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Denis Piel by Xavier De Fenoyl



The Essential Denis Piel


By Ruth MacPherson

Last year, sitting in his office at Château de Padiès, his home in the South West of France, Denis Piel searched through image after image in his archive. Toward the end of 2012, Rizzoli published Moments, a retrospective of Piel’s photographic work covering the period 1979 to 2006. In the process of reviewing and selecting works for the book, a new narrative began to form in Piel’s mind, the result of which is Essence, a solo exhibition of work opening at ROVE Gallery London April 11th, presenting a wide selection of images drawn from Piel’s commercial work and personal projects. 

Rising to prominence in the 80s, Piel became famous for his cinematic approach to fashion photography, combining a narrative form of storytelling and a directorial approach. Working with models in the construction of a story, Piel sought to capture a “real” moment within a constructed reality. Piel’s approach imbued his fashion images of women with narrative; they are active, engaged in a life within and beyond the frame of the photograph. He sought to describe, to denote “real” women within his work; thinking, feeling, sensing and active. Through the use of the blind-field, life beyond the frame, the images, often sexualised, at times nude, convey a sensual quality. Sexuality is an aspect that is depicted, but it is that, an aspect not the raison d’être.

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Jen Yarrow Cooling Off, Mustique West Indies by Denis Piel

Piel is known for the sensuous connotations he brought to his images. This sensibility, a joy in, and an attendance to, the physical sensations of living, also suggests an experiential intelligence. All photography requires an intensity of observation, and within this body of work we see a scrutiny of some of the key elements of the fashion photograph; the face, the body, the garment and the location. It becomes apparent that Piel is playing with these formal aspects of the genre, distilling them, at times negating them. Sometimes filling the entire frame, body becomes landscape/location; sometimes printed at a monumental scale, sometimes small, intimate. Location pared down becomes elemental, almost abstracted, in Cooling Off 4, Mustique the location is simply light dappled water, in Man and Stone, New Mexico, the location is a primal stone landscape. When Piel shot the campaign that launched the Donna Karan brand in the mid-80s, location was the single formal aspect of traditional fashion photography to feature in the images; no model, no garment. 

In many respects, presence and absence play crucial roles in his work from “the presence of absence” through the use of cinematic framing, the use and negation of formal aspects of the fashion photograph to the exploration and celebration of seeing in the series Premier l’Oeil.  As a young man Piel lost his sight temporarily, not knowing at the time whether he would see again.  Of the senses, sight is the only one that cycles between being active and dormant, we see and we don’t see in regular cycles from blinking to sleep. But Piel is a man who has experienced ‘not seeing’ in a way that most of us will never experience. This fact, which has remained in many ways in the blind-field of Piel’s personal narrative, becomes key to unlocking and understanding some of his later work. Premier l’Oeil is a series of images shot over the period of a year, a document of the first thing that the photographer saw upon waking; as such, each image is a joyful exultation of sight regained each day. Sight is a reoccurring preoccupation of Piel’s; his first feature length film, Love is Blind, explores the idea that love is not dependent on sight, that it is quite literally blind. The film follows a newly wed couple, Margaret and Armand, both of whom are blind, over the course of the first year of their marriage. 

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Premier l'Oeil Hand by Denis Piel

Some of the most arresting images from the film derive from the emotional rawness of Armand who had never been taught to mask his emotions. The immediacy and transparency with which his emotional state is communicated enforces a kind of intimacy which many viewers may find uncomfortable. Disconcerting intimacy, in a slightly different guise, is also a feature of Piel’s FACESCAPE series in which individual faces are shot in extreme close up during interviews. Across the different contexts, the fashion images, Love is Blind, FACESCAPES, there is a desire for intimacy, the desire to know another person, to really see them, unclothed, raw, real. 

To date, FACESCAPES has taken place in three countries: France, China and Australia. Piel is keen to find essential common factors between people despite cultural differences. PLATESCAPES, a series which revolves around meals, food consumed, is a perfect example of Piel’s fascination with the basic elements of physical life which draw us all together, the common shared experiences. Likened to portraits, PLATESCAPES presents the viewer with close-up larger than life images of plates at the end of a meal; these images sit in contrast to much of Piel’s commercial work which sought to instigate desire--these are images of desire sated.  

A photograph is not like a line of text that unfolds in a linear way. In a photograph, many things can be happening simultaneously. A quality can be embraced and rejected at the same time, the positive and negative coexisting, both literally and metaphorically. And in many ways Essence, the exhibition, is like that too.

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Joanna Pacula, Laguna Beach, CA by Denis Piel


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Ruth MacPherson is a a writer and photographer, currently living and working in the South of France.

Essence, a solo show by photographer and film-maker Denis Piel is at ROVE Gallery, Lincoln House, 33 - 34 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN from April 11 to May 9 2013. Opening hours, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm and by appointment +44 (0) 7979 408 914.