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interview with Harri Peccinotti

Sunday, April 21, 2013

LONDON - The legendary photographer of Beady Eye's new album. Harri Peccinotti from the old-school Italian: groundbreaking graphic designer, musician, purveyor of the flesh, outlaw photographer, erotic connoisseur, rule-breaker extraordinaire. Every photographer who’s made a career out of taking sensual and erotic photographs of beautiful women owes a big debt to Harri Peccinotti. He was the first person to consistently capture the sexuality of everyday activities on camera: subversively pleasing sights like girls carefully sucking on Popsicles, close-ups of butts on bike seats, and California beach bunnies unknowingly shot with long lenses. The master lensman who, in 1968, after completing an assignment in Vietnam, photographed the now legendary Milano Pirelli pinup calendar, that paired love poems with photographic interpretations of the verses. He was, of course, invited back. This time Harri proceeded to up the erotic factor by featuring the aforementioned California girls in various states of undress—all girls he met while cruising the beaches.

Do you remember the first photo you took just for fun?

I took a lot of pictures in Holland because I was interested in the painter Mondrian. I used to go to Vlissingen when I was about 18 and go to where the trees that Mondrian used to [paint]. There’s the first tree he did. So I used to take photographs around Vlissingen, just people on the street and everything.

While you trained in graphics, you also played in a brass band in London. 

I used to play trombone and tuba and string bass. After two or three years in learning graphics, I changed and spent about two or three years professionally playing music. Then I was disillusioned with it all and I didn’t ever go back. Unfortunately, I haven’t practiced much since which is really stupid. Now I regret it, of course. But there are lots of little things I regret. I wish I had gotten into movies, I wish I had bought a house. I have a lot of what-ifs, but anyway, here I am.

You designed album covers for jazz artists on Esquire Records. Who were some of the biggies?

Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were all graphic things. They were not photographs at all. I got paid five pounds and you had to do all the overlays. I couldn’t go to America and photograph Miles Davis. And also, record covers at that time were drawings and things. They were not like they are now.

It must have been exciting to work in the 60s as the Sexual Revolution took flight. 

I suppose it was exciting, but maybe it’s an exciting time now. You don’t know until later, really. Even in the 60s you didn’t understand it was as exciting as it looks now. I think I [shot] the first nipple [to appear] in a calendar in 1968. That was the beginning of a sort of freedom, the idea that you didn’t have to get married, you could live with somebody. It was a real break from the 50s in England.

The “nip slip” to which you refer happened on your first Pirelli calendar shoot in Tunisia, right?

Yes, but it came naturally. I mean she didn’t have any clothes on. It’s just that I cropped somewhere where her nipple showed, that’s all. There’s a girl in a white t-shirt [in another photo], who was a friend, and through the t-shirt you see a black triangle, and they retouched it out. So it wasn’t that free even then, not for Pirelli anyway. Then, of course, a little bit later you could do complete nudes. Then it was, ‘If it hasn’t got nipples and crotches, then it’s not worth doing!’ There was no money when I did our Pirelli calendar. We didn’t have a hairdresser or a makeup artist, nothing. In America I didn’t even have models! I just used girls on the beach.

Why did you choose California as the location for the 1969 edition of the calendar?

I had been there two years before working on a film called Chappaqua and there were beautiful girls everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. When we finished the one in Tunisia I said, Oh, why don’t we go to California and just do it on the beach? So I talked them into it. Everything you ever read says the calendar was shot in Big Sur but it wasn’t. I did go to Big Sur to see William Burroughs before the shoot and I think that’s where the rumor got started. Anyway, it was shot around Los Angeles, Venice Beach mainly.

How did you find the girls?

When I was working on Chappaqua there were thousands of girls, but when we went there for the calendar there were none around because it was the school holidays. There were enough girls but quite difficult. And if you look, they’re the same ones. It’s just a little group we got to know. I bet a lot of them don’t even know they’re in the Pirelli calendar. I mean where would they ever see one? They’re just girls on the beach in ’68. You take their pictures and then you go away and they don’t even know if you were genuine or not.

Chappaqua featured a lot of members of the Beat Generation, like William Burroughs, whom you met during production. Were you part of the Beats?

Everyone was in it—Allen Ginsberg and Burroughs, Ravi Shankar, Grateful Dead. I spent six months in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hills Hotel and had nothing to do because the film came from Paris and was stopped at customs in America. It took weeks and weeks before they freed it. I used to go out with everyone and every Thursday I used to have a party in my room because I had expenses to get rid of. I was friends with people from Buddha Records so they would come and then maybe just the girl from the reception. Sometimes there were musicians.

Did you jam with anybody famous?

I played with the Mamas and the Papas. There were lots of groups all just wandering around stoned saying, ‘You’re free. Come play.’ I did recordings with the Lovin’ Spoonful, too.
(band from where the lazy fuck Noel Gallagher copied the lyrics for The Death of You and Me - and music copied from Pino Daniele - heard him in his travels to South Italy)

You even bought photos of a woman giving birth.

They didn’t want to do it. I bought the pictures without authority and you couldn’t buy a copy. It sold out within 10 minutes! In those days it was really quite a shock to see something like that.

You were among the first to use black models in fashion photography. Why was it important to you to help break through that barrier?

If a girl is beautiful, whether she’s black or white or whatever color she may be, I don’t see any difference at all. I was completely anti racial nonsense. Several times I asked to use some model who I liked a lot, who was black, and they’d give me really bad reasons like ‘Advertisers wouldn’t advertise,’ so at Nova I used to overdo it and I got into trouble a bit. They would say, ‘Don’t you ever use white models? What are you
trying to do?’

A lot of the models were your friends, right?

Yeah, I always used friends. At that time, editorially, I would never use a male model just because I don’t like male models. I like female models.

How would you describe your style?

I don’t know that I have a style. I’m probably a bit more closeup, or I used to be. I was always thinking graphically, to fill the screen. I didn’t like loose space hovering around the edge at that time, and then I was called “Mr. Close-up.”

You encouraged women to let their hair grow in one of your photo spreads for Nova.

I took a photograph of a crotch and it’s a double -page spread. I told the editor it was an underarm, and it says ‘Keep your hair on,’ or something like that. I always said I like girls with hair under their arms. I’m from the old-school Italian.

And judging by the length of your beard, the same rules apply for men.

I just grow a beard because I don’t want to shave!

How do you make women feel so comfortable enough to pose nude?

Maybe I’m no threat. Who knows? Now I’m like their grandfather, whereas then there was some rapport between us. I don’t even realize I look 90 years old but obviously to them I could imagine I’m a sort of ogre taking their picture. A lot of the people I’ve taken pictures of I know very well. Now I don’t have a friend who’s a model. Or they’re just too old to take their clothes off!

Some years ago, you released a book, H.P., which offers a look at your work over the last several decades. What are some of your favorite images from your career?

I have a favorite fashion picture, which is not actually a fashion picture: a girl in Africa wandering along who was so elegant and beautiful. I remember taking [photographs of] birds flying. Things like that stick in my mind. I still like the pictures. They’re not great or anything but it’s something that gave me incredible pleasure at the time.

What always shines through in your photos is that you love women.

I don’t necessarily make them look beautiful, which is something else. I’m not very good at that. I can make them look as they are. I don’t have a skill for making them look really beautiful.

Is there anybody you want to shoot that you haven’t?

I think Kate Moss is great but I’ve never taken her picture. There’s something about her that looks natural all the time, which I quite like. I like models that don’t look too much like models. She does, but she doesn’t. And I’m sure it doesn’t matter how you take her picture, she’s going to look great. You don’t need to be a wizard.

What’s next for you?

I think it’s just going to roll on. I have thousands of transparencies I haven’t sorted through that I’ll try to.

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