Bruce Weber Took My First Family Portrait

March 19, 2014 • Fashion

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Back in 1994, when Leonardo DiCaprio was fresh off his critically lauded Gilbert Grape performance, Bruce Weber took some of the best photographs of the rising star the world has ever seen. Pre-Titanic, pre-duck-and-cover routine, pre-Jonah Hill, these photos were instinctual and spontaneous— fresh-faced Leo playing by the seashore with a pinwheel. Leo in fringe. Leo eating corn on the cob, shoving an ice cream cone in his mouth, and affecting a bit of Charlie Chaplin.

They were unguarded, un-retouched (if you look closely at the cover of the June 1994 issue of Interview, there are visible blemishes), singular moments on film rich with the wild charm that made Leo a star in the first place.

But life happens. It gets in the way of youth, of our taut skin and bright-eyed, pinwheel optimism; age is not indelible, but wrinkles are.

Leo today—the man who would never eat a piece of pizza at the Oscar’s—would never take these photographs, and it’s a shame. Because the world would love them.

***

It’s Saturday in Santa Barbara and I’m walking briskly down State Street, veering away from panhandlers who clutter the roads to the point of mundanity. There are only so many times you can be asked for change before it just becomes white noise. Besides, even parking meters take credit cards these days. And unlike ten years ago, I have my own washer and dryer, so there’s no need to ask the market checker to turn my dollars to quarters.

Ten years ago I carried change. Change and that intoxicating quality of youth—you know, the “anything and everything is possible” song and dance.

Ten years ago I’d venture from Northern California to Isla Vista to visit my then-boyfriend who lived in a house with the dirtiest bathroom in the city. I’d refuse to shower when I came to visit. Those were weekends his friends would pay me eighty bucks to crank out a three-page essay for their Monday morning Humanities class. They’d take shots in the living room while I click-clacked away on an original iBook, clamshell shaped and brightly colored—the “Toilet Seat Mac.” And I would have much rather used that computer than the bathroom. Occasionally these friends would come into the bedroom and offer me a shot, and I’d take it without hesitation or thought of responsibility, and keep on tapping out sentences likely full of mixed metaphors, archaic diction, and heft—the kind of junk associated with inebriation. I’d get them B’s; they’d fuel my gas tank.

None of these memories flood back as I walk. They blindly knock for admittance at doors that have long been closed, lost and unable to find their way in but the hatches of my brain aren’t outfitted with Braille.

***

It’s Saturday in Santa Barbara and I’ve been up since 6:30 a.m., driven up the coast so my daughter’s father could meet with a very important client—a well-known fashion designer with whom he’s “booked” a job. But as a model “booked” doesn’t always mean it’s in the bag, or in this case, their orange cashmere sweaters and tweed jackets.

If for any reason the client, or the photographer, decides they don’t like the way his shoulders fit in their clothes, we go home. If they decide his face is too young, too old, too symmetrical, we go home. If he measures up, we stay.

It was a gamble and a 90-minute drive I was willing to make because I wanted to stay—and bask in the unfettered sunshine and plush luxury that is the Bacara Spa and Hotel in Goleta, CA. I was willing to risk a day wandering aimlessly with the baby if it meant white Frette sheets and someone to pick up my towels. If it meant a bathtub I didn’t have to clean.

So at 8:45 a.m. we pull up next to a gang of Quixote studio vans and PAs with walkie talkies. I wished him luck as he vanished into a large white tent erected in a parking lot by the sea.

For now—baby and I—are waiting. Puttering. Muttering about birdies and doggies and all other ies suffixed words. We’ve visited the pier, watched kayakers take their vessels out for daybreak rides, and the courthouse (though baby isn’t much for architecture yet). We’ve eaten eggs at the Judge For Yourself Café on Santa Barbara Street, where lots of childless couples judged my decision to bring my wide-load stroller into a very narrow space. We’ve gone to the park where angry bees attempted to suckle the pear baby food off baby’s face, and we’ve shopped State Street until, about half a mile in, past various iterations of the same store and Starbucks, we’re greeted by a 10-foot poster of dad in the window of Tilly’s. Our kid greets 2-dimmesnsional dad with a smile. I feel the pang of annoyance that it’s been seven hours and counting with no home base, while he hangs in an air-conditioned tent. There’s only so much putzing around I can handle. I stuff down the feeling of being overtired and overworked with a $9 juice.

By the time we make it back to the parking lot, I’m exhausted by the groaning of a teething baby, and hoping for some inkling as to how things are going to pan out. Bacara? No Bacara?

Still no word.

Until I hear this:

“Bruce wants to meet the baby.”

***

Bruce Weber is an old-salt who wears a black bandana and still shoots on a medium format film camera. The man has taken some of the most famous fashion photographs—of the guys and girls you know by first name basis: Kate, Johnny, Brad, and that 2008 supermodel sleepover photo you’ve seen disseminated across Tumblr and Instagram with a million repins.

He takes the kind of photographs you can look at time and again, and always find something new—as is often the case with good works of art. He takes the kind of photographs you dream of being in, because he, in many cases, gets life out of the way and into the photo.

He’s not someone you say “No, thanks” to.

So I marched my perspiring self over to the tent. No makeup. No expectations. In ripped Hudson jeans, camo-Nike sneakers that make my feet look huge, and a ten-year-old Forever 21 tee so thrashed that tattoo #2 (the one my parents still don’t know about) is visible.

I stick my hand out, introduce myself, and take a seat, less excited to meet Bruce and more thankful that my baby is the gateway to a place to rest.

PR folks, a gaggle of female models, the Art Director and a few other women swoon, as women are wont to do when in proximity of a chubby-cheeked, rosy-hued baby.

But Bruce doesn’t swoon. He simply turns to his assistant and asks, “Do we have any black and white with us?”

With that, one young man goes off in search of film and a whole team of assistants appears—someone with a bounce, another with multiple cameras, and a guy with a light meter. And before I know it, it’s me, baby, daddy, and Bruce Weber in a parking lot by the Pacific taking our very first family portrait.

As Bruce offers suggestions (kiss her toes, watch your nose, turn toward me) and clicks away, I lose all sense of self-consciousness, the sticky state of my face, my general disrepair and often consuming fear of the camera. I feel loose and carefree.

Bruce has somehow propelled me back into my youth in order to capture the vibrancy of my present. And though the photos won’t be perfect, and they won’t be loved by the world, I can only hope I look as real and alive as 20-year-old Leo.

It’s only later, back at the Bacara, that I realize I haven’t shaved my armpits in three days.

Photos courtesy of Bruce Weber

Read more:
On “Je Ne Sais Quoi” and Louche-Baggery
The New Art of Fashion XX
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