In The Magazine

In Full Gloria

Tuesday, December 1, 2015
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Fairy tales do come true: Todd Eberle can attest to that. “My biggest surprise in preparing this book about Princess Gloria [Countess von Schönburg-Glauchau] was that every fantasy I’ve ever had about fairy tales and princesses living in castles and wearing tiaras and attending balls with kings and queens came true,” says the New York photographer upon the publication last November of his newest book, House of Thurn und Taxis (Rizzoli). “I didn’t know such a thing existed. My original working title was Fairy Tales, but that was a bit too campy and disingenuous. What happened, what’s shown in these pages, it’s all real. It’s still taking place. My pictures tell a true, living story.” As the countess, aka “Princess TNT,” said during the making of the book, “Darling, you are a picture machine.”

Eberle’s very trajectory as one of the world’s most sought-after and visionary photographers of people and buildings reads much like a fairy tale. While talking with him atop the penthouse terrace office he shares with his partner, Richard Pandiscio; later in their apartment in the Jean Nouvel building in Chelsea; and while driving uptown in their Tesla, Eberle reveals himself to be both aware that his life might a kind of fairy tale, and also bewildered by his good fortune. However, unlike some members of royalty, including his latest subject, Princess Gloria, he didn’t marry into the role. His royal stature as a photographer of some of the biggest personalities of our time for some of the biggest publications is one that he earned wholly through his own manipulations of lens and shutter. No court intrigue required.

Once upon a time, there was a young boy who sat in his bedroom in a nondescript postwar house in the central Florida town of Howey-in-the-Hills, staring at the covers from People magazine he had cut out and pasted to his walls. There, spotlit by the strong Florida sun, were David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, the Carpenters and others of the era, people who filled the young Eberle’s walls and his imagination. Every week, when Eberle and his mother went grocery shopping, she would buy him the latest issue of the celebrity weekly.

“I was obsessed with People,” he says. “I noticed after a while that some pictures were better than others. I remember the first time I saw a photo credit for one of the cover photographs—Francesco Scavullo. I think it was his photo of Donna Summer. And I realized then that there was a talent to photography. Ever since I learned what the camera can do, I’ve always gone after everything I’ve ever wanted through my photography.”

For a man who has lived at the White House with the Clintons, photographing Hillary; commuted to Marfa, Texas, to capture the life, sculptures and home of Donald Judd; partied with and photographed the likes of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol; and has now captured the domestic life of Princess Gloria, Eberle, it would seem, has attained everything he could want. His reign as one of the photographers of our era continues.

Gloria’s ascent to her actual royal throne is a well-documented one. When she was a mere lass of twenty, she met and married Prince Johannes Thurn und Taxis in 1980, he thirty-three years her sen ior. On one of their first dates, the prince took her to his 500-room Bavarian schloss (and still counting, since the princess herself admits to still finding new rooms). Although there was no empire or loyal subjects to reign over, she did inherit the responsibility of caring for what might be Europe’s largest private residence, its rooms filled with treasures new, old and ancient. Their marriage was a happy and real one, in that there was a mutual love.

As she attained the stature as one of the queens of 1980s fabulosity, the prince gave her an allowance that allowed her to begin amassing a collection of artwork—sculptures by Jeff Koons, then an unknown; graffiti-isms of Keith Haring; Jean-Michel Basquiat canvases; Cindy Sherman’s self-absorbed self-portraits—enough to virtually redefine the market for contemporary art and artists.

The prince died in 1990, and while he left her the keys to the kingdom, it was one in which burdensome taxes were owed and mismanagement was rampant. In the thrice-daily meals that Eberle took with Gloria during the weeks in which he was in residence photographing the schloss, she confided in him.

“When she fell into debt and the German tax authorities came knocking on her door and handed her a bill, she said, ‘Do you want me to leave the door open when I leave or should I just close it, because I can’t pay this,’” recounts Eberle.

What kept the princess at home and not sent into exile was that she struck a deal with the German authorities, allowing them to choose contents from the castle that had historical significance to the nation. Venetian chandeliers and rococo armories, sets of silver and china and entire herds of vintage carriages were carted away and placed in a state-run public museum, situated on the grounds of her schloss (estimates put the tax exchange at some $80 million). She also embarked on auctioning off significant works of art.

“What impresses me, too, is that she went to business school, earned degrees and figured it all out,” says Eberle. “She runs an empire now. She’s a real businessperson dealing with her various real estate holdings and the like. At the breakfast table, I’d see people bring her documents to sign in leather dossiers. She’s very formal in her business side.”

Eberle met his subject at a Rolling Stones concert in Munich in 2011, to which he had been invited by his friend Francesca von Habsburg. “We ended up hanging out with Mick and Gloria at an after-party,” says Eberle. “Then I ran into her at the Venice Biennale at a party Larry Gagosian held at some palazzo. I was invited to her schloss, and even though I arrived at midnight, she spent three hours consuming my monograph. She went through it in the most interested way I’ve ever seen anyone look at my work.”

Soon thereafter, Eberle would be making regular weeklong trips to the schloss, exploring and photographing the contents of its rooms. He admits that whenever he would open a door, he never knew what to expect—closets of red footmen’s uniforms, vaulted Romanesque abbey walks, Prince Albert’s boyhood bedroom walls tagged with four-letter graffiti epithets, family crypts, a library of scientific treatises. “I’m more obsessed with photographing a strict period of modernism, so, for me, this project was particularly exciting because the palace architecture was outside the vocabulary of my obsession, yet I could still bring my eye to it. When you turn each page of the book, it’s as much a surprise to the reader as it was like for me to turn the handle on a door and discover what lay behind it.”

When Eberle embarked on the project, Rizzoli had positioned the book as another of their lavish tomes on interiors, but by the time he was done shooting what he estimates to be some 10,000 digital photos, something else had emerged. “This book is so beyond interiors,” he insists. “It’s a contemporary art book, it’s a history of interior
decoration, it’s German history, it’s European history, it’s royal history, it’s TNT’s history. There’s no reference for a book like this. I have plenty of books about old castles in Europe, but they show musty interiors. I put more into this book than I did my own monograph.”

Of his newish and, seemingly lasting, friendship with Gloria, Eberle says, “I’ve always been around and seek out interesting women. I have a thing for strong women and Gloria is certainly one of them.”


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