index magazine
indexed

Lena Dunham's hilarious web series. Click here to watch seasons one and two!
gray
Name:
Email:
Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.



Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.


Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.


Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Joe McKenna, 1998

WITH BRUCE HAINLEY


The first time I called his agent at Smile in London, the woman who answered the phone thought I was Joe McKenna.  She said, “Hello, Joe!  How are you?   Kim’s line’s busy.  Just a second.”  This was disconcerting.  For one thing,  I’m not from Glasgow, Scotland, so I don’t speak with McKenna’s Glaswegian accent.  (Usually when I’m mistaken for someone else on the phone, it’s a lady named Ruth.)  And because I was just about to say that I was calling to talk to someone about Joe McKenna it was odd to be mistaken for him.
     Joe McKenna is a fashion stylist, an ohccupation which is sometimes called “fashion editor” and earlier in the century was referred to as “sittings editor” — a somewhat elusive duty which involves the clothing you see, how that clothing looks, and how the model wears it in any ad campaign or fashion spread.  But since his signature style involves sharp, classic, clean decisions, easeful and elegantly unobtrusive, sometimes ominous moods, perhaps he is at his most successful when you don’t know you’re looking at his work.
    McKenna has styled Calvin Klein’s CK One ads for Steven Meisel; Abercrombie & Fitch’s A&F Quaterly; and recent issues of W and the 30th Anniversary issue of L’Uomo Vogue have included his work with, respectively, Mario Sorrenti and David Sims.  Some of his most engaging and enduring projects have been done with Bruce Weber.  (I recommend Weber’s O Rio de Janiero, where you can find a picture of McKenna among the bigger Weber boys.)
    Whatever his strengths as a stylist — he is certainly one of the most influential in the field today — my interest in McKenna was incited after seeing his own magazine, Joe.  A big, luxe, collectible affair with gorgeously produced photos, essays, and interviews, the first issue included rather amazing pieces on Dirk Bogarde, designer Azzedine Alaïa, and model and muse Wallis Franken; it closed with Weber’s notorious photo-essay on the Brewer Twins.  After a hiatus of a good half dozen years, the second issue of Joe will appear this fall.  I recently went for tea and cake with McKenna at Tea & Sympathy and tried to find out what makes him tick.


Bruce Hainley:  Stylists are much less in the background than they were in the ’50s and ’60s.  Do you think that stylists are getting too much attention today?
Joe McKenna:  Mmm ... it’s not that they’re being given too much attention.  It’s just that they’re being given a little too much credit.

BH:  But they ultimately play an essential part in the creation of the image.
JMcK:  The final say in what the final look will be is the photographer’s.  It’s a photographer’s picture.  It’s not a stylist’s picture, or a hairdresser’s picture, or a makeup person’s or a model’s, although all of those people contribute enormously sometimes to it.  But I always feel it’s the photographer’s picture.

BH:  Is there ever a time when you think it’s truly collaborative, that there’s equal pull between all those players?
JMcK:  It would be nice to think that it was a collaborative work, but again, even just talking about it makes the whole process of doing fashion pictures seem more important than it is.  I mean, it has a relevance and it’s fine.  But I just think the more you talk about it makes it sound like it’s such a major contribution to culture — and it’s not.

BH:  So you see a strong distinction between fashion photography and other kinds of photography?
JMcK:  Yes.  Although fashion photography is what I know.  I don’t really know art photography very well.  I look at images very much as a visual kick.  A lot of people read a lot of social meaning into fashion photographs, and I’m very surprised by that.
     Someone called recently about a story that I’d worked on a little bit, and he had read a whole cultural mood-swing into the pictures.  And that’s not what we were thinking when we were working on them at all.  Maybe subconsciously a photographer’s input in a picture does have a relevance to what’s going on culturally with young people, but that certainly wasn’t the intention when the pictures were done.  So it just amuses me when people over-read into the context of a fashion picture.

BH:  Would you mind giving me a specific example?
JMcK:  Mmm ... yes.

BH:  You would mind?
JMcK:  Yes.  Just because I’m not knocking anybody.  If they want to look into it and find those meanings, I just find it a little bit ... [laughs] I wasn’t quite sure where they were coming from on it.

BH:  How did you get started doing this?
JMcK:  I’d always been interested in fashion images since I was pretty young, about 10 or 11.  I’d started buying British fashion magazines, and as I got into my teens, European magazines.  I started seeing the work of Guy Bourdin especially, and it really intrigued me, because I hadn’t seen pictures like that in the fashion context before.  I couldn’t really figure out why there was a girl sitting in a huge silver ball against a pink background made up the way she was and wearing these clothes.  Then I would see GQ, American GQ ...

BH:  This is when?  During the late ’60s - early ’70s?
JMcK:  No, I’m not that old!  Mid-to-late ’70s.  I’d see Bruce Weber’s pictures of athletes, when he first did those athletic fashion pictures, and I was really intrigued, because I couldn’t work it out.  They were far too good-looking to be just normal athletes, I thought, but then they were doing really athletic things that I supposed models couldn’t do.  So I was really intrigued — what was this world, where did these people come from?
     So I’d always been interested in it, and I sort of just started by mistake.  I was living in London at the time and I met a guy called Perry Oltham, and we decided to go and do some pictures in the hope that The Face would run them.  The Face was just starting, and it was a very very cool magazine to work for.  They ran the pictures, and that was the beginning of my portfolio.

BH:  Could you describe them?
JMcK:  They were nice fashion pictures.

BH:  What did the model look like?  Who was he?
JMcK:  I have no idea.  The model was very young.  We found him in the Kings Road on a Saturday.  He was like a 15-year-old kid.  I don’t remember that much about it.

BH:  Was it a street look or was it a highly aestheticized glamour look that you went for? 
JMcK:  No, I don’t think it was a street look, although that was very much the thing at the time.  But it wasn’t really a street look.

BH:  Can you give it a name?
JMcK:  No.  I’m very bad at this.  It’s torture trying to ...

BH:  But you’re very good at what you do.
JMcK:  Well, I enjoy it.  I don’t know how good I am at it.

BH:  When I told people that I was going to speak to you, everyone knew who you were and was pretty excited ...
JMcK:  Well, it’s sort of a letdown so far! [laughs]

BH:  In terms of watching fashion and finding something new, is it going to shows, word-of-mouth, following the magazines, looking in the street, or just your own sense of things?
JMcK:  I think it’s going with your instinct.  Whether or not that’s something you see at a show or in the street, I think you can only go with your instinct when you’re working.  When you sit and think about things too much, the ideas are usually less successful.  But if you’re really thinking about fashion in terms of clothes themselves ... I don’t know where it comes from.  Nobody seems to.  I think it just follows logically every season.  You can second-guess, pretty closely remark where it’s going to go that season.

BH:  Diana Vreeland once said that it wasn’t bad taste you had to worry about, it was no taste.  Do you have fun with ideas of bad taste and good taste — bad taste as a spice that, if used well, is really exciting?
JMcK:  I think in certain moments of the past it has been.  I’m not sure if at this very moment in fashion it would have a lot of meaning.  No.

BH:  Why now is that difficult?  Because too many things are possible?
JMcK:  It’s an interesting moment in fashion, but I think a lot of people are quite afraid.  I think the Millenium has taken on a much deeper meaning than it probably needs to for a lot of people.  The idea of what’s contemporary — it’s no big secret now.  I mean, all the kind of third-rate designers in Italy are showing things very pared-down.  So I don’t think people are going to take that sort of risk and show something that may be a little bad taste, because everybody’s still very concerned about what’s the right thing to do in fashion.  That’s why so much of what you see now is very similar.
     Everybody knows that Minimalism has sort of reached its peak, and we’ve got to go a little bit further with it — taking what still looks pretty contemporary and adding something that makes it seem newer but without using all the old gimmicks that we know all the old references to.

BH:  Do you have a favorite article of your own clothing?
JMcK:  This just adds to how boring I am in this conversation — I wear the same thing every day.

BH:  You do?
JMcK:  Yes.  A white shirt and jeans.

BH:  That’s your uniform?
JMcK:  That’s what I always wear.

BH:  Laziness or comfort or both?
JMcK:  Both.

BH:  And also style?
JMcK:  No.  I don’t have time to think about it.  It’s cheap and when it gets really grubby in six months, I can chuck it away and buy a new one and not have to worry about the Fashion Inspectors.

BH:  A specific white shirt and specific jeans?
JMcK:  Shirts from Banana Republic and black Levis jeans.  And New Balance sneakers.  I’ve bought them for years.

BH:  Apparently there’s a rage now — the suede ones in bright colors.
JMcK:  See, I wouldn’t know.

BH:  You wouldn’t know?
JMcK:  No.

BH:  When you decide to put things together for a shoot, what comes first?  Clothes?  A look you’ve seen that you want to try to recapture or recreate?  A particular model?
JMcK:  For the moment, I don’t think recreating “looks” seems that exciting.  Generally, it’s finding a character whom you like, and dressing that character — whether or not it’s the model’s real character or you invent a little character for him or her — character and personality rather than a reference to a film or a book or something.
     What young people are wearing always really interests me, what I see models wearing I find less interesting.  Not to put down models, but most of them are not the barometer of what’s happening out there.  Of course, sometimes it is a particular model who does inspire you with the way she looks or the way she dresses.  Perhaps she doesn’t dress in the most transporting way but that’s what’s interesting.  I like somebody who has a lot of personal style — that’s where you can take something and have fun with it.

BH:  Wallis Franken in the first issue of Joe’s certainly comes to mind as someone who inspired you and she happens also to have been a model.  Is there someone in the new issue with that type of inspiring personal style?
JMcK:  Wallis definitely inspired — and inspires.  Right now it’s Kirsten Owen.  Wallis was the right person to put in the first issue and I think Kirsten is the person I’d like most to put in the magazine at this moment.

BH:  How did Joe get started?
JMcK:  You know, it’s become tougher to work for fashion magazines and to have a lot of freedom.  Everybody has requirements when you work for magazines, and if it’s fashion, you’ve got to show certain things.  I tend to work with the same two or three photographers, and it was just by having conversations with them about how great it would be to do pictures where you didn’t have to worry about anything.  The only way photographers can really do that is if they’re working on an exhibition or a book of their own, which not everybody has time for or wants to do.  That’s why I thought it would be really great to take the few people that I knew and give them a chance to do something that you really wouldn’t be allowed to do ...  You wouldn’t be indulged by a fashion magazine into doing stories like that.  That’s sort of where it came from.

BH:  Did you have ideas for stories, or were the photographers allowed to work on their own?
JMcK:  Some people suggested things I wasn’t that interested in, so I didn’t really see the point in doing the pictures.  Sounds a little bit arrogant, but I think if you’re going to have a magazine, it has to say something and have a point of view.  The point of view in that first issue of Joe was just things and people that appeal to me.  No other reason.  It was just people doing pictures of things that appealed to me.  So it was just to have that kind of freedom.
     In a way, it is quite fun that the second issue ended up relating a wee bit more to fashion, because it’s what I know.  But even though it’s related to fashion, to people in fashion, it’s not related to clothes.

BH:  Is there a particular shoot in the next issue that you think no fashion magazine would do right now, and for what reasons?
JMcK:  I’m sure most fashion magazines would look at it and not want any of it! [laughs]  I mean, it sounds so arrogant to say nobody else can do this, but nobody else would want to do it because they have their own point of view.

BH:  How do you account for the five or six year gap between the first issue and the new one?
JMcK:  Just through laziness.

BH:  Well, that’s good to know.
JMcK:  But because this magazine doesn’t come out very often I’d like it to have a bit of longevity, and I wouldn’t like people to think of it as put together in a moment, that the design of it or any of the content of it was done in a moment when bad taste was fashionable.  That wouldn’t interest me very much.  I’d rather do something I know in the long run is still going to look good, and hopefully as relevant and interesting in another five years as it did at the time when I published it.

BH:  Is there a continuity between the two issues of the magazine?
JMcK:  To me, they connect because, again, the people in the photographs are people that I’m interested in and the photographers are people I’m interested in, too.

BH:  People who inspire you?
JMcK:  The people who are really dedicated to their pictures, I think it shows in the work, and I think that’s really inspiring.  I don’t think there’s any other one thing out there that I’m inspired by other than the photographers that I work with.

BH:  Can you name some of them?
JMcK:  Well, I’ve worked with Bruce Weber a long time, and I think he’s pretty exceptional.  I’ve worked a little bit with David Sims lately.

BH:  Is there an image with David Sims or Bruce Weber that you’re particularly proud of?
JMcK:  Well, I try and like a lot of things that I work on — to make sure that I like them.  But I’m most apt to criticize my own work in them, and I usually find a lot of flaws in what I’ve done ... which is, I think, the only reason why you keep on going — to try to make it better and better.  So I don’t think there’s one image that I would single out.  I just like those photographers because they have a voice.  They’re individuals who have something to say, and I love that.  I think that’s very important.

BH:  And your individual voice in Joe’s is saying?
JMcK:  I didn’t analyze what this one was about.  Just a batch of great pictures, I hope, pictures I like.  I hope everyone else likes them.  I don’t know what else I’m saying other than that, honestly.

BH:  Did Visionaire push you in a different direction with the new issue of Joe’s?  In terms of having a luxurious fashion-oriented, photography-based publication out there, were there certain things that you didn’t want to do because they’d done them?  Or was that never a concern?
JMcK:  That was never a concern.  I think their product is much more conceptual than mine, and they’re very good at that.  And I don’t know if Joe’s is a luxurious magazine, but I hope it’s a quality magazine.  Quality is something a photographer has, and therefore I’d like to take that quality and make it look as good as I can make it look.

BH:  What does “classic” mean to you?
JMcK:  Well, that’s a pretty dodgy word to start trying to analyze without sounding a bit pretentious.  I don’t know, I think something with a bit of class is something that can last a little bit longer.  You know, when it’s a little more effortless and it has an ease to it, I think there’s more of a chance of it lasting.  And that goes for a fashion picture or a magazine.  The whole world of fashion is so much more available to everybody now, and it moves so much faster than it did ten years ago.

BH:  But don’t you think that often comes at the expense of quality?
JMcK:  No.

BH:  No?
JMcK:  Not necessarily.  But I don’t want to get too hung up on this whole class thing.  I’m not at all some Anglophile obsessed with class.  I use the word “class” as a substitute for “quality,” that’s all.  It’s not something I want to ram down everyone’s throats.  I like quality in anything.  It’s just something that I believe in — that’s just my kick.



Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
Site Design: Teddy Blanks. All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller