Q&A Madonna – The Real Views of a Modern Muse
As a performer, Madonna has been attacked by critics i for being more about image than substance. In truth, her uncanny success in holding the quicksilver popular culture in thrall has had more to do with the ability to find substance in images. Madonna’s face may be one of the most well-known and well photographed on the planet. She doesn’t merely pose for photographers like Herb Ritts, Steven Meisel, and Mario Testino; she explicitly collaborates in the process of creating and recreating her own image. Likewise, her music videos are filled with knowledgeable and effective photographic references, such as her re-creation of fashion images by the late Horst P. Horst in 1990’s “Vogue” (a usage to which the photographer objected). An avid art collector, Madonna’s taste for photographs is both instinctual and informed. In a recent interview with photography critic Vines Aletti for the art quarterly Aperture, Madonna spoke abort these topics and her complex relationship with the camera as subject and patron — including her current favorite personal portraitist (Testino), her newest collecting passion (the images of Guy Bourdin), her rich creative relationships with photographers, the fallout from her infamous Sex book, her memories of posing for art nudes, the stories behind the images in her music videos, and more. Here we present a portion of this revealing conversation with one of the world’s most influential photographic tastemakers.
I found a quote in which you said, “I’d rather own an art gallery than a movie studio. Or a museum.”
Where did your interest in art and photography start?
My interest in art started as a child because several members of my family could paint and draw and I couldn’t, so I was living vicariously through them. And from going to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is how I got into Diego Rivera, which is how I found out about Frida Kahlo and started reading about her. Then, if you go to enough Catholic churches, there’s art everywhere, so you get introduced to it that way, from a religious-ecstasy point of view. And then just coming to New York and dancing. As an incredibly poor struggling dancer, you could get into museums for free, so that was my form of entertainment. It was just somethiing I was interested in.
I’ve always collected images and torn pages out of magazines and put them up on the wall—
And one picture that’s been up on every dorm room or apartment I’ve ever lived in was this Richard Avedon photo of Lew Alcindor from Harpers Bazaar. I wondered if then was anything like that in your life early an. Was there an image you carried with you?
The image that always struck me was one that I ended up using as an inspiration for one of my videos, and that’s a sort of Cubist photograph of a man working on some big, huge piston-shaped cylinder.
The famous Lewit Hine photo.
Right. Well, that ended up in my “Express Yourself video; that was the inspiration for that. Every video I’ve done has been inspired by some painting or work of art.
That’s what I was wondering. Obviously there’s “Vogue,” with the Horst references, which I know you got into tome trouble for.
Those were pretty obvious. I consider them to be homages, of course. And I didn’t get into trouble, the director did.
I thought that the “Vogue” video was especially terrific because those were all pictures that—
We brought to life.
Yeah, and it angered me that Horst cauldn’t see that as a tribute. What could be better?
Yeah, and those images are really powerful, and it’s great to remind people of them and to bring it into pop culture and not keep it so outside where people are never going to be exposed to it.
When did you start collecting?
When I got my first paycheck, $5,000 or something.
Dao you remember what you bought?
I bought a Leger and I bought a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, but I don’t know which came first. But I remember buying it, and I had just gotten married and it looked completely out of place in my house in Malibu. [She laughs.]
And were those things that you had always wanted — always hoped to have?
Well, I’ve always been kind of obsessed with Frida Kahlo, so I was really into the idea of getting something that belonged to her. And then from Frida Kahlo I found out about Tina Modotti, and I started collecting her stuff and Edward Weston, and one person always leads to another person with me. Also, if you’re into Picasso, and you want to find out about him and that whole area of art and European culture, then you start reading about Man Ray and the surrealists and Andre Breton, and all of a sudden you’re in that whole world and you start having interests in other people. It’s like a disease.
Of the best kind.
Lately, I’ve gotten more into newer photographers. I’m really into Guy Bourdin right now; I’ve got a couple of his photographs in my bedroom that I wake up to every morning. I just move all over the place, really.
Who else beside Guy Bourdin would you consider somebody new for you?
That I love? Well, I love Nan Goldin. She’s amazing. Now I’m into color photography — don’t get me wrong; I still love black and white — and I like a lot of the really young photographers. Like Mario Sorrenti — people that are considered fashion photographers. For instance, I love Inez van Lamsweerde. She photographed me for Spin magazine and she is unbelievable. She’s Dutch.
What is she like? I’m curious about her work.
She’s so interesting. She’s tall; she’s got really long black hair; she looks like a Modigliani painting. She and her boyfriend [Vinoodh Matadin] work together, and he does the art direction. They make beautiful photos, and they do lots of campaigns for young designers.
A lot of their work looks very computer-aharad. Did they do that with you?
Not that I know of, because I don’t like that. I knew I was going to get it with David LaChapelle. Because you can’t work with him without being computerized.
It’s part of the look.
Yeah. Anyway, I just love [van Lamsweerde’s] photographs, but I’m into Scan Ellis and Mario Sorrenti. Their photographs are very cinematic, and they’re like a whole new wave of photography that transcends fashion.
You brought up Mario Tertino. I’d been wondering who would be the official photographer of your baby and he’s not the person I’d have expected.
Why, who would you have expected?
Someone you had worked with before, like Herb Ritts or Stevan Meisel.
Herb Ritts did take photographs of my daughter that are quite beautiful, two days after she was born, and those are all framed and in my house in L.A. But more like the classic, black and white; there are some beautiful, beautiful shots of her foot in my hand — incredibie. There are some shots that look like photographs Man Ray did of Lee Miller, too. My hair was really blond and I had red lipstick on and they were black and white; just the way he processed them, they look very Man Ray-ish. But Mario’s really one of my favorite photographers right now, which is why he ended up taking the official portrait.
Those pictures convinced me he was more interesting than I’d thought.
Have you ever met him? He is a scream. He’s so much fun. He’s the kind of guy who will photoyaph you, and if he doesn’t like the way you’re standing or something, he’ll kick you. And he’s constantly singing and moving around the room and he’s so full of life, and I feel like his
photographs are, too. He creates an atmosphere, a relaxed atmosphere, and then he just starts taking pictures.
Which is very, very different tian someone like Steven [Meisel], who is really precise.
Let’s talk a little bit about him. It did seem like you two formed one of those bonds that a subject and a photographer can form.
Yaah. And that you brought out very interesting things in each other.
Yeah, well, first of all I have to feel like I’m friends with a photographer and that we enjoy the same things, like the same movies, have the same sick sensibility. And I felt that with Steven, which is why we just kept working together and working together and finally the idea of doing [the 1992 Sex book] came up. You really have to feel like someone’s part of your family to work on a book like that, where you’re just, like, hanging out.
What drew you to him — what clicked between you?
He just really, really appreciates beauty, and he knows how to photograph a strong female. He’s a diva himself. Like me, he is a scavenger who picks stuff out of things — whether it’s old movies, old Warhol films. He’s interested in street fashion. He picks up stuff from all over the place and puts it in his work. And he likes a lot of the same things I like.
I am curious about the Sex booh and how that came about. A lot of the visual influences there seem to be Man Ray and experimental European work.
Man Ray and every movie that Visconti ever made starring Helmut Berger — did you see The Damned?
Was the book something you concocted together or something you decided you should do and then you pulled Meisel into it?
We were always fooling around and doing stuff anyway — stuff that never made it into any magazines — because we were always working together on so many things. I guess it was my idea, and I pulled him into it. I mean, we had talked about doing a book together, we just weren’t sure where we wanted to go with it and what kind of a book, because I love taking on different personas and transforming and the whole chameleon thing with a twist on Cindy Sherman—something a bit more aggressive.
Let’s talk about Cindy Sherman, I know you spunsored her  show of “Untitled Film Stills” at the Museum of Modem Art. What appeals to you about her work?
Just her chameleon-like persona — her transformation. What she’s able to evoke — the subtlety of her work, the detail. I just think her stuff is amazing.
Do you own work of hers?
No, can you believe that? I’ve always admired her work, but I wasn’t that crazy about the images that were available to be bought.
What exaclty was your involvement in the MOMA show? Did you actually put up the money [reportedly more than S1 million] to finance that whole group of “Untitled Film Stills”?
Yeah. I was a patroness. [She laughs.]
I like that idea — it’s important.
Ifs the best place to put your money, honestly. I know it’s good to get involved in lots of charities, but I think it’s really important to do things that inspire people in other ways.
To go back to photographenrs you’ve worked with, I wanted to ask about Herb Ritts.
What did he bring to the relationship that made [his pictures of you] so effective?
An innocence. Herb is one of those people who doesn’t even seem like he’s a photographer. It feels like he discovered it by accident in a way, and he has a real naivete about him. He doesn’t really plan things; he kind of stumbles across things. He’s got a real aw-gee-shucks vibe on him, and I became friends with him. I asked him to photograph my wedding, and things went from there.
There’s a certain comfort factor with Herb. I’d never really been conscious or aware of photographers before, and, believe me, I’d been photographed a lot before that, but I wasn’t really present. And, in fact, all the nude photographs that surfaced of me from my early days of modeling for art classes and photography schools and stuff, I so didn’t want to be there that I removed myself from the whole process. I wasn’t relating to the photographer or the camera — it wasn’t a relationship. A good photographer creates an environment for you to shine. I remember
Robert Mapplethorpe kept asking to photograph me back in those days, but he scared the —- out of me.
You seem relatively unscareable.
Yeah, but there was some energy that he had that I didn’t feel comfortable with. And I couldn’t even explain to you what it was. I was very young when I met him and I hadn’t been living in New York that long.
Is there a definitive Madonna picture?
I think there is with each photographer, but there isn’t just one, because I feel like I change and evolve so much that it’s hard for me to put my finger on one.
Are there other photographers that you’d like to work with?
I really wanted to have my picture taken by Helmut Newton, and I did. I love his stuff, too. But I didn’t have a relationship with him; he’s not available, or accessible.
In photographic history, who would you with to have photographed you?
Man Ray — no question. There are a lot of photographers I admire, but I’m not sure that I would have wanted them to photograph me. Irving Penn, but not now — 40 years ago.
Yeah, yeah. No question, he was amazing.
But I think that’s it: Weston, Man Ray, and Irving Penn — not a shabby crowd.
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