The relationship between photographer and subject has been fraught since long before Susan Sontag characterized it as part of the “shady commerce between art and truth” in her 1977 collection of essays On Photography. Photographers, after all, make the eye of the beholder literal, placing the subject consistently at their mercy to be idealized, stripped down or otherwise interpreted for the world as they see fit.
In fashion, this increasingly has meant airbrushed into some version of hyper-artificial, bot-like perfection. Or it did. Now, because of the coronavirus, all of that has been upended, as glossy magazines have resorted to purposefully raw and homespun selfie-shoots, or FaceTime and Zoom videos.
Or, in the case of Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, who enlisted 23 celebrity friends and their significant someones to play subject and translator for his latest ad campaign, portraiture-by-lockdown buddy.
“I thought I would ask my friends to ask the people they loved to take their pictures, to show them not as what they do, but who they are,” he said by, yes, Zoom from Rome. He was speaking from experience, having been photographed for the campaign by his 14-year-old daughter, Stella. In the photo, he is standing in their garden, holding a sign with the word “empathy” scrawled in his wife’s lipstick.
“I think I look different,” Mr. Piccioli said, referring to the way he looks in professional shoots with photographers like Juergen Teller, who shot his spring 2019 campaign. Stella “looks at me with different eyes, and I look at her like a father.”
Instead of being paid for their work, all of the Valentino subjects donated their fees (a total of 1 million euros) to the Lazzaro Spallanzani hospital in Rome, the center of the Italian struggle against Covid-19. In return, they got to pick who would capture their image, as well as what word they thought represented the values we need at this time.
The choices themselves are revealing. Gwyneth Paltrow asked Brad Falchuk, her husband and the co-creator of her Netflix show, “The Politician.” Rafferty Law, the actor, model and son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, asked his mother, with whom he was sheltering in place outside of London, along with all his siblings, assorted friends and his mom’s partner and his children. (There were 10 kids in total.) Laura Dern asked her son, Ellery Harper. Ellery, in turn, asked his younger sister, Jaya.
Frances McDormand asked Bruno Delbonnel, the French cinematographer who has long worked with her husband, Joel Coen. They had been shooting a new version of “Macbeth” when they were shut down by the pandemic. Mr. Delbonnel was living next door to them in Northern California until production could resume; he was concerned that if he went home, he said, “the guy in the White House doesn’t allow me to come back.”
Janet Mock asked the makeup artist Wendi Miyake, who has been her best friend since middle school in Hawaii. And so on.
Almost all of the photographers used iPhones. Most did their own hair and makeup and didn’t have any special lighting. They got to edit the pictures before they were sent to Valentino, so the end products can be taken as how they want to be seen, rather than as how a brand wants them seen. That’s a pretty big shift.
Ms. McDormand, for example, who didn’t do hair and makeup at all, sent only one picture to Valentino; Ms. Mock sent 20 — out of “approximately 300” taken, Ms. Miyake said. Mr. Piccioli said the final submissions were barely retouched at all.
Ms. McDormand, who was photographed in her outdoor shower (“one of the places I am happiest”) wearing an elaborate pale pink ostrich hat, hadn’t sat for a portrait since Annie Leibovitz captured her some three years ago at the time of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” She also hadn’t done any advertising work since a Pabst Blue Ribbon ad in the 1980s, and a voice-over for Carmex.
Ms. McDormand said she agreed to be part of the campaign because of the charity component. She had connected with Mr. Piccioli after the pandemic hit Italy, and they had discussed the frustration of not knowing what to do, given that “we each only know how to do one thing.”
“At the end of the day, it’s an ad campaign for a big fashion house, and I’m very mindful of this,” she said. “This is a very specific time in our culture where we are all trying to balance the needs of the human species with the institutions we’ve created. What this does is provide a glimpse of our personal lives. It’s an alternative to a Zoom meeting.”
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She was also excited to enlist Mr. Delbonnel.
“We had so much fun,” she said. “My husband was there, my son was there, and we were already in sync because we had been working together, being scared together, watching movies together. I asked for a hat, because I knew I could pull it off. The hats let me go to a really thoughtful place I can understand.”
Mr. Law, who looks an awful lot like his father, said he and his mom had been busy during lockdown making little films, so it made sense to him to ask her to take his picture — even though, as Ms. Frost said, “I borrowed an Olympus and didn’t really know how to use it.”
She mostly posed him in doorways because, she said, she liked the “framing.” In the end, he just threw on the shirt Valentino had sent him without buttoning it because Ms. Frost wanted something that played down the idea of celebrity and focused more on the idea of this creative kid in her house.
“She’ll get an expression that I might otherwise hold back from another photographer,” said Mr. Law, who was photographed holding his sign — “connection” — in his teeth.
Ms. Miyake characterized the whole experience as a kind of grown-up game of dress-up. (She posed Ms. Mock in a green sequined evening gown amid more leafy greenery.) Ms. Mock, she said, “has been my little muse since we were kids and I practiced hair and makeup on her.” The whole experience, she said, was so good she’d like to do it again.
“But with a bigger crew and budget,” Ms. Miyake said.