The son of an art-director-turned-photographer and the man behind the most recognizable portraits of the last decade, Ezra Petronio now wanders further outside of the boundary lines. In what seems like a perfectly organic evolution, the Paris-based Creative Director & Photographer finds himself being invited to the pages of various titles and exploring new visual language to accompany his signature style that has been a long standing staple at SELF SERVICE. As humble as he is methodical, one can’t help but be intrigued by the driving force that propels him through his entire creative process.
Portrait portfolio and animations courtesy of Ezra Petronio / Art Partner licensing for Models.com
Christopher Michael: How early did you begin playing with photography?
Ezra Petronio: It started quite early. In my early days of high school, I used to take a lot of pictures. I actually used to do a lot of summer internships in a photo lab called Picto, which is in Paris, and is one of the oldest in the world. I worked with a master printer named Pierre Gasmann, who was Man Ray’s printer. I never had any intention of developing that beyond mere passion, but I did learn all of the steps of traditional photography, which was a lot of fun. I also learned, during those days, about the relationship between the photographer and the printer, and how the photographer captures the moment, and how the printer reveals it. The kind of relationship you have today with digital, and your digital printer. My father was a photographer, too. I don’t want to say that it disappeared, but it became quite secondary as I started my graphic design and art direction career, though I always kept it in mind. Many of the traditional art directors that I worked with were also people who all used cameras along with the tools, be it illustration, typography, etc. Those were all things that we were not supposed to master, but play with and understand. When we started this Polaroid project, about 15 years ago, it was as a way to document all of the people that came through the magazine — the richness of personality and creative talent that made up all of the people around us at the time. There were no digital cameras then that were good enough, and there was a photographer called Mondino who said, “Listen, why don’t you just shoot it?” I was quite inspired by Andy Warhol — by all of his photography and social documentation at the time, and the way he used a Big Shot camera to prepare his portraits for silk screens and all that stuff. So we inquired, and we found a Big Shot which has the particularity of having a fixed frame, which is why all of the portraits that were done in the past 12 years were done exactly the same way.
CM: And you just stayed with it…
EP: Year after year, I found great pleasure in it, but also, you start to understand the facial features of people. People of all kinds of ages and appearances, be it a famous actor or a very insecure musician, I’ve always managed to get these people at ease and to capture something about them that they, in turn, feel comfortable. I kind of learned to master a certain type of portrait technique. I find beauty in every person, and everyone has the perfect angle that is best for them. I’ve done at least 2,000 portraits, and after awhile, you get to know the person in a short time and find that angle. That’s something I’ve learned with a lot of practice over the past several years, and with the joy and pleasure of finding beauty in everyone. A certain type of model that I find strong, the girls I photograph, regardless of being younger or older, they have a certain kind of strength to them. Organically, I’ve been offered a job here and there, and, over the last year, I basically just opened up to new magazines and it’s blossoming right now.
CM: So, it was quite natural the decision to work outside of the parameters of Self Service, in terms of your photography, and begin contributing to other publications. Do you feel there is any sort of cross over from your work as an art director into your photography?
EP: Absolutely. Being an art director and being behind photographers all these years, you have to, of course, inform them of how you want the clothes to be, and understand the product and props and overall layout, and all of that has really given me a certain kind of strength in my work as a photographer, which has been very interesting.
Also, what was nice was when other people started asking me to shoot. I have a lot of humility and respect. Everyone has a craft, so I really had to take it one step at a time to not use my notoriety to impose myself in photography. It had to come with credibility. So, when Katie Grand asked me to work for LOVE or Melanie Ward asked me to shoot something with her, it was really wonderful, because these are people that I really respect and have different personalities, and found a certain relevance in what I was doing, which was, of course, quite exciting. Be it portraits Karl [Templer] asked me to shoot for Interview or another kind of shoot, it all meant a lot to me, and I’ve been asked to do it more and more.
CM: Let’s step back for a second. Your father was also an art director, was he not?
EP: Yes, he was an art director for the New York Times as well as different agencies. I was taken on shoots quite often very early on — the Kenzo shoots in the 80s, with Paolo Roversi, Patrick Demarchelier, Hans Feurer, Gilles Bensimon — and I got to see how they would work. In the same sense that a young butcher will follow the steps of his father, in a way, I did learn that way a lot, too.
CM: What was your father’s relationship with photography? You’ve mentioned that he worked with the medium, as well.
EP: It blossomed once he stopped art direction, later on in his career. He was more serious about photography for a longer period of time, on a consistent basis. I was really nurtured in photography.
CM: He pursued photography more in depth once he quit art direction. You are obviously not quitting art direction, right?
EP: No, I’m keeping my agency. Absolutely. That’s the balance I have, really developing that and bringing my creative, strategic expertise to clients. I do make a very big difference between the two. I won’t be choosing myself or commissioning myself to do a job for one of my own clients. You have to keep that integrity, because, if not, that becomes an unhealthy situation. As an art director, I’m behind the photographer when we do a campaign. I prepare the context for the talent to perform something, and I’m there to help the photographer navigate what to shoot. I need that support myself, as well, as a photographer, when I’m in that role.
CM: In the past several years, there has been constant talk about the stylist playing the role of stylist and art director on a shoot, which differs from years past, where that role was certainly played more by the photographer. Which, to me, makes your situation quite interesting, as a photographer with a very relevant background as an art director.
EP: Absolutely. That was not the case when my dad would talk about how he used to work with Richard Avedon on certain jobs. Sometimes, you would just have a conversation with the photographer on the phone, and say what they would want. I mean, maybe you would even do a little sketch, because there wasn’t a fax machine or anything. A conversation would be sufficient sometimes, but there was also a lot of respect. I remember photographers would send over contact sheets to make these edits, and that doesn’t necessarily happen today. There was a real sense of everyone’s complimentary talents to the process of image making. This is also something that you develop over time. It’s not something you get right away. I’ve developed that as an art director, with the photographers I’ve worked with over time — like David Sims, Juergen Teller, Inez & Vinoodh, Mario Sorrenti, and Mert & Marcus. Years and years of shoots, where you develop a relationship of trust. It’s a kind of relationship, so, naturally, there is always the question of trust, and I’ve always had that respect for photographers as an art director, to not suffocate the photographer. You create a very strong concept and do all of the preparatory strategic work with the client, leading up to the shoot, and at that point you have to give the photographer the creative space to get obsessed and be protected and have their own process. Today, even myself as a photographer, I do feel certain pressure on certain shoots with certain magazines to develop a certain amount of pictures, and quickly, with fashion that you don’t always understand. It can be quite challenging. The more I take pictures, the more it has helped me understand the photographers I work with even better, and the pressure they are under, and how they are, in a way, more by themselves. They have to find that picture, and, at certain moments, there is a lot of solitude involved. You have to be very strong when there are twenty people around you, watching your screens as each shot comes up. In the past, you had trust in the photographer, because you only had Polaroids and contact sheets. Nobody would dare tell you to do it this way or that way. Today, you have three or four screens on set, and everyone sees the slightest move. There is no more intimacy in that way.
CM: Do you work that way, with the screens exposed for all to watch while you work? Or are they more off to the side, hidden behind some private area?
EP: I control it a bit. They are not always there. I do bring them in and out. One of the ways I work is that I like to involve the model a lot in creating the story as opposed to just being there and being told what to do. For me, it’s more successful that way, when you’re able to get him or her involved, and find more of themselves. After we are finished, I will go through the edit with the team, but throughout, it’s really in and out.
CM: It’s quite fascinating to observe that process, and how protected some prefer to work compared to others. Like you said, it can be quite disruptive to have one to five opinions every three frames.
EP: Of course. You are sharing sketches of something, and it can be quite frustrating exploring something when you already have people talking about how they would crop the image this way or the other. You find yourself saying, “Wait a minute! I’ve not even started yet.”
CM: I think that it’s really nice and interesting that you include the model in the process of building out the story and making the edit.
EP: Oh, for sure. In all of the campaigns I’ve done as an art director, I always have a moodboard created for the model. It’s quite hard being a model, especially for these young girls. There can be a lack of confidence. I’m not talking about supermodels and the ones that you see in this portfolio, who have such expertise that they can really deliver. Even these girls want that. I remember, one time, on a Chloé campaign, Raquel Zimmermann was going through everything in great detail, and all of the words to really grasp the character she was meant to be playing. That’s my only frustration as an art director, at times, is when the photographer has too much distance from the model, because then you’re not able to create that magic that is going to make the picture special. That is my preference. Some people really like that distance or that coldness. If you look at this edit of images that we’ve included here, for me, they are all very strong characters, and you get a lot of strength out of each one of them in the pictures. That comes back to my early portrait experience. You can make someone feel very confident and beautiful inside, and that will capture on film. This is my personal taste with models — the strength and character, championing the emancipation. There is nothing more beautiful than the process of spending time speaking to them and creating that comfort space. They feel beautiful and special, and as though they are participating in something.
CM: What is your relationship with the people who spend less time in front of the camera, like the designers included here, for example?
EP: I like engaging characters. I like bringing out that inner deviant. Sensuality. The innate sense of strong character, personality and self confidence. All of that is something that you can get out of most people, even if they are not models. I’m not sure if I answered your question…
CM: It’s okay. It’s just obviously going to be a different experience photographing someone whose job it is to be in front of the camera, versus those whose job is something entirely different. Portraits are amongst the most intimate forms of photography, so you must be engaging in some sort of connection and personal experience with those people, as well.
EP: Definitely. I think it’s also because I had developed that earlier on, with many of these girls. I was not even seen as a photographer when I started taking pictures. I was seen as the art director who was also taking pictures. So, there was a comfort level and a level of trust that was there. It wasn’t a situation where I was some intimidating, big photographer. I approach models the same as anyone I photograph, which is just through speaking. I do a lot of talking, even if it’s someone I’ve shot several times. I’m always engaging in a conversation with them, because it’s important to really create that confidence and sense of safety to open up. With the bigger girls, you find them trying to find what it is I want to pull out of them, because it’s interesting for them, as well. Whether it’s pure fashion or theatre or playing a character in a movie, the model always has to dominate the situation and overcome the character. It’s that inner soul, which is what makes it more difficult working with younger girls, because they don’t always have that spark yet. Without those years of experience, they are not always going to understand what you’re asking them to do. Every day of shooting is a different conversation. I shot two days with the same model recently, and the first day was amazing, but the second day was a lot more work, just because she wasn’t in the same space as she was the day prior. Sometimes it takes that extra step to pull out that something more. It’s a very interesting process.
CM: It’s funny, because you’re shooting today, but a lot of what you’re saying is so reminiscent of the conversations you hear with teams about shoots in the 90s. So, it’s interesting to hear about that experience taking place today. There tends to be more of the distance you mentioned earlier, which really demotes the girl to a mannequin, rather than being an actual model. It’s nice to hear that this collaboration is such a big part of your photographic process.
EP: Absolutely. It’s also hard for young photographers, as well. There is a lot of pressure, and it’s hard for them to do their job properly as a new photographer and to be able to get that out of a girl who may be a little green or insecure, and to figure out how to get what you need from her. Everyone is working at a certain pace, and all of that contributes to a compromise in work sometimes, which you see in the work of both new and established photographers. I grew up really observing this process before I ever did it professionally myself, and I’ve been very fortunate to have that experience, because it really helps navigate those issues along the way.
CM: You were mentioning, in a recent conversation during the Paris collections, that some of the stories you were working on were very different than what we had seen in your work thus far. Is that sort of experimentation in your work something you plan on continuing with the different magazines you’ve started shooting for now?
EP: Well, I think I have to do both. Not everyone knows my work. Perhaps they know some of the pictures, but not my entire body of work. So, I think it’s important to affirm and master my Self Service style, because that is, of course, a part of why people are asking me to shoot. At the same time, I naturally want to try out other techniques and explore things along the way. I did that story for LOVE with Anja and Comme des Garçons. That was slightly different, but there were certain things that were the same in my previous work. I think a good Ezra picture is a stunning, confident woman who looks in control of what she’s doing, despite the role or character she’s playing. I need the woman to not be an object, but to appear in control and stunning. That, for me, is what makes a great fashion picture.
CM: The portraits and the very recognizable Ezra, Self Service sort of image, is that something you will keep exclusive to Self Service, or is that something you are willing to shoot for other magazines, as well?
EP: That’s what I am, as well, and I have to embrace that, for sure, and that’s what some people want me to do. So, I will, of course, continue to do that. It’s just about opening up to more possibilities and ways of doing that, but that’s something that’s a part of my signature. If I were to change all of a sudden, that would be slightly confusing.