Who said we were doing this chronologically?
Clearly we’re not. Thanks for letting me know! To answer your question, let’s get things straight: when I started out as a photographer, it was a completely different profession. When I came back from London, a friend got me into the advertising and PR company Publicis as an intern, at a time when interns were paid because it wasn’t considered the done thing to exploit adolescents. They got me to design and prepare the layouts for printed adverts, and it was there that I first saw photographers’ portfolios. I didn’t have any experience, but at least I could speak English. I still played guitar and I used to hang out with rock groups, a number of whom – [Alain] Bashung, Telephone, the whole French rock scene – were just starting to get contracts with record companies. So I said to them, “Let me do your album covers because no one else is doing it in France.” Whereas in England it was established practice.
“I felt – and I still do – a certain tenderness for women who are a bit rock chick and androgynous, which photographers who preceded me didn’t seem to feel, however good their work was.”
So I started to look for photographers to work with, until the day I finally decided to do the photos myself. That’s how I got into the saddle. When I started out, I had zero knowledge of the history of photography: I’d never heard of Richard Avedon or Irving Penn. Which perhaps wasn’t such a bad thing to the extent that it can be rather paralyzing to see others’ work – sometimes it’s better to use your instinct without knowing it. I remember that I had a hang-up about my origins, since I came from the 93 and everyone else at Publicis had gone to [the graphic-art school] Penninghen. England had shaped me differently. Whenever an English illustrator or photographer came over to show their portfolio, they always asked me to be present because I spoke perfect Cockney whereas they all stuttered away in bad Franglais. Anyway, long story short, the photographers at the time – Avedon, Penn, Guy Bourdin, David Bailey – all had their own studios and labs where they developed their own rolls of film and made their own prints. Which wasn’t at all my case. So I started out using a Polaroid – they’d just launched the SX-70 – which was a miracle, and which allowed me to train my eye in the same way people today do so with their iPhone and Instagram. I started to have a bit of success because the way I saw women was not as a girl in a harness or a little redhead with blusher and fuzzy hair…
Well that’s Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin taken care of…
Two giant photographers whose work I wasn’t so familiar with. For me, a girl of my generation was more likely to have short hair or to shave her head, because I hung out with punks in London and with the whole gang at the Palace in Paris and saw what the generation to come would be like. I felt – and I still do – a certain tenderness for women who are a bit rock chick and androgynous, which photographers who preceded me didn’t seem to feel, however good their work was. I was fresh – youth has that strength, it takes what’s been done and regurgitates it naively but with passion. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to work for studios that had been opened by the press, one of the first being [Daniel] Filipacchi’s in the Rue des Acacias funnily enough.
“My ideas are above all linked to people far more than to technology.”
You’re rambling, it’s awful! Let’s get back to the Jean Paul Gaultier ad if you don’t mind.
I was just getting there. While certain publications – Façade, which was the magazine of Le Palace, i-D, The Face, Actuel, etc. – allowed me to develop my photography, and certain TV stations – M6 and MTV in particular – gave me the chance to experiment with film, it was advertising that taught me art direction. For years, couture houses like Patou or Yves Saint Laurent would only bring out a perfume every ten years. With Calvin Klein came the explosion – just by selling a few pairs of men’s briefs he managed to revolutionize the perfume industry, and the old model went up in smoke. All of a sudden perfume was democratized in a way it hadn’t been before. I knew Jean Paul, of course, I’d done photos for him, and we were given extraordinary freedom when we made that ad. The perfume had been entirely designed – scent, bottle, packaging, art direction – by Jean Paul himself. Everyone was worried about the launch, except him and me. And they were all wrong, the perfume was extremely successful.
How did you develop the technical side of things for the sumptuous video you shot for Boy George’s single To Be Reborn in 1987?
I’d already had the idea. And my ideas are above all linked to people far more than to technology, which is only ever there to reinforce the message you’re trying to get across. It so happened that at that moment in time Boy George wasn’t doing so well. And when he asked me to work with him on this track, I immediately said to myself that he needed tactfulness and tenderness. That’s why I decided to have a little girl’s hand tenderly turning the pages of a photo album as well as the leaves of tracing paper separating each page… I wanted to bring in a certain purity at a point in time when the press were attacking him as a drugged-out washed-up old fag. I wanted to bring him redemption. For To Be Reborn, I asked people in Paris who were experimenting with 3D to superimpose shots of him singing onto blue pages. Since you also needed to take into account the play of transparency of the tracing paper, it certainly wasn’t easy, but the result, for the time, was exceptional. Where technology is concerned, I’ve always wanted to move forward, to move things forward, both through curiosity and gourmandise. Where people stop, I get bored. And everything that stops me – success, recognition, praise, exhibitions – leaves me perplexed as to what to do about it.
And was Madonna nice or not?
[Laughs.] What an old-hairdresser question! Are you nice at work? It’s not what I’ve been told. Do we really need to know if people who do interesting stuff are nice? Why the hell should you care? Are you planning a cruise to Corsica with her? Somehow I doubt it.
“Where technology is concerned, I’ve always wanted to move forward, to move things forward, both through curiosity and gourmandise. Where people stop, I get bored.”
Once and for all, can you tell us why Madonna runs away with the kid at the end of the video you shot for Open Your Heart in 1986?
It was another example of redemption, a theme that’s closely linked to my Catholic upbringing and which comes back time and again in my work. At the end of all my projects I adore – j’adore like in Dior’s films – giving the impression of a way out, an escape, a salvation. It’s also because personally I always look to run away and not get myself caught.
The video is amazing – where did you shoot it?
In Los Angeles. It took two days. At the time, artists and record companies – and me too, of course – were all very excited to be able to shoot a video for MTV, and to get close to the magic of the movies. That isn’t really the case anymore today.
Who was the most odious editor you ever worked with?
The odious ones don’t last, so I don’t remember. But I think you’d better watch out!