For our Autumn/Winter 2021 issue, we asked award-winning photographer David Taggart to capture Jeff Koons in a way that he’d never been photographed before. The portraits he produced are intimate and raw, revealing the man behind the world’s most expensive and controversial artist. Here, Taggart gives us an insight into the shoot, Koons’ studio and their conversations. All photography by David Taggart
1. What was your vision for the shoot?
To try and capture Jeff Koons in a way no other photographer had. Focus on authenticity. My style is very intimate and revealing. I wanted to try and capture Jeff in this style. When I got the studio and was setting up, I asked Jeff if he had seen my work. He said, yes. I asked if he was comfortable being portrayed in this style. He said, yes and that he was looking forward to the interpretation in my style.
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2. What is the Jeff Koons studio like?
Big. Lots of space. Lots of light. There is nothing intimate about his studio. It is a place where big productions occur. There were 20 – 30 assistants and others around.
3. Did you have a preconception of what Koons might be like before you met him, and how did that compare to the reality?
My perception of Koons was that he was stiff, and very concerned about his public image, which was mainly down to existing photographs/portraits of him. To some extent this was true, however, I believe that I was able to work with him to convince him that he should let me photograph him as if we was in his everyday mode in the studio. He was quite personable, clearly intelligent and relaxed and engaging throughout the session. No pretence.
4. How was the conversation?
Jeff’s first comment when I walked in the door was, “Are there more crew coming?” He was surprised and then, I think, impressed that it was just me, the camera and natural light. He said the last time someone photographed him like that was Helmut Newton, without flash, fill lighting or other equipment. Just a camera and light.
We spoke about his unfinished, and up and coming pieces. We spoke about what inspires him.
I am managing the restoration and programming of a Federal monument, so we spoke a lot about history. He told me about his farm in Pennsylvania and how it had been in his family for generations. We debated where American democracy was born (Philadelphia vs. NY). He also took an interest in my upcoming photographic series, Frames of Humanity.
5. As the world’s most expensive living artist, Koons is used to having his portrait taken but the image we’ve used on the cover presents him in a more relaxed state, without a suit or any of his usual glamour. How did that particular shot come about?
When I arrived his assistants had a linen jacket in a suit bag and shoes laid out for him. I asked if I could photograph him in a different way, the way he would be if he were working in the studio without a photographer present. After a moment of hesitation, he agreed. I believe that walking in the studio with no lights or heavy equipment and getting him to work with me in finding the right light, made a difference. He even commented this to me. I also was able to engage him: keep him talking about topics of interest throughout the shoot. We had more of a conversation than a photoshoot.
6. Did you connect, artist to artist?
When I walked into the studio I let Jeff know that I was not a “commercial” photographer, that my style is much more documentary with an artistic twist. I believe he respected that. We spoke about the creative process. What inspires him as an artist, and what inspires me. I believe the fact that I have other professional interests outside of photography (photography is more of a vocation than an occupation for me) intrigued him: that I do this for the love of the craft. I think by asking or engaging Jeff about his creative process, use of materials, colours, scale and other elements is what caused him to fell like we were two artists conversing versus a photographer shooting him.
The Autumn/Winter 2021 issue is on sale now, globally.