The Shoes of the Famous

3 minute read

They say you don’t really know a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. In Swiss photographer Henry Leutwyler’s case, the saying can be applied literally in his newest photobook, Document.

Featuring 124 photographs of objects, from Jimi Hendrix’s red fender to John Lennon’s blue-tinted glasses, it offers a humanizing document of society, especially when Leutwyler turns his attention to the footwear of the famous, like Michael Jackson’s studded shoe with his initials written under one of the soles, Gene Kelly’s beaten up yellow Converse and Sylvie Guillem’s ballet slippers.

In making Document, Leutwyler admits he wasn’t consciously focusing on making footwear the star of the book. “It was completely unintentional,” he tells TIME. “It’s just so happens I think that when you find a pair of tap dance shoes or you find a pair of ballet slippers or you find the Unabomber shoes, it’s a beautiful object. It’s close to your body, it touches your skin. It shows if you maintain it well or not, if you care less or are careful, if you have money or you don’t have money.”

Document is his most personal project and was inspired by his motivation to photograph who he considered his heroes growing up. Leutwyler recalls visiting Gene Kelly’s widow at her home in Los Angeles and noticing the worn and dirt on Kelly’s converse on the shelf and being surprised that an actor as good-looking and best-dressed like Kelly would ever wear sneakers. “I couldn’t take my eyes off when I saw them,” he says. “I saw those Converse on the shelf and I was like please, please, please, please can I photograph them.”

One of the things he noticed about Kelly’s sneakers after the initial shock wore off were the way Kelly used them. “It’s like, wow, the guy was wearing converse, how cool,” he says. “Then you realize he didn’t replace the broken shoelaces. He fixed them with new ones. Nowadays, you rip them, chuck them, and put new ones in. So I like the attitude.”

While not considered a hero by any means, Leutwyler photographed the “zig-zag” shoes of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. “He built a platform underneath his shoes, took a pair of Converse, glue the shoe underneath at a smaller size to fool the police,” he says. “What’s the idea: people are looking for the footprints that could be 42 and a half of a male adult weighing an x amount of pounds. You find footprints that are three sizes smaller and you think that this is a teenager. The imprint shows the teenager is overweight. You’re not going to follow their footprints. Within the madness, there’s definitely genius and it worked. I think it’s interesting to see the objects, try and understand them and try to understand what people were thinking when they were wearing them or when they were building them.”

Henry Leutwyler is a photographer based in New York. His photographs will go on show at the Foley Gallery in New York from Nov. 3 to Jan. 8, 2017.

Marie Tobias, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.

Bianca Silva is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter.

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"The Nike," the first Nike shoes to bear the now famous Swoosh logo, 1971. Henry Leutwyler
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A pair of dancer Sylvie Guillem's pointe shoes. Henry Leutwyler
American boxer Muhammad Ali's Adidas "Special" boxing shoe, size 13 US. Henry Leutwyler
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Michael Jackson's studded shoe. Henry Leutwyler
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Gene Kelly's Converse Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers. Henry Leutwyler
German footballer Franz Anton Beckenbauer's Cosmos Adidas football boot from 1970. Henry Leutwyler
Charlie Chaplin's shoes, worn in City Lights, 1931.Henry Leutwyler
American Mountaineer James Whittaker's Eddie Bauer overboot with crampons.Henry Leutwyler
"Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski's pair of zigzag shoes or "winos," c. 1996.Henry Leutwyler
Dancer slippers used by Vaslav Nijinsky in Spectre de la Rose, c. 1911.Henry Leutwyler

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