At the height of Abercrombie & Fitch’s dominance as the unofficial purveyor of teenage attire, the company released a lifestyle periodical titled A&F Quarterly. Four times a year, the “magalog” struck delight and fear into the respective hearts of adolescents and parents across the country. Set in a utopian Camp Paradise for the collegiate youth of America, the pages of articles, features and editorials presented a collective aspirational fantasy realized during the coming of age of the Millennial Generation. And while every element from the suggestive copy (“She has the body of a woman, and the hunger of an animal”) to the coarse paper (cougar vellum) remained precisely on brand, it is a penchant for the spirited, the provocative vibrancy of youth as seen through the lens of photographer Bruce Weber that catapulted the publication to its prominent position as a delineator of culture.
Even a cursory glance through the pages of A&F Quarterly will offer a shorthand in the Bruce Weber style, one that is as distinct as it is carefree. All his trademarks are there. The editorials achieve the spontaneity of a snapshot, while the images are too consistently strong for happenstance. The lighting is uplifting and the compositions natural and playful. His partiality for collage, a medium suited for nostalgic inclination, is offered through a mixture of black and white and color photographs. Weber draws strength from the camaraderie of youth; group dynamic is always at play in his work, be it fraternal, sororal or mixed. The outdoors serve as the backdrop, usually framed around an aquatic setting, be it a glassy emerald lake in Montana, the rushing blue waves of Miami, or the milky water of a communal bath filled with bubbles. The props are of the furry variety: dozing cottontails, toothy apes, a pack of beloved golden retrievers, or an unclad model astride a colossal beast. (The photographer’s love of animals is widely known and respected in the industry. Donatella Versace once manufactured a sample collection with faux fur so he could photograph it in good conscience, and Dame Elizabeth Taylor rescued 200 dogs in his name as a birthday present.) There will be nudity for sure, there is no escaping it, but it comes robust in form and classical in style. There is honor and vigor in his physicality.
By the time Bruce Weber was named exclusive photographer of A&F Quarterly, his experience with advertising was seasoned. He cut his teeth on iconic campaigns from the 1980s and early 90s: Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Banana Republic. In fact, the 1994 Banana Republic campaign would introduce him (and the world) to one of his most prolific muses, a young and bright-eyed Kate Moss. These early spreads are significant in their distinction as quintessential Weber; from his early work through to his more recent ventures, his stamp is unshakable. A 1990 music video for Pep Shop Boys’ “Being Boring” runs side-by-side with a 2006 W Magazine editorial (aptly named “Summer Camp” and staring Kate Moss, Daria Warbowy and Lara Stone) and the direction is unmistakable.
The generosity of video as a medium lends itself well to Weber’s style. His images are distinct because of the animals and nudity, of course, but most importantly because when you come across a Bruce Weber shot, you simply cannot look away. It is mesmerizing. Such je ne sais quoi can be traced to his own time in front of the camera. As a young film student at NYU, he took up modeling to earn extra cash. It served as a quick introduction to the most active photographers in the field: Richard Avedon, Francesco Scavullo, Melvin Sokolsky, Jerry Scharzberg and Saul Leiter. The reluctant model was happy to escape the spotlight and soon began assisting on jobs. It was only a matter of time before his own career took off. But this short period in his life would prove fundamental to the evolution of his methodology.
Speaking of his sittings for Scavullo, Weber remembers, “He did the most beautiful pictures of me. He really captured a little bit the way I always hoped I looked at that time in my life.” Such a simple observation holds the secret to the gripping appeal of Weber’s photographs: he captures how the sitter hopes to look at that time in life. For proof, look no further than the breathtaking shots of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. Published posthumously by Vanity Fair in September 1999, the images show a warm, irresistible side to the icon. She is chic and beautiful, the embodiment of the American legacy she stood to inherit as the wife of Camelot’s only son.
Weber’s photo essays continually showcase a nuanced understanding of the power of folklore and mythology in American culture. Furthermore, sexuality (suddenly demanding designation in the face of the AIDS crisis) functions as an undercurrent for his exploration of these themes; yet it is never salacious, instead vibrant, joyful and bright. And it shifts: the Olympic athletes of Interview Magazine are strong sex, the models of A&F are cheeky sex, Mrs. John F. Kennedy Jr. is elegant sex. They are an ideal, not of how society sees them – although that's there too – but most importantly, of how they hope to see themselves. He photographs are like memories, the hazy visions we prefer of ourselves at the pinnacle of youth. The sensuality of sex, the physicality of beauty, and playfulness of wit. Such is the legacy of photographer Bruce Weber.
Above: Abercrombie & Fitch A&F Quarterly, various years.
Above and Opening Photo at Top: W Magazine's Summer Camp, 2008