Ros Brennan chats to New York photographer Jonathan Leder about the racy exhibition and book that Emily Ratajkowski famously slammed as a 'violation
Emily Ratajkowski has a figure that sends both men and women into a stupor. Feminine curves, supple lips, an olive complexion and an impossibly toned core; she has an extra-terrestrial sex appeal that sizzles off the page, and she damn well knows how to use it. While the model-turned actress' career is well and truly in the clutches of Hollywood, with titles such as Gone Girl and Entourage under her belt, one of her early art-house erotica shoots is coming back to haunt her, and she's not happy about it.
Fashion photographer Jonathan Leder's latest exhibition POLAROIDS at New York's Castor Gallery features dozens of racy portraits of Ratajkowski, taken in 2012 before she hit the big time. The exhibition coincides with the release of Leder's book, Leder / Ratajkowski Collector's Edition featuring 71 scantily clad and nude Polaroids from the infamous 2012 shoot.
Ratajkowski lashed out at the book on Twitter, in a post which is still pinned to the top of her feed, saying, "I've been resisting speaking publicly on the recently released photos by Jonathan Leder to avoid giving him publicity," she tweeted on Wednesday. "But I've had enough ... This book and the images within them are a violation."
"5 out of the now 100s of released photos were used for what they were intended: an artful magazine shoot back in 2012," she says. "These photos being used w/out my permission is an example of exactly the opposite of what I stand for: women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies."
Ratajkowski's lawyers have since issued a cease and desist order in an effort to shut-down the exhibition at Castor Gallery. Jonathan Leder says any claims of a violation are 'ridiculous and absurd'. He shares his side of the story here.
How did the shoot come about?
Back in April of 2012, I received an email from a booker I knew at Ford telling me that she had this great girl named Emily she wanted me to shoot. She had sent a link to the package which included various swimsuit shots.
It was clear that this girl had something special, she had a great figure, and a more real girl look, than some of the typical NY runway models I tend to stay away from. Also, since I always enjoyed working with Ford, I decided to propose her to a couple magazines I was shooting for at the time. One of these publications, a Swedish magazine named Darius, was interested and basically gave me free creative freedom to shoot whatever I wanted.
Back then, I was shooting a lot of Polaroids, almost exclusively Polaroids, so I explained to Ford that I didn't have a budget, but if she would fly herself to NY and come to Woodstock, I would shoot Polaroids on her, and probably get them published in Darius.
Ford quickly agreed and we set a date for the shoot, May 25 and 26 2012. Emily flew herself all the way from Los Angeles to NYC, and then took a Trailways bus to Woodstock, where I picked her up on the afternoon of the 25th. (I want to be clear on that, because since her 'tweets' it sort of sounded as if this shoot was some sort accidental occurrence, that she was somehow confused about, when nothing could be further from the truth.)
So, I drove over to the town green, where the bus stops, and it was a lovely warm May afternoon and that is when I met Emily. She was nice, polite, more petite than I had imagined, very friendly and well spoken. She seemed pleased to meet me and excited to work together. She said she was a huge fan of my work and loved Polaroids.
Tell me what went down that night?
We drove back to the house, I cooked a light dinner, and we started to get ready to shoot. In terms of clothing I just had some odds and ends of things lying around. Some vintage Givenchy and Kiki pieces from other shoots. I wasn't too concerned about the clothing since part of the brief with Ford was that she would be fairly exposed.
I would say that within 30 minutes of taking the first Polaroids, she was naked. I had worked with over 500 models by that point in my career, and I can tell you that Emily Ratajkowski was one of the most comfortable models I had ever worked with in terms of her body. She was neither shy nor self-conscious in any way. To say she enjoyed being naked is an understatement. I don't know if it empowered her, or she enjoyed the attention, but I can say, out of the 100 or so Polaroids we shot those two nights, only in a handful does she have clothes on.
In any case, it was a great shoot. I mean a fun shoot. We had great time, good conversation, worked late into the night. We had a lot of discussions about music, art, the industry, the creative process. She was very pleasant to speak with, and very intelligent and well spoken , and cultured. That, more than anything in my opinion, set her apart from so many other ' models'.
The pictures we did those two nights came about extremely naturally. Very easy going. Sometimes on a shoot things feel a bit forced and you are searching for the next shot. Not in this case. Not at all. That was just two people doing a photoshoot the way it should be done. She got to perform, and I recorded it on film.
.She was neither shy nor self-conscious in any way. To say she enjoyed being naked is an understatement
Was she happy with the photos after the shoot?
Yes, very happy. She was the one who reached out to me in 2012, I guess at that point in her career her agency thought shooting with me would benefit her career.
Emily has famously called your book a 'violation'. Why do you think Emily is publicly denouncing the shoot now?
My guess is that she was under a lot of social and industry pressure to respond. Sadly,
our country has very polarised views about sex and nudity and women. Emily is undoubtedly a very intelligent young woman, who used her sex appeal to launch her career. Now, however, it is that very sex appeal which is holding her back from being taken more seriously as an actress. So, at this point in her career, now established as a household name, she wants to try to disown the very thing that caused her to become famous. I think it is very understandable. I also think it is very sad we live in a society where a woman cannot be both a sex symbol, and taken seriously as an actress, or human being for that matter.
Regarding her recent tweets, I don't have much to say. I think it would have been smarter for her to get behind the photos and embrace them. I know many many people love these photos and in my personal opinion, many of them are very beautiful. The people that love these photos are her fans. She looks great, and it was a special moment in time. In the end, the photos are very human, and I think that is what people respond to.
There are lots of articles claiming that publishing the book without Emily's permission is tantamount of the extreme objectification of women, what are your thoughts on this?
That's just ridiculous and absurd.
Your exhibition opened recently in NYC, what has been the reaction so far? There were whispers of feminist protesters turning up, did this happen?
The reaction was great! Were there protesters? No. Hardly. I mean not at all. The opening went very well. Good crowd and many people were genuinely enthusiastic about the photos. Quite a few women of different ages came up to me and were really enamoured with the photos. It was flattering.
Your images often pre-date the fame of your celebrity subjects, including Emily and Allie Leggett. Do you prefer to work with models who are lesser known to the public? Why?
I have always preferred to work with lesser known models. Something about working with the same model everyone else is shooting is a bit of a turnoff. I guess I prefer to take a more original direction. I really do prefer to work with someone unknown if possible. If they become famous later, sure that's great, but I don't want to be just following a trend. I prefer a challenge.
Why are you so interested in Polaroids?
The interesting thing about working in Polaroid is the fact that each frame is a one of a kind object. Something that can never be reproduced. It is different than having a negative, that you can make countless prints of. It is a tactile object in and of itself. It is also very beautiful in a way that normal film cannot compare to.
After this exhibition, what else can we expect from you in 2017?
Hopefully some more interesting books and a film.
POLAROIDS by Jonathan Leder is showing at New York's Castor Gallery till 25th February 2017, castorgallery.com