“Sometimes with a photograph, it feels like you could blow on it and it would disappear. The digital camera sees so much and everything becomes so sharp, you lose that experiential quality.” Peeling back the layers of synthesised American culture to expose a simpler beauty, Jonathan Leder is one of a growing number of photographers rejecting “cheap and nasty” erotic imagery in favour of something more sophisticated. “The problem with things being crystal clear is that they leave nothing to the imagination.” His equation for a good photograph is simple – an all-American girl, film in his Canon, soft light, an inspiring location, and a moment.
Conjuring hazy summer days and dewy nights in suburban America, his images hark back to an uncomplicated, idealistic vision of the past. It’s an ideal that Jonathan takes very seriously, casting models in the same way as directors would cast for a film. “I like faces that connect me with an experience I have had at one point or another. The models I choose do trigger some sort of psychological memory. I’m not Russian and I don’t speak Russian, so I can’t communicate with Russian models or understand what their culture is – there is a disconnect at even the most basic level. I’m not saying I need to go to dinner with every model I shoot, but I do need to meet them first. A certain amount of trust and intimacy is important to create a picture that is representing trust and intimacy. It’s one of the hardest things to fake.”
This intimacy is one of the first things you notice when you look at Jonathan’s photographs, as well as how cinematic they feel. Every image tells a story. Jonathan tries to keep each shoot as informal as possible. “If we want to take a picture, let’s get in a car and drive somewhere one-on-one, relax, take a picture.” The rest of the story, he explains, tells itself. “Although they are a bit romanticised with the curvy girls and the tits and the open mouths, there’s a certain amount of honesty in the pictures. I feel very strongly about bringing out a human quality. That’s what I like the most about them.”
A native New Yorker, Jonathan first worked as a fashion photographer for Nylon, A4, Sleek, and Metal. He took the bold step of setting up his own erotic magazine with his wife, model and dancer Danielle Luft, shortly after the birth of their son in 2009. Unfortunately, personal issues between Jonathan and Danielle brought the magazine to a halt, and it is now defunct. “At the time, my wife worked as a stripper in Tampa and then as a Burlesque performer at The Box, here in New York City. She models for Bruce Weber and Terry Richardson, so she definitely has an understanding of sex appeal. When we started the magazine, I was 36 and she was in her early 20s. We were approaching it from two different generations, but we agreed on nearly everything. She was very enthusiastic about it, but then she’s slightly less heterosexual than I am.” The magazine, Jacques, aimed to bring a little top shelf titillation to the tasteful middle shelf fashion and arts magazines – or perhaps the other way around – and was free of retouching and digital enhancement. The lens was predominantly pointed on females but, thanks to taking an artistic view on erotica, the magazine had a distinctly unisex appeal. “There was a need for a publication that approached erotic subject matter in a different way, less commercial. If you are a publisher, or putting any cultural being into existence, I think you have a responsibility to make it as good as you can.” Jacques refused all advertising, fashion crediting, top models – anything that could be seen to be selling something other than the aesthetic. Launched at the break of the economic downturn, it was a risky move, but the publication seemed to thrive through its insistence on keeping financial motivations out of the equation.
He’s not publishing anymore, but Jonathan hasn’t given up on his photography, although having to compromise his vision for clients is not something he relishes. Fashion is a bit of a dirty word. “I do need to earn money but, at the same time, it is a bit painful for me. What I enjoy doing is shooting Britany Nola in a trailer park in Florida. I do okay with a little white wall for five minutes but it gets boring very quickly. I did a job for a magazine recently, 16 pages of coats. I mean, honestly, I just don’t care that much about coats, and I think it’s kind of gross, the money that is wasted.” He’s also nonchalant about working with big names, preferring to shoot with amateur or undiscovered models. “If I shoot somebody who nobody else has worked with, then that’s my picture. It has more longevity, too, because you see the picture rather than the model. I also think inexperience in the models makes them attractive to the viewer because there’s that palpable tension they can feel, and a spiritual shyness in their eyes.”
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.
See more of Jonathan’s work on his website.