Who does it better?
Left: Fred with Tyres (1984) by Herb Ritts. Photo: Herb Ritts Foundation. Right: Juergen with Tyres (2021) by Juergen Teller for Loewe. Photo: Loewe
Juergen Teller is considered a fine-art photographer, in addition to the work he does for fashion, but sometimes one wonders if his output, often described as “unfiltered” and predates TikTok, is destined for that social media. In his latest shoot for Loewe’s spring/summer 2022 collection, Mr Teller places six shots of near-naked him—some in provocative poses—in the brand’s lookbook. One that stood out is he standing with legs shoulder-width apart, holding a tyre in each hand. So that you won’t mistake him for a desperate auto-mechanic, a camera is worn round his neck. He is bare-footed even when the seamless paper backdrop on which he stands has the marks of footwear trampling all of it. Not digitally making it pristine is possibly deliberate—perhaps to better project the blue-collar sex bomb that the subject thinks he is. Still, the studio set up is no match in tyre-yard tip that is seen in the Loewe photographs.
But what struck us immediately as familiar is the pose and the prop. Back in 1984, a photo of a muscular guy similarly holding tires (but with more clothes on) appeared in the Italian magazine Per Lui. It was shot by the American photographer Herb Ritts, and is often considered one of the great images of the 20th century that changed fashion photography forever. The monochromatic photo would come to be known as Fred with Tires. According to Mr Ritts, the commissioning editor Franca Sozzani (when she was with Lei and brother title Per Lui, before heading Vogue Italia) had sent some “hideous rain coats” for the shoot. He “hated” them. With the British stylist Michael Roberts (also photographer and illustrator), they picked jeans and overalls as replacement. The model who posed in full muscular glory was a UCLA undergrad, named Fred Harding. Not much is known about the guy or what happened to him after that.
The photo became a massive hit after appearing in the Per Lui spread, not inaccurately titled The Boys of The Body Shop. The compositional effect of that rule-breaking shot is a salute to ancient Greek sculptures and, at the same time, is evocative of the auto-garages and their macho mechanics of the US. The aesthetic is, therefore rather American too, one that is another planet from the glamour of the popular TV series of the time, Dynasty. Ms Sozzani reportedly did not like the photo, but ran it in the magazine anyway. And this was a year before the unprecedented 120-consecutive-page spread for the Per Lui issue called USA by Bruce Weber!
Mr Teller’s photo, in its tell-it-like-it-is naturalism, is the total contrast to Mr Ritts’s formal aestheticism and sexy athleticism. In the body-inclusive world that we presently live in, it is ill-advised to say that the self-shots of Mr Teller, spared grooming, do not appeal to one sense of beauty, which now must be all-encompassing, including the setting in which the subject places himself. In Fred with Tires, Herb Ritts was, by his own account, not availed the best conditions for the shoot, yet he was able to turn those circumstances that should not be so noteworthy into an image that is unforgettable. Rare, indeed, is the photographer who can, through a commercial shoot, immortalise he who was just a college kid, insouciantly coming in for a paid editorial.
Photo illustration: Just So