Interview with Jonathan Leder

The photographer + filmmaker + artist
has LA thinking about sex.

Really thinking — as in what the word means, what it conjures when you hear it, and where commercial ideal invades our separate, weird histories. Leder takes nude photos of women who, if they aren’t famous, should be. They would be high fashion photos if the women wore clothes, or were abstract or coy in any way, but the unifying impression they project is that no one has patience for that.

“I think it’s interesting you haven’t asked about her.” Leder sidebars, midway through our chat, nodding at one photo in particular. It’s Emily Ratajkowski, the familiar swell of her lip in a sort of sneer, lounging bare in a nest of tossed flower print sheets. Before she was the other girl in Gone Girl.

The complete exhibition catalog is available from

There’s a bristle in Leder’s question, but the attention Ratajkowski’s shots apparently draw also pulls focus to Leder’s audacious hijacking of newstand craft. The work is glamourous, but these aren’t the uncanny pouts of magazines. These entreaties are different. Direct. Ruder.

I never do ask about Emily, partly owed to my gameplan of being Serious this time rather than how I usually get near expressed eroticism — high school science teacher stuck with teaching the “health” class. Well intended thoughts at too fast a clip, too high a volume. Guess how that goes.

Leder is wry and humoring.

“We did the (gallery catalog) first because it was just kind of easier. When you think about how many pictures there were to edit from…there were somewhere between sixteen and twenty shoots total, each shoot is somewhere between sixty to a hundred pictures. So if we ballpark it at 20 shoots times 80 pictures, that’s 1600. Editing from 1600, which is a fair amount. It’s not, like, a ton…”

Sixteen hundred were winnowed down for his latest exhibition
92 Photographs, spurred west by his muse/significant other/creative partner Amy Hood. As for Leder, his response to any suggestion of masonic intent in 92 (“The catalog was gonna be 100 pages”) is characteristic of a calm, almost maddeningly pragmatic approach to taking photos of astonishingly beautiful people.

“When you make a picture, to make any of these pictures, it’s really just a series of decisions. You’re choosing a model, you’re choosing a location, you’re choosing clothes, you’re choosing a time of day. You’re choosing perhaps a hairstyle, and then you’re choosing a lot of little things. And then a camera and you’re choosing a film and choosing lighting and by the time all those choices are made I can give you the camera and you can take that picture. You really could. If I put you in that situation… I’ve done that quite a bit. Who cares at that point? All (the work) has been done. Sometimes it’s nicer because your framing might be a bit more more fresh. Mine might be overly repetitive because I have over twenty years of experience or even more. Whereas if I just hand the camera to somebody else it’s a bit more spontaneous.”

Leder walks to the back of the space zeroing in on one picture: “I had this old camera…and when I first used this camera with this film, I did not use a flash. But it came out too sweet. The girl on the bed. Well there’s a lot of girls on beds, but you can see a difference…it was too romantic feeling.”

Also from the catalog 92 Photographs available from

Leder used a vintage camera with Polaroid film. There’s a couple of early versions at the show (one of them at left) but something changed when he moved indoors or kept it after sundown, relying on the flash as the primary — sometimes only — source of light. In your average basic tutorial post on art photography the flash is either maligned or engaged only as a functional necessity. Leder’s show/catalog is a clinic.

“This picture and (points) that picture are three years apart. This picture and (points) that are four years apart, and you can see it. At first I didn’t like it because it was on a tripod and too romantic-feeling.”

Leder traces the arc of his experimentation, into greater extremes of contrast or the strange uniform quaintness of a flower printed quilt, chasing the sort of results Diane Arbus achieved with a fill flash until he found what became the collection’s defining look:

Subjects wearing thick black marker lines of shadow, skin like graphite in black & white, or a blooming 1970s Coppertone tan in color. The searing candor, spontaneity, and wanton character Leder records is occasionally hard to look at straight on, or look at without feeling you’ve looked too long, but the world they suggest is a bit easier to comprehend knowing some of these poses were discovered in near darkness, and glimpsed only in flickers.

“We do casting [for models] but I’m not really doing any other commerical work, just by choice…Being naïve and not really understanding the act of voyeuristic participation on the other end is probably an advantage because you’re not self-conscious.”

That said, Leder has a displayed affinity for bohemian hardasses (“She showed up with the motorcycle. Helps when they do that.”)

Leder’s established in New York (he lives and works out of Woodstock) and a zine legend but the secret weapon for scoping talent is likely Amy Hood. She’s funny and disarming and hypnotically probing. She’ll make small talk, pour you a drink, and ask you if your boobs are real. And you will tell her.

Later on, when Leder has wandered outside, she materializes next to him and announces “They’re real.” She and Leder had some kind of silent wager going about one of the opening night guests. “Amy is too smart to be a model, to be honest,” Leder deadpans. In addition to his publishing, Hood is Leder’s most recurring, prolific subject.

Unique psychology notwithstanding, it’s a strong coalition of fantasies repped here. Teenage crush. Poison blonde. Born pinup. The older girl who’d rather drive a crappy car than forego good weed. The imagination runs with a few them. More than a few.

Leder doesn’t really work outside of New York state, but the lineage of closed-curtain living room fetish traces back here, to California, so I’m curious what he’d do here.

“I’d like to shoot out here, I think. I’m in New York with my kids, but maybe. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Amy, but…” Leder cuts the thought short and turns to welcome a guest. Conjured at the mention of her name, Amy joins Jonathan leaning against a parked car and grins at me.

Your fly is down.”

Sure enough.

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