The man who loved women

Photography collector and editor Peter Fetterman talks about the naked woman as landscape -- and why women look hotter reading Proust.

Published December 24, 2003 8:25PM (EST)

British-born art dealer Peter Fetterman may love women almost as much as the late, great film director Francois Truffaut. The latest testament to Fetterman's particular rapture over the feminine is an exquisite new collection of photographs he edited called "Woman: A Celebration."

The celebrator is a trim, elegant, immaculately tailored man in his mid-50s. We meet inside an armory on the Upper West Side of New York where an art sale is being held. We sit, sipping Merlot and comparing the sights of beautiful women walking to and fro with the photographs of beautiful women in his book. I turn to a page at random -- Audrey Hepburn leaning out the window of a black limousine is on a page opposite a woman curled up in darkness, revealing only her naked hips, shoulders and braided dark hair.

Do you own all these photographs?

I do. It's a sickness. This book is the result of my disease.

And you love women?

And I love women. They are so much more interesting than men. So much more complex.

Present company excluded.

Present company excluded. There are a few sensitive, decent men in the world. But you don't really want to hang out with [most men] too much. Too much aggression. How did you come across the book? You were strolling by your local Barnes & Noble?

I saw a woman paging through it at St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village. She was lovely, but I noticed that the book was even more beautiful. [A blonde walks by.] She reminds me of one of the famous photographs in the book ["American Girl in Italy," 1951, by Ruth Orkin]. A gorgeous woman walks down a street surrounded by slouching men ogling and giving wolf-whistles. Was that photo real or staged?

Ruth met this young American woman in Rome -- and Rome being Rome, and Italian men being Italian men, Ruth had a sense that an unchaperoned woman walking around the piazza might make some interesting photo opportunities. The American woman walked through once and not much happened. Ruth asked her to do it again and she got that response.

You're not a woman so I can ask you this: How old are you?

I'm 55 years old.

So you don't really know what Rome was like in the 1950s?

I did go to Rome as a student and fell in love with her. In those days, you could fly to Rome for $20. Every weekend I could, I would get away.

How did you begin collecting photographs?

I started collecting on a minor level 25 years ago and I became obsessed. It took me over. I changed my life to do it. I felt good surrounded by all these images of women. I thought, "Why can't I feel good like this all the time?" I was in this very stressful other life -- I was producing films. I produced a movie with Mia Farrow called "The Haunting of Julia." I produced a movie with Pavarotti called "Yes, Giorgio" for MGM. It became the "Heaven's Gate" of musicals. It was an enormous hit on the airlines, but not on earth. The problem with the film industry is that it's very hard to indulge in your own tastes because it takes millions of dollars to fulfill a vision. The great thing about photographs is that when I started out you could buy any photograph you wanted because there wasn't a photography market like there is now.

I think most people are a little confused about what selling photographs means. You don't have the negatives, do you?

No. My gallery represents photographers who control their own negatives, or we sometimes acquire individual prints from various periods.

Is Ruth Orkin still alive?

No. She passed away in the 1980s. Her daughter runs her estate and from time to time they make some prints.

No two prints are ever alike.

Right. If you've ever been into a darkroom you know the nuances to make the piece brighter or darker.

I met my wife in a darkroom.

Did you trip over her and there she was?

We took a darkroom class together and occasionally rented the teacher's darkroom on the same evening.

So your date night would be printing --

No, no. We barely knew each other. One night I had a sense she was printing nudes. So I waited her out. After she left, I went through the trash and took her discards. They were self-portrait nudes.

I like that story. See, photography is good for men. It's good for their relationships.

When did you become a "womanphile"?

I didn't realize I was doing it until I looked around my house and realized that all I had hanging around the house were scenes of women. I never consciously set out to collect images of women, but I suppose -- subconsciously -- that was my way to understand them.

You operate out of California?

Yes. I have a gallery in Santa Monica.

Before our interview I tried to consider what your prejudices were about woman. For one thing, there are no pictures of women weightlifters.

There are a couple of gigantic women. I suppose I have what they call a "romantic" view of the world. I have this lyrical, impressionistic-painting view of women.

Are you married?

I am married. I live with women. I have two daughters, 4 and 9. I just acquired for my daughters a little female dog. And I have a mother-in-law who comes along most days. I'm surrounded by women, and maybe this book is a way to -- [pauses].

How long have you been married?

Ten years, which, in Los Angeles, let me tell you, is one of the longest marriages. People change their partners like they change their cars. And I have my gallery -- that's my little oasis in the desert of Los Angeles.

So let's keep paging. This is one image that struck me -- a topless African-American is leaning back holding a lit cigarette, in a holder.

Max Thorek [the photographer] was actually a doctor in the 1930s. He was an amateur photographer, but he was great. I just saw this image, and I just thought it was luscious and Deco. And unusual. I don't know the story, but he obviously just worked with this model, and he communicated with her amazingly well, and together they created this sexy image.

How does your wife feel about your collection of images?

She loves it. She loves it. I think they're all tasteful.

Has anyone accused you of being sexist?

Not yet. I thought that was going to happen, but so far I haven't had people e-mail me, "How dare you!" I think what's good about the book is that it's not just full of pretty women. It switches moods suddenly for no reason. It goes from elegant images to heart-wrenching ones. I think why people like it is that it isn't predictable in the sense of "Oh, it's just another fashion book full of pictures of Audrey Hepburn." It isn't. It seems to touch men and women, actually. It's got an international cast.

This is one of my favorites [A photograph of a poised, young, dark-skinned girl.] Charles Scowen, the photographer, operated in India. Back in those days [1870] people in Europe would go on these exotic journeys and they wanted to take back souvenirs of what they had seen, be it the Far East or Asia. And he operated a successful business that captured local Indian scenes. There is something about this portrait -- when I first saw it 25 years ago, I thought, "This is an amazing photo." It's my favorite in the whole book. There is something haunting about her. The physical print is very beautiful. She just has this wistful air which is very -- I want to know her story. I love portraits. That's what photography is best at. Portraits tell stories. I'm curious. I love stories. And each of the women in this book has a story.

I write for the sex editor. So let's talk about nudes -- here is one of a naked woman curled in blackness.

It's by Ruth Bernhard, who is one of the great women photographers of the nude. She is 98 years old now. An amazing woman.

It's "naked woman as landscape."

She met Edward Weston on the beach by accident in Santa Monica during the 1930s. He encouraged her. She said, "I'm a woman. I can't be a photographer." He said, "Yes, you can." She'll go down in history as one of the great female interpreters of the nude. And I asked her, "What was the difference between a woman taking a nude of a woman and a man taking a nude?" She said, "I'm much more gentle. I approach it in a much more gentle, natural way than any man."

To this day, this is one of my great regrets: When I was a photographer I went out with a beautiful woman named Marsha. I took photographs of her wearing a black slip, but I never went further because I wanted to be an artist. I couldn't imagine keeping my pure artistic vision if she was naked.

You're a sensitive man.

Ha! Well, 20 years later I think, "You idiot! You could have had nude photographs of Marsha."

Where is Marsha now? Try and find her. I wonder how she looks.

Have you ever taken photographs?

I take bad photographs of my children. I don't think I have any talent. I've done a lot of what I call photo aerobics: I look at photos all day long, and breathe them. And I think I've trained my eye to tell a good image from a bad one.

[Turning to a page] Well, I suppose Edward Steichen started the whole "naked woman as landscape."

Steichen and Stieglitz were pretty randy guys. They loved being around women. And they were great photographers. I suppose they are the great photographers of the nude. You look at Stieglitz's images of O'Keeffe. And it's as good as it gets. And then that Willie Ronis [photograph of a naked woman sitting on a chair], who is one of my favorites. He's 92 now. The way the light hits her shoulder, it's very Dutch-painting. Beautiful. Tender. The fact that she's shot from behind, you don't see her face. The shadows! The light! The body! It's one of the great nudes.

Who took the first photograph of a naked woman?

If you go to the Metropolitan Museum now, there is an exhibition of French daguerreotypes from 1839, 1840. There are some very interesting daguerreotypes of nudes. I suppose 1840 is the first time that a guy like you would get a woman to take her clothes off and pose for you.

Were they considered girlie pictures or art back then?

Some of them are very erotic. There are, like, two women together, you know. [He squeezes his voice so he sounds like he's talking about naked women on "Monty Python."] I think they're incredibly erotic. And there is a whole cult of collectors of nude daguerreotypes.

Where do you draw the line between girlie pictures and art? Do you like Helmut Newton?

He's very "one note" for me. I think he's kind of pathetic in a way. It's just ... I wouldn't want to live with them. They're interesting to look at. They're fun. But are they great, great photographs in the way that you're talking about with a Steichen and Stieglitz? No. They're very much of a time. They're kind of voyeuristic and cheap in a way. I suppose I'm not a great Helmut Newton fan. To tell you the truth I find them kind of boring. I don't find them terribly arousing. Kitsch, you know. One-note kitsch. They're not going to withstand time. I think in 100 years or 200 years when people are talking about the history of photography they're still going to be talking about Steichen and Stieglitz, but I don't think anyone is going to be seriously talking about Helmut Newton.

So you came of age in the 1960s?

I was a '60s guy. The Beatles, and --

So you've slept with hundreds of girls?

Hundreds of people [he says sarcastically]. Yes, this is pre-disease. Pre-everything. University. We were radical. We threw paint at the American ambassador. We wanted to save the world.

When you had sex with girls in the 1960s it didn't matter that they were naked, right?

I was pretty shy then. I was shy. I wasn't David Hemmings in "Blow Up." I was, I don't know, shy.

But girls got naked all the time in the 1960s.

All the time!

So it wasn't a big deal.

No. This was the Swinging Sixties in London. This was the miniskirt. I mean, you know, I used to just sit in the university library and watch all the pretty girls walk by in their miniskirts. You know what a miniskirt felt like? It was an incredible revolution. That may be the greatest thing that ever happened to women -- the miniskirt. That was liberating. To see girls' legs -- even in the winter! In England.

They all wore underwear, right?

They wore underwear, but they had great legs. It was amazing. Ah, the '60s. I feel like we're two old guys sittin' on a park bench reminiscing.

Did you talk to these women that you slept with? Have conversations?

Yes. Yes. I keep talking about this in my interviews. When you work in an office, there are all sorts of ways of looking at a beautiful woman so she doesn't know you're looking at her -- or she may intuitively be aware, but she can't point her finger and yell, "J'accuse!" That's how we had to look at women who were going to sleep with us the in the late 1970s.

What do you think it's like now? It's harder now?

Now there are all these dizzy dames who believe oral sex isn't really sex -- I think it's back to the 1950s.

No one has time for sex now. Young people are so concerned with their careers and making it and becoming famous.

So back in the 1960s could you objectify a naked woman?


And that was cool?

That was cool. The 1960s were great. It was John Lennon. "All You Need Is Love."

It's like when you look at a picture of a naked movie star --

It's a double. It's not the real woman. It's not Meg Ryan. It's Meg Ryan's double.

But she's acting. Have you ever seen a photograph of a casual naked movie star?

I saw some Marilyn Monroe shots. [Pause.] I think actresses today are all surrounded by publicists. They're not allowed to be casual.

Were the Monroe pictures the ones Stern took?

Those were ... they're pretty good. Especially the ones she marked in red.

I interviewed Stern once.

He's a character, isn't he?

To this day he regrets that he could have slept with her during the shooting session, but he didn't.

He didn't sleep with Marilyn Monroe?

No. Imagine that as a regret -- you could have slept with Marilyn Monroe, but you didn't.

It's up there on the great list of missed opportunities. [He begins paging through his book.] This is Henri Cartier-Bresson. Those are his wife's legs. He's 96 and his wife Martine is 30 years younger. I love this photo. I think this is one of the sexiest photos in the book not because she has beautiful legs, but she's in a beautiful short Chanel skirt. And she's reading Proust. What more could a man want than a woman with a brain?

You're such a leg man.

I like legs. I mean, look at that. That's another great leg shot. That's a Thurston Hopkins of a couple kissing; you see the shape of her legs. And this is one of the great -- this is the "Helen of Troy shot." That shape could launch a thousand ships. He [Edouard Boubat] was obsessed with this woman. I met him before he died. There was a beautiful, small show in Paris of all of his images of Lella, who was the great love of his life -- who he never married.

Did he do any nude shots?

Yes. There are a couple of nudes. But this is the greatest one.

Of the customs of the times -- how bizarre was it that her bra is --

Black? That was it. She was a style maker. She was strong. Look at that face. It's like, "Don't mess with me. I'm gonna do whatever I want."

She's the Madonna of 1947.

With a little bit more class. Sorry, Madonna. [Pages through his book.] Jackie Kennedy has her clothes on.

Look! Cheerleaders! You gotta love 'em.

You gotta love that one. [Pause.] So you are going to promote this book as the greatest sex book about women ever made?

But these aren't sex photos.

This photo would never happen in America. This picture is backstage at the Folies Bergere in Paris. What's great about this image is the women and the men are so nonchalant. If this was in America, backstage at 42nd Street, the guys would be right on top of her. But this photo is just so casual. It's like she's naked and they're having a conversation. I love that photo. It's a great theatrical photo.

Back to naked women -- my wife and I are walking on the beach at Montauk, and there's this nude section --

Like in the South of France?

It's not an official nude beach. Of course at any kind of nude beach you're supposed to be casual.

Right. You're not really supposed to look.

Again, it's that looking without revealing that you're looking.

Did you guys go nude?

No. Of course not.

Why didn't you go nude and join them? Are you shy?

No. I've done research on nudist colonies in America that are anti-sex -- the idea that the naked body is not erotic. That's the same philosophy behind nude beaches. I don't believe in that. I believe unless you're in a hospital, the naked body should always be erotic.

Absolutely. [Pause.] Absolutely.

So again, at what historical point was there a clear distinction between art and girlie photos?

It's all in the matter of interpretation. Obviously, photographers realized there was a market for erotic photos. You're right that there is a distinction between the art photographers and the girlie photographers. Girlie photographers out to make a quick buck, I suppose.

I looked through -- for professional reasons --


-- 15 years of Playboy centerfolds from the 1950s. You think naked women are always the same, but they aren't. The girls from the '50s have a kind of kitsch-y innocence about them. The images have aged well.

A lot of touchups, I imagine. A lot of airbrushing going on. He was a pioneer, ol' Hugh.

You don't care much for him?

No. Those are not my kind of photos. This is a very classy book. Is this an arty book, do you think?

Yes, but --


A hundred years from now when Playboy is completely antique, the centerfolds from the '50s will seem like art.

Every period gets rediscovered and reinterpreted.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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