Mert and Marcus: "It’s the most important time to feel inspired"
Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott tell i-D about photographing Pharrell remotely for the cover of The Faith In Chaos issue, and rediscovering the magic of fashion.
Photography courtesy of Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot
Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott believe in magic. They aren’t interested in the banal, nor are they concerned with reality. They want to make us dream, to believe in something beautiful. Their sexually charged and high-octane images are the ultimate riposte to the real world and its rising tides of bathroom selfies and hand-washing tutorials.
The pair first met in 1994 at a party -- they love to party -- and began collaborating on images that were an antidote to the pervasive minimalism and realism of 90s fashion photography. They avidly embraced digital photography and transformed retouching into an art form, shaping the identities of magazines (including i-D) and megabrands over the course of almost three decades. Over the years, they’ve produced hundreds, if not thousands, of images at a relentless speed with production teams and budgets as big as the names they have lensed: Madonna! Kate! Naomi! Kim!
So, it only makes sense that -- in these strange times, which require survivalist innovation and pause for reflection from image-makers -- Mert and Marcus have been galvanised by the challenges of creating fashion photography that can take us somewhere far away, even if we’re all at home. They’re going back to their roots of creating homespun narratives in their Old Street flat. They’re embracing technology, as they’ve always done. They’re stripping away the excess of blockbuster production and doubling down on heartfelt creativity. And they’re candid about the fact that it will change the way they work forever, beginning with shooting Pharrell for this issue. We caught up with them to find out how.
Hi Mert and Marcus! What’s been keeping you guys sane during these strange times?
Marcus: Well I’ve been in the middle of constructing a house, so I’ve been putting all of my creativity into a home.
Mert: I’ve been doing a lot of cooking and gardening.
Have you been finding inspiration while staying at home?
Mert: To be honest, I’ve never had so much time for myself. To suddenly find yourself on complete pause does tire you at first because it’s something you’re not familiar with, but after the second week your creativity starts to take off again. It’s like when you’re a kid and you think: ‘Oh, I could do this, I could do that.’ You suddenly start to feel inspired. I’ve had so many new ideas – I’ve been writing and painting and doing things that I never did. It’s been good for me.
So much of what you do is about people coming together on a shoot: the subject, the crew, the stylists, the hair and the make-up teams, the production. How have you found the transition to working on shoots with everyone in isolation?
Marcus: We started off with small teams and we used to build the sets and do the catering ourselves. It was a family production. It’s like those days again. It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.
It’s funny, because back in the early days, you would shoot at home. There’s that funny story about the time you took off your oven door so that you could shoot Bjork through it.
Marcus: It was the only bit of glass that water stuck to because it was oily! It’s nice to take away the excess and go back to the way things used to be. It’s quite refreshing. We’ve enjoyed simplifying things.
You’ve always embraced the newest technology when it comes to shooting. In that sense, you’re pioneers of digital fashion photography. Have you been embracing new methods?
Mert: Well, we’ve been seeing a lot of Zoom shoots and FaceTime shoots, so Marcus and I had a chat and we had to find a way of doing pictures without coming into contact with people. So what we did is we adapted a camera to the system we use and added some remote action modes to it. That’s what you did with Pharrell for this issue.
Mert: Yeah, Pharrell was in Miami and we’re in London, so we simply delivered the camera to him, along with a tripod and a couple of lights. They disinfected the whole thing and set it up so we were right there with them. We would say, ‘OK, go over there, come a little closer, push a little further, put the light there’.
Marcus: Mert was in his house, and at the same time, I was at mine, so we could both capture images from different locations. We’re both totally connected in the system. We had some conversations with Pharrell beforehand, so we were all connected with each other. It felt seamless.
Mert: In times like this we are so sucked into reality, but that also means that we really need to dream. It’s the most important time to feel inspired.
We’ve seen a lot of reality, a lot of selfies, a lot of videos of people washing their hands at home. But even going back to the time you were starting out, your work was always an antidote to the ‘realism’ of fashion photography in the 90s.
Mert: I was never inspired by reality! First of all, I’m not sure the term ‘reality’ is even correct for that genre of photography, because what is reality? It’s reality-ish. I didn’t want to document a moment: I want to create a moment, to exaggerate a moment, find what’s there and drag it out and make people annoyed and angry and happy and sad. I like layers and embroidery. I like ideas. I like it bigger! I like it a little bit darker, a bit weirder!
I guess we’re all getting confronted by reality every day and it’s not very uplifting.
Mert: It’s almost as though fashion became something in between journalism and marketing. It had a kind of magic before -- something elevated, different and special, I want that to guide us forward. It’s now too diluted and it’s almost like there’s no authority left. I believe in authority. I believed it when I looked at a Helmut Newton photo, or heard Serge Lutens talk about Guy Bourdin. There was a certain genre of education, culture, lifestyle, charisma -- and it was all interconnected. Now is a good time to bring that back, to evaluate it through fantasies and dreams. Less quantity, more quality. Let’s cut the excess. Let’s see how we can create stuff with less: wear less, eat less, talk less, post less.
A Helmut Newton or a Guy Bourdin photograph comes from a time when we were less saturated by imagery. Now we have access to so much and it’s everywhere and endless. How do you cut through the noise?
Mert: The best way to cut through the noise is to cover your ears! And when this is all over, because this has radically shifted the way that so many creatives are working right now, how do you think that it will affect the way you work going forward?
Marcus: 100%. It’s about getting rid of all that waste and streamlining all of it. It might be more about making things with limited budgets but more creativity.
Lastly, I know you guys love to throw parties. How are you going to celebrate when this is over?
Mert: I’m going to throw the biggest party ever. The moment they have a vaccine, I’m going to throw a vaccine party!