Peter De Mulder discovered photography at a young age. He was only five years old when he swapped his teddy bear for a 1950's Leica. Peter likes to think that the camera had obscure magic powers. Shooting with it was quite tricky, as it was not a reflex camera but one with a telemeter. Focusing at that young age was a challenge and when he succeeded to take a sharp picture with it, the feeling of victory was intoxicating. Learning to shoot on an analogue camera taught Peter about natural light. His belief to this day is that Photoshop is a tool, but not the means to an end.
As an adolescent, Peter's uncle introduced him to black and white printing. In the strange red atmosphere of the dark room, Peter felt there was no possible return. He was infected. His passion for the art of photography is contagious, it's the air he breathes. Looking at his photographs today, one could arguably say that the camera he once thought to be a mystic talisman is the medium through which Peter channels his own magic.
A true master of his craft, Peter shoots action sports, including campaigns for Nike and Coleman, and fashion. His work has been published in Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Marie-Claire and Elle to name a few.
Peter is also most well known for his underwater photography. He creates incredible scenarios by submerging with his models. Peter talks about developing his craft in an interview with Vendome Magazine
How did you land your first big job and which one was it?
I was still a student in photography , the CEO of an important advertising agency had seen my year’s end exhibition and asked me if I wanted to shoot for them a campaign competition, no fee attached of course. It was a series of shots with wind surfers running with their boards and sails to the sea, Hobbycats sailors in action etc…The agency didn’t win the competition but sold the whole concept to a big bank client they had, with a fee…. I followed the Ecole Supérieure Des Arts Visuels De La Cambre, section photography. I had already notions of photography and printing before.
You’re especially known for your underwater photography, most of it being fashion photography. How did this concept come to your mind?
I was near the island of Spetses on a short trip with my best friend, a former dancer of Maurice Béjart. We were free diving and for no reason my friend started an improvised underwater ballet. I looked at that no-gravity feeling, the strange underwater light, the way the body moves and changes in this strange world. I immediately started to research the best way to solve all the technical problems attached to underwater photography. There were no digital cameras at the time, and I wanted to shoot with mid-format film. The challenge was to understand how the underwater light works, to anticipate the blueness of the colors and to build an underwater housing that would fit my mid-format cameras. When I look at them now, they are quite primitive and clumsy tools but they did the job.
Under-water fashion photography is challenging. First I am free diving in 90% of the underwater shootings, so are my models. It’s physically challenging but for me staying underwater with scuba gear and waiting for my models to perform deprives me from a constant contact and lead with them. I can’t measure their state of fatigue or cold if I’m not putting myself in the same conditions, I can’t give them directions or encourage them if I don’t pop at the surface constantly with them. As I’m shooting most of my work in the ocean, I have to adapt to its various conditions. Creativity is at stake but so is safety. Not to say that at the end of a day of shooting you will not find me on the dancing floor.
Your motto is “I don’t think pictures have to justify their existence”; what’s the meaning of it?
It’s actually a Richard Avedon’s motto, a great invisible mentor for me. It means for me that pictures have an existence that makes explanations or justifications unnecessary if they’re good pictures. Everyone should be able to relate in one form or another to pictures he/she sees without any explanations attached, the world and emotions that the pictures shows are there to be digested without a bible of explanations. If a written explanation is needed, I feel those pictures haven’t succeeded to tell their own story. To me, photography means freedom, a way to express the mosaic of emotions encountered on this planet, being beautiful or frightening, a picture says everything it needs to say in the fraction of a second it took to capture it.
You have also extensively covered India with your photography, and showed through it parts of the world that one must see to believe. What made you fall in love with India?
As you get submerged underwater and have to accept it to live the moment with peace, so is India where you get totally submerged by it’s energy, people, strangeness and closeness at the same time. The idea is to let go, not resisting the elements, same as for the ocean. I didn’t find yet in another place on this planet such a variety of what human kind can offer, from worse to incredible, from ugly to marvelous. Pictures of Cartier Bresson and Don McCullin have haunted me when I was a young student and at 24 I made the leap of faith.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned from your time there?
That time has another dimension, or many other dimensions…
I got 3 top crazy experiences in my career: underwater fashion shooting in the Maldives while the monsoon still hanged above our heads, a campaign for Coleman shot in the US and Costa Rica where I ended up climbing in the forest canopy, feeding alligators with melting marshmallows to be able to shoot them from close in the Everglades, sleeping in a tepee in South Dakota while a roaming bear tore of our food trash, riding horses the same day and being ejected from my mount when she came face to face with a snake etc…and finally the multiple Kumbh Mela I attended in India.
Peter is available on special commission in South Africa.