Julia and Gero von Boehm in conversation on career path, creativity, family, and working with celebs and icons like Helmut Newton and Karl Lagerfeld.
Gero von Boehm is a worldly, award winning producer, director, journalist, television presenter who has called Heidelberg, Paris, Berlin and New York City home. After studying Law, Social Sciences and History of Art at the University of Heidelberg, in 1975 von Boehm began a career as a radio host and journalist for German paper DIE ZEIT, and soon after founded Interscience Films where he began producing and directing documentaries, later launching Lupa Film. With already over 100 successful documentary films from history to natural science, art and fashion, Gero von Boehm’s latest film tells the story of the infamous and iconic Helmut Newton through archival footage, Newton’s home movies and von Boehm’s candid interviews with Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, and even Newton’s wife, June among others. Here is how a conversation between two generations of von Boehms unfolds when asked to speak on family memories, creativity, their work and artistic intuition.
Julia von Boehm: At what age did you know that you wanted to do what you’re doing?
Gero von Boehm: I think at the age of 15 or 16. I knew exactly that I wanted to do something with pictures. And then I first started with writing articles and then, radio of course for several years, and then I thought, now I want to work with pictures. That was when I was around 20. I made my first film with when I was 20.
JVB: That’s so funny because I mean, I was the same, as you know. You brought me to Paris, at a very young age, for a presentation of my portfolio, mainly drawings. Actually you let me start French, in a different school than my sister, because I always was convinced I wanted to move to France. And then you brought me to my meeting with L’ecole de la Chambre Syndicale in Paris. You took the train with me, something you don’t adore doing. We spent a day there showing my portfolio and you gave me the strength to just keep feeling confident and optimistic.
GVB: I was sitting in a cafe waiting for you.
JVB: But first you went upstairs with me, and I was somehow very nervous. You were there and that gave me the strength to just keep believing what I believed in anyways. I just felt the passion for it. So you always supported the passion. That’s probably because you knew what real passion meant.
Diandra Barsalou-Mitchell: Gero, did you have someone when you were growing up who encouraged you, or gave that creative spark that showed you these different environments and helped feed the interests that you had from a young age?
JVB: And did you have people around you that gave you the strength to just believe in yourself and be, you know, self confident, even if it seems like grabbing a lot of stuff?
GVB: Yeah. It’s self confidence, but it’s also the confidence others have to have in you. That basic sense of trust you have in kids, for instance, you know? No matter what happens, you have trust.
JVB: But who gave you the trust, who was helping you? Like you helped me.
GVB: My parents because they just let me do what I wanted to do. They never put any obstacles into my way, never wanted to control me. They are from a conservative, non-artistic background, but they could feel my passion. They simply gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, which has a lot to do with that basic trust.
“Inspiration comes from many different sources. It can come from one single painting, which impresses me, and I want to know everything about the painter.”
JVB: Yeah. And you have to make decisions to your advantage.
GVB: Yeah, exactly.
DBM: Where do you find the inspiration when you start writing something? Does it depend on your subject material? Maybe the process is different if you’re working on something about history versus fashion, but does it start with an idea or does it start with the visual?
GVB: Inspiration comes from many different sources. It can come from one single painting, which impresses me, and I want to know everything about the painter. For example, when I was very young, I saw a beautiful still life by Henri Matisse and wanted to know everything about Matisse, so I made a film about him. Because if you make a film, you are obliged to read everything, to talk to people who might know, who have known him. You have the ambition to know more about your subjects than they know about themselves. Similarly with David Hockney, when I saw his pool pictures, I wanted to go to LA immediately and meet him. Which I did, and made a film about him we became quite close. I came to know all of his painting techniques because he showed it to me and it was great.
JVB: I remember being confused as a child when he kissed you on your lips!
GVB: He always does that, it’s ok. David is a real inspiration as was Helmut Newton who became a close friend. Another inspiration was Alberto Giacometti, we visited his beautiful sculptures at the Fondation Maeght in the South of France every year with the kids. I’m sure you remember, Julia. And I wanted to know everything about the artist and his work. So I started my research about him in depth, and I made a film. But, inspiration also comes from reading. I’m a big reader. I buy a book almost every day, a lot of biographies, also novels. And for example, that can be, let’s say, a historic novel. Set in an ancient pre-Colombian civilization, and this is an inspiration to go to Mexico and to make a documentary about the Maya, which we’ve done last year. And, you know, also very important is daydreaming. I think it’s very important to look at a beautiful tree for instance, or at the clouds for an hour and then comes an idea from just sitting there and doing some daydreaming.
But Julia, where does inspiration come from for you, how are you inventing a look, for a photo shoot ? I mean, you have to somehow find a way. Where does it come from? I never asked you!
JVB: That’s why it’s a funny conversation because we never talk about these things, we’ve touched base on it, but not really like, profoundly talked about it. First of all, I started talking to the trees, so I have that covered. No, it’s just life. It’s really life. It’s listening to people. It’s observing, it really just comes. I don’t really read about the movies that people do that I dress or anything. I like to have this very innocent approach towards them and look at them, at who they are as real people. Obviously I know what films they’re in right now, but I also look at like, what’s right for them in this moment. And that comes out of the belly pretty much, but actually it also comes out of society, from listening to people in restaurants. I love going alone to a restaurant and just listen to the other conversations.
GVB: We are talking about celebrities, but if you have a shooting for, let’s say a fashion company or for InStyle magazine, with models you don’t even know, where does that inspiration come from? How do you know which accessories are really important for this or for that dress, or which colors of clothes – I would never know.
JVB: That also comes out of the belly and that’s the only way it comes, because I feel very fulfilled that way. I have a couple of new, interesting collaborations with people where, I find for the first time, actually, that people really trust my guts, not just one person, but brands, and that’s very fulfilling and satisfying actually, because I don’t want to settle too much anymore, just like being told what to do, I would love to bring more and more creativity to it. Then just the look, ideally, and stories. I love to tell stories and I love to educate people subcutaneously with the knowledge that I have. It’s kind of boring to just be doing it over and over again. So I would like to expand a little more into a broader creativity.
DB: By belly, do you mean it’s like a feeling? You feel through your work while you’re creating it and it’s very intuitive?
DB: Rather than, sticking to a goal and having a set strategy.
JVB: I never have a goal. If I have it, I change it the day before.
GVB: But it means that your belly, as you say, has to be filled with a lot of experience of course. So many impressions throughout your career. Otherwise you couldn’t “tell stories”, as you say with your styling.
JVB: Yeah, absolutely. I sometimes say, it’s like when you really know how to play the violin, you can actually sing and play the violin. I think I know how to play the violin of fashion. Sometimes when I’m on a photo shoot, I just see this chair somewhere in a corner and I’m like, pull it in, and that’s perfect. The model should be sitting on that chair in this or that way because the fashion is done in that way. It’s almost automatic, if it makes sense.
DB: Love that daydreaming sounds like it’s a part of both your processes, going back to when we were talking about encouraging children. My nickname was space cadet and it was always something that we were told not to do, to wake up. I wonder if that’s more of a North American or an American approach, as opposed to European, this nurturing of creativity and dreaming?
JVB: I have to say that my parents were particularly motivating by not motivating too much, you know? All families are one way or the other, it is not a question of the continent. I feel extremely lucky, because they always gave all of us, all three children, the confidence and the trust and the support that they could give without just making it all accessible, you know?
DB: It sounds very special. A family of bellies. Have you ever worked together on a project?
GVB: Oh, yes. For instance, on my film about Helmut Newton, “The Bad and the Beautiful”. Julia was present at several shootings we filmed, for instance in Monte Carlo. She was my assistant but also the sound engineer, and at the end she had to take a photograph of Helmut and his whole crew.
JVB: Helmut was like, Julia! Julia! No, no, no. Another one, Julia!
GVB: Yeah. It was very funny. Helmut had casted a frog man and a blonde model and frog man had to lift the blonde model, a huge guy and the quite short blonde model. He had to lift her somehow as if he had caught her from the sea. And Helmut was in a very good mood as always, and was laughing. We were laughing a lot. All of us. It was a funny shoot.
JVB: The frog man actually had a full mask. You had little holes where you have mouth, the nose was stuck in as well. So your only way to breathe was through the mouth of the mask. And, Helmut was like “don’t open your mouth, Eric!”, until the stylist, Phyllis Posnick, said: “But Helmut, he has to open his mouth to breathe!” And then he was like, okay, okay then it’s fine.
GVB: Okay. Eric, you can breathe if you have to, he said.
DB: What was it that sparked the narrative that you wanted to tell? What was it that drew you to Helmut?
GVB: That’s an interesting question. I mean, he was such a unique character, a rare combination of a boy from Berlin, a gentleman, and a total provocateur. An anarchist and at the same time a great artist, however he didn’t want to be called an artist. And the story of his life was just amazing. I mean, fleeing from Nazi Germany, from his hometown Berlin at the age of 18, and then he went on this odyssey to Asia and later Australia, and started working for various magazines in London, then went to Paris where his career took off at French Vogue, and he revolutionized fashion photography. He did it by introducing nudity and often a certain provocation into fashion photography, and he showed us how strong women are. He loved strong women. Up to then there was Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, and everything was too beautiful and too lovely, as Anna Wintour says. “We needed ‘stoppers’ in the magazine”, she says. And there was Helmut with his provocation and nudity and – as we would say today – politically not correct. And he created real stoppers in the magazine.
Maybe the most important thing, that drew me to him, is the fact that he showed us how strong women are. I always believed in that, but he showed it really in his pictures. I mean, there is this famous diptych by him, two separate photographs. On the left hand side you see models beautifully dressed in haute couture clothes and on the second photo, on the right hand side, the same girls, in exactly the same pose but totally naked. As if a magician had taken off their clothes, just the high heels were left. What does the photo tell us? Strong women are strong even without clothes, without haute couture, they don’t need it.
This was provocative and it is amazing that the industry accepted him as a photographer. And then there is this really groundbreaking picture of an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo on a woman, again, a naked woman next to the dressed one and this strange kind of sexual suspense or so. In many of his pictures in this deserted street at night in Paris, I thought that’s very interesting and I wanted to go further into it and know, oh, what makes you tick? Who is this man really? Where does he come from? And then, one day, I met him on coincidence.
JVB: And what’s more interesting again, to me is when people come from very different backgrounds, but strongly feel about a certain direction, and he obviously was from a totally different background, but he had the guts and the self-belief to appear as a strong person— there was no discussing with Helmut.
GVB: Of course, it’s a question of background. He came from a great tradition. The Jewish bourgeoisie in Berlin. This was really the heart of culture in Europe. Very well educated, quite wealthy, and influenced by German films. And then later, of course by the way, Nazi imagery. Because if you are thirteen years old and all that interests you is girls and their pictures, and you’re surrounded mostly by Nazi pictures, you’re influenced by it. Up to the very end he was influenced by it. By Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, Hitler’s filmmaker. And he always admitted it. It was obvious and that’s partly where the strong women and strong bodies came from because every woman Rifenstahl depicted was an amazon, and, also, the men she showed were strong in their bodies and this aryan race, and all of that was a strong influence. Even the lighting he used sometimes was actually from old German films and also from the Riefenstahl documentaries about the Olympic games. So there was a lot of influence in his youth, and he never denied it.
JVB: Exactly. You can see the influence, but he made it into something positive, even if there is nothing positive to be said about where that came from.
GVB: Yes. And I think sometimes it was even a bit ironic when he visually “quoted” Riefenstahl. Maybe a way to cope with the atrocities he experienced during the Nazi regime.
JVB: What I’d like to ask you actually, Papa is, it seems that whenever you do documentaries with people or you’re interested in a subject, or you’re kind of driven to an artist or whatever that you managed to get very close to those people, who usually are quite closed creatures. Like for example, with Karl Lagerfeld, he became emotional at some point and you know that he didn’t get emotional. I feel like the people open up to you more than they would do in a normal interview. How do you do that?
GVB: I mean, it’s very easy or maybe not easy, but simple. Let’s put it that way. You have to treat them as normal people. Even if you admire them you have to treat them with respect of course, but you have to treat them as normal people and, and not as gods or half gods. You have to create an atmosphere. As normal as possible.
It starts with small talk about something which interests them and has nothing to do with their work or fame. You have to be informed about what interests them. And when the interview starts you should have questions which don’t bore them. They’re easily bored by most interviews because they’re doing that all the time. You shouldn’t ask questions that have been asked a thousand times, you have to make it interesting and somehow inspiring for them. For instance, the first question in an interview is the most important. I think about it for days sometimes because it sets the tone. It has to really make them think. You don’t want them to reproduce some cliché. As I said: Those are simple rules. It’s a craft, simply. I don’t call it easy because it’s a lot of preparation sometimes. And you have to pull yourself together because of course you admire them, but you shouldn’t show it too much.
DB: You’ve done so many interesting documentaries and spoken with many people that no one really has access to. What was one of your most memorable conversations?
GVB: Oh, there were many memorable conversations, really, because I’ve done hundreds of projects and interviews, but what comes to mind spontaneously, because Karl Lagerfeld was mentioned already a moment ago, is a conversation with Karl in which he talked about the love of his life who died of AIDS. He told me that he never found a love like that again in his life, and that was a very impressive moment. His voice fainted almost, you know, and you could see — because it was a close up from the side— and you really could see how his eyes filled with tears. That was a moment. I will never forget because he hadn’t talked about it before much, not in public at least.
Then, what comes to mind, Arthur Miller. You know, the writer, who told me about Marilyn Monroe to whom he was married, quite unhappily, and we were sitting at this little pond in front of his house in Roxbury, upstate New York, and it started raining. This was an incredible moment. I had a feeling he wanted to talk about that for a long time, and now was the moment. I don’t know why he made me happy talking about his unhappy marriage. Also Anna Wintour who told me— this is from the Newton film— about her first assignment with Helmut when she was a young stylist at British Vogue, and she was so scared of working with that great photographer that she said she was sick and sent her assistant to do the shooting. That, from Anna Wintour! She’s quite a lady. I like her very much, actually. Anyway, these are some examples, but there could be many, many others.
DB: Sometimes the most human moments are the most impactful, a broken heart is such a universal feeling.
GVB: Yes, absolutely and you know, that’s what we’re after. Of course, in conversations like that, I must admit, you know, the ruptures and the wounds of people are interesting.
JVB: But you never disrespect the person and you never would make something out of it. Like everybody else in this whole wide world would make anything that you just mentioned a scandal or like call the whole movie by a title about a terrible marriage for example. People trust you because you respect them, I think.
GVB: Maybe. But what is your strategy, Julia? What is your strategy when you work, because you’re constantly working with celebrities and you have to be very close to them. You have to be like, you have to touch them. You have to talk to them. They have to be relaxed. Otherwise the photo won’t be good and you are the one closest to them. Even the photographer is farther away. So what is your strategy to make them easy?
JVB: Well, similar to yours, to be honest. First of all, I really only, I like to work with people that I respect tremendously. So it’s like I’m attracted to their work and not star struck, but just, I respect their work tremendously. Like Nicole Kidman’s work, this is something that clicks in me. If I don’t have that click, it’s actually very difficult because once I have that click, I’m going to give everything to them. But in a very honest way, I think they deserve honesty because my goal is to make them look the best out there and make it seem like they chose the clothes themselves. So to make it look real.
It’s not about putting me in the limelight. It’s about putting them in the lime light. Understanding the people and respecting them makes your work better, and I just don’t bullshit them, you know, I’m super honest. Like a celebrity could put something on and I’m like, no, no, no, no, if it doesn’t work, while other people are the yes men, always pleasing. So it’s just that there’s a lot of honesty and values that transfer through my work.
I feel even when I’m on shootings and whatever, I was styling Renee Zellweger, re-staging all of her movies for In Style Magazine, mega hits like Bridget Jones, but she’s just not just Bridget Jones anymore, she left that character so long ago. So my goal was to make her feel comfortable to adapt those looks, that were supposed to make readers feel about those movies, but make them about her now and respect who she has become, but still recall the movie. So it’s respect, conversation, and I do think that they can feel that there’s a thought process behind it, and I think that’s already quite helpful.
GVB: Yeah, totally. But it seems as if you also treat them as normal people.
JVB: Of course, a hundred percent and, with extreme respect, obviously, because that’s kind of what it should be. And also with an innocence. But then also I only work with people that I really stand behind and that helps a lot. I always permitted myself to have this privilege to just pick and choose and only do the things that I feel I can bring something to.
GVB: Good. That’s very consequent.
JVB: It can also be a little tiring. But in the long run, it’s not actually. I love to give everything. It’s purely egoistic that I don’t want to give everything to somebody who doesn’t deserve it.
DB: I’d like to ask both of you, what do you find most difficult about the filmmaking process, or the shooting and styling process? Or perhaps to reframe it, what challenge is most enjoyable?
GVB: I don’t find anything difficult, to be honest, it’s just fun. Even after 40 years of doing that. I mean, not really, not really. Weather can be bad, then the weather is bad. You can’t change it and never complain about things you can’t change. It doesn’t make sense, it costs a lot of productivity and you shouldn’t do that. So if the weather is bad or the pandemic blocks things off – relax.
JVB: I was just on a phone call with a jewelry brand that I’m going to style their campaign and it’s supposed to be next Wednesday, and the weather looks okay, but nobody knows. And then we were like, well, we have to get a secure location. But really, no we don’t, if it rains, it’s perfect. It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be beautiful and it’s got to be real. And if you look for something, that’s like a plan B that nobody really wants, then it’s better to go with plan A, however it turns out, as long as we have tents to stay dry in between shots. I’m sure the images would come out gorgeous. I shot with like Peter Lindbergh in Times Square with 10 supermodels.
GVB: Oh, great. I loved those pictures. One of the best shoots Peter ever did…
JVB: …it was around lunchtime. And I learned that from Peter. Peter was like, Oh my God, it’s great it’s gonna rain! Because he loved the streets wet. And you know, he just embraced it, what was happening and then the accidents in pictures, which I think are so, so important in films and pictures and everything. If you don’t leave space for those accidents anymore, it’s going to be boring.
GVB: Exactly. But the challenge I enjoy most is actually the editing. You know, when everything you’ve shot is there, and you can play with it, and you can give it a rhythm by the editing, by the way of editing soundtrack, you simply create. That’s a little bit like playing God. And I love that.
JVB: It’s interesting to be able to provoke a certain emotion in the spectator. That’s what’s really interesting.
GVB: Yeah, of course. I think that’s the most important. The visual world has a lot to do with emotion. You said you want to tell stories through your work. That’s what I want. Tell a good story, and enlarge reality through emotion.
JVB: But that’s exactly like if I talk about the website, for example, that’s why I wanted to do the website. I didn’t want to just obey people to say we’re doing a suit shoot, and this is the model, and here we go this is the photographer. And I am okay to do that because it’s a challenge and I don’t want to shoot or speak with someone unless they are like, having something to say, like the Karen Elsons and Christy Turlingtons because they’re real people. I love when you get thrown like a curve ball— is that what you say? — Yeah I love that challenge. And I think Papa is similar. You like that challenge to do something like to go opposite the stream?
GVB: Oh yes, you have to be as fearless as you can actually, no fears and everything will be alright. And if there is a problem, and if there’s no solution, then there’s no problem. That’s what I always say. But honestly: I really think it’s all about courage. The courage to go further, the courage to provoke, to sometimes forget about political correctness. I do miss that kind of courage for instance in many of today’s young photographers and filmmakers. Not meaning that I myself was always courageous enough. Surely not – now I regret that. But maybe it’s not too late.
DB: Julia, is there a specific memory from being around your dad’s work as a child that you would want to ask or talk about?
JVB: I mean, I have tons of memories, and what I really loved, that I thought of when we talked about Helmut Newton is that for some reason my dad chose me to go on that trip. And that wasn’t even, I don’t know how old I was. 16 or 15. I don’t even know, what age?
JVB: Okay. So for some reason he picked that moment to ask me to be doing the assistance and sound on that documentary. So how they introduced each of us, my brother and my sister to their worlds by like giving us little, like you know, candy, that would kind of make our path easier but also really question ourselves, is that what we want to do? Both of my parents did that in a very wonderful way all the time, and then memories like of course the Newton one, but what other memories? Oh, Karl Lagerfeld definitely. At some point I met him when we were filming him for a portrait. At the time I had no clue that I would be working with him many years later. It’s just wonderful how my parents understood where my head was at. And then just saying like, is this really what you want? You know, but let me have those moments to understand if I really wanted to do that, that was very special. I hope I can give that to my children.
GVB: Maybe I should feel guilty because it was a kind of seduction to do that, and maybe it would have been better to learn something real.
JVB: No, no, no. It’s real enough. It’s fine.
GVB: OK. Then we leave it as it is.
JVB: I don’t think it could be any better. I mean, even in those businesses, when you choose like other film and issue interviews, when you choose fashion, there’s so many different facets to it that you can evolve through it, and that’s, what’s great about any of those creative businesses that you actually have a facet of different approaches and you can explore.
DB: Let’s talk about points of tension. Julia in your work, there’s a lot of juxtaposition and this tension in the projects that you do, whether it’s masculine or feminine or within the concepts.
JVB: On set there’s a lot of tensions and I feel them all and so it’s about filtering out. What’s really important is to avoid any unnecessary tension.
GVB: Yeah, exactly.
DB: Right. But how about in the creative part of your work, having the tension between masculine and feminine, or the title of the Helmut film, The Bad and the Beautiful. Is that something that you both seek out in projects?
JVB: It’s organic, it just comes out because it always goes back to it. For me, it always goes back for me to juxtapositions, because I think that’s an interesting tension in fashion, as much as in films, as much as in any creative thing, it’s like you kind of have to evolve something. And I always love to play with it, the masculine, feminine fashion, because I like that. Women are strong because I think they are. But then again, I think you should never forget about the sensible side and the sensitive side. So in every look, I kind of try to always have attention and the juxtaposition, that’s a kind of an obsession of mine almost.
GVB: Juxtaposition is always good. It’s like in many of Helmut’s photos, if you think of the bloody chicken in the kitchen with the hand of a woman with a million dollar Bulgari diamond on her finger, working on that bloody bird. That’s juxtaposition and it evokes – and provokes – something. This was Helmut’s courage and the people at Bulgari almost fainted when they saw it. But then it became so iconic that they were happy.
JVB: I think you need to create something interesting in any image or any piece of art, whatever you want to call it. You need to kind of evoke something in people’s emotions. And if you just go by the book, you won’t do that. For example, if you have a celebrity in a flower dress, it’s like like okay, wait, we need a black Swan. We need black gloves. We need something, we need like five parrots in a cage. We need something to kind of make it a bit weirder.
GVB: The problem, Julia, is that it’s all forbidden now. You can’t have parrots in a cage and you can’t have a black swan anymore, and no nudity. This is different from the time when Helmut was alive.
JVB: We did though, I got it all. But that was a couple of years ago. Yes. I mean, we know what we’re saying. It’s just like the little poke on top.