-Whenever I first interview an artist I am curious about what life was like as a teenager. Those key years seem to in many ways often effect the years that follow. What did you see, feel and experience growing up in Tulsa which led to, influenced or connects to the man now shooting some the world’s most beautiful men in New York City?
Growing up in Tulsa, from an early age with an older brother and older cousin, I was around a lot of older guys who were carefree, in jeans, barefoot and shirtless... some with long flowing hair but all tanned and beautiful in the languid Oklahoma heat. And of course, the light...natural sunlight that bathed these guys in a dreamy, seductive manner. I'll never forget the first time I knew I was attracted to men: there were three brothers, the Edmonds brothers that worked on our ranch in the summer. Jeans, cowboy boots, and almost-white blonde hair turned gold by the sun, green eyes and the whitest teeth against bronzed and shirtless, sweating bodies. I couldn't take my eyes off of them. With guys like this, anything was possible, straight or gay, there was a fluid sexuality. As I was becoming more aware of my own sexuality, I gravitated towards these intensely masculine types. But what they bring to the table visually is all very simple really, and not complex...so as I move more into fashion and editorial work, I am keeping it simple. I want to sell clothes, yes, but I want you to look at the shot and think "Wow, that's a beautiful man...I want to be that guy." The background, the clothes, it's all just texture for me to tell the story of the man. As a person, I've always been able to strike up a conversation with anyone, and people fascinate me. I love men, and I want to be able to show the world how I see them. I grew up hearing that men were ugly from my father...that women held all the beauty in the world, and I just didn't drink that Kool-Aid. And shooting men was seen by many as a primarily gay interest, and I hated that, and rebelled against both notions. There were also these 1970s porn films that made a real impression on me, as to what I thought was attractive, these half-stoned, loose-haired, bronzed shirtless and barefoot men that were like golden boys...all sex and masculinity and power. Those movies and the American male of the 70s and early 80s informed my work more than anything.
Studying photography in college, I was fascinated with the story and work of Leni Reifenstahl, and the notion of presenting propaganda-style images of the perfect male, albeit for a morally corrupt purpose at the time of the Berlin Olympics in the 30s. Andy Warhol's documentary style, the increasingly popular work of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts in the 80s, the NY club scene...how MTV videos merged fashionable images and music, and the impact of the image in advertising...all were funneled through my own filter to give me what I think is my style.
I was also very into music and the way that the bands I grew up on...Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and a lot of other rockers just evoked this dazed and sexy vibe. Tight worn tshirts, jeans, long wavy hair, shirtless and free and I wanted that...to be that. Now I can see a lot of it in what I shoot.
-As a writer, I am keenly aware of the connection between image and story. What were your career goals and dreams when studying Journalism at the University of Okalahoma in the 80’s?
I wanted to be in television production, and geared most of my study towards that. But I also studied photography and advertising at the art school at the University of Oklahoma in addition to spending so much time at the Journalism School. This is where the intersection of image and word first had an impact upon me. My logo or watermark is actually the font "Impact," which stood out for obvious reasons, but was the most desirable to me as well. I'm constantly fascinated by advertising, and editorials that are well done. I devour fashion mags. L'Officiel Homme, Vogue Homme INternational, VMan, Arena Homme+...I spend way too much money on those things, but they thrill and inspire me at how the image can be used to provoke, to tell a story, or to sell something...product or a face and body. I graduated from OU, returned home to Tulsa to DJ at an alternative club for a few years, and then moved to NYC in 1988 to put my degree in broadcast journalism to use.
I got sidetracked, needing to pay rent, at my first job working in a private club at the Metropolitan Opera, doing special events. Quite a cultural leap from Hooterville. And my father thought that the new kids on the block, MTV in its early years, was just a bit of rock and roll and would never amount to anything. So when between an entry-level gig at MTV and a desk job at the soap opera "As the World Turns," I accepted neither...and began a career in events. I do still use my journalism though, which makes me very happy.
But I was taking photos since I was a pup. And at the art school, a friend's brother was posing nude. He was hot. And so I had my first nude shoot with a man. It wasn't awkward in the least, probably due to my familiarity and friendship with the model. I was very happy with the results, and knew then that I wanted to focus my photography on men exclusively.
-Had New York always been on the horizon or was there a particular reason/event that prompted the move?
I was enamored with LA as a kid. And growing up out west, LA was much more on our radar than New York City. Plus I was an absolute movie nut, and LA represented this glamorous Hollywood life that was attractive to a kid in Oklahoma. While in college, I made increasingly frequent trips to NYC to visit friends, and survey the tv job scene during the summers. The stays in NY got progressively longer. I saw that the locus for fashion photography was in New York....it was happening all around me when out on the streets, seeing shoots like something out of The Eyes of Laura Mars, or all these beautiful men and women that land on the streets of NYC to be the next big thing. The fashion capital of the States is here, as is the photography capital...in my opinion. My parents were very supportive of my decision to make the move east to NYC, and while my career took a few side turns, they remained very supportive all the way until the end of their lives.
-When and how did you come to the decision to focus on shooting mostly models?
I assume you're talking about professional, working models, as opposed to shooting architecture or landscapes. I've been so privileged to work with the best men's boards and agencies in the country, if not the world. With the professionals, there's a high standard and level of commitment, professionalism, and respect that largely doesn't exist with men who aren't agency-represented. And hey, it's just so much easier shooting a beautiful man. More than anything, though, it's that professionalism that I need more and more.
-You seem to have formed an incredible support system of artists around you, fellow photographers and models. In the 80’s and 90’s though was it difficult to make connections and find support for the work you wanted to pursue?
I have, and that's been a source of great love and enjoyment for me. I'm so fortunate to have built friendships with many brilliant photographers whom I respect and admire. Several of us meet occasionally for drinks and to trade war stories and share our experiences...which is great fun. And then there's this amazing handful of men with whom I work repeatedly who are like a band of brothers. These guys have given me so much of their hearts and soul when shooting, and we've built a bond and friendship. These are guys I spend a lot of time with aside from shooting...and so there's an intimacy and connection that, I hope, is evident in our work together. I'm talking about in the last 5 to ten years. Prior to that, it was more difficult to find support outside my family and personal friends. New York is an intimidating place for a young artists, but you have to dive right in and command that respect. In the 80s and 90s, I lived for the gallery shows and book signings by photographers who inspired me...Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, Francois Rousseau, Luke Smalley, Greg Gorman...and I wanted to be in their shoes. I wanted to have my vision seen by a wide audience.
-Tell me about your close supporters. What do each of them bring to you?
I'm a Gemini, and true to form, can be indecisive. So I often call on a couple of friends to help me winnow a selection of my "50 best" from a shoot down to 4 to 8. And I receive a tremendous amount of encouragement and mentoring from many of my photographer mates. They support me in so many ways, and I'm lucky to have them in my life. The models I mentioned that I'm close to are also very supportive and take good care of me. They can be very protective and it's heartwarming to have their love. What I need most is a bit of direction at times. It's hard for me sometimes, hard for all of us in NY, to pause, take a breath, and step back and see something with a fresh eye. After I wrap a shoot, I walk away...I clear my head, grab lunch with the model and crew, or just chill...then I go back a few hours later and upload the images and start to see the story unfold as I make my selections.
-Tell me about the first time you shot a man nude. So often we look at it from the model’s perspective but I know the pressure on the photographer must be equally nerve racking in the beginning? Were you pleased with the results of this shoot?
I think the first nude shoot was in college, of my friend Cash Wilson. We knew each other through church camp, actually...and I had a major crush on this friend, who was a knockout all-American athlete and bodybuilder. I set up a white sheet as a backdrop and we got some very good stuff. It was not awkward for me, and I don't think so for him. People often think that when I'm shooting nudes I must have a boner the entire time...I'm just not in that space...you can't be. There are too many things to look out for - lighting - styling - and the comfort of the model. Even if it's an erotic shoot...I am so concerned with getting the shot to be the best it can be that I keep the focus...if I lost it, it would become something else. I also have my guard up tremendously because if I was messing around with the guys, or being inappropriate, the news would travel like wildfire. I dont' want to be that guy that makes men feel uncomfortable. I want them to show up, turn it on, and give me their best and hottest, make love to the camera.
-Shooting models, both for agency or for portfolios means dealing with so many issues most might not consider. Egos, body image, deadlines and inexperience must provide many stories. Without naming names (or feel free..) can share with us your most interesting stories?
I don't want to talk poorly about anyone, but I'm lucky to be able to count on only one hand the really negative experiences I've had. The ones with the tremendous egos are the ones who really put me off. And a lack of professionalism...I can't stand waiting for a tardy model. If they are too late, I'm too angry and can't move on, and why should I..? SO I dismiss them. That's the worst, really...no-shows and lame excuses. There have been a time or two when someone has shown up and assumed I'd be ready to just shoot what they wanted, to follow their lead. One was promoting a new line of underwear, and his ego was the most ridiculous I've encountered...as if it were my privilege to shoot his underwear campaign. As far as embarrassing stories, there have been a few times when my neighbors, all of whom are used to seeing half-naked men in and out of the building, have seen a bit too much for their Sunday morning :)
-Many photographers seem to rebut having a signature style. Your work is often followed by adjectives such as classy, simple elegance, beautiful. Do these words fit for how you feel about your work or do they put it in a box?
I love hearing that...so thank you. I certainly strive for elegance...a relaxed sensuality that is aspirational. And I hope that in 10 or 40 years time, someone can look at the images and not find them dated, or beholden to a particular time. I always feel funny when telling people that I shoot body and "beauty" for men, while it's true, it sounds a bit silly given the feminine connotations I think we put on the word "beauty." But that's a fault of our society. Men are beautiful...obviously.
-I think of as your signature shot with the white backdrop, the classic pose and framing just at the pube line. You clearly put great care that the men you shoot look their best. What inspired this particular shot and of course what we all want to know, what do most of your models wear just below that line…
Thank you. I do want the model to be comfortable, and the white light really is great at showing off their lines and features. The first time I did it was with Ryan Koning. He's one of the most interesting and beautiful men I've ever met...and it was really by accident, in over-exposing a whole series of shots as Ryan stood outside on my silver-painted, reflective rooftop. I think I took about 1,000 shots of Ryan that day, and about 950 of them are "keepers." But when I paused to take a look at what I was getting, I showed him the results and we both just grinned, knowing we had something. The next week I was in Tulsa, and worked with Levi M. for the first time. It was July, and a summer rain started. We took refuge between two giant oil drums out in a field, and as he started peeling off his own former Air Force jumpsuit, he turned around and bam..! that was it...the same kind of slightly overexposed shot. And when they went public, everybody wanted to know how I shot them, and the agencies wanted to see their men represented that way. When it's really right, the men are indeed nude. And I think that's important because you can read the freedom and liberation, and sensuality, on their face. For a lot of the images, I sell very limited editions of the full shot privately to collectors through my website. But the crop has to be right, to be able to stand on its own as a strong image, and not just a g-rated version of the full nude diluted for facebook or modelmayhem.
-How much creativity are you able to utilize when shooting agency portfolio shots as opposed to concepts to shoot you come up with yourself?
I'm allowed, or perhaps I demand, really, a great deal of creativity, whether for an agency gig, a commission gig I take on, or for my own editorial projects. It's so much fun to work on location, in particular where there's a great setting and a lot of spontaneity involved. I like to use the location as a texture to evoke a feeling or a mood, and not let it overpower the model, or give it undue attention. Because then it becomes something else, more appropriate for Travel & Leisure than for my purposes. I really don't want to be too overt, to hit people over the head when telling a story or creating an image. I want people to bring enough of their own memories and desires to the shots, you know..? An image has a more broad appeal when you leave enough to the viewer to bring their own life to the equation. And black & white has always been my first love. I've enjoyed balancing the trademark blown-out, white background work with more rich and textured black and images. I'm very much attracted to depth, to rich blacks and the use of negative space. My friend Kemuel Valdes is a master at that. There's a lot happening in the darkness...so to speak. But I'm definitely moving more towards fashion and editorial work. Of course, it's still going to be a primary focus on body and beauty, but I have to grow and move, to keep keep it fresh. And to keep it challenging.
-Do you alter your approach, style when shooting someone new to the modeling world like Ryan Sandefur as opposed to someone whose been the business for awhile like Simon Dexter?
I really enjoy working with new faces. I feel that I get to mold them in the way that I see them, and therefor I think the images we create together can be more of an extension of myself. I really like to leave a lot up to spontaneity in any shoot. And when I work with someone like Sim, who is an internet sensation with their own following, the appeal and the challenge, is to create something different with them that is still within my own style.
-Do I detect a slight affinity for models hailing from your home State?
I've developed meaningful friendships with two gents from Tulsa, both quite different, but both of whom are named Levi. And I just worked with Corey out near legendary American highway Route 66 when I was home visiting family and hitting the TUlsa State Fair..which I always try to do every year or so. I love to balance all the city backdrops with that wide open space, which evokes such languid freedom to me. And there's been one or two "discoveries," like Beau Martin, with whom I shot this whole "Outsiders"-themed shoot when we snuck into the old Bells Amusement Park in Tulsa one 100+ degree day. I can show people a bit more of who I am, where I'm from, when I work in Oklahoma. And I see quite a bit of myself in these young guys. There's an easy, relaxed sexuality in each of them that reminds me of the men who made such an impression on me growing up.
-Some of my personal favorite shots of mine from you have been Artur (love his hair), Lucas Buchwald and some of your recent shots with Levi. I love how you take you’re the signature shot and throw in small edgy touches to create unique looks. Do you have a favorite (not model) but shot or shots that you really love and feel represent your work?
Thanks. Artur was really special and I'm trying to get some more time with him. Lucas and I had an absolute blast and shot a few times...he was game for anything I threw at him. And Levi...there's two Levi's, both have become friends. But you mean Levi Jackson. He's gorgeous...a soul that has really touched me. The beard has been very en vogue recently. When gorgeous Tom Bull went marching down the runway at the lead of the pack of the recent Perry Ellis show during NY Fashion Week, it set men to - thank God - growing their hair back and being more natural. WHen the guys come by for a go-see, if they have shave their pits or pubesI tell them to grow their body hair for a week or two before shooting. Levi was camera-ready though and we had worked earlier in the summer back home in Tulsa, and he happened to come to NYC for a visit. We had already done nudes, and so I asked him to consider doing something a bit further, pushing it a bit. Man, do I love the end result, and he does too.
There are shots that represent what I try to do I think...there's a shot of Josh Yajcaji in a leather jacket and a cashmere Burberry tshirt leaning against a rail at the High Line that is perhaps my favorite fashion shot. The image of Daniel shirtless, smoking a cigarette, is probably my favorite image I've created, because it evokes the feeling I try to command in my work. And for a body shot, it's hard to say...I think my work with my good friend Tyler McPeak, nudes at the Standard Hotel, are my favorite. Because of how special he is to me, and how he presents himself. He's a gentle giant and the shot of him leaning against the glass, over NYC, is a favorite.
-Although you shoot full frontals, most of the images we see leave room for the viewer to dream and imagine. You do this better than anyone and curious as to how important this is to you within your work.
I really appreciate that, mate. That's what I strive to do. It's first and foremost my objective. If it's fashion or body and beauty...it's what I want to do. Even if I'm shooting something more erotic, I don't want to hammer the viewer over the head with information and leave nothing up to their own ideas of sensuality and beauty. Also, it just becomes pornographic if it's too overt. A lot of people have told me that they get lost in the work, and find beauty there. That makes me so happy. And hey, I do hope that a lot of the work excites people and turns them on, too. I spend a good deal of time with the subjects, when it is body work, giving them subtle direction and pull a particular emotion or feeling out of them. But if we don't connect as model and photographer, then the shot will be lifeless, and the viewer won't connect to the image.
-Along the same lines, in your recent work with Corey Hensley I saw what I remember to be one of a few erection shots within your published work. How does a photographer go about bringing that up?
I'm quite sure you intended that pun :) I spent a lot of time thinking how I wanted to present Corey. He was comfortable with nudes, and excited to do them. Immediately, I saw him in this 1930s Okie Dust Bowl-era theme, not just because he's from Oklahoma, but because that's what I see when I look at him - this unique, stunning face from another time, who I can see in editorials and spreads for Givenchy, YSL or Prada. And I wanted to push the envelope with the nudity. I am undoubtedly desensitized to nudity, but as I've said before, I really am over images where the dude has their hand over their junk. To me, that's a message of shame about male nudity and I abhor that.
I wanted to do something bold, where there's no shame, no fear, and Corey was eager and willing to oblige. And I got to tell a little story about my own sexual fantasies and experience from growing up in Oklahoma...being nude and discovering my own sexuality in sunlit barns on hot summer days.
Boys In The City
-Last year your first book, and the companion calendar ‘Boys In The City’was released. What was the process like for you? Was it difficult to edit out models and shots you loved? What was it like seeing the final product for the very first time?
Well, I cried when I got my first copies in the mail...I was so thrilled. I have a copy that most of the men have signed and written notes over their shots, and it's probably my most treasured item...one of the things I'd run out with if the house caught on fire. Working with Bruno Gmunder was a wonderful experience. It was a tremendous effort on both parts,and the creative and editing team was very patient with me. Certainly, I had particular feelings about a lot of the images as we chose the final cut...and there were compromises on both sides, which I was willing to do because I understood from the first day that this is a business endeavor on their part, that they have a product to seel. And I respected that. And they respected a lot of my wishes as to how my vision would be presented. It still makes me immensely happy.
-Boys In The City seems almost autobiographical, a documentation of what you see, feel, experience and enjoy about living in New York, is this a fair statement?
It is absolutely. It's a visual record for me of the men I've met and the places we've been, and my life as I've grown into the man I am. And how New York affects people, how they move in and out of it, and how there's always a new crop of fresh-faced young people landing here in pursuit of their dreams. New York itself is a major character in the book...particualry shoots that transpired in my neighborhood, around the High Line park, the MeatPacking District. This is my part of the world, and I loved presenting it to a wide audience.
-Is there another book in the planning stages?
Yes. I'm shooting a lot more nudes lately, towards a second, more mature book. It's based around the blown-out signature style, and around a theme of sexual heat, however you may interpret that. I don't want to give too much away...but I've been giving it a lot of attention.
-In almost every shot I have seen with you in it, your have a huge grin. You seem to love your life/work. What if anything makes you angry?
Well...part of that is because I become an absolute goofball when I have my own picture taken. I can take anybody's picture, but having been a fat kid growing up, to this day, at 48, I can be a little uncomfortable having my picture taken. But I do love pictures of myself with family and friends. I'm blessed with a great life, and have been very lucky as well as very driven, and have created this life for myself. I also have a "day job" Mondays thru Thursdays producing charity events, which I've done here in New York City for two decades. That job is tremendously stressful, because I'm responsible for everything from raising a lot of money to picking the menu for 600 people or more...to staging concerts and celebrity involvement. So I run quite a bit in the fashion, media, and business worlds in NYC, each of which is known for anxiety and an unrelenting pace. Waiting for people who are late makes me crazy. I have no patience for helplessness, or waste. And injustice really makes my chili hot, as my mother would say.
-Curious, I know your passions also include sports and of course travelling. Besides ‘tourist’ shots have you shot models in other countries and cultures. Curious as if you see a difference in perception of shooting in other places?
When I was in Paris and Provence in August, I was trying to set some things up but I became more attracted to documenting Paris, so I just went with that. But London is my favorite place on Earth, and I'm mad to shoot there. I'm an enormous, obnoxious Anglophile...even have a Union Jack toilet seat and a God Save the Queen pillow from the Buckingham Palace gift shop. And Paris is a close second. I shot some friends recently there for their portraits, in a small village near Aix en Provence. These people are among the most special to me, and so that was very meaningful to have this backdrop of Cypress trees and lavender and centuries-old towns. It's all about light for me, wherever I go...so I nose around or stumble upon places that speak to me and then set something up. The shoots I love the most are ones where there's an adventure to be had by both model and photographer....it creates a bond and some excitement.
-Is it hard to turn off the ‘photographer’ when not working or on vacation or are you always seeing prospective subjects as you go through your day?
My amigo Benjamin Godfre got me addicted to Instagram now, and while I'm over Facebook and I don't Skype or Tweet, I've become a bit addicted to posting random photos throughout the day. My best friends and I are spread out across both coasts, and each year we travel together en masse and it's usually up to me to document the trip. And I love that. We just spent August in Paris and Provence, with some time in London...and I took around 700 shots. I am passing out my card to prospective models and making connections with models and agencies in places I visit the most - LA, Miami, London, Paris, Greece - and I'm lining up some exciting things in the near future.
-The internet is full of sites, blogs and now tumblr’s right clicking, saving and posting the work of others. How do you handle seeing your work places you would rather it not be?
It's fine, really...I don't mind anymore. Aside from loving the "marketing" impact of my name over an image, initially I wanted my logo to be prominent to combat all the sites that were stealing and re-posting my work. Now, I think I have a recognizable style and plan to move out of that pretty soon, particularly for more print work...which is my direction. What remains difficult for me is when a model will Google their name and see our work alongside ads for sex sites or dildos. I cringe...because I don't want them to be uncomfortable or for their families to give them grief...which does still happen. There've been models who ask me to take down an underwear shot, because their male friends are teasing them. I tell them "they won't tease you when your photo is on the Calvin Klein Underwear box." But those types of guys don't last very long, because they care too much about what others - non-professionals - think.
-I was impressed with your stance on the hypocrisy and double standards you described on your MM page, what prompted your writing this and do you see this as getting any better?
Oh...well...modelmayhem has driven a lot of new faces and a lot of business my way. But it's a business, out to make money through subscriptions, and they have over 600,000 members now. But as such there's no proper filter or panel of judges, perhaps, to discern talent from ridiculousness. Routinely, I post an image of a guy that may show a slight glimpse of pubic hair, or a bit of ass. And I get my wrist slapped, and a "mature" rating is given to the image, or if it's my chosen avatar, it's pulled down and I get a nasty note saying how improper it is. But women are allowed to show their breast regularly, or much more. And after seeing a few too many vulgar, tasteless images of overweight women flossing their crotches with pencil-thin thongs n a vulgar way that frankly I think is debasing to women, I posted a note saying "...it's increasingly troubling to see that, like the puritannical conservatives...there's an ongoing double standard on nudity or implied nudity...let's give men and women equal merit, and equal respect." I am not anti-woman. I get asked all the time why I don't shot women...and in my other gig I have raised literally millions of dollars for a woman's rights organization, and would call myself a feminist. But I won't stand for this homophobic attitude that anything with women is fine...but male sexuality and nudity is off limits.
-Do you have a bucket list of models you still want to shoot? Who would be on it?
Of course...David Gandy, actors Ryan Gosling and Paul Walker, and I've always loved Will Chalker and Josh Wald. Of the people I've met recently, but not yet shot, that took my breath away, it's Max Silberman and Kaylan Morgan. I'm envious of the work some of my friends have done of them. And then one or two guys from my gym would be on that list!
-What was the best compliment anyone gave you about your work?
A lot of straight men will tell me that I've made them look at men differently. That's what I've set out to do: break down barriers between gay and straight when it comes to male beauty. I'm not a gay photographer...I'm a photographer who happens to be gay. And when guys tell me that I've given them their best shot, that I pulled something out of them that no one else has been able to do...I love that.
Paul Reitz Official Site