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By Raffaella Tomassi
For someone who claims to be shy, an American flag-print onesie is a bold choice for a visit to The Oxford Union, particularly when paired with a portable pink neon sign that reads, ‘PEROU’. But Perou is all about the brand. From the blink-and-you-still-can’t-miss-it outfit to the nonstop twitter updates, he makes it difficult to look away. And whilst some of his images are undeniably uncomfortable to look at, they are all in pursuit of the same thing: the person inside the body. But as a fashion photographer, Perou is tasked with paying attention to the body, or the “husk” as he dismissively terms it. We spoke to Perou at the Oxford Union on reconciling these two halves of his professional identity.
For a fashion photographer, Perou doesn’t seem particularly enamoured with the industry. Yet whilst it’s clear that he sees himself as a photographer and the ‘fashion’ prefix is for moneymaking effect, fashion does occasionally give him scope to capture the characters he loves. Talking about a recent 16-page shoot, he commented that, “For me [that] is a good amount of pages and makes the biggest amount of impact, and I can do the most and say the most because it’s an open brief. So in that respect I really love doing fashion stories because I can tell stories… I love clothes but I’m not in love with the industry of fashion and the bullshit that goes on in fashion. I see myself as in it but out of it, innit.”
Perou and fashion meet in their fixation with theatrics, but diverge when it comes to following trends – “If I was photographing couture stuff that was amazing, I’d be excited about it, but not what’s hot this month.” So he’s decided to start his own magazine, a “vanity project” which will have a fashion story, “but basically none of the fashion will be purchasable – it will be handmade, it will have a vibe, but it won’t be what you can buy in shops.” The magazine is a part of Perou’s own brand of anti-fashion fashion, in which “People who follow fashion aren’t fashionable.” To illustrate his point he lays into this season’s love of candy colours – “Someone told me the other day, ‘Pastels are going to be big this summer,’ I’m like, ‘F**k off’, ‘Black’s the new black,’ – ‘F**k off!’” It just doesn’t fit with his way of fashionable thinking, a way that prioritises difference above anonymity. On his own sense of style he comments, “I’ve always dressed to be noticed… it’s my mantra. We are not all the same; variety is the spice of life. We should all dress different. We should all want to be British eccentric nut-nuts like we used to be.”
So he might not always be excited about the clothes, but can he get excited about the models? Although he quips, “I’m often excited about the models, sadly,” Perou isn’t talking about the clotheshorses of this world. He’s very specific about the type of model he likes to work with – “A model has to be alive and be a spirited person, so I hate photographing beautiful boring women.” Instead Perou’s favourite girl is the one, “who is maybe unconventionally beautiful, or beautiful in a different way, but has a real sexuality and understands about her body and her femininity… The clothes that she’s wearing come alive.” Essentially, he says, “I’d like to photograph the women that I’d like to be making out with,” not the models, “who just think they’re pretty because somebody’s told them, and they look in the mirror and they see themselves as pretty whereas they’ve got nothing going on.”
Despite Vogue’s recent commitment to banning images of unhealthily thin women, Perou doesn’t see his ideal woman becoming the industry standard. He mockingly parrots fashion’s unconvincing protests of, “Plus size women would be better and we should have real shaped women,” immediately pointing out that, “Real shaped women don’t fit in stupidly cut clothes. The only way those stupidly cut clothes look good is if you put them on a clothes hanger, i.e. super skinny models. Do I want to sleep with a super skinny model? No. Do I want a curvy beautiful woman to be around? Yes. As a person I prefer shapely women to stick thin women, but shapely women don’t make unshapely, badly cut clothes look good.” When it comes to models, Perou only has creative control in his studio, on his time, and at his expense. The photographers may set the trends, but they have to play by the designers’ rules.
The power play in a shoot can vary depending on whether he is shooting for a designer’s advertising campaign or doing an editorial piece, in which case Perou says he will “dictate everything that happens – the clothes, hair and makeup. I choose the stylist, I tell them what I want and I reject what I don’t like.’ When shooting an advertising campaign Perou must defer to the designer, “they have complete say.”
Shooting Vivienne Westwood’s recent collection was relatively pain free as she took a hands-off approach, “She just gave us a load of clothes and let us do our stuff”. But Perou notes, with a wry laugh, that she wasn’t involved in the shoot until “at the end, going, ‘No. This picture that you’ve finished and retouched perfectly… I prefer this one with all the lights and ropes and everything else.’”
Apart from demanding designers, there are other threats to a photographer’s control on set, Perou explains. “I’ll be really focussed on something and a stylist will come in and go, ‘I’ll sort that out because it’s backwards!” Shooting celebrities can also ensure a bad day at the office. Perou’s raw image of Courtney Love seems to have been one of the most difficult shoots he has ever done and he remarks, “I only told you a small portion of how difficult she was…” and it is impossible not to believe him. However, at the other side of the spectrum, what he finds infinitely more difficult to work with is “beautiful, boring women”. For him, “The thing that’s really terribly obstructive is when somebody just stands there and doesn’t do anything. If they’re mental then that’s great because they’re bouncing off the walls so you’re going to get a good photo, they’re not just standing there doing the same again. On the TV show there are bits where I’m just going, ‘Move! You’re wasting my time. I’m having to exert energy telling you to do something else!’ There is no doubt that despite all of these obstacles, Perou loves his work but “at the end of a day’s shooting I’m absolutely exhausted. I’m like a beaten man… It’s just the concentration on what’s going on.”
Perou comes across as a photographer who knows exactly what he wants out of a model, a stylist, the makeup artists and ultimately the shot. His self-possession is apparent not only on set but has been instrumental, he says, in getting to where he is today. He landed a role as a judge on the television show Make Me a Supermodel by sheer confidence. “I went in and said ‘I am the man for the job.’” In a pinstripe suit complete with bizarre glasses and jewellery at a time when other photographers worse jeans and T-shirts and accompanied by his assistant, professionally dressed in a pencil skirt and carrying his briefcase for him, he apparently instantly convinced them to give him the job. For Perou, sloppiness is not an option and when he needs to, he will dress to impress, with prolific results.
“American Esquire called me – I didn’t take my book in to see them. That’s a huge deal. There are hundreds of thousands of photographers they could have called. I hadn’t pitched to them! That’s on reputation. That’s the pink neon sign.” He uses this, “bravado bullshit” as he terms it, to create a memorable character, almost a caricature of himself. “I’m a very shy person, so this whole thing is like a front that I can put out there and get work from.” He speaks like a man who truly believes in the value of photography (unlike many flourishing photographers he still remains devoted to his personal work), but knows you have to play the game to break into the industry.
But look how far his bravado has taken him. Perou still believes he has not reached his apex yet. “I’ve sort of got to the higher end of the middle in terms of my career, whereas people who go the more standard route of assisting a bigger photographer end up much higher but have short careers. My career has been much longer than these people who become suddenly successful and then go suddenly out of fashion. I’m not a fashionable photographer but I am a working photographer and I have been for years.” So there’s still some way to go for this dichotomous photographer, who has battled against the mainstream and found his individuality, “You can relate that to fashion too!” he realises, “You’re so unfashionable, you’re always going to be fashionable.”
Quick Fire Questions:
Oxford or Cambridge?
One of my best friends went to Cambridge and I spent some time there when he was there, but I’ve spoken here… twice and I feel a certain affinity to Oxford now.
Kate Moss or Kelly Brook?
Definitely, definitely, Kelly Brook
Cosmopolitan or whiskey on the rocks?
I think Cosmopolitan. I like really girly, fruity drinks especially when they’ve got umbrellas in – people take the piss out of me but I love a colourful cocktail!
Chanel or Erdem?
Fish and chips or tea at the Ritz?
My dad used to be a chef at the Ritz! I’ve never been to the Ritz so I suppose I should have tea at the Ritz, but I do like fish and chips and I live at the seaside so I’m torn between the two.
Naked or clothed?
This interview was organised courtesy of the Oxford Union