Gramercy Park on New York’s west side has long maintained an air of faded elegance. The buildings here have witnessed considerable changes over the years—from cool beat poets trading rhymes on the benches, to a new generation of hipsters cashing in on past glories. In the early 1990s I was a regular in the park’s infamous hotel, imagining myself as one of Manhattan’s boho-elite, drinking vodka like it was going out of fashion, and, in lieu of dinner, grazing on the bar snacks. Times were hard, but bluff and swagger came easy.
Pre-gentrification, the area seemed frozen in time, a slice of the city preserved in nostalgic aspic. Photographer Bon Duke remembers it well. Born and raised across the river in Brooklyn; New York has always been his home. It’s the reason he takes pictures in the first place, constantly seduced by the city’s boundless charm and ever-evolving personality. As he walks through Gramercy in sub-zero conditions, police sirens blare like the melody of an urban Christmas carol.
“New York is endlessly inspiring,” he announces. “When you look down the avenues and see the skyline, it’s an incredible sight. But it’s not just the visuals that inspire me, it’s the people too. Everyone’s in their own little world here. There’s this mutual feeling of knowing you’re in a great city. Every single person here knows that they can do whatever they want. You feel the mood and energy just looking at people’s faces.”
A graduate of the city’s School of Visual Arts, Duke is fast emerging as a powerful force in fashion editorial. Shooting for a host of style magazines, he has an eye for detail, and is part of a new generation of film and image-makers influencing the fashion landscape with fresh perspectives. In 2009 he co-founded the New York Fashion Film Festival, which annually showcases short films from both students and seasoned industry professionals. To say he is ambitious is an understatement. Regularly tipped as a name to watch, Duke is bubbling to the surface with such effervescence, there seems to be no stopping this nascent, doubtless talent.
He first picked up a camera as a small child and at the age of thirteen, he started photographing his own paintings. “I was a painter originally, but not a very good one,” he laughs. “I just loved the whole ritual of getting film processed and developed, it was so instantaneous. I found painting such a slow process so I started focusing on photographs instead. It’s good to have a painting background before you start taking photos, you approach it with a lot of knowledge about colour and composition. In this digital age not having a background in another medium is a disadvantage.”
Duke is a straight talker—pragmatic and not inclined to embellishment. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, his work ethic and attitude to life is clearly defined. Yet in the shallow waters of fashion, where his photography has flourished, that openness is highly unusual.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect to end up shooting fashion, it came about almost by accident. When I first started, my aesthetic was really minimal—I had no idea about designers and who was who. My interest comes from the beauty of the craftsmanship. Obviously when I see fashion now, it’s about how clothes lay on the body, and how they compliment a person. I see them as another layer to help me composite my images. I look for details in clothes; this is what really piques my interest.”
Looking at a cross section of Duke’s work, it is the models, not the clothes themselves that stand out. My eye is drawn to the subject’s face, often captured mid-expression, caught in reverie or despair. It says more about his style than the designer apparel these characters often inhabit.
“It’s a lot about the subject,” he agrees. “I have always focused on portraiture; I always want to photograph and know someone more as a person if their character speaks to me. Creating a connection with a subject is important to me.”
Who does he consider to be beautiful?
“Wow, that’s difficult. When you look at someone’s face, they have to have an aura. When I cast someone, they have to make me feel speechless. There are models out there that people find very beautiful and sometimes I just don’t see it.
For instance, Cara Delevigne. I just don’t think she’s amazing at all, but because she’s able to take advantage of being this Instagram ‘it’ girl, she has far more presence. For me, visually, I don’t see it.” We chat at length about notions of beauty. The fashion industry persists in selling us an ideal, but we both agree that being beautiful isn’t enough. The nuances and gestures a model makes are often more important than the way they look. In Duke’s world, a hand can say more than any smile.
“Amazing that you noticed that,” he says excitedly. “Hands are super important to me. It’s a detail I like. People don’t realise how much is said about them through the way they use their hands. I like to capture that.”
The conversation turns technical when we try to make sense of the digital realm. In the last fifteen years, photography has changed beyond recognition with the advent of new technology. This has been a good and a bad thing. From a democratic point of view, everyone can now be an artist, and yet the ease and speed of this new medium has created a culture of blandness and repetition. For the i-Phone generation there is no process, no integrity.