Photographer Robert Vano looks back over 40-year career with The Platinum Collection


The Platinum Collection is the title of the biggest retrospective to date by the photographer Robert Vano, who is best known for his male nudes. Vano is a Hungarian Slovak who started out as a stylist on fashion shoots when he moved to New York in the late 1960s, before eventually becoming a much respected photographer himself. At the new exhibition at the Mánes gallery in Prague, Vano – a long-time resident of the city – told me how he gradually found his own style.

“I always took pictures for myself but I never thought or imagined that I could make a living doing it. I come from a very poor family…dad was an electrician, mom was a housewife, so I never had the kind of upbringing where somebody would help me to see things.

“It was rather the people who I worked for. At that time there was a crazy lady, Diana Vreeland, who was editor at that time of Bazaar – she made us see things in a different way.

“So I started to do pictures that way, until a photographer told me that my pictures have no spirit. I didn’t know about spirit, I just thought, if it’s my picture, it’s my spirit. But he said, it’s cold, because it’s a copy of things I have seen by other people.

“He said, you should do something that’s your story, inside, and I didn’t know what’s my story. He told me, you like boys, why don’t you take pictures of boys? I didn’t…not that I would be ashamed, but I never thought of taking pictures of men because there was no market for that – it was like taking pictures of zebras or something [laughs].

“But there was no magazine in the ‘60s where to do it. I didn’t want to go back to washing dishes so I did girls. I told him that I won’t be able to make a living, there are no magazines for men. He said, listen when I started out to take pictures of girls at that time there were drawings in the magazines, before the war – by the time you learn, there’ll be magazines.

“I just took this advice and somehow it worked out after 20 years, when GQ and all that came along. Before that they all said, he’s that crazy guy who takes pictures of naked asses. But when the men’s magazines started I was the one they thought of, they didn’t think of the guy who did Sri Lanka or tomatoes. They thought, he does men, we’ll give him men. And I think that helped me.”

I’ve heard that you were the first photographer to exhibit pictures of naked men in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. Did you meet any resistance or opposition in the early ‘90s? A couple of the pictures here are quite explicit.

“I don’t know, maybe the Czech people are not so…revolutionary. First I thought that they were open minded, but now I don’t know if it’s something to do with being open minded – it’s rather not caring.

“In Prague nobody really bothers you so there was not any kind of resistance to the pictures. But I think they think that as long as it’s not my naked son in Vano’s pictures, then it’s OK [laughs].”

I believe this is your biggest retrospective to date. The photographs span four decades of your career – how hard was it selecting the pictures that are on show here?

“I selected pictures from each of the themes I take pictures of…fashion, nudes – men and women, and still life. That’s how I selected them. I chose a portrait that I like so the next thing is I have to find a full-length body to put next to it, and then maybe if there are too many boys I put a face of a girl. Kind of like Bruce Weber – he does 100 boys and then three dogs! [laughs]”

How has your style changed over the last four decades? Or has it changed?

“I think when I look at my pictures it didn’t really much change, because I still…I wish I had the feeling to hang a camera around my neck and go out into the street and do it [take pictures], but probably I’m brainwashed from fashion.

“So I think when I go out that there is nothing beautiful. And if there was I would probably have to paint the house or ruin it, to do something to adjust it to my thing.

“So everything looks the same. I think though that maybe some things have changed more with the body. In the pictures I have of naked men I have from 40 years ago they were all hairy, but now they all shave and they look like the children after Chernobyl [laughs].

“That’s what my mom said, oh, these boys look so funny. I said, mom, why? She said they don’t have any hair, they must be from Chernobyl. I said, no mom, they shave.

“There are some things – the eyebrows are thicker or thinner – but no major changes, like if I went from small format to large format, or to colour. I’ve always been doing the same thing.”

It’s called The Platinum Collection, this…collection. You have used platinum in the processing of the pictures – tell us about that, and what it gives the photographs.

“It just occurred to me because I’m going into the third, like the final phase of my life, and I wanted to organise all my work into one look. And I remembered that one time in the ‘60s I saw an exhibition in New York by Irving Penn, and at this exhibition it said, all pictures are handmade by Irving Penn in platinum.

“I didn’t know what platinum was and then somehow it disappeared and when I wanted to do this [create the collection] and all the digital thing was coming out, and they discontinued the Polaroid film that I was shooting on for a long time.

“So it was like, I had to do something, and I started to think about platinum. And then I find out the history of platinum and it’s such a beautiful way of doing pictures. You don’t use electricity, you don’t use enlargers – because when platinum was invented some time around 1850 there was no electricity, paper had to be handmade, there were no chemicals or starch or acid…

“All you need to do is you need to have a large negative, as large as your picture is – one to one. Then you need handmade paper and the platinum. You brush the liquid platinum into the paper, make it photosensitive and just put the negative on it like a contact and then you take it out on your balcony in the sun. There are no developers or acid or stop bath or all those things. So it’s wonderful, it’s environmentally friendly.

“But I’m doing this because I would like to leave something behind, and one time I read somewhere that if there’s an atomic war that rats and platinum will survive. Or maybe it’s cockroaches.”

The Platinum Collection, which features over 200 photos, will be at Mánes until September 9. A handsome book, featuring the same pictures, has also been published to go with the exhibition.