Longtime photography duo Markus + Indrani have argued their way to success—with each other, that is. Their “high production, high glamour” brand of celebrity portraiture relies on the reconciliation of two radically different artistic perspectives: Markus Klinko, a professional harpist-turned-photographer from Switzerland, and artistic director Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, a Princeton-educated former model from Calcutta. The partners (and former couple) recently celebrated their 18-year career with the release of ICONS: The Celebrity Exposures of Markus + Indrani, which features appropriately glamorous shots of Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Iman, and more. Tonight, ICONS will open at Lincoln Center, with proceeds going towards seeschool.org, a girls’ school in India founded by Indrani, as well as Hurricane Sandy relief organization NYSTY. Here they are on their creative process, Gaga’s genius, and the experience that is working with Lindsay Lohan.
Congratulations on your book launch!
MARKUS: Yeah! It came out a fewweeks ago, but we have a big opening at Lincoln Center on December 11. It’s going to be open to the public from the 12 on for several days. It’s quite extraordinary that Lincoln Center was able to pull this together last minute, because they’re the most important performing arts and cultural center in the world, and it’s a huge honor for us. The book is getting spectacular reviews around the world, so this is kind of the best time of our lives. It’s an 18-year celebration of working together with Indrani.
The two of you come from complete opposite ends of the spectrum, artistically. What would it look like if you were to work separately?
INDRANI: We are completely opposite in just about every imaginable way! But that’s a tough question, because I haven’t really done a photography project without Markus in eighteen years. I traveled around India for 6 months when I was eighteen, and photographed these amazing temples and people in the midst of emotional moments in their lives. So I suppose my aesthetic is a mix of intense, gritty reality, and the sort of fantastical aspects of life. I love spirituality, I love dramatic, life-changing moments. Markus likes the sexy, shiny, polished kind of perfection—which I love as well, but for me it’s also about finding the beauty in chaos.
ICON features predominantly female subjects. Do you prefer shooting women to men?
MARKUS: No, it’s just different. For me personally, I think men are easy to shoot, because it’s less distracting—there’s no flirtation or sexual energy. Let’s face it, when you’re shooting a gorgeous women like Eva Mendez, or Britney Spears at the time we shot her, it’s very easy to get sidetracked. But there is something to that stereotypical cliché that people have with fashion and celebrity photographers, “make love to the camera.” And there has to be. If 20 years later, the viewer sees no chemistry, the picture doesn’t really have the same effect. And that’s why we’re so lucky to be a male-female duo, because Indrani is extremely gorgeous, and she sometimes has great chemistry with the subject, so we are very aware of that.
You work that angle, so to speak.
MARKUS: Yeah! I mean, if we feel like somebody doesn’t like me that much, or doesn’t respond so much to my direction, Indrani jumps in automatically. It’s a very natural process for us; we’re not competitive. We met in 1994, and at first we were a romantic couple, and very quickly started working together in a partnership, and after eight years we slowly and gently ended our relationship. It was more of a transformation from being boyfriend and girlfriend into being best friends, business partners, creative partners. Our subjects react to that chemistry—sometimes people will say, oh my God, you guys are like an old married couple. And we are, because we have been through all of these different experiences together, and we feel really good about what we’re doing.
Indrani, do you feel like your previous modeling experience gives you special insight as an artistic director?
INDRANI: Absolutely. I feel that I connect with the talent in a very different way than people who haven’t experienced being in front of the camera. I know how insecure it can make one, so my goal is always to put people at ease, and to really let them understand the creative process as a co-creator, as a collaborator. For me, it’s always about empowering the subject so they can participate intellectually and aesthetically, because I think when there’s that sense of communion between the camera and the subject, that’s when the viewer gets to look inside the heart and mind of the subject, because they’re communicating through the image.
What is the biggest advantage that comes with shooting celebrities, as opposed to models?
INDRANI: Celebrities typically are really fascinating personalities and artists in their own right. They are all operating in the space of imagination, in whatever their fields are. Whatever it is they do, they understand in their own way how to create these alternative worlds that they help their viewers to inhabit. So there’s much more collaboration of artists together when I work with celebrities.
What was it like to shoot someone like Lady Gaga, who has an equally strong artistic vision?
MARKUS: Brilliant, actually. I count Lady Gaga among one of my top three collaborations of all time. She’s so in control of her own image, so aware and so smart about it, that we just felt very much in our element with her. Instead of compromising, we actually built on each other’s input. So that’s our dream subject, a person with a great deal of involvement, a great deal of awareness of what’s going on. The type of subject that we like the least, to be honest, is a publicist-controlled dummy that sort of does whatever they’re told to. We try to push boundaries, and we’ve proven time and time again that when people trust us, we can turn some of these images into milestones. For example, for Beyoncé, or Mariah Carey, some of the album covers we’ve done have been their most successful albums. The picture is really not all it takes, of course, but the picture is the first thing that people see. When Mariah had her big comeback in 2005, she’d had a couple difficult years and she needed something really phenomenally iconic. We produced that image, and people really took another look at her, and then the music was fantastic, and she had the best selling album of 2005. We look a little further, when we work with our clients, than just the picture.
Do you think western society has an inflated awareness of celebrity?
INDRANI: Well, I studied anthropology at Princeton, and I’ve always been very interested in the ways that cultures provide icons or symbols for people to aspire to. I think traditionally, the icons that have been revered around the world were mythological, quasi-historical characters that would be embellished in the imagination, and in the artwork of the time. I come from India, and I’ve always loved these powerful characters that are complex and heroic and have human flaws. I see celebrities in our culture as icons that are our equivalent to those mythological characters. And I think that there’s a great desire in western society, and around the world, now, to believe in these people as being something more than just ordinary humans. We idolize them, we’re fascinated by every detail of what they do, and there’s also this strong desire to tear them apart once we realize that they’re human. So when they do show flaws, there’s sort of a collective frenzy to bring them down.
Speaking of, what was your experience like with Lindsay Lohan?
INDRANI: I was blown away by parts of her personality; she’s very passionate about being a great actress. And there were some moments where she really brought ideas to life on set in a phenomenal way, she has a very engaging energy and she’s extremely intelligent. Obviously there are other aspects, which mostly have to do with being young, and some things that she clearly needs to work out in her personal life. But I think that most people who become artists or achieve greatness of any kind go through rough patches in their development, and in her case I think the intensity of the spotlight can be very destabilizing.
What do you think it is that makes a person into an icon?
INDRANI: I think it’s a combination of charisma, which is a very special gift that few people have. There’s actually an Islamic concept of charisma as this God-given gift of drawing people to you, and I think that most icons have that. It’s very hard to define, this ability to make people want to connect with them and follow them. Being iconic has a lot to do with representing an idea, or an ideal. It’s often hard to define what that concept is precisely in words, but I think it has to be something that everyone can understand.
The ICONS exhibition will be open to the public December 12th and 13th at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium.