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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 …
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge; photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch