Luis Sanchis creates photographs that are hard to place, hard to pin down. Not quite of this earth and not quite of any era. They first found a home in the style bibles of the late 1990s: The Face and Arena. Prestigious commercial commissions followed from the likes of Gucci and Nike. Luis recently released an eponymous monograph of his work. Searing landscapes sit beside searing portraits. Whether it is Kate Moss or Daft Punk or an anonymous far off figure, the pictures are all full of the gravity and strange glamour that form the signature of Luis Sanchis.
Interview JOHN WILLIAM Photography LUIS SANCHIS
Beauty Papers: How is it in New York this morning?
Luis Sanchis: It’s alright, it’s raining. It’s weird weather. But it’s good, it’s cool. I’ve been here for so long that it’s my home.
BP: It was 1994 you moved to New York?
LS: Yeah I visited a couple of years earlier but then I moved in 1994.
BP: Were you already shooting before you moved to New York?
LS: No. I think I was assisting at that time. I moved in 94’, by the end of 95’ I had a portfolio and I had an agent. So in the meantime I’d do different jobs, you know, to survive.
BP: How long do you think it took for you to find that style that is unmistakably yours?
LS: I think I still am looking for it. [Both laugh] I don’t know, I used to paint. I used to go to this school in Madrid, it was a private school, very, very old, in the centre of Madrid. It was beautiful, I don’t know if it’s still around. I kept painting, and I remember that my teacher, he was a very old man and he’d say “You have something that is hard to have. You have your own style, your own way of doing it, and that’s the most important thing.”
I guess then photography was the next thing. I experimented a lot, made a lot of mistakes and tried out things you are not supposed to do – in the darkroom – like different ways of exposing the film. In the beginning you are inspired by your masters or your heroes, but eventually you find your way. I guess it comes naturally.
BP: I was going to ask you about the darkroom. In your pictures reality feels … manipulated. But a lot of the photographs come from a pre-digital world.
LS: Yes. Well I wouldn’t call it manipulated. I would call it more experimentation. In the nineties people used to tell me “when you shoot in the studio it looks like location and when you shoot on location it looks like a studio!”
I would be in Thailand in a bus stop during the monsoon… this beautiful light, the rain… and then I’m like okay, how can I reproduce this in the studio? And I really don’t know, but somehow you try things and then it happens and you find a way of doing some lighting that looks like you are on location but you’re in the studio. I wouldn’t know how to explain it, because it’s not really manipulation. I have an idea and then I go and I do it. Also magic happens, I call it magic because you surprise yourself.
Back then, working in the darkroom you needed to be more manual, more organic, more analogue. Now it’s different, when you paint now it’s with the tablet and some people are amazing with that. But it’s not the same as painting with your hands. The energy’s different. With computers, you’re more safe. You have a lot of more tools. In the darkroom, the way that we used to do things you couldn’t get two prints exactly the same. It was a lot of work sometimes, for one print.
BP: Do you shoot film and digital or have you kind of left analogue in the nineties?
LS: Currently I shoot more digital. Sometimes, if budget allows, I could shoot analogue. It was not too long ago a Japanese client wanted me to shoot a campaign on film and I was really happy but then when I started calling assistants nobody knew how to load the camera, because nobody’s used it for so many years! [Both laugh] I had to teach them how to load!
With film it’s like a record player. It sounds different, it sounds more organic. It doesn’t sound like a compressed file. I shot film until 2010, and it got really hard. There were no labs left in New York. So I found a way with digital which I’m really happy with. It looks very much like what I like. I used to hate it in the beginning. I was so many years shooting and printing. It can be difficult but when you find a way, it’s beautiful. So yeah, I’m cool with digital. [Both laugh]
“You know, there are a lot of interesting things going on, and people are doing things that are more extreme. But if you look at the ad campaigns now… I don’t know if the word is commercial, but in the nineties it was more intense. More risqué. Now it feels a little a bit safer.”
People used to think that I used computers with my analogue work, but it was all done in camera. The idea and the lighting is what made it different and look like something otherworldly. I did a shoot for The Face with Karen Elson and they called it ‘The Lake.’ We shot it in a tiny plastic toy pool, the ones you use in a garden for kids. It was maybe a metre by two metres. We put it in the studio with a carpet and water and a couple of lights and I shot the whole story there, and when they saw the photographs everybody thought that Karen was in this lake at night, or this huge swimming pool. I don’t know where it came from. I just wanted to do something interesting and I had very little money and I had this idea and was like okay, let’s try it. I had no idea how it was going to look, because that was the beginning.
BP: After putting together your book, what impression does it leave with you?
LS: Oh wow, that was the work of a whole year going through files. When the publisher approached me he was more interested in the work from The Face magazine, and the nineties, even though I didn’t start shooting until the end of ’96! I thought it would be nice to have a mix of old and new work. So he agreed. It’s very strange the feeling I’ve got towards my old work, because it doesn’t feel that long time ago, but there are a lot of memories and all of the people you have worked with over the years, the travelling, the adventures. It was kind of therapeutic in a way, but also it’s hard to go through all that stuff.
I’m very happy with the final result. For me it feels compact. You can see very clearly what I like, and what my direction is. I don’t feel like it’s very commercial, but for me it’s beautiful. It’s like I made a baby!
BP: When I look at the book, and your work… I feel like it’s hot and cold at the same time. Do you know what I mean?
LS: I don’t know, but it’s not the first time that somebody’s told me the same. I guess that’s a part of me. Part of me is hot, and part of me is cold. For me the photos have a lot of feeling and the colour has a lot of meaning because psychologically and emotionally colours affect you a lot. I like my work to be rich in colour, the mixture of the cool and the cold, the blues and the greens and cyans, and the reds and magentas and yellows. I like blacks. Some people like the blacks with more middle tones and to see more detail. For me, I the blackest black, like ink.
BP: In the book there are photographs that were originally commissioned for advertising. Talk to me about the relationship between your commercial and editorial work.
LS: They used to let me do my thing, and they’d trust me. So those pictures that are included in the book, they were my photos. I feel back in the nineties they were taking way more risks than now. Now it is more safe and there are more people involved.
BP: Would you ever define yourself as a fashion photographer?
LS: Not really, no. People from fashion used to say, “Oh your pictures are not fashion.” Everyone will say whatever they wanna say. For me, my pictures are my pictures. I can photograph fashion, or landscape, or documentary or sports, or whatever. They all have my signature in them.
A few years ago people were talking about ‘lifestyle photography.’ What is lifestyle photography? There are all of these terms people use, and they don’t know or understand what it means. Lifestyle photography? Every photo is lifestyle. [Laughs] I mean if you shoot Converse or you shoot an ice-cream, it’s lifestyle, right? I don’t know what all these expressions mean. I’ve been lucky in my career. I’ve shot celebrities, music, perfumes, sports, high fashion… lifestyle fashion, all kinds of things. For me, I never considered myself a fashion photographer.
BP: Have you got any advice for the next generation?
LS: For me, we are all so connected with social media and with the internet that we spend all the time on the phone or on the computer, looking at other peoples Instagram and what they’re doing, and not really enjoying the process of discovering and doing it yourself. Back in the early days I bought a camera and I carried the camera with me all the time, and I would take photos of things that caught my attention. I would take photos of my friends and I would experiment and do prints and find ways to shoot, shoot and shoot. It’s like a search, right? I feel that nowadays people do more research than search. Do it, go and do it, follow your heart. For me, that early experimentation and discovery is like new eyes, everything is fresh.
You’ve seen the movie Rumble Fish from Coppola? With Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke from the eighties? He shot it with a very low budget, because it was just after he went bankrupt. He wanted to do something experimental with very little money. When I watch Rumble Fish I see a lot of things there. I see German Expressionism, old James Dean movies, the Stewart Copeland soundtrack, rock and roll influences, punk. It’s filmed in black and white and nobody was doing black and white back in the eighties. I see the video art influence from Bill Viola and Nam Paik. But I don’t think he was doing it consciously. I think it was more just the things that he liked, the things that were inspiring him, in an organic way. Go and do stuff and try and find the magic and find your way. Whether you paint or you design, it’s good to look at the work of masters and learn from people that inspire you, and wanna be the best. All of that is great but I feel like nowadays we are too connected to all this stuff online. You know, you go up to a beach and you are taking photos of your food and your feet, and then you post it on Instagram. Are you really enjoying your vacation? [Laughs]
You can watch a lot of cooking shows but eventually you have to go and put your hands in the dirt and do it yourself, right? And maybe it tastes shit! I like cooking and I never look at recipes, and the funny thing is that I cook dishes that taste the same as they did back in Spain when I was a kid. I bet you that if I looked at a recipe and I followed every step, it would taste like shit [Laughs] because there’s some magic and some mystery in doing things yourself and experimenting and going there and feeling it. Just feeling, and put your heart in something more than your head.
Luis Sanchis by Luis Sanchis is available at Sturm & Drang