Steven Lyon was one of the top male models of the 80’s and 90’s, before switching to the other side of the camera to photograph the beautiful creatures of the world, from gorgeous models to endangered wildlife.
His photography carries a signature sultry, smoldering intensity. Using cinema techniques to create his film noir effects, he imparts a sense of German expressionist meets fine art.
Catching up with him early on a Sunday morning outside Los Angeles, he apologizes for how he looks, says he looks like hell. Ha! He smolders yet has an ease about him. Not surprisingly when he’s sitting idyllically in the mountains with his model girlfriend and his dog, Rudy.
In lockdown he’s written a couple of screenplays, has a new magazine coming out, is editing his documentary that he candidly shot while walking 1000 km across South Africa to highlight Rhino poaching. And he’s working on the first of three coffee table books.
Winning the gene lottery hands down, I can understand why women’s clothes seem to fall off when they meet him! (See, by way of examples, some of his photos of former Supermodel Amber Arbucci)
I tell him he’s been a busy guy.
He laughs. “I created my own magazine, Indulge. It’s actually a book, it’s a biannual coffee table book but it’s in the format of a magazine, meaning there’s interviews and articles, but there’s no advertising and there’s no fashion. It’s 100% film photography only, there’s no digital and it supports the animals and the environment” (Part of the proceeds will go to The Wildlife Fund).
“I have interviews of wildlife photographers along with super famous fashion photographers next to each other, along with art dealers, painters and sculptors. The whole book is geared around the art world, focusing mostly on photography, not only my work but some other great photographers that I’ve enlisted. I’m very excited about it.”
(And it’ll be out by the holiday season…)
Tell us about your documentary on rhino poaching, Something That Matters
I have a nonprofit called Lyonheartlove which I founded years ago, and it’s producing the film. If you go to the website you can see what it’s about and read all about the movie. I’m launching an awareness campaign called #SomethingThatMatters, involving many things in the world that should matter, not just animals, but that’s what I’ll launch with.
Do you have all your film together?
Because there’s been such a lapse in time from when I went to Africa I’ve decided to go back. I was in the bush for four months filming and walking like 30 kilometers every single day with the crew. I lost 38 pounds and had a big old beard and I looked like I was ninety years old when we finished.
The people involved in the film are such characters and I’m going to fill in the blanks because the rhino poaching is even worse now. We haven’t made any progress, so I’m bringing on some serious experts to be in the second half of the film to let us know what’s going on today.
Ninety percent of the world’s rhinos that are still left are in South Africa and 90% of all the poaching is in South Africa, and most of those rhinos are within the Kruger National Park.
There are so few rhinos left in Kenya, they’re trying to reintroduce them. In Tanzania they are so heavily guarded, so they’re not really being poached but believe me there’s one rhino with 20 guards around it — it’s not really a life. We did our trek in the Manyeleti which borders Kruger National Park and Botswana, it’s pretty something. I am hoping to finish it this year, so we can hopefully get it in Sundance 2022.
Watch the film teaser here.
It must be hard making a film with this whole pandemic situation.
I’m doing all the editing and I’ll bring it to Hollywood to do the final mastering and sound and mixing and all that stuff. The film will follow the chronological order of our journey from day one until we dove into a crocodile infested lake, and we’d crossed a thousand kilometers. It’s a big, huge undertaking. In the meantime, I’m doing other projects and other work because I know that those could help me fund the finishing of the film.
(Yes you read that right, he dove into a crocodile infested lake, we checked!)
So to raise money for the film, it’s through lionheartlove.org?
Yes, if somebody wants to send a donation, yeah they can go to the website, there’s a donate button there, very much so. That’d be great and so much appreciated.
Is it true you were discovered by Andy Warhol?
Yeah, he photographed me. I wasn’t a model yet, I was walking on Sunset Blvd doing something and some guy came up to me and said, “would you like to meet Andy? I think he’d like to photograph you”.
Quite honestly, I didn’t know who he was, and I went home and told my future father-in-law, who was from New York, and he said, “what the fuck, are you kidding me man? It’s Andy Warhol, you go!”
So I went that night to the Mondrian Hotel and Andy answered the door and it was very typical, “Oh you’re very very beautiful and blah blah blah blah blah… and all that stuff. “I’d love to photograph you tomorrow. Can you be here at 9?”
“Sure, of course.”
“Do you mind if I photograph you in your underwear?”
I’m like, ha!, no, it’s okay. He was the founder of Interview. In the back, they ran this section of Andy’s ‘whatever guys’ he’d found and photographed. I was one of them. I don’t know if I was discovered but maybe I was. It’s about a year later that I actually became a model.
So were you in Paris at the time of Les Bains Douches and Le Palace?
Oh yes, oh yes, I remember Le Palace, Le Kit Kat club, Le Bus Palladium, all of them. I was very much into that. Then fashion was very glamorous and there were a lot of parties. It was pretty cool, you’d be sitting there at Les Bains Douches, and there’d be a table with Jean Paul Gaultier, another table with Alaia, another table with Montana. Each one was peppered with their little supermodels and then, male models were considered little celebrities as well, not like they are now. I was gifted suits every weekend so that I’d be sitting at some table wearing a Mugler and Montana would get pissed off, or Gaultier would get pissed as I was wearing somebody else’s clothes, it was hilarious. (He laughs) Modeling in Paris in the 80s and the early 90s was pretty great, it was a good time in fashion so I’m really happy I did it then.
I did shows in London, Milan and Paris back-to-back, and I always got bronchitis because I partied every night and did five or six shows every day. The biggest, best guys in the world all migrated during that time and we all knew each other well, and there was no animosity or competition. There was so much work to go around. We were all making money and having so much fun and God it was great.
I can imagine! I have to ask you some travel related things…
Well, I’ve traveled a lot to Asia in my photography and also in my personal life and I’ll continue to do so. If Indulge is successful at all, I’m gonna do a once a year Indulge Traveler – my first destination would be Greece which is like my second home.
Each year I’ll choose a different place in the world and I will do a special issue on that particular country or place.
Which Greek island do you go to?
Mykonos, it’s changed a lot, but I still love it. I’m hanging out with Greeks the whole time. I have lots of friends from Athens who go over the summer, and there’s lots of dinner parties. We take boats every day to other little islands and have incredible lunches and that hasn’t changed, you know?
You’ve got some shots of local people in Africa that are remarkable
I’ve been doing safaris for over a decade, and that’s how I learned about the plight of the rhinos, sitting around the campfire with my guide. And I decided to try to do something about it. There’s definitely an Africa coffee table book down the road, which I can’t wait to do. I can’t wait to go back to Africa and visit my friends and go on photographic safaris. That’s some of the best moments I’ve had as a photographer, shooting wildlife, not necessarily shooting supermodels.
How do you make somebody relax who is not a professional model and hates having their photograph taken?
I find that I just talk to them and shoot them as I talk and they don’t even know I’m shooting their picture, and pretty soon it’s over. Every once in a while, I’ll hold up my hand like “don’t move a muscle” to get a frame, but I’m a film photographer, I don’t shoot 1000 photographs like these digital photographers, I shoot 10 or 20. I’m done, so who can’t sit there for three minutes whilst I take their picture?
I have a pretty large body of work so for example if we decide to do some nudes, women can see what I do, and they know that it’s tasteful and it’s artistic. I say “just trust me to do what I do”, so that’s how it works.
If you wanted to go to your favorite hotel in the world, where has impressed you the most?
I’m not a big fan of like luxury hotels, but some of the most luxurious hotels are in the jungles of Botswana and Tanzania on some of these super premium safaris. I mean they’re just… I’ve never felt more pampered or special in my life as when I’m in some of these safari camps although they can be expensive. To me it’s well worth it, rather than spending a premium price at The Ritz.
Most inspiring place?
Paris, yeah, it’s just a sea of canvases to take photographs and the mentality of the French is very conducive to being very free with my photography and with less restrictions. I did start photography here but I immediately went to Europe. If I’d progressed as a photographer in America, my pictures wouldn’t be the same.
The French are much freer with their bodies, aren’t they?
I could have girls half naked in the streets of Paris and the police would sit there and watch and think that was great, not a big deal. You can’t do any of that stuff in Los Angeles, I can tell you that. But even just the freedom to shoot, if you want to shoot anything in LA you have to have a permit. If you have a permit for this corner, you can’t shoot across the street on that corner. It’s a joke.
You shot some fantastic photos of Chris Cornell
I have a whole series of Chris Cornell that I shot with him in his apartment in Paris. It’s very intimate. I talked to him and his wife Vicki, and we always wanted to do something really special with the pictures. So possibly we’re going to do an exhibition in New York and Paris, and we’ll donate some of the proceeds to Chris’ favorite charity.
What are your coffee table books?
The first is called Artist Of Light, about 550 pages which is a potpourri of everything that I do really, and then the next one is Naked… As I See It — 400 pages of my version of nudity; and then the other one is a series that I shot in Paris over a decade, called In My Room…Paris Chapter and it’s very film noir, nudes shot through a giant eight-foot-square gold antique mirror in my bedroom and there’s about 35 different girls in the book.
The first to be released will be Artist Of Light and should be out within a year I imagine.
What would you go back and tell your younger self?
(He laughs) Save twenty percent! That’s it, you won’t miss it at all! Just save twenty percent and put it aside.
‘Cause you blew it all ?
I’ve had a lot of fun.
Go to lyonheartlove.org for Something That Matters
Photography & everything else: stevenlyon.com