Matthias Vriens

Interview and photography by
Gert Jonkers


Matthias Vriens is a photographer for The New York Times and The Face and dozens of other magazines, and he‘s art director of the Jil Sander ad campaign. He was born and raised in Amsterdam, right around the corner from where I live. The first time we met was two years ago, when I was writing about his spectacular rise from ballet dancer to chief editor of fashion magazine Dutch, to art director at Armani and The Gucci Group. Now he makes photos and he lives in New York City. He‘s kind of obsessed by boys and sex, at least judging from his photos, and we met again in Paris, where we started speaking Dutch until he kind of kept looking for the right words.

Gert: Wanna do the interview in English?
Matthias: I do feel a bit like Karen Mulder when I speak Dutch. English is so much easier for me these days. But isn’t it a bit stupid, since we’re both Dutch?
I wanna run the interview in English anyway, so it would save me a hell lot of time translating the whole thing.
Okay. Are you hungry? Let’s see what they have here. Hm, roasted apricot puff pastry with smoked tea. That sounds lovely. Listen, I really wanna do this interview under the following conditions. I have this enormous big mouth and when I say something and it’s printed, it sounds much more agressive than what I mean to say. People don’t really appreciate that. I have so many people who don’t say hello to me anymore because of that. So I don’t want to talk about Armani or Gucci or Dutch, right?
Sure, fine.
I’ve learned. Recently somebody said to me: people in the fashion business don’t have a sense of humor. First I thought: you asshole, how can you say that, ‘cause I’m in fashion, and I have a great sense of humor. But I actually think it goes for me too, I don’t have any sense of humor. Just like many people around me.
Yeah. Of course I make jokes, little jokes. I can be witty. But that’s no sense of humor.
That’s shocking to find out about yourself.
Yes, but it’s better to be honest about it. So whenever I try to make a joke and it’s printed in a magazine, it’s not funny, and lots of people are offended. I did an interview with Fashion Wire Daily, a while ago. It was juicy, but it caused a lot of damage too.
Your clients ran away.
It’s more like my friends ran away. It will clear up, but…basically, there’s nothing we can talk about today, ha ha ha.
Of course we can. Like, you say you have this gigantic ego. Tell me.
Sure. If I hadn’t had a big ego, I would have stayed in Amsterdam. I’m not saying that you don’t have a big ego because you’re still in Amsterdam, but…do you have a big ego?
I guess so, but I can also be horrendously insecure.
Oh, but I’m totally insecure too. It’s not one or the other. People see this big ego as a handicap, but I don’t. I’ve had a decent upbringing, I can handle it. But yes, I’m a huge egomaniac, otherwise I would have never profiled myself the way I did. I would have worked for some boring magazine.
If you have that big of an ego, the fashion world must be ideal for you. I’ve found out that criticism is nowhere as unwelcome as amongst fashion people. Once you’re critical, you’re out, so everybody’s nice and flattering to each other.
That’s how it works, yes. I hope I don’t have that, though. Of course, I don’t get a boner when somebody says to me: your last series in The Face was crap. I’d rather hear the opposite. But in the end, not everything I do is fantastic. Like, not everything Picasso did was a masterpiece. He painted so much, and a lot of it is shit. Same goes for Andy Warhol. Same goes for me.
You’ve become successful as a photographer extremely fast. Like, in a year and a half.
Yes, and I’m so grateful for that.
Had you expected it to go so fast?
It wasn’t by accident?
You know I was fed up with corporate structure. I had to change, and of course this was a bit of a guess. I went from this huge salary to nothing. Not that I was broke or anything, but I wasn’t really sure, like, when people asked me: what do you do? I was hesitant to say: I’m a photographer. Not anymore, though. I am a photographer now.
Are you interested in all things for only a few years? Ballet dancer, antique dealer, stylist, editor, photographer…
Everybody always asks me that. First, I’ve always worked in the visual arts. It’s not like I’m starting a restaurant tomorrow. And photography fits me really well. It’s very close to my fascination with people, the flirting, the sexual approach. Be it a boy or a girl, I’m always making sexy images. It’s not always divine, of course, what I do. Yesterday I shot for a Korean catalogue. That pays the rent, but nobody will ever see it. I’m not saying they were bad pictures, but of course it’s not the most fantastic series I’ve ever made. Anyway, I’m definitely continuing with photography. I miss making a magazine, though, miss being the editor, miss working with other people on a certain level, collaborating. Now the work is only about myself, and again, I’m a giant egomaniac, but I’d love to do other things as well. But the timing isn’t right. It’s like you said, people will say: look, he’s done photography for two years, he’s already fed up, he’s moving on to something new, he’s starting another magazine, blah blah blah. They’ll say: Matthias is a renaissance man, whatever that may be. And at the end of the day, nobody wants a renaissance man, nobody wants an art director who’s a photographer, a stylist who’s an editor who’s trying to be the artist…
No. I guess it’s jealousy, people feel threatened. Why would I wanna evoke that? Why would I wanna be half photographer, half art director? Okay, I did art direction for the Jil Sander campaign cause Milan asked me. First I said no. Then he said: but Richard Avedon is shooting the campaign. Now, I would be a complete asshole if I’d say no to working with Avedon. I’d never met the man and now we’re working together, that’s fantastic. I get asked for a lot of art direction jobs but I only said yes to Jil. Which doesn’t mean I’m not interested in anything other than being a photographer.
Is it only work, work, work for you?
Oh no, I have much more private life than before. I’m totally in love.
You’ve introduced me to your Italian boyfriend.
Yes. It’s been going on for a year now. I’m very much inspired and in love. Francesco is with me in New York a lot. I’m a difficult person to be with, I know, but so is he.
You’re both egomaniacs?
It’s hard to have a clear perspective on my own character, but I know I’m very intense, and being around me all day can be really really tough. So if you put two of those together, you can drag each other down easily. But I’m very inspired by Francesco. I won’t say I’m a different person, cause I’m still Matthias, but I feel so much better, physically and mentally. If you put an end to an affair that lasted 17 years, like I did, you start questioning lots of things about yourself. I met Pierre when I was 19 and consequently I’d never been single as an adult. So when I moved to New York, two years ago…I love New York, but an American boyfriend is not something I could envision. Also, if you look the way I look, you’re absolutely unsuccessful in Chelsea: I don’t have big boobs, nor pierced nipples nor tattoos nor a shaved head. Look at the way I dress. I thought I’d never find a boyfriend in New York. But that’s where I met Francesco.
I’m gonna make some pictures of you.
No no no.
Just a few. I need a portrait of you.
Really, no. I hate pictures of myself.
Come on.
No. Stop.
You don’t have to pose. Just keep talking.
I really hate it.
Yeah, but you know you can’t really make a magazine if you let other people decide what photos you’re gonna get or not. You should know that.
Okay, I know.
So, you made a collector’s item with the pink Eminem cover of The Face that was withdrawn from the shops, and destroyed, only days after it came out.
Yeah, they put them in the shredder.
So what happened? You turned his red shirt to pink afterwards, and his record company wasn’t amused?
That was your idea of gay humor? Do you believe in the power of pink? The beauty of the pink triangle?
Absolutely not. I don’t believe in gay liberation or gay bonding or whatever. If anything, gay groups embarrass me, I think Gay Pride is a thorough embarrasment. In America people ask: so when did you come out? I’ve never ever come out. I’ve always been gay. And of course I’m grateful for the road that has been cleared by the gay liberation front, but I would never wave a pink flag, or a rainbow flag for that matter. Anyway, I thought the cover with Eminem wearing the pink tanktop looked amazing. I did retouch him, yes, I changed his tanktop from red to pink. Because the logo of The Face is red, and his T-shirt was red. I thought it was a little ton-sur-ton, so, let’s make it pink! He looked like the modern version of Saint Sebastian in that picture, with the armpits up. I thought he looked beautiful and sexy. And I think the publicists should have kept their mouths shut about it, then everybody would have said: hey cool, Eminem’s wearing a pink shirt, may be he wants to do something about his homophobic image. They just shouldn’t have made a fuss about it. But maybe I’m just privileged and I pursue fashion as…‘cause Tom Ford does pink and Helmut Lang designs pink suits for men, and people actually wear that, and I think that’s normal. If I see Eminem wear a shocking turquoise sweater with a matching headband, then I perceive that as much more queeny and much more gay than him looking good in a pink tanktop. Not that it never crossed my mind, of course, like, oh my god, he’s wearing pink. I’m not stupid.

BUTT - 3-b
Two pictures by Matthias Vriens, 2002

I think it’s funny that they ask you for this in the first place. Also when The New York Times asked you to shoot the American soccer team.
That was a particularly funny story. My book was requested by The New York Times a year ago for some fashion story, and the art director called me back a few days later, saying: you’re not gonna do the story, because quite frankly, I’ve never had such a unanimously fierce ‘no!’ as this time around, with your book. I guess I have to take that as a compliment, because apparently my work is in one way or another directional. I always liked the idea of working for The Times, though, ‘cause it’s American. I moved to New York to work for American publications, otherwise I could have stayed in Paris. So this year, Amy Spindler rang me up, to shoot the American soccer world cup what-do-you-call-it?
The worldcup team.
Yeah. Amy said to me: but Matthias, it’s got to be sexy! And I’m like: you’re talking to me, right? I know what sexy is. I thought we were gonna have these huge butch guys with mega legs and mega calfs and mega asses and no way we were gonna have them wear Cavalli and Gucci and fierce pink shirts from Prada, etc. Ann Christensen styled, and actively passively she was manipulating them, like: I think you would look amazing in this turquoise embroidered Cavalli shirt…and they were like, yo, man, this is cool. At some point they were wearing really tight tight pants.
They looked like they were ready for a shag.
My boyfriend says I have the amazing capacity to make people feel comfortable. I didn’t really have to say: spread your legs. I just said: sit down, relax…and then the legs fall open and I start taking pictures and we take off…
Easy. It doesn’t really happen when I take pictures. I mean, you freeze when you see my camera.
Yeah, I don’t know. Last week I did a casting for boys, for a collection story for Arena Homme Plus. Dozens of boys came by at my studio, and I would just take their portrait, and I thought maybe I’ll turn it into a book. We asked them to bring some tidy whitees or whatever underwear, and we told them it’s possibly for a book. Basically, they would sit down on a wooden applebox, very standard. Most of them sit down, put their hands on their cocks, slouch down and do this…stare. Some of them even asked like, do you want me to wake it up? Then of course I say, yeah, go ahead, wake it up, why not. I guess people know I take sexy pictures, they see me as some sort of pornographer. I don’t know why. I don’t consider myself as such a sexy person myself. If I look in the mirror, I don’t think I look like a sex bomb.
But you get the soccer players to look like they’re kind of ready to be fucked.
Well, for me the essence of my pics is that there’s always a certain amount of sexuality, even if it’s a still life. Not that everything turns into something incredibly phallic, but I love life and people and I love sex. I like sexy pictures. I get turned on more by a spark in the eye, though, not by these Chelsea guys with piercings and bubble butts. The visual meatmarket, that is not very me. I mean, I can still imagine that straight guys get a boner from Pamela Anderson, ‘cause she’s the ultimate cliché hooker. If you go to a hooker you don’t wanna see your wife; you wanna see a cheap bitch with big tits and a lot of lipstick. So…the male version of that is a guy with, you know, a waxed body and a bold ass, a bubble butt and a larger than life dick. I can get off on that too. But that’s 5 minutes of wanking off, or less, and then you move on. So personally I get much more turned on by some sort of intellectual approach of what sexuality actually is.
You don’t have a certain, one-dimensional fetish like tennisshirts? Or suits?
I’m a total omnivore, and that goes for the way I work visually, and the way I relate to people, and the people I hang out with. It’s not that I have a specific type of boy or man that I think: oh my god that is so my type. No, I’m an omnivore. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a certain direction that attracts me more than others. I can give you a few examples, very personal, of what turns me on…
Like what?
…but then again it’s none of your business.
Come on.
Let me guess. You’re more into young than old, I would say.
No. My boyfriend is 30 years old. I’m definitely not turned on by a 14-year old. Or, yes, I’m turned on…actually I think that the ultimate beauty is youth. A couple of days ago I photographed this boy, I think he was barely 18, and his skin, his body, everything was absolute perfection. As an older man…my god, that sounds horrible…as a 39-year old, I see the true and honest and pure beauty of a child.
You’d never go to The Bear’s Den here in Paris, to pick up a daddy-type?
Well, I’ve had sex with fat men, if that’s what you’re asking. Not obese, but still, big bodies. But as a photographer, I try to work with perfection.
Have there been any jobs that you’ve been totally unsuccessful in?
No. People hate it when I say this, like, oh my god you’re such a genius…but for instance, if I would decide to open up a restaurant tomorrow, I know it would be a success. People think that’s blatantly arrogant, but I’m just far too pushy not to make that happen.
Never some job that didn’t work out, then?
No. I would have been a terrible ballet dancer, though, ‘cause my body is too rough, my knees don’t really stretch, my feet are not really that perfect. But I broke my leg, and that was the end for me.
A friend of mine had you as her gym teacher. What was that?
I was a fitness trainer. After I broke my leg, I had to go through the torturous routine of going to the gym every day, and I really hated the idea of spending all my time and money at the gym. So I started teaching, you know, those fitness classes. It’s fun, it’s like monkey see, monkey do, and I like that. It’s 50 people following your moves. 8 hours a day non-stop. I saved a lot of money like that and I started my first antique store. And one thing led to another. It was good, ‘cause when I broke my leg, I was literally completely lost. I was a ballet kid, I had no other interests – in tv or anything – but ballet. There was nothing else. Plus my mother raised me very much like, if I raised a hammer and a nail she was like no, somebody will do that for you, your gonna hit yourself on your thumb! I felt I was pretty much useless, but quite the contrary is true. Like I said, I was a very successful fitness trainer and a very successful antique dealer. It was a great store.
By the way, weren’t you supposed to be involved in that new gay porn mag Jack! that was supposed to come out last year but still hasn’t come out yet?
Yeah, I took some porn pictures of a hustler that the editor sent me. He could suck his own dick and that sold it for me. I made some great pictures of him.
Him sucking his own dick?
Yeah. Plus, this was in between two boyfriends, I did some self-portraits for them, where I had a couple of boys suck my dick. Basically what you see is somebody’s face with a part of me in there. Which is this giant cock of yours. I’m content with it, but it’s not that huge.
Your work has become more clinical, right?
Has it?
Yeah. You’re still very much focused on amazing shapes and postures – that must be the ballet dancer in you – but the pictures have become more in focus, perfect lighting, really focused on beauty and perfection. Less trashy than it used to be. So, more clinical, I’d say.
I picked up a camera when I was working at Dutch and I used a 35 mm like many other photographers. But I would never sit here at the table and take a snapshot of a dog walking by. It embarrasses me to have a camera in situations like this. I take pictures in a much more private situation. But I also find — and maybe that’s a general thing in photography — if you see who works for the big magazines and for all the campaigns, it’s the bigger photographers. They don’t use a 35 mm. And I feel like I’ve grown out of my 35 mm. So I use medium format, and proper studio lighting. It’s more of a study, instead of click click click. It’s not just taking a cool picture, it takes more time and consideration. I have more time, now that I’m a photographer, to take a more balanced picture. Some people say: oh my god, your pictures have become boring. But I am just a little sick and tired of being branded as a grungy or dirty photographer. It’s not that interesting for me anymore. If you see who works for Harper’s Bazaar: it’s Hiro, Scavullo, Avedon. My boyfriend has done a great project with Scavullo, by the way. You should see his work, he’s a great artist. You should interview him.
What’s his name?
Francesco Vezzoli. He makes films. He just did a film with Bianca Jagger, a remake of Jean Cocteau’s The End of the Human Voice. Really quite fantastic. Anyway, where was I?
Yeah, Scavullo shoots for Harper’s and V, and Richard Avedon shoots the Jil Sander campaign, Helmut Newton is still going at it, Irving Penn. Whenever you see a really beautiful picture in American Vogue, it’s Helmut’s or Irving’s. So for me, I decided, yeah, I’m very serious about photography, I have to grow up, I can’t just take snapshots for the rest of my life. These days everybody’s got a little camera in their pockets, and that’s great, but I wanna move on. I get bored.
Plus, you like big things. You like the big picture, hugeness, grandness. And you’re a big manipulator.
Yes, I’m an absolute manipulator, not just a little bit, but blatantly aggressive at times. It worked with Eminem. We flew to Detroit, and we waited for him for five hours ‘cause he was bleaching his hair. Five hours is a long stretch. Finally he showed up with this whole posse, a whole bunch of black kids, in order to intimidate me as well. He is, you know, Eminem.
Were you intimidated?
Well, yes and no, but I played the game just as much as he did. We were in this gigantic studio, like a hangar they use to photograph cars, and I built this little black box, where only me and my assistants were in, completely closed off with black boards. So I on my terms intimidated him. There was barely any interaction between us, we barely spoke a word. I didn’t even take any polaroids, I shot 10 portraits in 2 hours, which is very very fast. There was no time to think, and I guess he was intimidated. So, yes, that was all about manipulating.
You didn’t wanna go so far as to put a bed in the studio, see if you could get him to pose on the bed?
No, I’m smart in that way. You smell what you can do and what you can’t do. Somehow I felt this electric field. I’m not saying it was erotic, it was far from that, but there was a contest of who’s cool, who’s powerful, who’s not. And I was totally fine with that. I would have ruined the whole thing by saying: hey dude, let’s do some naked pics. He sensed. By no means is it tatooed on my face that ‘I Am Gay and I Suck Cock’, but he must have smelled it.

Originally published in BUTT 5