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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Ned Ambler, 1999



Just recently, the Times Sunday Styles featured an overview of the latest wave in advertising — celeb-and-super-model-free.  But even if the “outsider” look has gone mainstream, there’s really nothing new about it.  In the ’80s there were the Esprit worker-bees-as-mannequins, followed by the Gap’s style portraits.  Fashion photogs have been turning their cameras in unlikely directions for a while.
     Over the years, Ned Ambler and his Polaroid have roamed around town by day and hit the clubs at night scouting up kids for photographers like Steven Klein, Mario Sorrenti, and Steven Meisel.  Ambler is the eagle eye who found the cuties who vamped it up against the wood paneling for CK Jeans, along with the tougher-looking denizens of the CK1 and CKBe lineup.  He consistently comes up with faces far more look-at-me than the Grade-B entertainers and “real people” cluttering all those magazine pages and billboards.
     Lately, Ambler has been doing his own photography, as well as working on a style book for the youth of today.  So when we asked him for some pics, he sent over a big box full of unpublished stuff “from the secret files.”
     We got together at what has to be Central Casting for Ambler: Cafe Orlin, where he seemed to know every boy and girl that walked in the door.


MARY:  Casting is such a mysterious, behind-the-scenes thing to do.  How did you get into it?
NED:  It wasn’t anything I really wanted to do, but the fashion community really took me in.  It was the first scene where I felt welcomed.

MARY:  So who were you hanging out with?
NED:  I started working at L’Uomo Vogue as a stylist’s assistant for Paul Sinclaire, the fashion editor-at-large.  Besides unpacking clothes and steaming shirts, they had me go out and look for people for a shoot, and I was good at it.  But I wasn’t really into steaming shirts, so I left there after about a month.  I had met a bunch of photographers, and I proposed the idea of looking for people for them.  Steven Klein was one of the first photographers I worked with.

MARY:  How did the CK campaign happen?
NED:  Somebody at Vogue hooked me up with Steven Meisel, who was shooting Calvin Klein, and I started doing the casting for the ads with the wood paneling for CK jeans.  I did three CK jeans — CK-1, CK-1 again, CK-Be, CK-Khakis, all the CKs.  Then it just kind of took off from there.  Casting wasn’t something that I chose.  It was just something that I was good at.

MARY:  So when you were in the thick of casting mania, you’d always have a Polaroid with you?
NED:  At all times.  I normally would have five different casting jobs going on at the same time.  I have a really great memory — a photographic memory — so I could keep track of all the totally different people that I was looking for.  Right at 9AM I would start work, like everybody else, and when I would go out of my door, boom, if I saw somebody I needed, I’d have to stop them and Polaroid them.  Then I would set up meetings with the different photographers or stylists or ad-agency reps or whoever.

MARY:  So you could be working from 9:00 in the morning until ...
NED:  I never stopped working.  It was insane.

MARY:  You must have been going out at night, too.
NED:  It was really hard to go from club to club to club.  Go in for a half-hour, just circling through the place, checking everybody out — maybe there would be one person I’d Polaroid, or maybe not.  Or standing on street-corners for four hours and maybe getting one possibility an hour.  It was so draining.  It wasn’t like I would find twenty people a day.  It would be more like three really good ones.

MARY:  Did you go to different neighborhoods, depending on what you were looking for?
NED:  All over the city, Brooklyn, wherever.  If I was looking for banji, I’d go to Brooklyn Mall or Fulton Mall or something.

MARY:  How did people react?  I mean, it’s one thing for a pretty girl to be approached by a scout, but some of your people aren’t the types that are considered traditionally pretty.  Were people ever suspicious of you?
NED:  I’ve never had anybody not believe me.  Well, maybe once.  I would give them my card and say, “Look, I need to turn in Polaroids to the photographer by Monday, so call me over the weekend.”  And they would always call.  They’d find out who I was or something.  I think people almost expect that kind of thing in the city.  And everybody was flattered.

MARY:  I would think it would be really embarrassing to approach strangers like that.
NED:  It’s hard.  I’m not an outgoing person that way.  So casting was really good for me, because it forced me to talk to people.  But if I wasn’t working on something and had to start up again, I would almost be in tears.  You have to get your nerve up.  Then once you do one, you’re over it.  It’s like making scary phone calls.  Once you do one, you’re okay.

MARY:  Did any of the people you found get on to more commercial work?
NED:  Oh, a lot of them.  Maybe half.

MARY:  There are scouts who do what you were doing, they’re like pickers for agencies, right?  And they get a percentage ...
NED:  I would get my fee and they would get theirs.  The model’s fee was totally separate, which is something I felt strongly about.  People would say, “Ned, you’re crazy.  Why don’t you do it?”  But I didn’t want to take the kid’s money.  And people would say, “Well, their parents would!”

MARY:  Didn’t I just see a picture of you in a magazine?
NED:  Yes, I’m a supermodel in Out magazine this month.  I look very intense.

MARY:  What was it like being on the other side of the lens for a change?
NED:  I’ve always been someone who likes to be behind the scenes.  I went to Limelight last night for the reopening, and I hate going to places if I don’t have something to do.  If I had my Polaroid there, I’d feel comfortable.  And I’ve always had a really hard time being photographed.  But you get better at it.  You point a camera at someone, and you can really tell a lot about them.  A lot of people get angry.  I mean, they’ll have a beautiful face, but you can see that there’s a lot of emotional stuff going on inside.
     You can really read somebody when you put a camera on them.  You can see their self-esteem and how uncomfortable they are.  Maybe not in a Polaroid, because that’s, boom, you’re done.  But if you’re going to shoot a roll of film with someone, you really can tell a lot about them.  I noticed that when I worked on that “teenage tribes” Irving Penn story for Vogue.  I stood right behind him and watched him take pictures for three days.  I don’t know what it is, but to be comfortable in front of the camera you have to be really freed-up or something, really not-caring.

MARY:  Do you think there’s more inclusiveness now in fashion magazines?  Do you think they’ve changed?
NED:  Absolutely.  Most of the models that you see at agencies would never have been there five or ten years ago.

MARY:  Like, “That girl was so ugly!”
NED:  Right, and a lot of the kids I would find that I would think were so amazing ... I couldn’t get anyone interested in them.  But then a year later, everyone wanted to shoot them.  They’d hook up with an agency and get a major ad campaign.

MARY:  But there are photographers who are willing to do that.
NED:  Well, Meisel, Klein, Ellen von Unwerth.  Albert Watson, even, who is commercial, loves shooting interesting people.

MARY:  Were there any photographers you didn’t get to work with when you were involved with this?
NED:  I really lucked out.  I got to shoot with Penn, Avedon, Mario Testino, Mario Sorrenti.  I got to shoot with the best photographers.  But now I’m only available by appointment.  Like, if Calvin Klein calls me, of course, I’m going to work on something.  But for the most part, I’m not interested.

MARY:  Didn’t I hear that you’re working on a movie?
NED:  For the last year and a half, Benjamin Liu and I have worked on a script about muses.  It’s about people who inspire other artists.  There are nine muses from fashion, art, literature, beauty, the street, and music.  We haven’t approached the people that we’re interested in yet, but we’ve been sort of spying on them.

MARY:  It’s a documentary?
NED:  Yes, and it’s in New York, L.A., London and Paris.

MARY:  Can you name names?  You say you haven’t approached your subjects.
NED:  Well, I don’t really want to say ...

MARY:  As an example, would it be someone like Isabella Blow?
NED:  People like that.  But then we might have Isabella Blow and Ozzy Osbourne interviewing each other — the Godfather of Heavy Metal.  And the script is insane.  It has a narrative structure, and it’s all real at the same time.  It’s using all the real people.  Instead of it just being, say, a painter and a model, it can be a couple that inspires each other, or a collective that inspires each other.  People who work together.  So the definition of “muse” that we’re using is a broader term than the traditional muse.

MARY:  Did you ever think about casting for movies?
NED:  Not really.  I knew that if I was going to be involved with film, I only wanted to direct.  I didn’t want to be at the bottom of the film credits.  Not that I’m saying casting is at the bottom.

MARY:  It’s pretty crucial.
NED:  It is.  But that isn’t why I was doing casting in fashion in the first place.

MARY:  Maybe it’s more important in fashion than in movies?
NED:  Well, it is in a pop way, and it’s what the people eat up.  Young people really do look at the images in magazines and on the sides of buses.  At the time, I felt that if you wanted to reach a group of people and really try and make change, that that was a good way to go.  But now, when you start seeing Marilyn Manson on the covers of magazines, you have to wonder how much farther you can push the envelope.
     I always had an agenda behind the whole casting thing, just from my own growing-up and feeling different.  So I always felt like I was doing something positive, being more inclusive.  Now I’m at a point where I feel like there’s really nothing more I can do.  It’s done, and I want to move into another area where I can do something else.

MARY:  So now you’re taking pictures and producing a book.
NED:  All along, people loved my Polaroids and would ask, “Why don’t you take your own pictures?”  So I started taking pictures.

MARY:  And the book is ...
NED:  “Street Style: Volume 2000” is the working title.  Richard Pandiscio is art directing it — we’re doing it together.  It’s a style book for young people.  So half the book is going to be hip-hop, because in my opinion that’s what the biggest influence on young style is.  I’m going to be doing some casting, and it will probably take six weeks to go out and find a lot of new people.  When I would do casting normally, I would have to be thinking, “Is this someone a photographer is going to want to shoot as a model?”  Whereas now, I’m just looking for people with incredible style.  You don’t have to have incredible facial structure and all the rest.  So that I’m really excited about.  Just a lot of my cool people all in their own clothes, and we’re shooting in the studio.

MARY:  Are you going to work with mostly younger people on this book?
NED:  It will probably be a little bit older.  Because young people really look up to the big brother model.  So it will probably be like 20 to 30, and then the teenagers will filter in.  And maybe some older-older, too, just to show you can be cool and be 50.

MARY:  Well, that was another question ...
NED:  I love moms who look like their daughters, who dress like their daughters.  I think it’s so great.  I love older people that dress young.  I mean, my look is always changing, and I have no idea what’s next.  I just recently threw out all of my East Village Rocker clothes and bought the preppiest clothes that I could find.

MARY:  Do you try to dress to blend into different scenes?
NED:  I have.  I did.  I had every outfit.  But I don’t do that any more.

MARY:  You’ve been such a style observer all this time — what kinds of changes have you seen in how people dress?
NED:  Well, let’s talk about going-out style.  Ten years ago, you would get really dressed up to go out to clubs, to go out at night.  But now you can’t get anyone to put on a coat and tie.  You can’t get these kids to dress up no matter what.  There’s no way you can get them out of their big baggy jeans.       It’s really weird how down and casual everything is.  Now nobody dresses up.  And I hope that changes.  As individualistic as everything is, in a way there’s still that same old peer pressure that says, “You have to dress like us.”

MARY:  When you go looking for people for your book, will you stay in New York or are you going to travel?
NED:  It’s definitely going to be in New York.  I’ve been to L.A., but you don’t have the diversity you have here.  This is the only city I’ve been to where you have so many incredibly different kinds of beauty.  It’s all here.

MARY:  I don’t want you to give away your secrets, but I’m still curious as to your destinations.
NED:  I go everywhere.  Just anywhere where there’s a lot of people.  I want everything, so I’ll go to kick-boxing tournaments.  Whatever’s big.  I’m going to go find out where all the kids with the scooters hang out.  You know what I mean?  I’ll just be doing the same thing I’ve always done, which is plot a course.  You make a list of the kinds of places you want to go and the kinds of people you’re looking for and you just go out and meet them.

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