Photographer Kenneth Willardt: The Beauty Book

An inside look at his NYC gallery in advance of a new interactive book and exhibition


Back in 2003, photographer Kenneth Willardt purchased a corner building in the far west of NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood, a hub for the arts and creative industries. Over 10 years later, the space still functions as both his 558 Gallery and a personal photography studio. Last year Willardt transformed the space for his first major solo exhibition “Size Does Matter“—which featured glorious large-scale images of women with wild animals, all augmented by a 3D application. Now, to celebrate the launch of “The Beauty Book” and its accompanying exhibition, he’s about to do it again. And this time, it’s even more exciting. He has his own interactive app, is showcasing his favorite works from the last 15 years and is turning his space into something otherworldly.


“The Beauty Book” is 304 pages thick, and includes a gatefold and a specially designed hardcover jacket. Within, over 170 color and black-and-white photos line the pages, each popping with personality. It’s an eclectic vision of beauty, showcasing everything from close-ups on limbs to nudes and even celebrity photography. The over-sized tome captures years of work. Moreover, the book is interactive. With an app Willardt developed in conjunction with publisher teNeus, the book literally comes to life and static images turn into small art videos. Surprisingly, 100% of all royalties earned from the sales are being donated to SSF (Rescuers Without Border). As Willardt explains to CH, “Wouldn’t you rather do something great, that will help somebody? This book will make a little bit of a difference. That’s what I was trying to do.”


The photographer assembled the book in roughly one week, using a proprietary software called Live Edit that he himself developed over a decade ago. It’s also now used by over 3,000 other photographers and agencies.
It employs the Amazon cloud, where Willardt himself owns 33 terabytes of space. Everything else was shaped by memory. “I know all my shoots over all the years. I can just go into my software, here or in Paris or Berlin, I just go in and click, click, click.” He spent three weeks editing and shifting things around in layout. Finally after a month getting all the approvals from the talent, “The Beauty Book” was born.


While New York-based, Willardt actually hails from just north of Copenhagen. He would study at the Danish School of Photography before traveling the world with his craft. Since, the photographer has landed many acclaimed fashion campaigns, from Christian Dior to an array of beauty brands. His images have graced the pages of multiple global editions of Vogue, as well as GQ, InStyle and more. And in the midst of commercial work, Willardt has set up shoot after shoot based on pure passion and interest in his vision and subjects.

His studio is an unassuming black building, with tinted front windows that allude to the magic within. The space itself, broken into three floors, is atypical for a gallery. “I was so tired of white walls and open space,” he shares. “Everywhere you go it’s the norm. When I bought the space I said, ‘Scrape it down. Seal the walls. Seal the beams. Don’t do anything else.’ This is much better. Keep it super raw.” Black walls meet concrete floors on one level, while wood and brick unite on another. The ground level functions as the gallery and occasional photo studio. The upper floor offers an office space for himself and staff to cull and edit. The basement is equally dynamic. Willardt was in the process of building out the space once more during our visit. For his exhibition, he built a secret room (which he calls the “make-out room”) and created nooks for bars and bits of the unexpected. The basement walls were lined in silver, for additional surprises and eccentric energy. Regarding the transformation he notes, “You’ve got to execute anything you can think about.” With the space all his own, he is allowed manifest his wildest, most meticulous dreams.


And yet, this exhibition and book release are not without some controversy. Willardt has spent the last year lobbying NYC for a mural to be painted on his building. “Why can’t I have my mural?” he asks. “I’m a small business in the land of freedom and expression. I’m contributing to society and providing jobs for kids. It’s free public art.” His outside wall had been spray painted and graffitied after last year’s exhibition. He wanted artists to continue doing that, but the city came and painted over it—without asking him. “Now, a year later where we’ve been working on this for every week, we now have it. Approval.” Willardt’s fear over the process is that it inhibits anyone else who wants to add public art to their own building, believing many will give up in the long run.


It’s not the only opposition the photographer received. Willardt’s app only recently published in the iTunes app store, after months of back and forth. It’s “the nudity bullshit,” he explains. “This is not pornography. There is some nudity in there. I would say to Apple, when you are a publisher, which is what they are, you can’t have a blanket, PC statement to cover something like this. If you take this from out of our society, you take away so much beauty for our world.” He continues about the interactive app: “It is beautiful human beings that are shot in an artful way, just as Renoir or Picasso would do a painting of a nude. Why shouldn’t we be able to continue that tradition we have? Publishers have a big responsibility to see the difference. We are human beings and this is a very important part of us.”

Using a test demo of the app before its release allowed us to fully realize the images within the book. Bunnies scatter around pages. Photos are developed in front of viewer’s eyes. The app brings the book to life—but even more so, if those images are purchased as prints, or located on posters or in other galleries, it will do the same there. Utilizing footage from behind the scenes of shoots, additional footage shot specifically for the app and even an interview with Willardt, the app is dynamic and oriented toward delivering new dimensions to print.


On the concept of beauty, Willardt says that it “is not just one thing. It’s so many things. It’s men, women. It’s close-ups. It’s whatever comes to my mind within a moment or as an image or even thought. When I thought about ‘The Beauty Book’ first, it was going to be a lot of close-up shots. When I went to the Helmut Newton exhibition in Berlin, I said, ‘Fuck this, no.’ Instead, I took all my favorite pictures. It’s the way I want it to be.” The book and exhibition are what is beautiful to Willardt, and while that might seem deeply personal, it captures something universal. There are subjects of all shapes and sizes, some as bare as possible and others highly adorned. There’s action and there’s peace. In a way, it’s a lot like Willardt’s studio: vast, thoughtful and dynamic.

You can purchase a signed copy of “The Beauty Book,” complete with the box and stand Willardt designed, online for $125. The interactive app is available for free for on Android and iOS. The exhibition will run Saturday, 8 November through Sunday, 7 December 2014, by appointment.

“The Beauty Book” images by Cool Hunting, install images and portrait courtesy of Kenneth Willardt Studio