We were able to chat with Kevin O’Leary, of Shark Tank, on his alternative interest in photography, with a traveling exhibition that has made rounds in the US and Europe. We caught it at the Contemporary Art Fair NY on May 3, 2016.
The Knockturnal: We’re definitely getting some Slim Aarons and the classic society photography here. Who are your influences?
O’Leary leads us to a striking image of the famous Place Vendome in paris, with a sculpture anchoring the photo against a massive gray sky.
Kevin O’Leary: Most photographers go to art school of some kind or they work and study the classics, but I looked at the early images from the second World War onward, and you find a lot of this stylization in Europe. If you look at Place Vendome in the ’80s, the French people were putting large installations in their big public places. The photographers would always shoot in November because the clouds made the story of Paris- the dark, sinister clouds. So I really ripped off the guys in the 1940s. You can find that image in old books, but without the installation, and its gone now.
O’Leary then shows us a contrasting work he took in the Soviet Union with an archway and three figures, two moving and one still, centered in the frame.
Kevin O’Leary: This is before the Soviet wall came down, and if you think about how Hitchcock would frame an image, he’d always leave something a mystery. Look at the center of the frame, there’s a KGB agent watching me here, and he tracked me for three days. And every time I lifted my camera, he’d dodge. But I wanted to get that guy, I never found out who he was. So I lifted my camera, turned my head one way and had the camera on him.
O’Leary shows us a photo he captured in St. Bart’s of a young girl among the boat metal and heavy ropes on a beach.
Kevin O’Leary: Early ’40s, all they had was black and white film, they wanted something very stark with white. So here’s something very young and delicate, and something dark and really hard. I love it.
The Knockturnal: So did you set this up?
Kevin O’Leary: No. I was walking by with my wife and daughter, we were on our way to dinner, I looked to my right and said, ‘Shit! look at that,’ she was just sitting there by herself and she turned over and I got that one frame.
The Knockturnal: Does that happen for most of your photos?
Kevin O’Leary: Yes, like that one. That is a split second. That was in Nantucket years ago, and he bent over for a bite his sandwich and I thought ‘wow’. I was testing a Leica M9, a digital camera. You’d never get it again, he popped his head back up.
The Knockturnal: You don’t usually know your subjects, do you care?
Kevin O’Leary: No. What’s going to happen? After I have it, I’ve got it unless he comes up and takes the camera. I think you should be a voyeur when you’re being a photographer, you should snap anything you like. People are out there in the world, in the public domain, why not take their picture.
O’Leary leads us to a photo of a beach, filled with chairs and uniform umbrellas. It is Nikki Beach in St. Bart’s, where off to the right of the frame is a large Russian man in a small swimsuit. He is holding an iPhone, turned away from the water.
Kevin O’Leary: This guy was trouble, because he’s some russian dude and I snapped four or five in that series.
The Knockturnal: This shot without the cellphone could have passed for…
Kevin O’Leary: 1954.
The Knockturnal: Nikki Beach in 1954.
Kevin O’Leary: That is Nikki Beach in 1954 except for the cellphone. It’s really interesting because he’s wearing that crazy speedo from the ’50s… it’s very unflattering. But he’s totally in his own skin, he doesn’t give a shit. Everything hasn’t changed. The brands… Nikki Beach, have been around forever. This is the original Nikki Beach, with the old-style South of France hat, I love it.