In November 2016, photographer Jonathan Leder and Imperial Publishing unveiled a collection of 71 new photos featuring Emily Ratajkowski. The photo set was captured back in 2012, before Emily’s appearance in Robin Thicke’s infamous “Blurred Lines” music video, and subsequent ascent into the spotlight.
Shortly after, Ratajkowski responded with a flurry of tweets, accusing Leder of publishing the images without her permission, and going on to highlight the importance of “women choosing when and how they want to share their sexuality and bodies,” a post which is still pinned to the top of her Twitter feed at the time of publishing this interview.
Adding some clarity to the situation, Leder provides some exclusive anecdotes from his time with Ratajkowski, coinciding with his “Polaroids” exhibition at Castor Gallery in New York City.
How were you first put in touch with Emily?
Back in April of 2012, I received an e-mail from a booker I knew at Ford Models, telling me that she had this great girl named Emily she wanted me to shoot. She had sent a link to the package which included various swimsuit shots.
It was clear that this girl had something special, she had a great figure, and more of a ‘real girl’ look than some of the typical New York runway models I tend to stay away from. Also, since I always enjoyed working with Ford, I decided to propose her to a couple magazines I was shooting for at the time. One of these publications, a Swedish magazine named Darius, was interested and basically gave me free creative freedom to shoot whatever I wanted.
Back then, I was shooting a lot of Polaroids, almost exclusively Polaroids, so I explained to Ford that I didn’t have a budget, but if she would fly herself to New York and come to Woodstock, I would shoot Polaroids of her, and probably get them published in Darius. Ford quickly agreed and we set a date for the shoot, May 25 and 26 2012.
Emily flew herself all the way from Los Angeles to New York City, and then took a bus to Woodstock, where I picked her up on the afternoon of the 25. I want to be clear on that, because since she tweeted, it sort of sounded like this shoot was some sort of accidental occurrence, that she was somehow confused about, when nothing could be further from the truth.
What happened when she arrived?
I drove to the bus stop, and it was a lovely warm May afternoon, and that is when I met Emily. She was nice, polite, more petite than I had imagined, very friendly and well spoken. She seemed pleased to meet me and excited to work together. She said she was a huge fan of my work and loved Polaroids.
We drove back to the house, I cooked a light dinner, and we started to get ready to shoot. In terms of clothing, I just had some odds and ends of things lying around. Some vintage Givenchy and Kiki pieces from other shoots. I wasn’t too concerned about the clothing since part of the brief with Ford was that she would be fairly exposed.
I would say that within 30 minutes of taking the first Polaroids, she was naked. I had worked with over 500 models by that point in my career, and I can tell you that Emily Ratajkowski was one of the most comfortable models I had ever worked with in terms of her body.
She was neither shy nor self-conscious in any way. To say she enjoyed being naked is an understatement. I don’t know if it empowered her, or she enjoyed the attention, but I can say, out of the 100 or so Polaroids we shot those two nights, only in a handful does she have clothes on.
In any case, it was a great shoot. I mean a fun shoot. We had a great time, good conversation, and worked late into the night. We had a lot of discussions about music, art, the industry, and the creative process. She was very pleasant to speak with, and very intelligent and well-spoken, and cultured. That, more than anything in my opinion, set her apart from so many other models.
The pictures we did those two nights came about extremely naturally. Very easy going. Sometimes on a shoot, things feel a bit forced and you are searching for the next shot. Not in this case. Not at all. This was just two people doing a photoshoot the way it should be done. She got to perform, and I recorded it on film.
Regarding her recent tweets, I don’t have much to say. I think it would have been smarter for her to get behind the photos and embrace them. I know many, many people love these photos, and in my personal opinion, many of them are very beautiful. The people that love these photos are her fans. She looks great, and it was a special moment in time. In the end, the photos are very human, and I think that is what people respond to.
She has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the gallery. I guess they forget about the 1st Amendment in Los Angeles. I’m not sure why she would want to stop her fans from viewing these Polaroids. Who knows.
The announcement of Leder/Ratajkowski made quite a big impact on the web, did you expect a big reaction?
No. I mean I expected some type of reaction, since this series of photos has always been fairly popular. But nothing like that. In fact, since many of those images have been seen before and for years, I was concerned people wouldn’t be interested in the other outtakes.
Why did you choose to shoot on Polaroid?
Living in Woodstock, I didn’t have access to a darkroom, so Polaroid just made sense for me during that time.
What was your impression of Emily’s appearance in the “Blurred Lines” video?
I never saw it.
Did you expect her to become such a big star?
No. I mean, I thought she was lovely, but I never could have predicted that. Looking back, it is not all that surprising to me though. We had a lot of conversations over the couple days we shot, and she was clearly very intelligent and knowledgable about the industry. She seemed to understand that she had an enormous amount of ‘sex appeal,’ and was trying to use that to advance her career.
And she had no problem with it at that time. She was a smart young woman, and I imagine that she probably wants to be taken seriously more than anything, and unfortunately our society has a hard time accepting that a woman can be really intelligent and really attractive at the same time. Hopefully that is changing.
Are you still in touch with Emily? Was this your only shoot with her?
Sadly, that was our only shoot.
Do you have a favorite image from the shoot?
I like some of the black and white photos, where she is totally naked on the bed. She reminds me of an old Italian movie star.
“Polaroids” is open to the public at Castor Gallery (254 Broome St, New York) from February 9 to February 26.
- Photography: Thomas Welch / Highsnobiety.com