Out of Focus

Bruce Weber wrestles with the fashion beast he helped to create

"When I started taking photographs, people were so open to situations," Bruce Weber recalls ruefully of his career's beginnings in the Seventies. The famed fashion photographer spears a forkful of rugelach inside the Rascal House restaurant in Sunny Isles Beach and continues. "You might tell a girl: 'I think you're going to have your top off in this next picture.' And years ago if you just thought it at that minute, you'd say it, and it would happen. Now the girl thinks about it, calls her agency, calls her boyfriend, calls her ex-boyfriend, she calls her parents back in Cologne -- then they call their relatives somewhere else in Germany." He puts his hands to his head in mock exasperation: "By the time you get involved with it, you don't even want to do the picture anymore! All the mystery is taken away."

As if to dramatize Weber's lament, the fashion world has even spread to this bastion of old-school Miami and Yiddishkeit. In a corner of the Rascal House, amid tables of pickle-chomping seniors, a Houston crew from Neiman Marcus carefully arranges a pair of shoes before a tripod-mounted camera. A decade ago Weber brought Linda Evangelista here, seating her at the counter beside a flock of yarmulke-clad children for Italian Vogue. The secret, it seems, is out.

"I came here because it wasn't fashionable," Weber notes with a chuckle, an initial attraction that led him to purchase a winter home in Golden Beach -- the sun-drenched backdrop for many of his subsequent shoots.

Weber at the Rascal House: "The only sadness I have about Miami now is I miss that combustible thing of young and old people together"
Steve Satterwhite
Weber at the Rascal House: "The only sadness I have about Miami now is I miss that combustible thing of young and old people together"
Peter Johnson, featured in Chop Suey
Peter Johnson, featured in Chop Suey

Of course Weber has only himself to blame for transforming a decision to go topless from an artistic whim to a meticulously calculated business gambit. His past two decades of national advertising campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Banana Republic helped fuel the explosive growth of the modeling milieu, filling teens from coast to coast with dreams of runway glory. Grabbing headlines and provoking controversy with their overt sexuality and homoerotica, Weber's fashion photos created as much interest in the models themselves as in the clothes they were wearing. Along the way Weber also helped to create a little place called South Beach.

It was Weber's 1985 Calvin Klein shoot atop Ocean Drive's Breakwater Hotel that sparked the international fashion world's interest in the area. "We were looking for a place we could afford to go to with a lot of models," Weber explains of his South Beach foray.

At the time little more than a mix of boarded-up buildings, crackhouses, aging retirees, and Marielitos, the forgotten burg soon became a magnet for fashion shoots, synonymous in the public mind with the supermodel craze of the Nineties. But the Beach's new growth industry gentrified out of existence much of what first drew Weber there. "The only sadness I have about Miami now is I miss that combustible thing of young and old people together," he says. "Down on South Beach you'd see some kid skateboarding past an older lady just rocking back and forth. That's the kind of mix of people I like in my life: a surfer and a 95-year-old artist."

Which is perhaps the best way to describe Weber's latest directorial effort, Chop Suey, which recently landed a national distribution deal after making the festival rounds. (The film opens February 1 at the Regal South Beach.) Chop Suey's title is a pretty good summation of the film itself: tangled, gooey, yet ultimately satisfying. A cinematic autobiography, it acts as a guided tour through, and a loving ode to, Weber's various muses and obsessions. Jumping between archival footage and Weber's own documentary film work, the director moves from actor Robert Mitchum to Vogue doyenne Diana Vreeland, from the criminally forgotten Fifties lounge singer Frances Faye to fellow photographers Larry Clark and Robert Mapplethorpe. Tying it all together is Weber's narration, explaining each icon's role in influencing his life.

And of course there's plenty of flesh, with beautifully chiseled young men drifting by the camera in gorgeous slow motion, or blithely romping around Weber's back-yard pool. One focal point is Peter Johnson, a fifteen-year-old who, in 1996, caught Weber's eye at a Wisconsin wrestling camp and went on to become a favored photographic subject, first in a book -- The Chop Suey Club -- and now onscreen.

But Johnson is more than a simple cinematic subject. He also serves as a kind of scrim upon which Weber projects his own idyllic visions. "We sometimes photograph things we can never be," Weber explains somewhat mournfully in a voice-over, referring both to his own tortured adolescence in a Pennsylvania farm town and the sheer youthful radiance that emanates from Johnson, whether he's enthusiastically soaping up in the shower or appearing sweetly vapid during an interview segment.

One of Chop Suey's more poignant moments arrives during a montage featuring Jeff Aquilon, discovered by Weber in 1979 at Malibu's Pepperdine University. Aquilon would revolutionize the very concept of male modeling after Weber took the radical approach of photographing this archetypal California golden boy in the same sexualized way one would shoot a female model. "At that time editors at magazines just didn't feel comfortable focusing on men in photographs," Weber narrates. "Even today they'll say, 'Let's just crop the man out of the picture.' But Donald was different."

Donald Sterzin, GQ magazine's art director at the time, seemed even more infatuated with Aquilon than was Weber. "When Jeff first got married in Boston, half the pews in the church were filled with proper Bostonians and the other half were filled with hairdressers, makeup artists, designers, and models," Chop Suey relates. "When the minister asked if anyone here wanted to speak now or forever hold their peace, all the fashion people started laughing and turned to Donald. Donald looked up at the minister and said, 'Why the hell is everybody looking at me?'"

Following Sterzin's death after a long illness, Weber turned to Aquilon and said of Donald: "No one ever loved you more." Set to a fading sunset, it's a heart-rending moment in the film, one whose sense of unrequited longing seems to encapsulate many of the emotions at play throughout Weber's own work. To some, however, it's also infuriating.

When Chop Suey premiered at last year's Miami Film Festival, not everyone was ready to join in the congratulatory backslapping that unfolded in the Gusman Center's lobby afterward. One gay New York City director stood scowling. "That line -- “Nobody ever loved you more' -- made me physically ill," the director groused to Kulchur. "I'm just so sick of all that sublimated desire. It's more than 30 years since Stonewall. Haven't we moved past all this lusting after unattainable straight boys?"

Back at the Rascal House, Weber frowns upon hearing this complaint repeated to him. Still, while he's always been open about his own homosexuality, Weber concedes that criticism from certain gay quarters is nothing new. "I hope in my film I show that I have a certain kind of love for Peter, and an attraction to him, so that I was able to go out and make a film about him," he explains. "But it wasn't important to me whether he was straight or gay. It was important to me that I had a connection to who he was or who I wanted him to be."

Disparagement of the platonic relationships he has with some of the straight young men he photographs reveals a double standard, Weber argues, one that only seems to come into play when the male gaze falls upon another man. "If you open up a Playboy magazine, there are all these photographers out in Chicago photographing all these beautiful nude girls," he points out. "Yet they're not getting laid by them. They don't have a chance with those girls, unless maybe one of them thinks it could help get her a job." But, he adds, there's little public criticism of Playboy's lensmen.

Weber pauses for a sip of soda. Beneath his nonchalance he appears perturbed at the notion that his film is perpetuating a stereotype of the tragic homosexual, doomed to a loveless existence. Finally, with audible frustration, he says, "I just can't imagine another person who considers himself gay could look at my film and not say to himself at least: “Okay, I don't like this film, but I definitely dealt with those issues.'" After pointing out that he himself was a former Stonewall patron, he returns to the theme of rough trade. "Truman Capote always said if you're connected to yourself at all, you can get practically anyone in the world to fall in love with you. I have a great belief in myself and my work, and who I am. I don't look at something and say, “Oh, I'll never attain that -- that's unattainable.'"

Weber leans back in his chair, a coy smile spreading across his face, and arches an eyebrow: "I always think that if I want it so bad, I'm probably going to get it."

Next week: Bruce Weber, Part 2: The men don't know, but the little girls understand.

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