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denis piel (b. 1944) is a photographer and film-maker currently living and working in the South-West of France.
piel was born in France during the Second World War to Serge and Lilly Piel, activists in the French Resistance. At the end of the war piel's parents emigrated with their children to Australia to begin a new life.
Raised in Australia, piel began working in photography in Brisbane, Australia, before moving to Europe in the early 70s.
piel moved to New York when offered a contract by Alexander Liberman and subsequently worked as a Condé Nast photographer for a decade, shooting mainly for Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Self, during which time he won the Leica Medal for Excellence in Commercial Photography 1987 having worked with an international eclectic group of clients from Fortune magazine, to Estee Lauder.
He also began directing and writing commercials, notable the iconic New York campaign for Donna Karan and The Wool Board campaign, Australia.
Each year, over the course of many years, Denis Piel would disappear for a month from his regular life—a life that was by no means ‘regular’. Working in NYC in the 1980s Piel was considered one of the Wonder Boys of American fashion photography. Alongside Avedon and Penn, he was one of the few photographers at the time to be given a contract with Condé Nast.
Recognised for his influential directorial approach within fashion photography, Piel fused an intimate narrative into the images he created, working with models in the construction of a story. Shooting for publications such as Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair, Piel was familiar with some of the most beautiful and luxurious locations in the world.
Year after year, Piel sought to find balance in his life by living in pre-industrial aboriginal cultures that existed at the time: in the Andaman Islands, Indonesia, Chile, Romania, India, Haiti. He sought an essential way of life—relishing simple pleasures, enjoying light, food, water, uncultivated landscape—a way of life that sat in stark counterpoint to the lifestyle that he led in New York, and came to influence his photographic vision.
Piel began to strip back the ephemeral within his images, seeking to capture what he describes as a ‘real’ moment while maintaining an acute sensibility toward the subjective and constructed nature of reality. Within his developing body of work a scrutiny of some of the key elements of the fashion photograph is apparent—the face, the body, the garment and the location—Piel played with these formal aspects of the genre, distilling them, at times negating them. Sometimes filling the entire frame, the body becomes landscape/location; sometimes printed at a monumental scale, sometimes small, intimate. Location pared down becomes elemental, almost abstracted, sometimes simply light dappled water, sometimes a primal stone landscape.
1. Stieglitz once said that " Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.
Clothing is reduced to its most basic form, or removed altogether to reveal a body that endures and changes according to differing temporal frameworks. The feeling, sensing, body within this work acts as a site of shared understanding, developed in light of Piel’s fascination with the commonalities between people: the shared intrinsic needs that define us as human. Food, water and bedding are reoccurring elements within these images and speak of basic physical needs: eating, drinking, sleeping, sex.
Irrespective of the context in which Piel has produced his photographic images, the abiding essence of the work is a celebration of the sensual—a celebration of the body.
In 1989 piel left Condé Nast to concentrate on film. He continued with his commercial advertising work in both film and stills during this period, however he stopped shooting editorial work except occasionally. piel produced and directed his first feature length documentary Love is Blind in the early 1990's.
The progression into independent film-making inspired piel to set up Jupiter Films, a film production company; he also set up 'Umbershoot and theideasbank, vehicles which would enable people to work together collaboratively.
After 9/11 and the dot.com crash piel and his family moved permanently to Lempaut in the South-West of France to live and work at Château de Padiès, a medieval- renaissance Château which they have been restoring since 1992. The gardens at Padiès are an experiment in agro ecology and are being developed following permaculture and sustainable development principals. Padiès and the local environment have become the source of inspiration for piel and are central to his current photographic practice.
Piel latest project "Down to Earth" is inspired largely by his move to the country from the urban. Today rural/urban are not binary opposites, the rural exists in the urban, and the urban exists in the rural; nature and culture co-exist. “Down to Earth” is a celebration of living closely with nature and is being shot on location at Château de Padiès.
The "Down to Earth" project is being supported by Hasselblad
In September 2012 Rizzoli published a retrospective of piel's work shot between 1979 and 2007. piel's eclectic approach to his work with a disregard for categorizing work as commercial or personal has generated a diverse body of work comprising projects which sit in dialogue with one another.