Visionary photographer and designer, Harri Peccinotti, takes little credit for his successes, attributing them to a simple love of the camera and this beauty of the female form.
ts: Have you ever been considered a pornographic photographer?
hp: Well, I hope not! “My father, the pornographic photographer,” my son always says. He’s joking because he knows I’m not.
ts: Have you taken “sexy” photographs from the beginning? It feels like you’ve always had your set style.
hp: Only a small amount of the photography that I’ve done is sexy. They’re the ones that people remember, though, so maybe they’re the more successful ones. Or maybe other people are more interested in it than I am. I didn’t start with a goal to take sexy pictures, or not-sexy pictures. I just like women, really—women of all sorts.
ts: I think so, too. And I’ve never seen you bored. It seems like you still enjoy taking pictures.
hp: Oh, yeah, I do, absolutely. I probably don’t have the same stamina at times. I like to be instantaneous, but still be graphic. You know, try to get the shape, the point in the frame.
ts: Do you consider yourself more like an art director, a photographer or an image maker?
hp: I always think of myself as an art director, as that’s how I started. But on the other hand, I’m a photographer. I think that they’re all connected—all those things—like music, graphic design, photography and filmmaking. If you’re interested in one, normally you’re interested in all of them. It sometimes is very difficult if you want to do everything. But in fact, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. You need to be a part of all of them to be good at any of them.
ts: To me, it’s more like a vision that you can apply to anything.
hp: I think like that. But I know some people don’t. There are people who are one-track-minded. If you take someone with a real style, though, like Jean Loup Sieff or Art Kane, where you can recognize their pictures wherever you see them—those artists are always still interested in everything else. They don’t necessarily do it all, but they have a well-rounded knowledge. Unlike politicians, who don’t seem to know anything about anything. (Laughs) But if you’re in the creative business, you need to be a part of that wider conversation.
I don’t consider myself a so-called erotic photographer. I take pictures of girls with no clothes on because I like them with no clothes on.
Eve Tramunt shot by Harri Peccinotti for l’Officiel France
ts: Your pictures do not age at all—even the ones from 40 years ago. Did you always take pictures?
hp: I left school when I was fourteen and went to work in the graphic design part of a factory that made Smith’s Motor Accessories. They built clocks for dashboards, sparking plugs and the first radios to fit into cars. I was learning to do technical illustrating and things like that. That was my training. We were forced to learn how to do roughs. Drawings that were coarse, but good enough to show a client. They depicted what and how we intended to do something. Part of the process was taking photographs. They had a little room with a Rolleiflex in it and some lights. So from the very start, I was taught to use that in a studio. We did all sorts of pictures there. They used to have a class at the factory, once a week, for people interested in painting. There were no so-called art directors.
ts: Also there wasn’t the same kind of relation to models at that time.
hp: There were very few models in the late ‘50s. They didn’t like people touching their hair or doing their make-up, and spraying stuff, you know? They’d go nuts! They did their own, mostly. It was really strange. The models were sort of upper-class girls, and they were mostly there to walk up and down with clothes on, not to be photographed in any way. Photographic models really didn’t start until the early ‘60s. I suppose Shrimpton and the ones who worked with John French, like Tania Mallet, were the earliest to get famous. Up until 1968, when I did the Pirelli calendar, we didn’t have a hairdresser or a make-up artist on shoots.
ts: We have to talk about the Pirelli somewhere. (Harri laughs) I was wondering why Duffy and you are the only ones who did two calendars.
hp: Well, I did one, and I was working with Derek Birdsall, who was the art director. He said, “Why don’t you do the next one too?” I’d just been working on a film in Los Angeles, and I’d seen incredible girls on the beach, surfing. I said to Derek, “Why don’t we just go out and photograph surfing girls? They’re really beautiful.” So we went to do it when all the kids were on holiday, but the schools were closed, and they all were somewhere else. When they were supposed to be at school, they’d be surfing. But they don’t mess around surfing when they’re on holiday. That was the reason anyway—it just happened like that.
The early Pirelli calendars were pretty tame. I think the first nipple was mine—and it was just one, in a corner of the frame.
hp: I’ve tried to surf, very badly, when I went to Los Angeles for the first time around 1965. I was doing titles and trailers for a film called Chappaqua by Conrad Rooks. Allen Ginsberg was in it, as well as William S. Burroughs and Ravi Shankar … Ornette Coleman did the music. There were all sorts of strange people involved. I took all of the rough cuts of the film from Paris to make up the trailers. When I got to New York, they took the film from me at customs. They wouldn’t let me have back until they had looked at it. It had nude pictures in it, and god knows what. So I went out to California.
Harri Peccinotti for Pirelli, 1968
ts: And what happened there?
hp: The film was going to be made by Universal, so I was put up in the Beverly Hills Hotel. But I had nothing to do! It took about six or eight weeks before the film got to me. I was messing around with musicians and people like Artie Ripp, the folks at Buddha Records. I was loose on the beach! Kids were surfing all the time. It was a drugs and rock-and-roll sort of time. We were always on the beach, stoned and surfing and—well I wasn’t surfing, I was just hanging out. I was so impressed by all of that beach culture. I sold the idea the following year to Derek for the calendar project.
ts: And where did you end up shooting it?
hp: His friend had a house that used to belong to Victor Mature. He was a screenwriter. I think he wrote The Dirty Dozen. It was this big, rambling house full of rats and god knows what else. And it had a big swimming pool. They’d gone bankrupt, and there was this big sign on the gate that read, “No traders.” We stayed there for maybe three weeks doing the calendar. We never had a model—we just used girls from the beach.
ts: That sounds amazing—and so lightweight! Today, they’d need an entire hotel to fit the crew. Actually, I’ve never seen you traveling with more than one assistant.
hp: When I did the Pirelli calendars, I didn’t have assistants, and I loaded my own film. But that was normal.
ts: Did you have any idea then that the calendar would become so iconic?
hp: Not at all. The early Pirelli calendars were pretty tame. I think the first nipple was mine—and it was just one, in a corner of the frame. They weren’t really wild in any way. If I had to rate it, I think it went Bob Freeman—his wife was the model, Duffy, Peter Knapp and then me.
Pirelli Calendar, 1969.
ts: So you had one?
hp: Of course! (Laughing)
ts: Was it at the same time that you used to drive a racecar?
hp: Oh no that was earlier. I used to have a scooter, in the ‘50s.
ts: What generation do you feel most a part of?
hp: I suppose the beat generation was the one I was part of. They were the ones that were really interesting to me, you know, all the Kerouacs and the Burroughs, and all those sorts of people. All that era in the mid to late ‘50s was fascinating. Then pop took over and we had Allen Jones and all those so-called pop people. I was mixed with them. Following that was the Beatles, who came after me in a weird way. They were almost kids. Well, they weren’t kids, but it felt like I was of this generation before. I wasn’t a teenager when they turned up.
ts: You also used to play music …
hp: I started in a brass band as a child. I did the trombone first, classical. I went to the Guildhall School of Music in London.
ts: You wanted to be a professional musician?
hp: I did. I played in the brass band for nearly three years between eighteen and 20 years old. We played classical music and jazz. At the time I got so fed up with it. I probably had dreamt that playing in a jazz band was like staying up all night stoned, and in reality it was just really hard fucking work. Everyone was just waiting to go home. I wasn’t playing the sort of music that I really wanted to play. It was better playing when it wasn’t for money. Then suddenly I just stopped, really quite quickly, and moved on.
ts: You’ve been in France for a while now though, 40 years?
hp: I’ve been here for 30 years. I used to come a lot before. Then I got involved with Genevieve, I suppose 35 years ago, and we went back and forth between London and France for a bit.
ts: I was talking about you with Albert Watson recently he said, “I remember I met this guy in the ‘60s.” He found out you had a French account and he found it very chic.
hp: (Laughing) I like that!
ts: I was working with this one model whom you had worked with for Muse recently and she was telling me, “Oh yeah, he was so cool! Very old school! It was like being in the ‘90s!”
hp: That’s good! (Laughs) I used film and they weren’t used to it. I processed it myself. Actually, it was probably processed in New York and was scanned and printed here.
ts: Your girls always look real.
hp: Whereas now they’re not real anymore. I’m not against it. I am against the excessive retouching where the picture is made with the idea that it’s going to be retouched. I can almost find myself saying, “Oh well we can retouch that afterwards.” Before you could never do that. You could only crop. You couldn’t get rid of marks and things. Now when they’re overly retouched, I find it a bit strange. It’s in almost everything. Even if you don’t do it, someone else will.
ts: What’s your relationship with technology?
hp: It’s very bad! I think it’s great, but I’m so out of touch. I’m so not capable of using it. Sending emails, doing a little bit of retouching—I’m waiting for you to teach me. (Laughs) I do appreciate it though. I’m not against it in any way. When I look around I’m a little bit alarmed by the fact that it seems like people who have no real skills are given the opportunity to do things they don’t know how to do. They are asked all the time. Like small companies print their own stuff and it looks really bad. Now anyone is better than you or me. People can stand behind you and say, “No I don’t want it like that,” and go off and do it themselves. It is demeaning graphic design, but I’m sure the very good ones stand apart. It’s like the times when everyone had a guitar. After a while, the goods ones stand out and everyone else puts theirs down. I’m also a bit nervous about where all digital information goes. The fact that it swims in all directions rather scares me. And it can disappear too. I really like to have a bit of film in my hand when I finish doing what I’m doing.
ts: In storage?
hp: I put together a whole collection of pictures for a book on women that I was going to do. I went to Australia, and while I was there, I left the house to a girl who was having some cancer problems. She freaked out and burned the entire thing. When I came back, the lady from upstairs said, “Oh! You’ve had a bonfire in your place.” I had these collections of masks that I had brought back from Africa and they were frightening her or something. She decided to burn them all to garbage, along with chairs and all sorts of stuff—it was crazy!
ts: That’s horrible.
hp: That set me back a little bit, but it wasn’t that bad because I kept carrier bags full of reject transparencies. They were all loose though, so I have to go through them again—because of course I didn’t go through them very well in the first place. In one way it’s good because they were pictures that I couldn’t have used back in the ‘60s, and they’ve not aged. Back then, when I was taking pictures for the client, or for myself, I would just throw them out. I knew I couldn’t print them. They weren’t right for the time. I don’t mean in that way that they were too sexual or anything, but now, you know, you can have photos of people with hair in their face and prop sex throughout. Things like a black person and white person together in a photo was not really acceptable. In America in the ‘60s, there was still a lot of really bad racism going on.
ts: When did you start taking pictures of black girls?
hp: I messed around, playing in jazz bands and whatnot a lot, and I had a lot of black friends. I’m completely against racism of any sort. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t have a black model or an Asian model. But it was quite hard to get at times, and to get one on the cover was even harder. There were only one or two black models around. A few of the girls that I used were just good friends of mine.
I think Nova probably was the first women’s magazine to talk really intelligently.
ts: Tell us about Nova. Why do people always refer to it?
hp: I think it probably was the first women’s magazine to talk really intelligently. A lot of the best writers were working with it. Before that most women’s magazines were really quite shallow. It came out in ‘65 so I suppose up until then most women’s magazines weren’t discussing the women’s liberation that was in full swing. It was the first magazine that started to pay attention. It wasn’t a fashion magazine either. Fashion was only secondary for Nova; it was in there really because of me. The original concept was so full of text that I said, “It’s gotta have a dozen pages of color somewhere!” We were going to do art or something else but we did a couple of fashion things and carried on. There was never any control over the fashion. There wasn’t anyone trying to sell ads or do anything while I was there. In the end it became too successful, and not successful enough, for its own good. Successful enough for people who control magazines to be interested. It was like a test magazine to see if there was a market for intelligent women.
Hana Jirickova by Harri Peccinotti for Purple Fashion Spring-Summer 2016
ts: How the advertisers changed the business?
hp: If you want to take natural looking pictures today, it’s difficult. Sometimes I can find old-fashioned pictures that look like proper photographs. It could be your girlfriend laying on the couch whereas now there’s no way. Movie people were okay because they dressed the part. You used to dress the girl as if she were a real person—now you dress her as a clotheshorse, to sell things, purposefully and obviously. She’ll have too many bangles on, too many things, a buckle, a belt and a hat. They don’t always match either. You very rarely see a picture that looks like a natural person. It wasn’t quite so bad years ago. I could find pictures that you wouldn’t know were done. I think is has changed. Just throughout my career, the fact that now everything has got a sign on it so you know where it came from. Before, the only thing with a logo on it was Louis Vuitton. Now everything has got a sign on it.
The Princess and the Pea, The Gourmand Magazine, Edwina Preston, October 2016
ts: How about this photo book you told me you wanted to do?
hp: That’s what I’m supposed to be doing, but underneath the stairs, you see there, I’ve got more than 50 plastic bins full of transparencies. The trouble is, now I’ve sorted them, so they’re roughly in their correct bin. They’re still mixed a bit. I have my own deadline.
ts: Are these all ones that you’ve already printed or published?
hp: Oh no! There are ones that’ve been used but most of them are not. I think most of the good pictures are not necessarily fashion-y things. But I’m known for certain images so if I don’t show those types of images, people won’t understand. And also Genevieve and I spent ten years making books all over the place. That got us off the street. In that time we were virtually never at home at all—we were always traveling in Africa or somewhere.
ts: I always felt like in this business I don’t go out with the right people, I don’t take the right drugs, I don’t have sex with the right girls, you know?
hp: I think that’s part of it. I’ve never done that either. I’ve never been part of the scene but I’ve worked a lot in it.
ts: When I was just out of school, a big fashion art director told me that the first fashion show he went to changed his life. I was expecting the same when I went to my first fashion show, but it didn’t change anything.
hp: That’s another thing, the shows you see now, they’ve changed since the ‘60s. It used to always be a row of gold chairs in a hotel room. Ladies would sit as the girls walked around them. There was no music or anything. They just held their number up, and the announcer said, “This is number seventeen made of mohair.” The first fashion show I took pictures for was for Vanity Fair in London. I quite like the pictures because they’re so straight. I just stood over in the corner.
ts: Do you have any connection with the new generation of photographers?
ts: There is no snobbishness, at all, in the way you work.
hp: I think I just like taking photographs. I never understood this idea that if you work for one magazine you can’t work for another. That idea does exist even if it’s not written down. It used to be that if you worked with Vogue, you couldn’t work with anyone else. Not so many people have contracts with them now. But in the past, if you had a contract and then you worked with someone else, you were judged as a deserter from the cause or something like that.
ts: This reminds me that when Newton got his first assignment with Vogue, he was credited with a wrong name.
hp: That’s classic! Hans (Feurer) and I are always getting switched. I get credited with his work and he with mine. I don’t know how it happens. People are always bringing me pictures of his saying, “Can you do a picture like this?” I say, “Why don’t you call him and ask him.” He was an art director too of course. There was a book, and this really pisses me off actually—I was going to do something about it. There is this little fashion book that I found with my pictures in it. It’s one in a series and it’s written by someone who’s supposed to be an authority on fashion. All of the credits are wrong! It’s interesting to see that these sorts of books get published—you just wonder, why? You read it and it’s absolute crap. They don’t even ask if they can use your pictures. I found this book by accident. I was going to write to them and be rude to them.
Harri, 1995. Photo: Thomas Schwab
ts: A friend of mine, who used to be a big copy writer in the ‘80s, told me that when they were working on storyboards at that time, they used to draw palm trees somewhere just so they could go on trips!
hp: Oh yeah and we’d fly the model out three or four days before the shoot just in case she got burnt. And of course they always got burned immediately, so in another three days we’d shoot when she’d healed.
ts: Are you ever afraid of failure?
hp: I am of course. I’m always thinking things are not going to work. Especially working with film, I’m always slightly nervous because you never know if they’re going to come out. I don’t like too many Polaroids either.
ts: What is your relationship with your collections? Would you consider yourself a collector?
hp: Not really. I think it just happens to me by accident. I can’t throw things away and if I see something I like the look of I tend to pick it up to collect. Apart from the things that are broken or half-cooked, I just keep them. I have one incredible thing, just by accident. Years and years ago, before I met Genevieve, I found this toy car. And later, I was walking on a beach and found another. This one had been worn by the sea. It was the identical car to the other one, just worn out.
ts: Incredible, where did you find it?
hp: I don’t know, somewhere on the beach in India some 20 years ago. I picked it up just to keep it—I love picking things up from beaches. From the sea and the rocks, it’s just gotten smooth. I went to put it in with all the others, and I realized that it was the same as another I had.
ts: Do you observe any religion? Your wife is a Buddhist…
hp: No, I’m not religious in any way.
ts: Your beard is not related?
hp: Years ago I decided I wasn’t going to shave, that’s all. I couldn’t see the point in it, so I stopped. That’s all it is.■