The creator of the late 90s incentive visuals, triggering the unexpected in Gucci campaigns,
portraits of Leonardo DiCaprio, and covers for The Face.
Pop Magazine Editorial shot by Luis Sanchis, 2000
In a rather open conversation with Catinca, we get the chance to decode a fragment of the literally LIGHTed vision of Luis Sanchis about life, the world, and art; capture insights about his journey, and uncover honest thoughts.
His distinctive photography is characterized by the experimental, balanced, yet rebellious use of light, contrast, and color. Luis Sanchis has shaped the 90s fashion and culture analog visuals throughout his dynamic twenty-year career. The Spanish-born artist moved to NYC in 1994 aiming to leave his mark in fashion photography, becoming a regular contributor for magazines such as The Face, producing campaigns for Gucci, Nike, or Missoni, and capturing the expressions of iconic musicians, actors, and supermodels (Robbie Williams, Madonna, The Rolling Stones; Margot Robbie, Jude Law; Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer, just to name a few). His signature, ‘gorilla style’ frames and outlandish compositions are showcased in his first monograph, a uniquely curated photo book printed in 1000 copies, an essential for any 90s mysterious, sultry portrayals nostalgic.
Shot by Luis Sanchis for D–La Repubblica Magazine
- At the very beginning of your career in photography, you chose New York as the incentive place in which to start showcasing your creativity. Did you sense the international success you were about to achieve? Which were your aspirations at the start of this path and has New York remained your preferred city to work and live in?
I started in Spain, I did many jobs, worked in production companies for a while assisting photographers, and eventually, before I moved to New York, I started shooting. It was very difficult in Spain, the market was limited, hard to get in and the style was more conservative. When I arrived in New York I didn’t speak English. I had so many different jobs but started doing photography tests at the same time for modeling agencies. After getting to know the people in the industry here I eventually found an agent. At first, I did very commercial work for Bloomingdale’s and Sacks, their style was different from now. I was more in tune with the European one, so I went to London and met with different magazines. Soon I started working with ‘The Face’, ‘Vogue’, ‘Arena’, and from there, it escalated very quickly. Of course, I wanted to be successful, but my thing was ‘The Face’, it was a platform allowing you to experiment and do things differently. So, I was dreaming eventually. I remember working with a Make-up Artist, doing tests, I used to tell him, “You know, I will do Jil Sander”. He used to laugh at me. A year and a half later, I was doing Gucci.
I’ve been living in New York for so many years, it is not exciting anymore. In the beginning, it was, coming from Spain, from Valencia, it looked overwhelming, unreal, so big. Now for me, it’s all small and I get my excitement by going to Seoul, South Korea, Japan, or Europe. It is a very interesting place, but I certainly prefer the old New York. I’m based here, it is where I am, for now. I mean, who knows about tomorrow?
Kate Moss shot by Luis Sanchis for The Face, March 1999
2. Your signature takes on color, light, and contrast is often wrapping your imagery in a cinematic feel, asserting your education in the fields of cinematography and fine arts. How is cinema particularly influencing your art? Was the resemblance of your photographs to movie stills deliberate or did it natively happen?
I am self-taught, I studied painting, photography, and cinema in my own way. When I was 16 I didn’t know what to do, I left high school and never finished it. I had a friend who wanted to be a movie director in Madrid, he introduced me to photography, it was something new for me, unknown. I didn’t think in perspective, back then it wasn’t even considered a profession in Spain, and very few could get into the business. I got a Super 8 Camera and started shooting and watching a lot of movies at the Cinemateca, this was in the early 80s. I discovered many European and Asian Directors, observing movies by the ones I was resonating with, they were amazing, so skillful, and talented. At the same time, I was shooting Super 8 films, going in the street, shooting places, people, and learning the process. I also started editing, and understanding production, everything was very organic, done by myself. I eventually got to work in production as the person in charge of location scouting. You have to have an eye to find places for a photographer to shoot. That was my foundation, it was more about doing than watching. Later I worked with photographers and learned how to shoot in a studio. There were many different lights and every photographer used different techniques. You start to understand, there is a whole world out there, so you might be missing things unless you try. There are infinite ways to do it and that is the beauty of it, experiencing and then finding your own way. Of course, the cinematography was a huge influence too. Anything can inspire me: Central Park, a woman, my own pictures, a movie, a painting, or observing Nature is what inspires me the most. There are a lot of ingredients, like in cooking: experience, talent, discipline, skills, and experimentation. This is how you build a personal style. Creation is constant experimenting and over the years you build up the skills. I am not trying to get that cinematic feel, it just comes out naturally, so you can call it a style.
3. If your pictures would be glued together into a motion production, how would you name the movie?
I don’t know. If I could put all of the pictures together into a movie how will I name that? I mean, “My Life”. They represent my journey and different periods of my life. So yes, I don’t know what I would call it, probably “My Journey”. Yes.
Shot by Luis Sanchis for Stiletto Magazine
Shot by Luis Sanchis for Pop Magazine
4. Which sorts of photography techniques, equipment, and settings are best expressing your visual language and creative message? Would you ever consider working with virtual models or replacing the experimental play of natural lights and reflections with projections?
Not with virtual models, no.
I was one of the last ones shooting on film, no client wanted to work with me, because I was mostly using film until 2012. I started working digitally in 2009 because clients wanted it, now there is a whole trend of young people that are shooting on film. I am happy now because I can do both. When it comes to projections, well, I was using them back in the 90s, when, as far as I know, only people in the cinema industry were using them. I was also shooting projects on location in a way that looked like projections, it came very experimental. I didn’t know, during the process, I was realizing that maybe some natural light looked like a projection, but it was actually not. I was mixing artificial and natural light. During the late 90s, when people were already using computers, they thought I was utilizing the so-called ‘back or rear projection’, it was just the way I shot. My first time using back projection was in 2002 and since then I shot mostly natural and used those sometimes if clients wanted or there was no budget for location. But the more I can do it my way, the better. Nowadays people are not experimenting much anymore, they just look at others’ work and they are missing the beauty of the whole process and the element of surprise.
I remember finding lights in the most random ways. One time, I saw this guy in a Halloween parade using this strange light, he told me that it was built by him and I asked if he could make one for me. I’ve never seen that before. You have to keep your eyes open and you will find ways. Recently I did a series of videos, it is posted on my Instagram. I did the frames which looked like Tv monitors and cut the shapes with my hands, very old school, there was no Photoshop and I had no idea how it will look at the beginning, is just a feeling.
Now, almost everything is done in the studio. Back in the day, when I was shooting pictures of Nike athletes in locations, they were jumping on top of a volcano with a bicycle and we had to build a ramp. Or when I shot Robbie Williams on the tallest building in Los Angeles and he was hanging upside down. He wanted to do it, I wanted to do it, and we could have shot that in a studio, but we would have lost the whole energy. It was completely different, there was a group of people out there on the roof with cranes and the guy was hanging upside down at the border of the edge and I only had one hour to shoot and capture the right lighting. The energy, the rush, it was very exciting. When a client comes and asks me to do this kind of thing, I’m blessed. I love it, it is an adventure full of surprises, and many things can happen along the process. For me, that is photography. In a studio, it is all so much easier and you can feel it in the final result. Many newcomers don’t understand, they might think it’s Photoshop, and they ask me how did I do it. That is the issue, that they don’t know how to create this kind of stuff and they are missing a lot. But I am glad for the people who understand and appreciate it.
I wrote this quote by Saint Francis of Assisi at the beginning of my book, that says “a man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman, but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” It is about how you do things. How you use the tools. Where are the geniuses now? It is all technology, everybody is an “artist” and we don’t even know what that means anymore. They just want to become one because they want to be like other people.
Amica Magazine editorial shot by Luis Sanchis
5. As an advocate of unfiltered imagery and a devotee of shooting on film; stating that you always prefer to “get the shot on camera” and make very few adjustments in post-production, how do you perceive photography in the Instagram era? Will the ‘filter addiction’ eventually get to prevail art?
Well, all of that is just such bullshit, you know? I’m sorry. I mean, it’s just what it is. Recently, I shot a friend on film and I did everything with lighting. I only did some minimum corrections of contrast and saturation and color in Photoshop, but everything was pretty much done with the lighting. I showed it to a friend of mine that doesn’t know much about photography and the first thing that he asked was ‘Oh, which filter did you use?’. People think you did that with a filter. There was no filter and there is no filter to do that. The filter is an easy thing, you shot some shitty pictures, then you put a filter and it may look nicer because of course, the picture is so shit that unless you put a filter it doesn’t look good.
Many times when you shoot with a client in the studio, there are many people looking at the monitor and they’re like, “Oh, don’t worry, we can change the arm later. Don’t worry, we can change the nose”. Like you’re doing plastic surgery. Right? The problem is that people are going to feel it when they see it, this is what many don’t understand. Even if you don’t know, when you see the final image, you are going to feel that it’s fake and something is wrong. Viewers resonate if the image is more natural and executed in an organic way. I always keep the scheme very natural and try to retouch the least. When you are doing advertising, of course, you will probably have to retouch more. But when I shoot editorials, I do my thing, very linear, it’s all done with the lighting and the makeup. Unfortunately, younger people don’t know the difference. In the 70s or 60s, you would see a Stevie Wonder album cover and that’s how Stevie Wonder looked, you could see pimples and skin texture.
Now, people rely on tools very much. I mean, when I frame something, that is what I want to see and that is what you are getting. People rely on changing the background later. That’s no photography to me, it is something different. But I can tell right away, I can tell you in a second if the picture is shot on film or digital if you put a filter or not.
But for the kids, they don’t. They don’t know. So, the filter for me is just a toy, a tool for people to be lazy, and get things done with shortcuts. A similar tool is called ‘profile’. You get the profile and then you dump it into the photos, I’ve done that. I built a profile from my own photo that I like and then I can use it on another one to experiment because you might get a range of new colors. But again, these are tools, not filters; it is my work and my way of using it. Filters are for people that don’t know photography. . And if that’s the way it is going to evolve, it makes me sad because it’s destroying things, destroying art completely.
Leonardo DiCaprio shot by Luis Sanchis for The Face, 2000
6. Having an impressive portfolio of celebrity shootings, capturing portraits of Leonardo DiCaprio, Madonna, Robbie Williams, Margot Robbie, Kate Moss, Mary J Blige, and many more; did you ever experience a different sort of pressure while working with stars, how is the process different from shooting fashion photography? Which was the most memorable experience on set and with whom?
Of course, shooting celebrities is very different. They usually give you very little time, you have to take a lot of pictures and everybody has high expectations. Back in the day, it was easier, you would show them a Polaroid and that was all; the process later might have made it look quite different. Now there is an entire team behind the monitor, giving opinions about a raw file. However, in recent years I didn’t shoot many celebrities, just Mary J Blige, Margot Robbie, and a couple of other actresses. And that’s it. And I do what I do. Yes, of course, it’s pressure, not because they are celebrities, but, again, you have very little time. You have to shoot a lot of pictures and you have to get great ones. In everything that I do, I have to take a great picture, for me. It must be something that I will see and think is great. People’s taste is different, some are going to like it and some not, you cannot please everyone, you have to please yourself. In this case, the client or the star has to also be happy because they chose you. It can be exciting to shoot a celebrity, depending on who it is. and sometimes you shoot a person in the street and the approach is, to me, the same, to get a great photo.
I remember many memorable moments. When I was shooting Nike in Japan, and Asia Pacific, it was wonderful, we also went to Hawaii and to volcanoes, to many awesome locations, and with a great team. We had a lot of fun, the pictures were fantastic and they were all shot on camera, capturing crazy situations. It was a fresh step for me, moving to another side of fashion, sports-related. That was one of my favorites. Robbie Williams was intense too. I have many memories; it doesn’t have to be an important shoot. And many memorable times. When we were shooting Nike, and there were 120 degrees in the desert, it was so hot. And we were waiting for the right time to start shooting but preparing everything before. All of my crew started fighting with ice water. It was all running around and laughing and it was such a great time. The pictures were amazing. The locations were amazing. The crew was fun. There are a lot of memories like that. That was probably one of the best ones. But every shoot, I mean, there are many, there are many, many.
Daft Punk shot by Luis Sanchis for The Face, February 2001
Madonna shot by Luis Sanchis for Arena, 1999
7. If you would have the chance to photograph anyone throughout history, who would you choose, why, and how would you imagine the shooting?
Well, I shot many people that I never imagined I would be shooting, important or not important, or whatever that means. I would maybe choose Da Vinci and shoot him in his studio, exactly the way he was. Going back to those times and meeting somebody of that caliber, I have no idea how that could be. But I love his work and his life. I have never been star-struck. I shot The Rolling Stones, Madonna, DiCaprio, and more, and yes, it is a lot of pressure. Also, when you are younger, less experienced and you are shooting these people, yes, you put pressure on the result. Now I shot anyone like I shot anyone, it doesn’t matter who you are. I want to get a great, beautiful photo, either you are this or that. But yeah, I would probably choose Da Vinci and shoot him in his studio, in his own environment … or maybe not, maybe we would shoot in the mountains. He is the one that comes to my mind now. But I don’t know, it could be somebody else or it could be a regular person.
8. If you wouldn’t become a photographer, you would have moved forward with painting. Your chiaroscuro and light experiments, transitioning from intense light to deep shadows are creating blissful, erratic visuals, in which colors blend alike on a canvas. Which are the painters inspiring your choice of colors, contrast, and light?
Well, maybe that’s what I said before. I don’t know. I mean, I did many things. I did music too, when I was younger, I had a bass guitar, but I didn’t pursue it later; the same idea with painting. I did martial arts, and cooking, and had so many other jobs – everything enriches your life. Anything that you do, from cooking to working as a messenger, to photography, to being a famous photographer, to painting; unless you try something, you never know.
I have done things before and later on came across works that were similar, in the same vibe. For example, when I was growing up, I discovered Da Vinci and Salvador Dali; but then, time goes by and you start creating things. I have a photo of a girl in which you see her figure from below and the focus is on the feet, I saw a painting by Dali, that was very similar. I might have it in my subconscious, from when I was younger. The funny thing is that I was doing something very different at that moment and all of a sudden, the girl stood on the glass and I saw a great photo. It was not intentional, it happened naturally. I have a similar story with a photo from the Gucci campaign, the one with a focus on the shoes. We were shooting and suddenly, they told me I have to capture the shoes. The girl put them on, I looked at them, saw her reflected, and thought it was a great photo, it was nothing planned. Another time, I was shooting for The Face, and the woman had her breast on the table and all of a sudden, the set designer comes with the idea to put a melon next to her. It changed the entire photo, with no planning.
That’s what I am saying about the magic and the mystery, the things that happen along the way; if you have the eye and you observe them, you might get another result. Imagine the number of images in your head, the number of movies, of photography, and everything nowadays is visual, you have the archive in your head. Many things I’d seen before, or maybe I don’t remember, or maybe I have never seen them in my life.
I have always been very involved in the process of color retouching because I want a very particular look. Back in the darkroom days, when I was sitting and experimenting with my printer, he did a mistake and showed it to me and I thought it actually looked great. We started experimenting from there until we achieved a crazy color. Those things, there were not many people involved, so many steps and you might find ways by making the so-called “mistakes”. I never shot the film in the way indicated on its box. By following the instructions, you would know what result you are going to get. But if you try different ways, you don’t know what you are getting, that’s how new things happen. I love the experimental, surprise factor. Until my last day, I will always push it and look for new ways. Of course, you need to earn and live. But the reason I started photography in the first place is curiosity. And I apply this to everything I do in life, when I cook, for example, I never follow a recipe.
There’s a whole world out there to discover, if you go by the book, that’s what you’re going to get. If you do it with the purpose of learning, experimenting, and searching, you find new things. No matter the field, that is what life is about.
9. The 1998 Spring/Summer steamy, modernly hedonistic Gucci campaign represented a shift both in your career and in the brand’s visual identity, shaping the imagery of the decade. How do you perceive the Gucci campaign now, when the 90’s influences are more contemporary than ever? Do you observe a direct Luis Sanchis inspiration in the current fashion editorials and ads?
Of course, clients always want a reference. I have always tried to give references of my own work, something that I’ve done in the past and that I’m into now. Sometimes you have to reference paintings or photography because they want to have a clear idea, but that doesn’t mean you will replicate that.
Over the years, many people told me they saw photographers using my pictures as references for mood boards. But if clients see that, why aren’t they coming to the real source? If I would be shown a picture taken by Steven Meisel, for example, and they will ask me to do that, I would tell the client to work with him, because he is the one who created it and that is what they are looking for. The other way around, the client should have the integrity to contact the real source if he sees that a photographer is trying to replicate someone else. Even recently, I had someone telling me that, they didn’t know my work until they came across my pictures in a photographer’s studio, on the wall. So, there are more people coming to me with this information, rather than me directly coming across it. Of course, I have also seen it many times, over the years, and I don’t know if it was done intentionally. Maybe it is true or not, I don’t know. I feel like yes. But I’m not the first one or the last one. My work sometimes kind of resembles other people too, unintentionally. The entire work portfolio defines you; it is where you can really see my career and journey, and what I do. You can see the pictures I take now and the ones I took 20 years ago, and you can recognize the same person. Many people are not like that.
10. Today’s Gucci world of Alessandro Michele is a lot less sexual and provocative, capturing a rather mystical, neo-romantic fairy-tale maximalism. How would you shoot and direct a campaign for ‘the new Gucci’?
It is actually funny, someone told me recently that their last two campaign are kind of ‘going back’. I can see that, lately, they are going more toward the aesthetic and feeling of the 90s. I don’t know, I would probably have to meet him and understand what is he looking for. But if they want you, is because they want your style, a piece of your world. I would have to understand why they reach out to me, maybe they want to move towards something completely different, or maybe not. They want you to come up with ideas or already have a clear vision, you have to communicate with every client.