Pieter Estersohn

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Photographer Pieter Estersohn has shot for every A-list glossy magazine going, but has most often specialized in shooting interiors for the likes of Architectural Digest and Elle Décor. He has actually done all of our jobs because in addition to photography, he started out writing interviews for Interview magazine at the tender age of 19. Now that he has a son, his life has changed in that he travels and works less and he seems to be at genuine peace with that. We loved his Gramercy Park-meets-Paris-Bohemian apartment, and for us, having seen literally hundreds of New York apartments, it’s rare that we fall for one so completely.

I was very interested in your website where you have your life divided into four phases. I tried to look at my life like that and it just seemed blurred – I thought golly, how does he organize his life like that?

Oh, remind me, what are the four phases? God … I did it ten years ago, I can’t remember! It’s called obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Artwork by Peter’s son Elio covers the staircase walls.
More artwork by Elio.
Looking beyond the front door of Pieter’s apartment.
Peter’s bedroom. The English 1820s tester bed was purchased by Pieter when he was 15 years old. Challis bed hangings from the 1940s drape Pieter’s bed.
L. to r.: A painting by Pieter’s mother, Betty Estersohn, hangs on the wall next to Pieter’s four-poster bed. ; The circa-1920 bronze and glass door was salvaged from Grand Central Station.
A flat screen television hangs above a vintage George Nelson bureau in Pieter’s bedroom.

Well, I think you have divided it into your youth, your adolescence when you were collecting photographs and going to university in Paris, then working as a fashion photographer, then this phase, what you are doing now.

Well, I think I took the paradigm of photography. But my background is collecting photography and I started out when I was 15.

What was the first photograph you purchased?

I think [Irving] Penn, a portrait of Mary Jane Russell from 1949.

A photo that Pieter took of Charlotte Moss is taped to the bronze door leading to the hallway. This photo now graces the cover of her new book, A Flair for Living.
L. to r.:The main hall is filled with a mix of Pieter’s work and vintage frames holding artwork and postcards collected over the years.; The bulletin board, chock full of photos, notes and invitations.
The painting hanging on the rear wall is by Harold Cohen, an Abstract Expressionist who showed with the Leo Castelli gallery. He was a friend of Pieter’s mother, Betty, who was also a painter.
Peeking through the window into the main living space.
Antique Egyptian glass and bronze mosque fixtures hang from the skylight.
The bright orange rocker is a bold contrast to the otherwise subtle colors of the main living space.
L. to r.:A sketch of Pieter by Mark Beard, in preparation for a future oil portrait of Pieter.; Pieter fell in love with this Egyptian mouchararby cabinet that he spotted at a Pier antique show. It was already sold so he tracked down the buyer and traded a photograph for the piece.
A photo by Pieter hangs above finger paintings by Elio. Nearby, Pieter perches on his kitchen counter.
Yes, there is a yellow rubber duck in there — somewhere.
A 1940s French chandelier hangs front and center in the master bath. The sink was fashioned from a 19th century Turkish marble cistern.

I have to say for a 15 year old, even knowing about Irving Penn is peculiar…

Well, my mom was a painter. We always had a darkroom in the house and I went to high school out in California, so there was a very strong history and culture of photography in San Francisco in the ….ohhh the 70s … [laughs] oh my God! But you know like when I was ten, we had Diane Arbus’ book in the house and I used obsess on these images, so I guess it was just exposure. And as an only child, I traveled. My parents would just pick me up and travel, so I went to Europe a lot. Exposure. I’m starting to do the same thing with my son, not necessarily teach but just expose kids … he can come to his own conclusions.

I think that might be the only way to learn, in the end.

Absolutely, it’s experiential …

Why did you choose to go to the Sorbonne?

The Sorbonne had a very good exchange program. The first two years [there] I worked for Andy Warhol, for Interview, and I did all the interviews with a lot of great photographers like Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

The bookshelves, designed by Pieter, were inspired by Brancusi’s ‘Endless Column’. Baskets filled with Elio’s toys are tucked behind a Egyptian wood frame hanging on an easel that Pieter found in the Marché Aux Puces in Paris.
Another view of the Brancusi inspired bookcases in the main living room. The coffee table is by Paul McCobb.
A cabinet by Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand holds dishes in the open kitchen. On the right is a print by Stuart Davies.
A set of French Art Deco chairs upholstered in cowhide surround a pair of tables by Andre Arbus.
Superman at rest.
A photo of Pieter and his dad next to a vintage postcard of Pieter’s apartment building, originally a hotel.

Tell me about your first interview. How nervous were you?

It was exactly like this. It was Louise Dahl-Wolfe. She was this sweet little old lady in this little farmhouse with her husband and was basically undiscovered at that point. The formula for Interview magazine sort of came down through Andy Warhol, which was show up with your tape recorder and talking about your coffee cup. It got into some very banal stuff …

Sometimes banality can be quite revealing, at least that’s what we have found.

Well, it’s in the edit.

I can’t remember where I read it but it was a well-known photographer saying that he takes photographs to see what things look like but it occurred to me that the more experienced you get the more you can visualize it beforehand. Does it then become stale?

No, for me this is one of the biggest lessons. You can micromanage so much and there’s the element of, it’s going to be pouring rain,’ or somebody is going to show up with a broken arm or in a crappy mood … or the camera breaks … it never stops being a challenge.

L. to r.:More toys. ; More work by artist and son, Elio.
The spiral stair is by Orion Metalworks. The walls are covered in pale travertine marble.
The downstairs office/playroom. Hanging on the wall behind the Serge Mouille Lamps is print of Elio is by Adam Fuss. The pillow is by Murakami.
Another view of the spiral staircase leading to the upstairs living space.
Looking across the downstairs office into Elio’s bedroom.
L. to r.: A hand-carved oak door by Wharton Esherick from David Rago leads into Elio’s bedroom. ; Pieter designed floor to ceiling closets to conceal storage in the downstairs office/playroom.

Susan Sontag views photography essentially as an aggressive act. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Yeah, there’s definitely … like when you know you have the shot … I’ve never verbalized this … but there’s a little check that goes off: Got it! … because you’re sometimes in a very tumultuous process to get the image.

How do you feel about the idealization of the world, which is something that is leveled at fashion photography?

It’s a constant [sighs heavily] … dialogue I have with myself. When I’m shooting 16-year old models who are like 5′ 10″ and 105 pounds and then they’re even retouched afterwards … I do feel to a certain extent that you’re creating a disservice. And even as a parent I sort of feel more strongly about it.

I’ve been on a few fashion shoots and they were about the most boring experiences of my life.

Well all shoots are kind of boring. I mean there’s moments where things are completely chaotic and people running around and the light’s going … something in nature is going to occur, the sun’s going to come out, a car is coming, it’s going to rain … and then there’s times which are excruciatingly boring … especially, like, advertising.

The walls of Elio’s room are covered with a mural made from photographs Pieter took of a Palace bedroom in India where he was living while working on an assignment.
The walls of Elio’s room are covered with a mural made from photographs Pieter took of a Palace bedroom in India where he was living while working on an assignment.
Elio’s room. The window treatments were made out of vintage saris by Lisa Corti.
Dinosaurs keeping watch in Elio’s room.

How do you organize your life now that you have a child?

Much less traveling. When he’s not in school he comes with me on shoots. There’s a three-week job that came in for me in California and normally I’d be like, yes! But now I said, I’ll take four days.

Well, it’s probably an interesting experience for you being a father because you’ve talked about being so obsessive-compulsive and you can’t be that way with children.

It is the ultimate exercise in letting go of that craziness!

Do you think in some ways the need for order lies behind the artistic impulse?

Hmm … good question. I was just reading a phenomenal synopsis of this book of the man who started the Theosaurus, Roget, and at a very, very young age he started grouping things together and organizing his universe and … you know this bookcase—it’s not arbitrary where the books are. Everything is ordered … yes it’s insane!

Looking north from the terrace.
Another view from the terrace towards the splendid turn-of-the-century buildings on the eastern side of Gramercy Park.
A view of Gramercy Park from Peter’s terrace.
Elio’s truck, tucked into a corner of the terrace.

I know someone who has their books organized by the Dewey Decimal System, well they have someone who does it for them…

In their house? God! I love that! I find that soo sexy, that’s a turn on for me … the gall of somebody proposing that to them. It could be a New Yorker cartoon … you know! [much laughter]

Yeah! ‘You might have a flat screen TV but we have the Dewey Decimal System…’

How far can this go in New York?! You must see, like, insane things! I mean I do too …

Weell …

— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch

Pieter and Elio horsing around.

And making their “model” faces.

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