Lou Reed: Photographer

As frontman with the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed epitomised the rock'n'roll lifestyle. But a book of his photographs reveals a quieter, more reflective figure. He tells Hannah Duguid what inspired him

Tuesday 10 November 2009 01:00 GMT

Lou Reed may be a rock legend, the founding member of the Velvet Underground, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a man so cool that fans keel over in the reflection of his mirrored shades. Yet he has an alter ego, a solitary figure, a man who retreats quietly into nature to observe the light and make elegant, romantic photographs, far removed from his life at the heart of New York City. The process could not be more different but there are parallels between his music and his photographs. Putting together a book of photographs is, says Reed, like sequencing a CD. It is intuitive, an indefinable way of working where things happen not through planning and preordained ideas, but because they feel right. He approaches photography with the qualities of a musician. "The response is emotional. That's all I want; they are taken with emotion and put together with emotion, equal emotion," he says.

Romanticism is Reed's third book of photographs. It is a series of landscapes, entirely in black and white. Inspiration for the title came from the 19th-century Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich. "We had lined up the photographs we liked and I was shown a painting, by him. I said that's it, that's Romanticism. That's not to say that I think I am him, but it was the impetus for the idea."

As in Friedrich's painting, there is an ethereal quality to Reed's work, a sense of the divine in nature. The light in Reed's photographs has a silvery tone, which creates a sense of fantasy. They do not seem to be of this world. "They are very three-dimensional images. I have them up on my wall. The silvery translucent quality, that makes me crazy. I really love it," he says.

Rarely is there a human mark on the scene; for the most part, his photographs are of nature untouched: woods leading down to the edge of the sea, a layer of thick mist covering the earth. The branches of a tree are abundant with fruit, another tree is dead; the trunk splinters as it disintegrates. "I have never seen a tree that is not graceful," he says.

Only one photograph, towards the end of the book, shows a human form. It is an androgynous grey figure, with short hair, facing away from the camera and outlined with light. Light ripples across the top of the scene, suggesting water, and the rest is a mass of grey. The figure is Reed's wife, the musician and artist Laurie Anderson. They married last year and the only line of text in the book is dedicated to her: "These are pictures from around the world dedicated to my love & passion for my wife, Laurie Anderson."

Reed will only give laconic explanations for his photographs. There is a single photograph of boats in the book; it is a striking anomaly. Why is it in the collection? "The boats. They were there because they were there. It doesn't matter. It's all the same. It was just the light and the moment. The light was perfect. There happened to be boats there; I wished they weren't there."

He won't give specific information about where or when the photographs were made. The book is purely images, no text, all of which were made over the last two years and in many different places: Scotland, Denmark, Spain, Rome, China. No image has a title or any kind of reference point. It is a brave decision that not every photographer would get away with – but, then, it is Lou Reed: a god can ignore the needs of mortals. And he has his reasons. "There's nothing to say. A picture is worth a thousand words, to quote a cliché. What am I meant to say: 'There's a tree in a storm in January'? The response is emotional. That's all I want."

Reed has been taking photographs since the 1960s, when he and Andy Warhol were close and Reed was performing with the Velvet Underground. He developed his photographic style and learnt by watching those around him. Over the years, he has been influenced by some of the most creative talents around, people he knew and used to hang out with.

"I like to reinvent the wheel. I like to discover something for myself as opposed to being told it. Wim Wenders, there's something he showed me that I found useful. Billy Linich, he also called himself Billy Name, was at Warhol's factory, his pictures were very high contrast. And there were things that Andy Warhol would do. And Larry Clark, I still remember when I first saw "Tulsa"," he says.

Outside of music, there is something of the gifted amateur about Reed and it's an endearing quality. He has not forgotten his roots and the people he knew as a child. He recently made a film about his cousin Shirley who is 100 years old. She lives in New York City, in the West 20s, where she has been for the past 70 years.

He explains: "She is a remarkable person. I wanted to talk to her on camera, about things that only she could know: what it was like being in Poland through World War One and World War Two, being smuggled out of Canada, or working as a seamstress in the union. What she had to say is remarkable. I made the soundtrack for it with my band, Metal Machine Trio." It's an interesting contrast – his centenarian cousin Shirley and Metal Machine Trio and it's a shame that he has yet to find a place to show it.

Last year, he was guest designer for the Winter 2008/2009 issue of All-Story, a literary magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola. Contributors have included Rachel Cusk and Woody Allen, while Zaha Hadid and Guillermo del Toro have also designed an issue. For the cover, Reed used one of his landscape photographs, in colour. It is an image that he was unable to use in his book and it is utterly romantic: pale gold light falls across a summer woodland scene. The light has a particular quality that he captures using a technique which involves hacking up the camera, although he doesn't explain precisely how this is done.

"It is instinct tempered with technique. I have been photographing a long time. All my life, I was scouring around with it, playing with it. All my life I had wished for something; it turned out to be digital. That finally came out. I could take the picture 100 times. I got it with the light the right way, not just one or two shots. I loved it. I am not using photoshop. Everything is in the camera and that's because it's digital," he says.

He denies it, but Reed is a camera geek. He can quote camera names and models with an intimate knowledge: "I have a Leica medium format – just the body cost $24,000. I have been waiting around for the M9. I love this camera. I love it that they are digital. I love the Alpa, they're quite the little company, you should check out their website. I use it with a Schneider lens. And the medium format Hasselblad, and they went into Fuji lenses. Why are some lenses so much better than others? What is it about the way they polish glass?" It's difficult to get him off the subject. "I'm not an obsessive," he says. "It's just like guitars."

'Romanticism' by Lou Reed is published by Steidl, £40

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