5 Rue Debelleyme 75003

photographs by MATTHIAS VRIENS-MCGRATH

As the influence of the aesthetics of ‘90’s Paris seems to grow and grow, it’s interesting to get a feel for some of the pieces of the puzzle that made up that particular ecosystem. Then, stylists, photographers, creative directors, press agents and designers were working in a freer, closed world, interacting with each other and allowing for chance work and experimentation that is now difficult to imagine. 

But photographer Matthias Vriens-McGrath remembers it well. He discusses the creative mindset that led him to picking up a camera in the first place, as well as the aesthetic spontaneity that reflected a time that was both the end of an era and the very beginning of a now unstoppable regurgitation of imagery fueled by the high stakes multi-billion dollar machine that the fashion industry has become today. 

Matthias: I was born and raised in Amsterdam which is a wonderful city, but definitely too small for where I wanted to go. So after working in fashion for a couple of years, the first issue of Dutch magazine came out, which was founded in the Netherlands and produced and printed there as well. 

It definitely looked like a cool magazine, it was definitely bonkers, it was beautifully printed, large format, so I was interested because it definitely needed work. Richard Buckley became an editor for Dutch as well, and we started working on so many things together. 

We changed the magazine to English and it became global. Little by little, it became a more interesting magazine, and now 20 years later, I think Dutch, to a degree, has become a cult phenomenon, which, for me, is hard to get a grip on!

Debra: It was such a particular time in Paris, in terms of magazines. It is interesting, 20 years later, to look back on it and see that, if you look at the historical context, it really was the end of a creative cycle in the industry. When I say “the industry,” also that term, what does that describe today? 

When you and I say “the industry” we weren’t talking about American Apparel. We weren’t talking about the apparel industry at all. There was less of a differentiation between whether you were a designer, or doing a magazine, or you worked at a press office. 

We were all in it together. And I was looking at things from a purely editorial perspective. There is no such thing as a purely editorial perspective anymore. Now it’s become the opposite. The new approach is, “Ok, let’s come up with a demographic that we can sell stuff to. And then after the fact, let’s think of story ideas that will fit that.” 

Matthias: It is hard to comprehend while you’re in it, and with a little bit of distance you get a clearer picture. I think what was significant for the ‘90’s, coming out of the ‘80’s, is exactly what you just said. Helmut Lang, himself, as the designer wasn’t that different from Jean Colonna, who wasn’t that different from you or me, because we all coexisted within the same structure. 

Debra: Right. 

Matthias: At the end of 1999, a new decade began and Prada had become Prada Group, Gucci had become Gucci Group, LVMH became a gigantic conglomerate, and so on. They have all of these guidelines of what they can, and cannot do, within the stretch of the advertorial/editorial publication world. So everything is dead beforehand. In the ‘90’s we had so much more freedom. 

Debra: There was a lot less money involved overall. I’m looking at these first pictures that you did in that context. What was it that we were expressing? And when I say “we” I mean whether it was Yohji, or if it was you through what you guys were doing at Dutch magazine. What were we doing? What was it? 

Matthias: I don’t want to sound like some kind of loose Dutch hippie, but things were far more organic. I started taking pictures because as an editor, art director, and creative director at Dutch, working with photographers, I had my own idiosyncratic outlook on things. So I get in my head and I go, “Can I do this better?” I am a firm believer that if you criticize something you first have to think, “Could I do better? So I am a firm believer that you can criticize, but criticize yourself at the same time. 

As I increasingly started to get an itch, I picked up a camera, which was a pretty different thing than now because we did not have cameras in our phones. So you had to buy film, develop film, shoot film, all of that was definitely something you had to get to know, figure out and master. So I bought a camera and I started taking pictures. I must say that the minute I started directing somebody, looking through that camera, I got so fucking excited because it was the closest thing to sex to me! 

If I were to look at you right now, if we were sitting in front of each other, and I said, “Debra lick your lips, tilt your head, arch your back, show me your little toe,” and if you didnt know me, you would punch me in the face. You would think,“That’s a little pervy.” Yet with that excuse, with that barrier, with that screen that you have as a camera, you can, because you are directing somebody into your fantasy, into your picture. 

So for me that was like boner material. Whether that was a girl or a boy, it was equal to me, and it is still equal to me, to a degree, even as a gay man. So the sexuality, since my work revolves around sexuality and sensuality always, I became instantly a photography junkie, which in a way I had always been, but more from an editor’s point of view. Becoming a photographer myself, I think, was one of the strongest emotional happenings in my life. Subsequently, I am still doing it 20 years later, which is by far the longest I’ve ever done anything. 

In the ‘90’s, things were far more organic. I just picked up a camera and started doing it. I am sure Jean Colonna just had a couple of rolls of fishnet and started hacking into it, not thinking, “Is this going to sell?” No. He was only thinking, “How can I make this slutty girl look sluttier than the previous one?” 

Debra: Yeah and we know for a fact that even designers like Marc Jacobs and John Galliano were working that way too. Remember that incredible collection that Marc did, where the pants were like American football player pants with the ties up the back and he played the one song over and over, that Verve song? Bittersweet Symphony

Matthias: Yes, yes. 

Debra: We went to see him after, because the French Vogue team would go do the showroom visit after the show, and I remember him looking at me and just being like, “Yeah I threw that together in two seconds. We only started working on this collection three days ago.” Or something like that. 

Matthias: Looking at my film I’m like, “Wow, this was such a moment.” The models that I worked with were so giving. I have so many great, great pictures just looking through negatives that I’m in awe, I’m inspired, and that makes me very, very happy. I feel that if I take a couple of steps back I’m going to take a hell of a lot of steps forward. To be honest, right now, I’m really really really fucking bored. I’m bored with magazines, I’m bored with publications in general. So I think going back to scratch is the most exciting thing. 

At Dutch, I worked with a lot of very inspirational people. At night I was by myself and I found out that the apartment next door to mine, which was in the Marais, that was before the Marais was as fashionable as it is right now, there was the exact same apartment, a mirror to mine, that had been empty for the last 30 years. 

So in one of my closets I drilled a perfect circle, kicked it through, and crawled through the hole into the apartment, and that became my nighttime studio. So whomever I photographed in there had to crawl through my closet, through the hole, and into this really really dirty apartment. There was 30 years of dust. 

Debra: French dust. Dirty French dust. 

Matthias: Dirty, French, but chic, dust. And so these are the pictures that ultimately were the foundation of my career as a photographer and how I see things now. I truly believe they are the roots of what I do right now. They are raw, they are amazing, they are very very sexy. 

I have always been interested in photographing women as men and men as women, which, in the case of men, is far more shocking. Sexuality is a weird thing and male nudity, still to this day, is so crazy offensive to most people, which is why my Facebook and Instagram accounts get shut down over and over again, or hacked, and all of that shit. 

Debra: It has been a big, big topic of conversation since you sent me those pictures and it has spurred a lot of really interesting conversations from all different kinds of people. What if I love to look at men naked, why can’t I? 

Matthias: It is so interesting what you just said. But then possibly you are a little more emancipated within the stretch of photography than most. I do think it is interesting. It is stupid. If you, as a woman, like to look at dick, then you are probably thought of by your fellow females as a slut. And so what is that? If a man looks at another dick, definitely not a gay man within the gay community, but as a straight man looking at a picture of a nude man, then you are kind of a fag. What is that? 

The word homoerotic is offensive at this point because that is a 19th Century invention that has no relevance today at all. When people know that I am the author of these pictures, and know that I am a gay man, for sure you could call these pictures homoerotic. Now what if you took those pictures? Now they are not homoerotic because a woman took them. But they are the same fucking pictures of the same dick. 

Debra: Exactly. 

Matthias: I do not prescribe to the word homoerotic. I really do find it offensive at this point. As a gay photographer, it is one of the reasons that my career has suffered severe blows because we work, and live, in an entirely homophobic world. 

Debra:...and a sexist world. 

Matthias: ...in a sexist homophobic world, where certain things are so the norm, the way women are portrayed, the way men are portrayed, so going out of that mold is just about as impossible as you can imagine. Not too long ago I was taking pictures for Diesel, for an underwear campaign. I’m working with a British straight art director and he’s going, “Ask the girls to arch their back and pop out their titties, so hot, so hot, ask her to lick her lips.” 

So I am doing these things anyway, but it felt a little pervy, and so I get the boy on set, and he goes, “Oh Matthias would you ask the boy not to look into the lens but off camera.” And I go, “Yeah we have, out of five we have one off camera.” And he said, “No, all. Otherwise it looks so gay.” And I’m like, well that is a kick in my balls right there. What the fuck is gay about a man looking into the lens? 

Debra: To me that is not gay. To me, it is all just a matter of taste, right? It’s like you can show women tied up, all in latex, S&M vibe, whips, 50 Shades of Grey; all of that is ok but you can’t just have a picture of a guy and you can see his dick, and nothing is going on with the dick, it’s just sitting there. How does that make any sense? 

Matthias: It doesn’t.

Debra: That bondage stuff is so much rougher and harsher and violent than the pictures that we are talking about, and frankly women are complicit in all of the double standards of nudity. 

Matthias: Of course women, but men just the same, straight men and gay men in a different degree, we are all used to this mold. Fashion it is entirely sexist of course, and to a degree I have worked in that mold as well. However, I like to break that mold once in a while. If you look at Instagram for example, this is just what we’re used to, your reference to 50 Shades of Grey, that’s fashionable and that’s sexy. It’s not sexual, it’s sexy. 

When you see a picture of a bunch of guys in black leather, girls on all fours, shot by Steven Klein, then it seems like a fashion fantasy and has no connection to the fact that that girl is going to get gang raped. So, you know, this is what we’re used to. A couple of years back

I had a T-shirt company that was called Bling, and it is all naked boys and girls with either the Bling logo over their pussy or their dicks. These pictures are such fire. I have this one picture, it’s a black boy from Africa, he is holding his penis with one hand, the other hand he is making a peace sign and he has the most magnificent magic smile. It’s all teeth. It is one of my favorite pictures because he just looks happy. 

That picture is erased off Instagram every single time I post it in less than an hour. Why is that? That is not only sexist, it is racist. But search #killfags on Instagram. You will see videos of fags being thrown off the roof in Iraq or Iran. That is left on, so I’ve made my case. And so I have just carved out my work for you. That is the essence of my work. I love skin. I love people, I love sex, I think sexuality still until this day is one of the biggest taboos and I am so happy that you are publishing my pictures, dicks and all. 

Debra: Should that be the title, “Dicks and all?” 

Matthias: These pictures are still very very honest today. 

Debra: Did you have a team and a crew or was it just you and them?

Matthias: No, that was the magic! I had a bottle of Neutrogena sesame oil so everybody would wash their face and top it off with that oil so there was this light sheen, no mascara, not even on the girls. There was this one Australian kid, his name was Brad Fitts, I have no idea where he is right now, he is in several of the pictures and we just hit it off. He had no problem being naked, we would take two bottles of red wine, smoke, drink, and just take pictures for like six hours long sometimes. 

He’s the one with the dirty feet because we would walk around barefoot, naked, and take pictures, and talk, and drink wine and have fun. There was no hair and makeup. If there would have been a digitech, you know, an assistant, that intimacy would not have been there. It was me and a girl. It was me and a boy. There were never more than two people. That’s how you get these incredibly intimate pictures. 

Debra: Yeah. And again, that is why a lot of what we do leans hard on documentary photographers, for the same kinds of reasons. It’s about grabbing something real out of the world. And the way I shoot is the same way. Even when I was shooting for Italian Vogue I would go on trips with no assistant or anything and that was always the rule of thumb, the fewer people around the better the pictures were going to be. 

If you had said, “I brought this charcoal because I’m going to put it on your feet because we’re going to try and make it look like we have dirty feet,” you know what that would have looked like. Obviously there was something that you were capturing then that was also reflective of your life at that time. 

Matthias: Also those pictures, most were from a catalogue I did. Kuki de Salvertes had a press agency called Totem and he discovered so many people: Dirk Van Saene, Olivier Theyskens, Jeremy Scott, Raf Simons, Véronique Branquinho; you name it. Everybody was there around that time. In 1997, I had just started taking pictures, and Kuki de Salvertes asked me to make this presentation of all of his designers into a little catalogue. It was not a commercial thing, I did not make a penny on it. The majority are taken in the apartment, that hole through the wall. 

I owe a lot to Kuki because he saw something in my pictures. He was the first one who supported me within that stretch and gave me this job. Looking back at this catalogue I still think today it holds up tremendously. I am so in love with these pictures. They are timeless. It is the perfect time capsule that you are reopening right now. I really do think there is something magic about that time.

*listen to the podcast interview