South African–born, Los Angeles–based Henrik Purienne, better known on Instagram and by the host of brands who commission work from him simply as Purienne, is less a mere photographer than a conjurer of worlds. In Purienne World, the sun is always shining, there’s probably a pool nearby, and the only obligations at hand seem to center around a hedonistic and very chic sense of quietude. With his fourth book of sensuous and evocative photos, Jeux de Peau (named after the house in the Hollywood Hills where the photos in the book were shot), just out from IDEA—there’s a launch party at Dover Street Market Los Angeles on Saturday—we caught up with Purienne, 42, while he sat in his garden opening the first box of his just-arrived new books.
How did putting this book together compare to your previous books?
This one was really a strange experience—it was shot over a period of about three years and it spans about three or four different girlfriends, which was a real emotional puzzle, putting this together in a way so that everyone’s happy. In the past, I matched things together that belonged together—there’s a girl on a beach, there’s a wave crashing, there’s a palm tree—and I did about 10 pages of this book like that until one night I got really stoned, as you do in California, and sat down and did almost the entire book in an hour, just putting images together without giving it much thought. I had 10,000 photos in a folder to work from, and I had to get it down to around 200. But sometimes the book just picks the photos for you. There’s something about that that I like: It’s a little unexpected, but once it’s in a book, somehow, you believe it—you rely on the information as true.
Did you consciously set out to photograph this kind of dreamy lifestyle that’s kind of become your calling card—or is that just the way things happened?
I’ve always been interested in architecture, and design, and aesthetics, but I trained as a filmmaker in South Africa, where I’m from, and I worked in television making documentaries for about 10 years. Eventually I started collecting investment furniture, and I went a little overboard, so I teamed up with another guy and started a business selling furniture from the Bauhaus period to the time of the Memphis School. But the way that I live, if that’s what you’re asking about, is a result of what I call AIS: Aesthetic Irritability Syndrome. It’s a bit like OCD, but it’s motivated by aesthetic reasoning. Basically, I need a very aesthetically pleasing place to function—I have an emotional response to objects—and to people, of course. It’s not like I’m hypercritical or that I want to be like this—it’s just that my environment really influences my mood and my brain function.
Are you under professional care for this syndrome?
Well, yes—it’s a fairly new syndrome, but everything in my house is a result of this. I just have very specific tastes and I know what I like, from my toothbrush to my wardrobe. Everything is very simple, very basic. I only have one of everything, but it’s the one I like the best. And wherever I go, I curate a very similar space, a similar atmosphere that’s somewhere between spare and minimalist. It’s kind of random, but a good-looking chaos.
“A Good-Looking Chaos”: Photographer Purienne On His Breathtaking New Book, Jeux de Peau
What happens if a girlfriend brings home, say, the wrong lighter, or wears the exquisitely wrong kind of clothes?
Let’s first agree on something: That an object is the result of the person behind it and the mind of the person who designed it. And I want to associate with a specific kind of thinker—that’s why I like specific kinds of objects. But let’s agree that an object is the result of the mind behind it. Look at brands like Braun under Dieter Rams—it’s a philosophy. Now, I have become a little more relaxed about outside objects coming into my environment, but I would still try to educate those close to me—in a gradual kind of process, an open dialogue, not a controlling way—and would prefer if people around me have strong opinions and a creative instinct. But yes, there’s a certain “creation of the set,” as some people call my house. After that, I just document—I shoot my girlfriends and their friends, and they happen to be good-looking, and we happen to be in California, and my work just grows from there.
Your work has been widely imitated. Does everybody think they can do what you do?
I don’t mind if people copy me—I just mind if they copy me badly. I’m lucky that most young people don’t know how to work an analog camera properly, which is a big part of my aesthetic. But yes, a lot of them try to re-create my set, if you will, for their shoots—but their knowledge only runs Tumblr-deep. They put a couple props in a fake environment, and it’s totally wrong things thrown together. In my circle, it’s understood that some things are right and some things are wrong.
Do you ever photograph subject matter that’s less idyllic, or darker, or against type?
I’m not sure how much I want to open this chapter, but yes—I do a lot of photography that isn’t about “girls by the pool.” In 10 or 20 years I may do a book on nightlife, or on raves, or on other subjects I’ve been obsessed with. But whatever I’m shooting, my process is more or less the same: The pictures I take really happen. I’ve never told anyone to pose, or to do this, to do that—or very seldom. It’s a pretty relaxed thing. My dream has never been to “be a photographer”—I see myself as a creative, and photography as one of my outlets.
Do you have specific influences or heroes for your work? It seems a bit like Nouvelle Vague cinema mixed with Slim Aarons and Helmut Newton or something, shot to a Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack.
To be honest, until I started shooting, everything I knew about photography came from i-D magazine, The Face, Purple, and Self Service. They were my bible—I’d buy them secondhand at this store in South Africa where they shipped everything that didn’t sell. I didn’t know a lot about specific photographers, even though I’ve always taken pictures—just of my girlfriends and my world. As with everything: The more personal, the more universal.
Originally Appeared on Vogue