The Sensual Storyteller

December 10, 2012

By Jim Cornfield

You can almost pinpoint the moment in history when photography entered the realm of extremely hip things to do for a living. The year was 1966, and amid an already raucous era of cultural innovation and upheaval, Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up hit the theater screens. It was a murder mystery, starring David Hemmings as a trendy, raffish photographer obviously modeled after Britain’s eccentric David Bailey. Until Blow Up, most moviegoers had never imagined that an improbably glamorous character like this even existed—boyish, handsome, cocky, breezing down the Strand in his drop-top Bentley, stalking the world through his viewfinder. Then, he’d be back in his enviably luxurious studio, barking directions to hollow-cheeked supermodels, with strobes flashing and fashionistas cooing over his brilliance. In its aftermath, Blow Up rocketed a gaggle of talented shooters in London and midtown Manhattan into orbit as what New York magazine called, “the new hot somebodies.” Photography schools such as RIT saw their enrollments shoot dramatically upward, studios were besieged by waves of aspiring photo assistants, and working photographers instantly became a new breed of celebrity (with just as instantly soaring day rates). Along with Bailey, names like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Bert Stern and scores of others joined the ranks of media royalty. 

As everyone knows, the phenomenon of photographer as minor league rock star continues today, and one of its more provocative players has published a sumptuous, large-format monograph worthy of every photographer’s library: Denis Piel: MOMENTS

Denis Piel: MOMENTS

By Denis Piel

Contributions by Polly Allen Mellen and Donna Karan

Rizzoli New York

272 pp.

Cinematic Wonder Boy

The son of WWII French resistance fighters, Denis Piel’s career arc has taken him from the printing business through several incarnations of commercial photography and into motion pictures. The 150 samples of his still work in MOMENTS—some commercial images, some editorial and some personal—all share Piel’s distinctive gloss of edgy, and sometimes raw, sensuality. He’s an indisputable mastermind at cross-pollinating between gritty, photo-real fashion imagery and the “stolen moment” style of celebrity portraiture. In the 1980s, under the stewardship of veteran Condé Nast editor/art director Alexander Liberman, Piel joined the select group of “wonder boy” fashion shooters. His specialty was creating a mood or impression by teasing us with a suggestive, unseen storyline. In his introduction to MOMENTS, Piel writes: “Sometimes the most interesting image is the one you don’t see, what happened before and after the frame.”

One among many cases-in-point in the book: an airy, horizontal interior featuring Malaysian supermodel Ling Tan (previous page). In the moment Piel has created for her, she’s seated alone in a restaurant, subtly teasing her coat back from bare shoulders and glancing off camera. Maybe she’s looking at the waiter reflected in an adjacent mirror, maybe there’s someone else outside the frame. We never really know, but the moment has an unquestionably seductive sparkle. Clearly, the coat is the whole point of this shot, and Piel emphasizes that by making it a player in an enigmatic little drama. Designer and entrepreneur Donna Karan, like all of Piel’s clients, is completely simpatico with this approach to fashion photography. “Denis,” Karan writes in the book’s introduction, “really understood and captured that clothes are just part of a woman’s life, not her whole life.” “The actual story,” said Piel, “comes from the imagination of the viewer.” 

Piel’s implied narratives reveal his penchant for a dreamy eroticism, and that became the hallmark of his portraiture as well. Another spread from the book depicts a closely cropped, wonderfully natural black-and-white portrait of British actress Amanda Pays (above), with a handful of crumpled bedsheet, the naked arc of her neck and collarbone, and a slightly drowsy, inscrutable expression—everything Piel needs to narrate a moment in the life of a provocatively beautiful woman. 

Blow Up Redux

The spry way Piel (pronounced “peel”) has of hopping between fashion work and editorial portraits is owed in part to the influence of his brethren up the totem pole of still shooters. Penn and Avedon are obvious, and his deft use of naked flesh and occasionally hot, undiffused sunlight reflects an appreciation for the sometimes outrageous vision of Helmut Newton. But Piel personally feels even more influenced by some of the great film directors, among them Kubrick, Bertolucci, Bergman, Truffaut and Kurosawa. Polly Mellen, a celebrated stylist and fashion editor, tapped easily into Piel’s flipside—what she perceived as his natural cinematic instincts. Mellen recalls being “fascinated with his direction when shooting an image. He seemed to want to capture the off moment. Positioning the body in an awkward way—not necessarily familiar, but also never vulgar… It was different, honest and a reality particular to Denis.” 

In an interesting vamp on the Blow Up phenomenon, director James Toback hired Piel to serve as technical adviser on a 1983 film, Exposed, with actor Ian McShane in the role of a fashion photographer specifically modeled on Piel himself. The experience drew him further into the film world, producing live-action work including television commercials for such clients as Revlon, L’Oreal, Avon, Bergdorf Goodman, and his longtime client Donna Karan, for whom he also directed an award-winning fashion video. Under the aegis of his own independent production company, Piel produced a feature-length documentary, Love is Blind which a few commentators have credited (some might say condemned) as the precursor to reality television. According to newspaper columnist Phillip Adams, the film was ground-breaking, even daring, on another level. Its subject is a married couple, both of them blind. Adams wrote that as a fashion shooter, the practitioner of such an intensely visual craft, Piel had learned with amazing speed “to tell a story in a way that’s antithetical to what he does for a living…Piel denies everything he has learnt,” Adams went on, “everything that is instinctive to this profession.” Here, Adams misses the mark. It’s probable that Piel is a quick study, but the enticing style of pictorial storytelling you’ll discover in MOMENTS is anything but antithetical to what Piel does for a living. It is, in fact, the whole point.

Writer and veteran commercial photographer Jim Cornfield ( is a regular contributor and book reviewer for Rangefinder.