Meet Dennis Leupold, Rihanna’s Personal Photographer
Earlier this month, Rihanna casually dropped a new book with Phaidon. The tome, dubbed a “visual autobiography,” gives fans a first-hand look to her life through over 1000 images. The surprise effort was actually five years in the making, with one man — Dennis Leupold — providing the bulk of the images. Since the book’s inception, the photographer has been part of Rih’s lfie, capturing her every move. Recently, The Daily caught up with Leupold to find out how the project came together, and what it was like being so close to one of the most famous women in the world.
How did Rihanna approach you about the book? What were the initial plans?
It developed over time. I started working with her for the Diamonds World Tour. She wanted to have a photographer come with her and capture her life. The idea was not only her, but the people around her, like her best friend Melissa Forde and some of her team members. It was good for her to have somebody come in with an outside vision and capture all of it… her family, her friends. In the beginning she just wanted memories of her life. It was very fast from one trip to the next. She was like, “I need memories.” So that’s how I started. That organically developed into more. It became longer. And then she developed the idea of the book. She was very hands-on on stuff, but at the same time it was very organic process. Very authentic. There’s not a lot of art direction. A lot of it is taken out of real life.
How prepared were you for a project of this size?
As a photographer I came more from a studio photography background, where you’re very in-charge and in control of the lighting. You have a call time, a start time. I had to learn how to document situations that are not sometimes ideal for photography. Or you don’t know sometimes what the situation will be like. If it’s a public event, how many fans will crowd? If you go to a big event like the Met Ball you don’t know what to expect and how to prep for it. But you just try to make the best of it. I learned a lot to just observe situations. I really like observing people and their interactions. And I think it’s a benefit that people didn’t know who I was because they didn’t pose for my pictures, so I could have a really hidden perspective of the worlds she enters. People act like they normally would act without being interrupted by my photography.
Did you research the work of any other photographers who have followed musicians on tour?
Annie Leibovitz [photographing] the Rolling Stones was definitely one of my big inspirations. Her early work, when she started. I loved how real it feels. It felt like she partied with them. I always love images that kind of show history. Not even one particular photographer or artist, but just in general, these photos that stick in our minds.
Shooting someone for five years must have produced a lot of content. How did you edit everything down?
One of the book covers is a black and white picture of her holding a leaf. I think I took it in the first three months on a beach in Thailand. I always felt like this picture was somehow special and I saved it. We did so many different things, like concerts, vacations, travel in between. Then she grew into more of a business mogul. The assignment changed, no day was like the day before. But there were always pictures that stick out. We would put them aside and say, “You’re not going to release them, you’re not going to give them to anybody, we’re not going to post them on Instagram.” Because we know they’re special. We kind of started collecting images. So the black and white book cover was definitely one where I knew it was special. It’s great, because it ended up being the cover.
Were there any of these special images that didn’t make it in to the book?
Phaidon was very hands-on on the edit, and I was happy to step away from it. I had to because I was too personally attached to too many images. I mean, there were hundreds of thousands of images, and you could probably still do another collection of 1000 images, easy. There’s definitely still images that I love. But for me it was nice to have somebody else come in and edit, and have a different view.
Other than the cover with the leaf, what other images stand out to you?
A whole bunch! They really took my favorites in consideration, and a lot of them are in the book, which is amazing. A shoot in Abu Dhabi in front of the mosque I think is very unique. Then there’s a picture of her in the back of the car. There’s one where she’s sitting in the Met on the floor, and you see the museum behind and she has the long yellow train dress. That one’s beautiful on a double page. There’s a picture of her and Melissa in Hawaii and they’re looking at each other eating fruit. You can see in Melissa’s sunglasses a reflection the palm trees of Hawaii and I think that one’s a great interaction between them. It captures their relationship so well.
There are so many I like for different reasons. Photography-wise, there are some in Turks and Caicos and she’s looking over her shoulder. She just looks incredibly stunning with no makeup, natural hair just put up after swimming. And then there’s pictures that capture really awesome moments, like intense situations or friendships that have a more documentary value.
The Turks and Caicos one looks like an editorial. How did you balance having her pose versus taking a step back?
Even if it does look like an editorial, a lot of it isn’t. The Turks and Caicos images — we went swimming, the whole group. I was like, wow, this looks like advertising. She’s just enjoying the sun. I’m just watching her and taking her picture. She’s so bright, she’s such a great subject because she knows how to pose. I don’t say much about what should be going on in the picture. Maybe it’s a general idea, I say, “Let’s go diving and snorkeling and I’ll take pictures underwater!” Or, “Lets go on this rock!” She’s very creative and she likes doing shoots that aren’t under the pressure of being a magazine cover. And most of the pictures she styles herself.
What has it been like watching Rihanna’s career expand beyond music?
It’s been extremely exciting to see. There’s obviously moments where you’re like, “Wow, this is a really big deal.” And then she just ends up topping it. At some point you get a little bit used to it, but it’s still incredible to watch how dedicated she is to the work, and how hard she works. And how many crazy hours… she doesn’t put her name on something and say, “Ok, that’s it.” Everything she does — like Fenty beauty, Fenty clothing, what she did with Puma — she’s a driving force behind it and a creative mind. She’s very hands-on and she will not finish it until it’s 100 percent perfect. She’s very inspiring to be around because it makes you work on your craft as hard as she works on her own. You want to be the best you can be for someone who puts as much dedication into what they do.
Did you ever become overwhelmed by aspects of her life?
It’s not so much overwhelmed in a negative way as it’s overwhelming in a… When you’re with somebody all the time — obviously we have a very professional relationship but we’re also friends — sometimes you forget who she is. You’re like, Oh, it’s Rih, the person you hang out with every day. And then you walk into an area, lets say in a mall, and there’s thousands of fans. It’s like, oh wow, I forgot. You really see a difference. She’s so normal, she’s such a normal person to be around, and so you forget who she really is, until you’re standing in front of a concert of 60,000 people in Germany and they’re all singing her songs, every single word. It’s incredible. So that’s overwhelming in a positive way.
That’s kind of cool, though!
Yeah, she’s very down-to-Earth and she’s very authentic. So you forget that she is this megastar.
You also shoot fashion editorials and other musicians. Do you have a favorite subject?
I love all of it. I like working with people that I like, that are nice people. Having a good atmosphere on set. I like having a stylist have a really strong opinion about styling and be very hands-on, and be excited when the picture looks like they want it to look. I like when people are excited about what they do because it makes me feel good as a photographer. It’s a good energy on set. A lot of music people… when you promote your music it’s a very personal thing. An album is a thing you work on very hard. So they’re very dedicated to making these visuals amazing, and they’re very excited about it. Music is definitely an awesome industry to work in.
How much research do you do into the musicians that you work with? Do you get a chance to hear the music first?
Absolutely. It depends on the timing of the album shoot. Sometimes it’s quite early on, and sometimes it’s quite late. It depends on however the label structures it. But they want you to listen to the music and get a feel. Sometimes I only get music as inspiration for what shoot you’re going to do. Sometimes you get a finished moodbaord. I’ve had artists sit down with me in the studio and explain to me the meaning behind the songs and where they’re from. I’m from Germany. I’ve been here for a long time, my English is great, but sometimes to understand the meaning of a song you have to know the background of the person. So I’ll try to integrate it as much as possible.
That’s why I sometimes feel like I don’t have a signature style like some other photographers. Where you can see the photograph is shot by XYZ. Because when you work with artists and musicians, it’s a collaboration. It’s never 100% my view or 100% the view of the artist. It’s a merge of two, so it changes from project to project.
I’ve read you look up to Peter Lindbergh, who passed away recently. Did you ever get the chance to meet him?
Yes. Actually I took a picture of him and Rihanna. They were together at the Fenty launch. That’s the first time I got to meet him. Unfortunately I never got to be on set with him. But it was a great moment to shoot them together, so I was excited about that.
What is it about his work that spoke to you?
He grew up in Germany in the same town that I grew up in. And it’s not an artist town. It’s a very industrial, non-pretty, regular German city. I thought it was interesting to have someone from the same area that became so successful. And I liked how he portrays women in a very beautiful, real, powerful way, without being too… he observes people really well, and you can feel their personality in the images. And he was always so consistent. You can tell it’s him in the images. I thought that was very inspiring.
Would you ever produce a book of your own work?
Not right now. Maybe later on. But yes, I have thought about a couple of options. I’m not quite there yet that I can do a retrospective, but I have a retrospective in mind that I think would be relevant and has to do with the people I work with. And obviously I loved shooting a book where you work over years. I could see myself taking a break and working on something about climate change, or something completely different from what I’m doing now, as long as it’s photography. I’m very open if the time allows to do something different.