On Being Discovered / Mentored by Icons
When I was a student, David Bowie phoned up, out of the blue. I’d just arrived back in NYC, exhausted from my commute from Princeton, in time to hear, “Some guy on the phone says he’s David Bowie.” A prank call, no doubt. Then, David’s charming voice: “I’ve been following your work for several years and I’m a fan.” I was shocked. Though I’d passionately pursued my photography for years, it was mainly published in underground magazines and I was majoring in cultural anthropology, uncertain of my direction in life.
Bowie became my mentor, launching both my careers: first as a photographer, with the album cover for “Heathen,” then a dozen years later, as a director for my first major music video for his “Valentine’s Day.”
Was it luck, divine intervention? Of course—as is every breath, every being we meet. It was also, without doubt, the result of years of experimentation, creating work that though overlooked by many, was worthy of being ‘discovered’ by an icon.
Indeed, my career was built on intensive collaborations and being discovered – not just by Bowie, but by fashion svengali Isabella Blow, who commissioned my first major fashion magazine covers; by mogul Iman who gave me my first book cover and ad campaigns; by Andy Warhol’s Interview editor Ingrid Sischy, who encouraged my digital experimentation. Later, as a director, I was discovered by fashion icon Daphne Guinness, who starred in my first short film, and by Hollywood producer Rick Schwartz (Black Swan, Gangs of New York) who produced my short film that won Best Film at the International Fashion Film Festival, among others.
These icons worked with the world’s most famous artists—why choose me, a shy, Indian, publicity-adverse nerd (early on) working with a former classical harpist Markus Klinko? It soon became clear that opportunities come with challenges that the usual experts can’t resolve.
Bowie’s first most daunting request: create a cover of the book he was art directing, “I am Iman.” You may ask, what could be easier than shooting Iman, a most extraordinary supermodel? Indeed, problem was, the book was a collection of the most stunning images taken over 3 decades by the world’s most famous photographers – and Bowie had rejected them all. For the cover, he wanted something stronger, more true to the incredible character and brilliance of his wife.
I turned to a discovery of my own: young stylist GK Reid, whose futuristic ideas, global explorations and original approaches inspired me. Together we raided comics, films and fashion archives, and studied Iman, creating a concept of part amazon warrior, part goddess, all woman. Working with Markus we created the images we dreamed of.
Pleased with the results, Bowie said we’d talk soon about his album. A year passed. Then a second unexpected call: David invited us to his studio and immersed us in his music. I was enthralled hearing him sing and being asked my thoughts as he was recording. Post-9/11 the mood was dark, we discussed ideas and his developing lyrics, and intriguing, layered views on the state of the world. Likewise, he studied the details of my images and my cutting-edge digital processes. Now he had a new challenge: “I love what you’re doing with these hyper-real colors and digital effects on these women. I’d like to see what you’d do with the opposite, black and white 20’s darkroom effects, on a man–on me.”
In our many discussions, life and death were always close at hand. Before the “Heathen” shoot, David referenced philosophers and artists from Neitzsche to Man Ray, relating to the fear of the death of God and of society as we knew it after 9/11. The character he portrayed was blind.
To me, a truly great portrait is an image that captures a glimpse of the divine spark that animates its subject. An artist, like a shaman, shares a slice of the connection they felt with the subject, a sliver of both souls, as it were. That’s why discovering and mentoring collaborators is key, to kindle new combinations of energies to inspire each other to creatively thrive.
A dozen years later, when I was a fledgling director wracked with doubt about whether to take time off from photography to fulfill my great passion for film, I was again at a pivotal juncture, when David called: “I’m sorry it’s been longer than I expected. I’ve been waiting for the right moment.” My short films had just begun winning awards. “I’d like you to direct my video, for my favorite song on the new album.” Markus and I again collaborated, GK creative directed.
Though Bowie wanted a stripped-down, simple video, to contrast all his previous works, for weeks we discussed ideas and experimented conceptually together. Our connection was more charged than before with a powerful intensity, exciting, awkward, playful, yet always channeled into the work. David was reserved yet caring, profoundly encouraging yet eager to push beyond my artistic comfort zone. And he let me push him, to perform with a fierce intensity, bringing to life a character so alien yet influentially traumatizing to our society today, from whose point of view he wrote the song: a mall shooter / terrorist / psychopath. He wanted us to try to understand the mind of such a man, to find solutions.
After that shoot, David and I had many discussions of future projects, game-changing disruptive ideas we developed together that would have blown everyone’s minds. But he kept postponing scheduling, saying he’d get back to me soon, when he would have more time.
The afternoon of his death, I was giving a lecture to a large audience at Photo16 in Zurich. As I shared my work and stories, I found myself strangely lingering on David and his incredible importance to my life. Each time we worked together, we pushed each other beyond our comfort zones, to take our ideas to their extremes, to challenge ourselves and everyone else to their maximum and beyond. I will miss so much the excitement of knowing he was always working away at thrilling new projects, that he would call me about when I’d least expect it. I will miss dropping everything to rush to work with him for days or weeks to develop together new visions. And I will be forever grateful for his encouragement of my creativity and belief in my potential, at critical junctures of my life when I was uncertain of my way.