was working with twenty shoots over four years or more, each one having between 60 and 100 pictures. There were over 2000 photographs. We wanted to put in more pictures of Ratajkowski. Obviously, there are so many pictures of Amy that are really great, but we can’t include every single one. There are a lot of other girls, too. But the selection process wasn’t that hard.

OK: What’s next after the show?

JL: We have two books that are coming out after the show. Then, I think we’re going to take a little break, I’m hoping. I could use a break, to be honest. We’ve been producing a lot of content this past year. I’d like to get back to working on the film. We’re supposed to be doing American Ecstasy, but we got caught up in doing all these books. Hopefully, we’ll get back to doing that. Maybe somebody wants to invest a tiny bit of money. I wouldn’t mind getting back to doing some editing.

OK: It seems like filmmaking is something that you’re curious about. It seems like that’s another journey.

JL: I’d love to do it, but it’s the type of thing where you can’t do anything else. You have to take six months to a year to focus on it. It’s been really hard just to get this gallery show done. That was a mountain of work. Each time we do a publication, that’s a lot of work too. Hopefully, we can take a break and get back to filming. The ideas keep coming for these cute publications. We realize every idea takes time.

OK: It seems like Amy’s a motivating factor.

JL: She does all the design work. She’s very helpful in terms of the casting, setting up the photo shoots. There’s no way it could happen without her.

Jonathan Leder's solo exhibition of 92 photographs will be open from August 8th - with an opening reception from 6pm to 10pm – until August 22nd at Superchief Gallery in Los Angeles. You can also purchase a limited edition monograph of the work - both signed and unsigned. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Jonathan Leder and Amy Hood photographed exclusively for Autre Magazine by Sara Clarken. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE