For our “Design & Desire” series, I wanted to hear photographer Henrik Purienne on eroticism and design. I met him at his house in the Hollywood Hills and joined him poolside for a nice, plunging view of Los Angeles. The sun sunk over the hills as Henrik’s girlfriends made their plans for the night, one of them stepping out of an idle conversation to pour me a cucumber and vodka cocktail in a rich carved glass. I felt like a professor on a mission for a forgotten museum and they were like stepping out of a dream. Once I turned the recorder on, everyone left us alone. I sank down in my chair and turned my attention to the sky, focusing solely on Henrik as he discussed his upcoming book, how textures and colors impress mood in his photographs and his love of design and nudes.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Worcester, a small mountain an hour or two outside of Cape Town, South Africa. This town is known for two things, one of which is the school for the handicapped, the deaf, and the blind (where my dad worked). The second is the Hugo Naude Art Centre. A lot of famous South African artists formed it and studied there. I took most of my subjects at the art center. I had an Italian art teacher for two years who was quite an inspiration.
I was about 15 or 16 years old, and he made us watch “Altered States”—it’s about sensory deprivation research under the influence of psychedelic drugs— kind of trippy. The idea being that these states could be as real as “reality.” It also had a super cool soundtrack by John Corigliano. I guess at that age this shaped my thinking in some way. He was studying rock art but he was always encouraging us to just take photos. So I would walk around a lot and take photos in my hometown.
“Even if I have a job, I turn it into a holiday.”
What did you like to capture?
I loved finding compositions, in colors, shapes, and light with an old 35mm manual camera. I guess I was always taking pictures. Lost dogs. Bags blowing in the wind. I always set out to shoot things you would not notice if not looking for it. Anyway, then I studied film, directing and writing. I worked in documentary filmmaking, short films and stuff like that for a while.
Yeah, broadcast in South Africa. I was working as a documentary filmmaker there for about 10 years before I started shooting. I literally would just shoot my girlfriends, often on holiday as well. Just as a hobby, I’ve always taken pictures. Then with the Internet people would start seeing your work. I started getting job offers for shooting photography and I thought, “this seems like a fun way to make money compared to film,” which is a slow process, especially in documentary film. This was just an easy way to travel and take photos. Even now, I shoot my friends for editorials. My last Vogue editorial was done with Delilah [Parillo], my girlfriend, on holiday in Cape Town.
What topics were you interested in back then?
People. People who live on the edge of society. Africa has a lot of weirdoes and interesting people with interesting stories. But I fell into photography by shooting my friends.
When did you realize that you had a particular approach that you wanted to develop more?
I have selective vision, I can only do the one thing. I can only photograph when everything comes together... when all the elements line up. It’s more of a documentary approach. Walking the streets of my town; that’s what I had access to. Then later when I did the documentaries the things I had access to became my subjects. Same with my fashion photography, as my environment changed I just kept documenting my new environment in the simplest, possible way.
“I have selective vision.”
Your first book includes a few centerfolds...
Actually, it had about 12 centerfolds. Forced you to rotate the book. Seems clever at the time, but now I think it was just silly. You live. You learn...
Your second book is a different approach?
I would say the second book is a refined version of the first book. In the first book, I was documenting more freely. I wanted to buy a copy of my book for a friend, but the cheapest copy online was like $300. Up to $2000. That’s nuts. The second book I think I’ve realized what, more specifically, the elements I would like to focus on, and refinement. But it’s still the same approach. A lot of it is just snapshots from holidays or travels, or hanging out with friends.
Even if I have a job, I turn it into a holiday. I just spend the whole budget. I somehow manage to turn most jobs into holidays. I would rather spent my rate on improving the outcome.
Your first book is a trap. It’s a trap you want to enter the book, know about it. It drove me here actually.
I think most people buy the book based on the cover. I’m guilty of that myself. I’ll often buy a book or magazine because I like the cover, but I realized if people actually flip through that book, even for 5 seconds, they’d want to see more. We printed a couple thousand copies and it sold out. It’s become a bit of a collectible item.
Tell us a bit about your publication, Mirage?
We’re doing the 5th issue now. We are an annual “print only” publication. I always call it my “scrapbook for my superficial interests” like girls, cars and architecture. It’s set against a summer backdrop but the focus is on design. It served its purpose. Often something you create, something you love, will eat itself and you have to keep re-inventing it. It’s just about the type of design I like. It’s really just a picture-book of an imaginary lifestyle. Well, I guess for most it is. It’s about an aesthetic. That is consistent. In terms of seductive design, nothing is more alluring than a girl who is consistent in her taste.
Have you heard about the “Playboy’s Progress,” the map Playboy edited in an issue of 1954? It’s about the Playboy’s den and how he creates an environment to attract a female acquaintance. Do you think it’s still relevant today? Do you think it’s purely a male thing?
That’s funny because I think a lot of guys look to me for this kind of input but the reality is that my environment is always just a result of my personal taste. It’s difficult for me to say if guys decorate a pad to attract a female, like birds. It sounds like a scene from “Blue Planet.” I guess it’s like the same as most human rituals, like dancing. It’s almost like a show. For me, it’s just an extension of my taste, my shoots, everything I do, like my interiors. If you were to ask me, “What’s the trick?” I would say the trick is not having a trick. The most interesting girls are confident, yet nonchalant. I don’t know if girls do the same thing, it depends on aesthetics. I would sometimes be skeptical about someone’s personality if I see their environment and it’s in contrast to their personality, one way or another. I guess, yeah, I think girls focus more on fashion than the nest, in terms of attracting a mate.
I’ve never been on a date in my life. I’ve never tried to deliberately impress a girl in a short period of time. I think that’s called a date, right? I’ve always just met people casually so I don’t have real input on this subject, and it’s kind of absurd. I think once you start to think about these things, you’re already in the wrong position. If you have to follow steps for constructing an environment, you’re on the wrong track.
“My ideal way of living would be completely self-sufficient. Perhaps even isolated.”
Back to your photography, either I see nude photography as very safe or I see it as very aggressive. Yours is the tension between the two. It’s never pornographic but it’s also very loaded with desire, somehow.
I think it’s probably that way because it’s real. If I work for brands, it’s a reconstruction of my reality. When I shoot my friends, when I shoot in my house, when I shoot my cars, it’s a reconstruction of my reality and it’s kind of absurd. It’s still a fun way to make a living but often my personal work, stuff you’ll see in my books or in Mirage or whatever, is more improvised, shoots with friends or on holiday, where I’m literally like paparazzi capturing moments. I don’t like to pose subjects. My favorite approach is just to be an observer. There’s a bit of a familiarity and I think the familiarity makes it more real. Anything that feels more real or within reach, feels more erotic than something totally just a fantasy.
There are so many fabricated attitudes today. I think the difference is REALITY. Something really happening. A moment captured rather than a moment constructed. It’s become quite a trend to be provocative and sexual to the point where it’s become cheap. If you’re just constructing this reality it’s not going to have the same impact.
How would you describe the world you would love to live in?
I think my ideal way of living would be completely self-sufficient. Perhaps even isolated. I would just function in a small circle of creativity where what you produce is to sustain yourself. A kind of Altered State. I think it’s important not to dream too big.
“Often something you create, something you love, will eat itself and you have to keep re-inventing it”
There’s a vintage feel to your photography too. Maybe it’s the colors? Would you say your photos have nostalgia too?
I shoot natural light on film. You say vintage I say timeless. The nostalgia may be more related to the girls, the simplicity.
Finding or refining?
Yeah, refining your aesthetic to the point where you know exactly which glass you like, which chair you like, so it’s not a chore. It’s instinctive. So I haven’t set out exactly to have a vintage feel, but my design preferences are selected over seventy or eighty years. It’s not a specific attempt at a style, rather a curation of design that appeals to me, that puts my mind at ease.