It was an unusual phone call that spanned the distance between London and David Drebin’s New York studio. The atmosphere, although mediated by technology, was charged with the unmistakable aura that accompanies Drebin’s work—epic, dramatic, and cinematic in scope.
Initially intended as part of WhyNow’s Six of the Best series, our conversation with David took a different, more meandering turn. For some of the photos, readers will note David’s choice to speak more broadly about his life and philosophy, so as to allow the viewer to create their own narratives.
“A picture should tell a story,” David emphasised as we explored his latest book by TeNeues, Flirting With Danger. He continued, “It should be a journey—a journey into thought, into emotion. I want the viewers to forget the world around them for just a brief moment, you know?”
In his 20s, David Drebin was a young man grappling with understanding his own vivid imagination. Initially picking up a camera as a form of self-discovery, Drebin never envisioned his life taking a commercial turn. For him, the act of creating photographs was a passionate endeavour, not a business model.
However, even before the age of social media, the resonance of his work began attracting collectors from across the globe. This unexpected demand transitioned him from an artist to an entrepreneur almost overnight. Forced to learn the ropes on the fly, Drebin found himself at the helm of a burgeoning enterprise that now deals in multiple art forms worldwide.
While this ‘accidental business’ has been successful, it has also led him to sometimes miss the purity of just being an artist, caught as he is in the complex web of the business of art.
Drebin’s commitment to storytelling isn’t a newfound fascination. That’s why we’ve chosen to focus on works from Flirting With Danger and his past corpus.
“I always knew that the airport was wild in St. Barts, where the planes would come very, very, very close over this hill. So, I had that picture in my mind for at least a decade. I was invited to St. Barts for an event, but all I cared about was making that picture. So I asked the universe to make this happen for me, and the universe made it happen for me.
“I don’t really work with models. I like working with my friends and talent that I find randomly where the universe introduces me to talent and I then hire people based on that talent. I don’t care what they look like.
“Notice with restaurants where the staff is really beautiful. The service could be better. But those restaurants where the team has been there for about 30 years aren’t there because of what they look like but because of how good they are. Those are the restaurants I want to go to. I want good service more than I want good visuals.
“I always positioned myself as a classic restaurant rather than a trendy restaurant. A lot of artists position themselves as a trendy restaurant. And that’s what separates me from other artists. I just want to be classic. I don’t want to be fashionable in any way.”
“Now look, I’m like a musician playing a song. They play the music but don’t tell the listener how to feel. When I believe it’s ready to show the world, I offer the world my photos, but I don’t tell people how to feel when they look at the works.
“I put it in my books and my exhibitions worldwide, and it’s perfect for display, for others to appreciate, and for them to see themselves almost as a mirror. Art is a mirror for people to see into their dreams and fantasies.”
Outside The Bubble
“What makes the image powerful for me is the title of the image itself. And that’s why my titles are so important. Other artists don’t think about what I do. The title is as important as the image in the same way the song’s title coexists with the music itself. That’s how I describe my images. I like to convey my works in just a few words with a title and let the viewer imagine what that means for them with the title I created in the image itself.
“It’s just…it’s a beautiful girl all by herself outside the bubble.”
Waiting For Him
“Back to restaurants. I like classic restaurants: meat and potatoes. I don’t love restaurants where food is art, where you have one tiny morsel of veal. Those types of restaurants are about the visuals more than taste. I care more about how something tastes and looks when it comes to a restaurant. And so it is when it comes to my work.
“It’s just about how it looks and makes people feel. And the way I describe my work is in the title itself, and the viewer imagines the work itself because of the title that I make. And the image that comes with the tag. That’s the best way to describe my work with every shot. So, just the image ‘Risky Landing’. It could have been called ‘Girl With A Plane’, but it wouldn’t have the same impact.
“It’s all about what you imagine she’s waiting for. People have very short attention spans. So, I’d instead describe my work but the vision in one sentence or less. So waiting for him is all about waiting for him and the viewer imagining this girl in the window, this beautiful girl in the window waiting for him. Next.”
Dreaming The World
“A girl, just after having room service in a hotel overlooking the ocean, and she’s looking at a map, and she’s dreaming the world. It’s up to the viewer to imagine where in the world she’s dreaming.
“I’ve worked with galleries around the world, and I’m not thirsty. So I create something that I know that people want, and if they want it, great, and if they don’t, it’s okay. It’s kind of like when I walk by my favourite coffee shop. They never run outside and say, ‘Come in to buy coffee! Come in!’ There’s a sign at the door, and I walk in. They never push me to buy anything. I’m not pushy, I’m not thirsty. I just want to create value for consumers of creativity.”
The Great Beauty
“‘Believe it to see it in a world that needs to see it to believe it’. That is my motto. And I’ve always believed this way: I have a vision in my mind, and I reverse engineer my idea. A lot of people have to see it to believe it. But I’ve always believed in believing it to see it.
“That’s how I think. Okay? Believe it to see it in a world that needs to see it to believe it.”