While fashion may be a game of change, great ideas are built to last and PIER59 STUDIOS, the brainchild of entrepreneur, founder and photographer, PRINCE FEDERICO PIGNATELLI DELLA LEONESSA, is nothing short of a great idea.
Since opening their doors twenty years ago, the world’s largest photo studio has been home to over 50,000 photo shoots. Over the years countless models, celebrities, and even a few U.S. Presidents have crossed the studios threshold to be photographed by many a famous fashion lensman. On the eve of their 20th anniversary celebration, THE IMPRESSION sat with Federico Leonessa, to chat about how he built the iconic studio, his unique career path, new technologies, vision, boat, villas, the love of his life, and his latest book.


BY KENNETH RICHARD | The Impressionist

Federico, congratulations on your twentieth anniversary of Pier59 Studios and the new book. Both are quite an achievement. Before diving into those, would love to hear how you got your start in photography?
Well, that goes back a long time ago. When I was a teenager, I got a beautiful camera that cost me a lot of money and then I started taking pictures of people and beautiful girls and so on. I really enjoyed the process of photography and creating the image, trying to interpret people in a deep and elegant way. Then, unfortunately, some people came to my house while I was away and they robbed my camera. I didn’t have money at that time to buy a new one so I basically had to give up that passion at that moment.

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My professional career had nothing to do with photography. I embraced finance working for major brokerage houses. First off, I left Italy and travelled to Switzerland working for E.F. Hutton, which was equivalent to a Goldman Sachs. Later,moving to London, then to the States, first as a trader and then a portfolio manager in equities, commodities and then in technological investments.

After I had made some money, I was reminded of my passion for photography when a friend of mine wanted to sell a beautiful, high-end camera he didn’t know how to use I bought it. So I started taking pictures again. First I concentrated on people and architecture – actually, very much on architecture until I had a girlfriend who was a model. She was extremely beautiful but ethnic and her book didn’t reflect her beauty. She was the type of girl that you needed to understand and interpret, something that many photographers don’t do because essentially, most photographers are lazy and they want girls who are easy to photograph. So I challenged myself to take beautiful pictures of this girlfriend of mine who was an amazing beauty but different from the others that populate the modeling business. I interpreted her for what she was and the pictures came out great. The agency loved the images and she started working like crazy, becoming one of the top models in the agency at the time in Milan, Italy.

Because of those pictures, the agency asked me to shoot other models, so that is where I started exercising my taste and passion in interpreting and shooting the beauty of women. I continued with that passion while being a businessman in the financial field and becoming an entrepreneur in technology-oriented companies, in the medical field and also in film production. So my whole corporate type of life notwithstanding, I also nourished my passion for photography which, in reality, expresses my sense of the vision of beauty and elegance that surrounds us. I always try to extract beauty from what is around me – be it people or buildings or nature – the best interpretation of it.

What drove you to concept Pier59 Studios?
I had an understanding of technology because I was a venture capitalist investment banker in that field for 12 years. In essence, what Eastman Kodak and Polaroid and Fuji did not understand was that there was going to be a huge transition from traditional film into digital photography. I understood that eventually digital would take over film because you can essentially digitally recreate in the studio what you previously had to actually shoot on location. I created Pier59 Studios because I realized that the studio business was going to be a very interesting business to be in from the business point of view and because it would allow me to express my passion for photography and the creativity that photography brings.

I financed it, I designed it, I built it – because also I have a background as a real estate developer which helped me rebuild that abandoned pier into what it is today. It was a major project and a tremendous challenge to do it efficiently and economically. It was a pier that was built in the early 1900s and abandoned for forty years so it was falling apart.

What drew you to the Pier?
The space. This magnificent, incredible, huge space that was right in the middle of Manhattan, which is a town that is all vertical and where the spaces there are small because there are millions of people living in a tiny island. It was shocking to me to see that incredible, vast space right in the heart of Manhattan stand unused and abandoned. It is a horizontal building in a city of vertical buildings that was just laying on water, with incredible lighting and an unobstructed view because you cannot build on a river in front of it. I saw the opportunity even though I was very skeptical at the beginning because I wondered why nobody had thought about taking over this pier. What was I seeing that other people didn’t? So I was a little bit uncertain at the beginning because it was too strange to see such an incredible opportunity that was in front of everybody, yet only I saw that it was so incredible.

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But I followed my instinct even though it might have sounded crazy – back then the Meatpacking District and Chelsea were definitely not what they are today. I felt it in my guts, really, that it was the right thing to do. It was a risk to take and I’m a risk taker – coming from Wall Street you are a risk taker by nature. So I decided to invest several millions of dollars and take over the space and renovate it from the ground up into the largest studio complex in the world and the most cutting edge one. I built with digital in mind so the space is very large with high ceilings so you can recreate artificial sets in these studios like they do in the movie industry. With digital photography and retouching, you can make it appear so real, like you are really in another place. You can be on an island, you can be in the desert, you can be up in the mountains, you can be in a mansion, you can be anywhere, but in a studio it is way more economic and way more efficient. So that was my reason for Pier59 Studios, and it all comes from my passion for photography and understanding of business.

That was quite the risk. That section of the West Side was remote and a bit dangerous 20 years ago. Understand why you had some reservations. What happened after you opened?
You’re certainly correct that is was a tough area, but I also have an understanding of real estate, having been a real estate developer in Italy. I was one of the first ones to be there, just as I was one of the first ones living in SoHo. I don’t like to be constrained in small spaces, where all the buildings are vertical and the spaces are cramped. In SoHo there are low buildings with 5-6 stories of huge, vast spaces and large windows, buildings that are very beautiful and characteristic of the time in which they were built, and I love their history. The same is true in Chelsea and the Meatpacking District so I recognized their potential.

We opened Pier59 Studios in December of 1994, so the first year of operation was really 1995. The people that came to me came to a destination, because it was not a place they would normally go. But Pier 59 definitely contributed to elevating the Meatpacking District. And then, I invested in a nightclub and restaurant called Lotus there in 1998 with – and this is interesting – Donald Trump. That was the beginning of bringing people to the neighborhood at night; it was the first place to open and became very successful. From that point on, within a few years, life started flowing into that part of town. It was exciting to see the transformation of a place that was sort of abandoned, kind of dirty and a little smelly, too, unfortunately, because of all this meat that they were processing. We saw the transformation of these beautiful buildings into art galleries and creative spaces, we saw the artistic people move in. I think that we really contributed with the opening of Pier 59 in attracting the creative world into Chelsea!

You didn’t just build a great photo studio; you built the largest photo studio. It still is, to today, isn’t it?
Yes, it is in fact the largest complex photo studio in the world. There is no other studio that is 100 thousand sq ft, all in one complex, with 11 photo studios. There are movie studios that are larger, obviously, but there are no photo studios comparable anywhere in the world, in any capital of the fashion business. As a businessman, I knew that I had to create a large studio in order to make it viable economically. If you have 3 or 4 studios, you have essentially the same overhead as if you have 11 studios. I invest the money we make in constantly making Pier59 Studios better and staying on top of the technological wave that has been changing this business.

Do you see any new technological changes ahead?

As I said, we’ve gone from film to digital. And now we are entering the era of photo-videography, where video is becoming an essential part of advertising because of the Internet. Today people shop over the internet, people look at imagery on the internet, and they don’t just like to look at still images, they want to see moving images. A photograph is a still image captured in a fraction of a second, and while it may capture the essence of a moment, it is only a fraction of what is happening. While with video, you actually capture life because we as people, we move and live in a three-dimensional world. Video is the opportunity to go beyond the bi-dimensionality of photography into a further dimension of reality through movement and time.

Fashion advertising is rapidly entering this new era of video and movement in 3D. The next wave of technological development in the field of fashion photography and now fashion video-photography – I want to say even photo video-photography – are the cameras that can do video, but at such high resolution that you can extract and freeze frame from the video and it will have the quality of a still photograph.

Have you ever used those cameras?

In fact, I adopted this new technology in The Great Beauty; the book I just shot that will be presented at our 20th Anniversary of Pier 59 event tonight. This book is the very first book, to my knowledge that has been created by mixing images from a digital, traditional camera – in this case, a Hasselblad – and videography through this new technology pioneered by Red Camera, with their Dragon line.

The Great Beauty Cover

How long did it take you to do the book?
4 ½ days.

Wow! Was expecting something more like 4 ½ years. Tell us about The Great Beauty!
There is a place that I have always liked. It is now a boutique hotel, La Posta Vecchia, owned by a friend of mine with only 19 rooms and suites. It is an old villa owned by a noble family, theOdescalchi family in Rome, which was purchased by Paul Getty in the late 1950s. He renovated it and lived there a few months a year, running his worldwide oil businesses from there. He was a great lover of Italy and the arts of Italy so he collected a lot of beautiful furniture and made this villa into something extremely special. He put a lot of his attention into it and he was the richest man in the world at that time, with a great passion for art. So that place is a special place, with a huge park surrounding the villa, and it’s by the sea outside of Rome.

I took 11 models to this villa and I literally sequestered them for 5 days. I told them you need to put yourself in context with the energy, the beauty of this villa and immerse yourself in the culture that this villa emanates and bring out something of yourself that you have inside of you but you don’t express in normal life because now you’re in a different dimension, you are outside of the modern world in which we live every day. Bring your romantic energy, your culture, your femininity. I told them to really look inside themselves because I wanted to bring the best out of them. I told them we are not going to leave this place without having done something extraordinary. All of us, together, we will create a work of art. That is our goal.

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And I have to say, it was so nice, after my speech that first night, they applauded. From that moment on, I understood that they were all committed and I had chosen well during the casting. They were models that were all different from one another, I chose them with “energy”, I chose them intelligent, they were not just beautiful women. That’s why I brought them there. I wanted a certain type of sensitivity to appreciate what they were living in, that was sort of a trip in a different dimension. We all worked together very well. I couldn’t have made that book without the dedication of the models, the dedication of the stylists, the dedication of the entire team. We were all very motivated by this special place, this dream of a different dimension of life that once existed.

An exotic set, characters that express themselves. Federico, you sound like a filmmaker! Really looking forward to the book, which breaks tonight.
Yes, it will be introduced at the event and become available worldwide in May 2016. I made a deal with the publisher (teHeues) where I would take a lower royalty so I could make 500 copies available by October 27 for sale to support the IRC charity. The IRC is the International Rescue Committee that takes care of refugees from war. As we know, there is an incredible struggle of suffering in the Middle East, North Africa, people are fleeing these countries, entire families, women, kids, etc. They are fleeing from torture, from sure death; it is the biggest exodus of people since WWII.

It’s a great cause and glad to hear you’re supporting.
So what’s next? It’s been 20 years. Did you ever think it would be 20 years when you started this?

Well, yes, in a way because when you build something, you build thinking for the long term. But what really pleases me is that Pier59 Studios twenty years later is still fresh, is still seen as a place that is avant-garde. It is really a factory of creativity. Like Warhol’s factory, Pier59 Studios is also a factory of creativity, of imagination and also passion, where photographers and models come to work together to create beautiful imagery. That is what we need in a world that is, unfortunately, in many aspects, filled with images of suffering. We are a positive element in this world because we generate images that are beautiful, elegant, that are full of joy, full of life.

That is exactly why I titled the book “The Great Beauty,” because it is the beauty of life versus the drama of death and everything else that is happening in the world. We have to appreciate the “great beauty of life,” we have to look at that great beauty that surrounds us and reevaluate it. We need to concentrate on the beauty, not only on the ugliness of many things and all the tragedies and the difficulties of life. It is the other side of what we are surrounded by that I am trying to bring to people’s attention, to look at what is beautiful and simple and elegant, what is of the essence. We are distracted by things that don’t have much value and I’m trying to bring the real values of passion with this book, the real value of beauty and imagination. Because dreaming is part of our freedom, is part of our way to express ourselves, it is part of life, we need to dream.

Can you share with me where you spend most of your time now?
Well, I have a house in Beverly Hills where I live with my daughter who is soon to be 12. She’s the love of my life so I spend substantial amounts of time there with her. But I also spend time in New York and I spend 3 months of the year more or less traveling.

I love traveling and I love the sea. I have two boats, one in the Mediterranean and one in the Caribbean, so I spend close to 3 months traveling around on my boats and very little time on land because I like that dimension of life. Again, what is the sea? It is space and beauty and nature. That is why you will see elements of nature, horses, dogs, and birds in my book, because they are symbols of the beauty of nature. And that’s how I like to live my life as much as possible, in connection with what is real – that is real people, with feelings, passion surrounded by nature that inspires me and makes me feel good, particularly surrounded by love that is my daughter and a few friends that I really care about and the many people that I know who appreciate Pier59 Studios as a creative space they use as their second home to create, to express themselves. That is the kind of energy I like to surround myself with so that’s where I spend my time.

Federico, thank you so much for chatting today and again congratulations on life, the twenty anniversary and the book.
Thank you very, very much and it was a pleasure to chat.