This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
At first glance you might think that Pierre Winther's pictures are stills from the movie set of some dark, twisted movie that you don't really understand but still quite like. You wouldn't be completely off mark; these mesmerising images are meticulously planned out and put together, often playing out whole plots in a single frame. Throughout his career, Winther has been responsible for some of the most iconic advertising campaigns for brands like Levi's, Diesel and Dunhill, been a regular contributor to The Face and Rolling Stone and has made music videos for Björk, INXS and the Beastie Boys. His new book, Nothing Beats Reality, (teNeues, 2015) is a compilation of some of his best work – an avant-garde tornado from a conceptualist who has been pushing the boundaries of photography for the last quarter of a century.
I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with him in Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, where we climbed all over the really expensive sets and chatted about his new book.
Nothing Beats Realityis your first book. How come you only did you decided to release one now?
There was always something distracting me. But I felt that now was the time to put together some choice picks of what I've done for the last 25 years. This isn't even the tip of the iceberg, though. I've already started working on the second book, which is all my original polaroids, drawings and sketches.
How did you choose the photographs for this book?
The idea for the book was to give people the feeling that it's actually five or six parallel stories going on at the same time – more like a film. It's meant to give you a feeling that you're entering stories where you can decide how they end. That's why you see characters reappear. I edited it this way to create a cinematic narrative between the stories.
You're a photographer, conceptual artist, creative director and director. How would you label yourself?
This has been an issue for 25 years. I'm standing with a foot in two camps. I always see my commercial projects as art projects with a logo in the end. But the art world would say I did this project for a client, so it's not really art. While the commercial world would say its a little bit too artistic.
This must have worked in your favour?
Totally. If clients see that my pictures are good enough for an auction house then they realise my campaign pictures must be really good. I always tell clients, we should try and create pictures of such a high standard that you want to have them hanging on your wall after. That's my goal when I start on a project.
So how does your work transcend commercial photography to art?
I think that I've always been there, that's the thing. I've always seen myself as more of an artist. But I realised quite early on that If I want to achieve the pictures that I have in my mind, I needed someone to pay for it. So I went to these clients and I sold them my ideas and that's how they became my benefactors. Hardly any of my things are actually commissioned work by agencies.
How many people do you have on set during these sorts of productions?
It's the same amount as if you're doing a large commercial production – 50 - 70 people on set maybe. But that's when I combine stills and film. It's a way to combine everything because my still pictures sort of look like films. I work a lot with the cameraman that shot The Hurtlocker.
That's a lot of people to look after, have things ever gone wrong?
We spend a lot of time planning the shoots so actually I don't think there has ever been a situation like that – touch wood. One time, we did a shoot for Nike with Dirk Nowitzki in the Mohave desert. It involved a Huey helicopter flown by the guy who flew the plane in The Matrix. The scene was meant to be shot in two stages, one where he's just holding onto a ladder whilst the helicopter was still on the ground, and then to get that flying feeling we had him hanging on a crane with big mattresses underneath. He was holding onto the ladder and the helicopter flew 15 metres up into the air. Suddenly Dirk Nowitzki, Germany's top basketball player, is hanging under a chopper 15 meters up in the sky. You can imagine there were some pretty scared faces. He thought it was great fun, though.
Quite a few of your pictures are pretty radical. The shark image for example…
Every time I talk about that picture and how we did it, I get grief. The original press release for it explained that we were 25 people in the water – safety divers etc. We tranquillised the shark and had a stunt man from LA riding it. But suddenly the world turned on us – how could we use animals to promote jeans? At that time, we had tons of faxes from people complaining about it. I really want to bring it up again because people think that this was just done on computers, but there was no photoshop in 1992.
How do you think the industry has changed since then?
People have become much more aware of what big brands are doing and what they do to promote themselves. They have to be more politically and ethically correct.
Do you have a process for your ideas and concepts?
It all starts with an idea – there's no name on this idea, no brand or anything. I just work it out from scratch. Then I have my wall and I build up the concept; this is what it's all about. Then if I'm not finished with it, I just pack it away, photograph everything so I have a digital record, then I can come back to it.
For the Levi's shark image, for instance, the only magazine I really liked to read at the time was National Geographic. There was one article about sharks and another about bull riding and that's how the idea came together. I never really looked at any of the fashion magazines, and didn't really read The Face when I was shooting for them because I think you get subconsciously inspired. I'm seeking inspiration from real life and that' s why I chose the title for the book, Nothing Beats Reality.
For your next project you're looking to shoot here in Babelsberg Studios, right?
Yeah, this project is a combination of many things, but it's more of a social experiment. I want to build up a set, a complete little world, a totally controlled environment in a giant box. I can't tell you exactly what it's about but it's about how we perceive each other and how we can be very weak in our judgements.
In the end, it's supposed to make you think a bit about how you are.
I create the candy, I make an interesting visual world that people can get sucked into, but when you're finally inside, it's a bit like I closed the door behind you. Of course I wont take people hostage, but I want to deliver a message in an eye-catching way. That's the same with many of my projects – each is eye-candy in its own different way.