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At the end of last year, during Art Basel Miami Beach week in December, Lenny Kravitz was in town not just to check out Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch’s exhibition “Unrealism” and Swizz Beatz’s No Commission art fair (both of which he did attend), but for the opening of his photography exhibition “Flash,” presented by the Leica Galleries and Reiner Opoku. The show had already debuted in L.A.; Wetzlar, Germany; and Vienna, Austria. It comprised 50 images in which Kravitz turned his camera on the paparazzi, photographers, and fans that were trying to capture him on the road. Whitewall spoke with Kravitz about his photography practice, how he stumbled upon this initially annoying first subject, and what else he turns his lens toward.
WHITEWALL: Can you tell us about how your photography practice began?
LENNY KRAVITZ: Well, I started shooting seriously several years ago. I’ve always had an interest in photography. I’ve always been around photographers, and I was always inspired by photography. It started when I was a kid. My dad had a Leica camera that I used to play with but had no idea how to use. I was attracted to the camera and its design. Then when I started making records and started getting shot by photographers, I would get involved with it. I made friends with the photographers and I would go into their darkrooms or studio and watch them work. I thought it was magical. Then Mark Seliger, who is a brother to me, was the first one to really teach me how to use a manual camera. Mark Seliger and Jean-Baptiste Mondino are two photographer friends that really taught me. I started shooting, I went and got my own Leica seven years ago, and then on tour started shooting.
WW: “Flash” captures groups of paparazzi and photographers trying to get an image of you. What initially made you want to photograph this?
LK: That was not the plan at all. I wanted to shoot everything. I was going out to shoot, going to the street to find things to shoot and observe. And this kept happening with fans and paparazzi. In my mind it was a nuisance. I was trying to go out on my days off and shoot, but I wouldn’t get to shoot. I wasn’t able to do what I want to do. So I just figured, kind of as a joke, “You guys are shooting me, I’m going to turn it around and shoot you. I’m now going to examine you guys.” But I wasn’t really taking it seriously and never intended to show these photographs. A year or so later I was in Paris and Jean-Baptiste was asking to look at my photographs. He saw one of these, and said, “What’s that?” And I said, “No, no, no, that’s nothing,” and then I went on to show him something else. He said, “No, go back to that. This is amazing. This needs to be your first exhibition.” And I was saying, “No, these aren’t serious; this is just what happens when I go out there.” And he said, “This has not been done. This is what you should start with. This is your introduction; this is your world.” So it was really his idea.
I began to put together the collection, and then I started to understand and see it, because I wasn’t thinking about it when I was doing it. It is something that happens very quickly when I’m doing it; I’m trying to get from point A to point B and it’s very instinctual; it happens very quickly. But when I began to examine the faces, and the eyes, the dynamics of the photograph, it came together—I saw it.
WW: There’s a lot going on in the photographs—the expressions you capture, the movement, and some are abstract or obscured by the photographers’ own flashes going off.
LK: I think that if I had been going out to do it on purpose, it would have been a very different thing. I think it’s really great that it was this kind of organic exercise. At the end of the day, as an artist I think you have to take what you are given. We are all given different things, different situations. This was given to me and I ran with it. I took it.
And I shared it, with these people. Funnily enough, it became a thing. People started to know this was my thing. I ended up becoming friendly with some of the paparazzi who were people that I would never normally talk to. A lot of them became more respectful, which was interesting. I was at something in Paris a while ago, I would see these guys, and they’d start to talk to me. “May we take your picture?” It became courteous and respectful. One of the older gentleman, who was a very famous paparazzo in Paris, he died, and he is in one my favorite photographs. The guys came to tell me he had died, how much he liked me. You know, it was an interesting exercise.
WW: Are you always shooting in black-and-white?
LK: Well, I shoot black-and-white and color, but I felt that with these photographs, there was something very Fellini-esque about these shots. It reminded me of Fellini movies. I thought black-and-white made them even more real and interesting.
WW: What are you working on now?
LK: There are a lot of photographs I have from the last year that I think would be really interesting to show. I like doing things without planning, but at the same time it would be great to have an idea, and go to whatever that place is and do that. So we’ll see what happens. It’s just like music—I never know what I’m going to do. If you ask me before an album what I’m going to do, I have no idea. You just have to find it and it finds you.
WW: Are you always working with a manual camera?
LK: Always. I much prefer it. I like controlling the light and the focus and how I want it to be. It just feels right. It’s like driving a manual car—you are more in control of it when it’s manual. For these photographs, actually, I became quite fast at it. I’m moving, I’m trying to get from one place to another, and I got really fast at it. I don’t have to think about it now. It’s really natural.
WW: You mentioned really getting into photography. Who are some of the photographers you love?
LK: One of the photographers I love so much, Bruce Davidson, to name one. William Eggleston is another. I got to hang out with him a few months ago. I visited him in his house. I spent the day with him and it was quite interesting. He’s about as interesting and eccentric and smart as they come.
WW: Do you collect photography?
LK: Yeah, I have a nice collection of photographs I have been collecting over the years. They are up in my house in Paris and I have them in a place where I will look every day. I pass them and I always get something from them. Obviously, you don’t study them every time you pass them, but you feel them. And then there are times when I look at something for a second, something that I’ve seen a thousand times, but today it gives me something that I hadn’t seen in it before.
This article appears in Whitewall’s spring 2016 issue, out now.