On why photography is not a young man’s game

In an industry where you’re only as good as your last shoot, Patrick has remained a master of his craft while successive generations of photographers have come and gone. Over tuna tarta and truffle pizza in Soho, Manhattan, he looks back at his long and distinguished carrer in light of significant shifts within the fashion industry. As the afternoon progresses, the conversation turns to why modelling agencies are killing their own business, and how his beginnings were not quite as easy as one might think.

Photographed by Victor Demarchelier

Written by Jens Grede

Harvey Weinstein walks up to our table, puts his arm around Patrick and bursts out, ‘This guy is living the dream.’ It has just gone midday and we are huddled around a table in the lobby of the Mercer. Heidi Klum, Kyle McLachlan and now Harvey. He is the last of a succession, coming up to us, paying their respects to the
bon vivant sitting with me.

Patrick Demarchelier is a French New Yorker and one of only a handful of photographers living today who has found mainstream fame. In a world where a success is defined by what you do today, Patrick has stayed on top for nearly four decades by producing consistently great work and keeping a contagiously positive attitude. Careers are about longevity and we have come to New York to learn from the master.

Tucking into a collective order of tuna tartar and double servings of truffle pizza, we get talking, embarking on a conversation that will encompass photography, supermodels and fatherhood.

So, what prompted the gift from your father of a camera when you were 17? Had you expressed any interest in photography before you got it?

‘No, not at all. I think the reason he gave it to me was because he saw me like a troubled kid. I was not good in school. He didn’t know what to do, he was worried. My parents hadn’t given me many presents in my life. He found this very old Kodak camera somewhere and he gave it to me; it was just luck, it was the best present in my life.’

It worked out pretty well.

‘Yes, because the thing is, I was actually a little bit of a troubled kid. Well, not troubled… but I didn’t do much. This camera was my first discovery. I grew up in the countryside, in Le Havre, Normandy. It was a bit of a boring town. There was nothing to do. So, I went with this camera to the local photo shop to learn how to print and develop film. I started retouching negatives with a pencil. After that, I started taking pictures of my friends. They were conscious of their pimples, so I started retouching the pimples in the prints. It was fantastic – it was the first time in my life I started to make some money and I loved pictures.’

How old were you when you moved to Paris and became an assistant?

‘Maybe 18 or 19. I didn’t assist very long. To begin with, I wasn’t an assistant. I worked in a photo lab for six months. Maybe a year or so later, I went to print for a press agency. I was doing something like 200 prints a day for magazines. I assisted the photographer Gerard, who was with the magazine Cinémonde which doesn’t exist any more. I printed for him and assisted him on everything for maybe eight months until he ran out of money and filed for bankruptcy. So, I left and worked for myself. I had some small clients and I ended up coming back to assisting the photographer Hans Feurer.’

That must have been around 1968? What was it like working or Hans – he was working for Nova at the time, right?

‘He was a very nice guy, a fantastic guy.’

Was that your introduction to the fashion world?

‘Before Hans Feurer, I had no idea about fashion. I was just a guy from the countryside and Paris was like another world to me, another planet. When the first photographer I assisted went bankrupt and was forced to fire me, he gave me a list of people to see in Paris. First on the list was Anna Christie – a modelling school, which looked fun. So, I went to see the school and they had a vacancy there for me to develop pictures. It’s like a movie because they had a staff photographer who was very old, with one wooden leg. So, the “pretty girl” agency saw me and gave me a job. They wanted someone young to talk to the girls. So, I was a professeur (laughs), a teacher at this school for girls who wanted to become models, girls from the countryside, like me, who came to Paris to learn how to do their hair and make-up and to shave their hair. (Laughs) My job was to create books for these girls. I had a small studio and I would test all these girls and make them a portfolio.’

Did you find it hard to establish yourself as a photographer after that in the world of fashion or did it just happen?

‘You are young, you don’t have any ambitions.Just the fact that I could get paid, live by myself, do something I liked, that was already fantastic, that was already a dream… I had no idea about fashion or magazines.’

Did you admire any photographers at that time?

‘At that time, no, not yet.’

People have grouped you with ‘The Paris Mob’. Photographers, not a criminal mob, but people like Francois Lamy and Alex Chatelain. Is that fair? Did you feel a kinship of approach with your peers at that time?

‘No, as a guy from the countryside moved into the city, it wasn’t so easy… After I worked with Hans Feurer, I found some work at a prêt a porter salon in Paris. I also worked for the blind, to make some money to live. I even worked at the food market emptying food trucks. So, it was a slow process, I met people over time.’

But, did you socialise with other people in that fashion world at that time?

‘No, it took a long time before I met people.’

You always had a relaxed approach to photography. Was that a conscious reaction against the old guard of established photographers at the time?

‘No, it was much more my instinct, the way I am. I was born very optimistic, very relaxed about everything in life, so that translated into my photographs.’

What prompted you to move to New York? Was it love?

‘There were so many things. I had worked and become successful in Paris, in Germany and Italy too. I worked for Elle and Marie Claire but not for Vogue. The French saw me start from nothing. In one country, when they see you go very slowly from bad to good, people don’t believe in you that much. They like you but you get stuck on a level. At the time that I started to work well, I developed an interest in American magazines. Bazaar was an amazing magazine then, unbelievable, with [Alexey] Brodovitch – really amazing – there was nothing else like that. My mother was a fan of magazines too. Glamour was also very good at that time, and of course Vogue. When I first arrived in New York, I didn’t speak any English, not one word, so it took me a few months to learn. At the beginning, I worked once a month for Glamour and certain magazines like that. Soon, I learned that people who worked for Mademoiselle got to work for Vogue afterwards – Mademoiselle was like a training camp for the young photographers before they graduated to Vogue. So I left Glamour, went to Mademoiselle and after six months they called me for American Vogue. Once I started at Vogue, doors started opening everywhere.’

Was there already a group of French people living in New York working in fashion in the Seventies and Eighties, long before Fabien and those people came over…

‘Not so much. There was a friend of mine. Alex Chatelain, he was here. He came before me and assisted Richard Avedon.’

How did you start working with Grace Coddington? Was that a turning point in your career?

‘I worked for American Vogue for a long time. Alexander Liberman would take young photographers and make them a star at American Vogue, and after a while he would dump you – after one year, two years, maximum three years – and replace you with someone else. I started out as a success story with American Vogue, then after a few years I suddenly wasn’t working for American Vogue any more. I worked for Harper’s Bazaar. Then I did a lot of advertising and tried to forget about magazines for a while. After, I realised that it was a stupid move – if you forget magazines, people forget about you very quickly. Just as I was thinking that, I got a phone call from London, it was Grace with British Vogue – which was probably the best magazine at the time. Grace called me to do a shoot in Barbados – it was like a miracle – so I went on this trip for two weeks to do 15 to 18 pages – now you would go for two days, but then it was two weeks. I started to work with Grace a lot, who helped me achieve another level of photography.’

When you say another level, do you mean it was her creative input into what you were doing or…?

‘Fashion pictures are about teamwork, so if you have the best editor, hair, make-up, models – all the best people – then you are by default pretty good.’

You have worked with many great stylists, from Carine Roitfeld to Tonne Goodman – does your process change, depending on which editor you’re working with?

‘I like change. I like to do different things, different styles other than my own. American Vogue is different to French Vogue. American Vogue is constructive. It is a really good magazine to work for because they are very demanding. It is also very specific – they stick to what they like. If you go one way too much, your pictures can go into the garbage. Anna wants an “American Vogue picture”. They still want to be surprised. They want it to be classic but with a little…’

Classic with a twist.

‘Exactly, with a surprise but in a good way.’

In the past five years there has been a consensus building in the art world that fashion photography can be perceived as art. What’s your take on that?

‘In my exhibition at the Petit Palais, the pictures were seen like art pieces. It is not about just one picture, it’s the solidity of the work. All together, the images become an art piece for a museum because it is a reflection of a time and a point of view.’

Why did it take you so long, until 1995, before you put on a gallery show?

‘I’m not too pushy in life… according to me.’

If it happens, it happens.

‘The French called me a few times for a show but I declined, saying that I would eventually show in Paris but preferred for it to be in a museum. It was almost prophetic, as it then happened. A few years ago, Le Petit Palais called me and we did a great show there. The show in Paris was amazing. To be French and to be invited to do a show at the Petit Palais… Fantastic. I was surprised because the French, they really hate the French. They like to criticise, so I was surprised – there was no bad press, all very nice and that was an amazing experience.’

When you first see some fashion pictures, they can blow you away. But later when you look back on them, they can very quickly lose their relevance. Other pictures can stay relevant for a very, very long time. It’s true in art as well – some work today which was celebrated a few years back feels terribly irrelevant now…

‘Some artists are very successful today, but in 10 years’ time they are nobodies. The good ones stay…’

The art world will always be sceptical of anything where commerce has played a part in the creation of an image. That’s an issue in how fashion imagery gets appreciated. In terms of portraiture, do you feel like it’s more difficult than fashion photography?

‘Maybe fashion is more difficult than portraiture. With portraits, you have people that you photograph. Portraits are an expression, and the expression is a moment from the character that you bring out. Fashion is more specific.’

When you get someone in front of the camera, do you have to get them to trust you or do you believe that trust isn’t that important? Do you think it is important to build a relationship with the person you’re shooting?

‘Portraiture is really a moment. It can happen very fast. It’s like photography – you have to catch people off guard. You have to be a bit psychologue [ie, insightful, to get inside their heads]. When people arrive at the studio, they don’t know you. They are a little bit famous and you study their face. Your eyes see the kind of face they have, you talk to them for a few minutes to see their expressions. You have often seen them before in a movie or whatever. It is a character thing. You have to be confident. If the photographer is nervous, it is difficult because they project their nerves onto the other person who they are photographing, who will then get
nervous too.’

Do you believe that if you have a subject who’s guarded, that element of wariness can help you?

‘Some people are very difficult to photograph. Some people are very against it. It happened to me, not too long ago, with a young famous actor. He took my camera and he said, “Do it like that.” It was for a cover. So, I said to him, “It is Saturday. It is not me on the cover, it is you. If you do not want me to take your photograph, go home right away, I do not care.” After that, he calmed down. He came to me like I was a paparazzi, I told him to relax, it was for his cover.’

What do I think the difference is between photographing men and photographing women?

‘Sometimes men are more self-conscious than women. They are worse.’

Do you think it is down to vanity or the fact that they are more scared of letting their guard down?

‘They are more vain. Men think too much. The idea is to take a picture before they think or see what it is. If you want to look good, you will look terrible. The idea is to be yourself and the photographer does the rest. The more you are yourself, the better you are.’

You saw the rise of the supermodels in the early Nineties. Some partly credit you with their rise. Is that era something you look back on fondly today?

‘To become a supermodel, magazines need to help the girl. Right now, magazines don’t do cover models. When they are on covers, models become supermodels, they rise. Now, magazines are using actresses because the supermodels got old and because celebrities can talk about movies, music and their lives. so they sell more magazines. Today, model agencies look for “the girl” everywhere. When they find a new girl, who is pretty, 15 years old, they cannot say, “Oh, you’ve got to wait three years and then we will take you,” because if they wait, another agency will snap them up. So when they are 14 or 15, they come to New York to work. They are too young. They bring so many models now, all the time, that they kill the old ones and at the same time their whole business.’

They don’t let them mature.

‘If you have the time to look at the girls, there are so many young and beautiful girls. If you go to an agency and you do not have a budget, you can find pretty young girls for a low rate, whereas the old ones are expensive. So the agencies kill their own business by finding more and more girls. They go
to every city in the world trying to find the new “It” girl.’

The success that you and some of your contemporaries and collaborators have enjoyed is unprecedented.  That success is shared by maybe 20 or 30 people tops. It is not as easy to get there today. Now, if you were 17 years old and you got your first camera, I bet you after six months you would know who Patrick Demarchelier is. You would have learned everything from your bedroom in Normandy. Today, if you have any interest in anything, all the information is ready for you. So, you have all these people who want to come into the industry, therefore there is an explosion of photographers and stylists.

‘For me, when I was 25, 30, I didn’t know I could be where I am now. I didn’t think of myself to be like that at all. It happened, but I didn’t think about it. There was no internet, no nothing. You did not think ahead, you just concentrated on what you were doing. You were happy to work and to buy your car and do well.’

Are you still a fan of photography today? Do you still look at other photographers work and feel excited by it?

‘Yeah, yeah, of course. I appreciate it a lot. I like all good work. I love art, I like painting, music, but I don’t just like one type, I like anyone who is talented. I like sports too, the big, high-level sports.’

Are there any photographers from the young generation who excite you today?

‘I love something if it comes out and it is fantastic or really beautiful, but mostly I admire older people. When I was young, I started to admire Avedon and Penn, and photographers like Robert Frank and Newton, people like that. I have been working for a long time. Photography is not a new job, it is an old job, it is old things. Most photographers interpret old pictures and don’t bring anything. They bring their new way of seeing things, but they get the idea from people they have seen before. What is impressive about people like Avedon is that there was no one before them.’

With photography being, as you put it earlier, an ‘old job’, do you see it as having gone the same way as architecture? As an architect, you normally rise to real prominence in the later stages of your career. You would be hard-pressed to find one architect, an influential architect, under the age of 50 or 60.

‘Photography is a different thing. It does not matter how old you are as a photographer, you have to redo it everyday. You could be successful last year and this year, but only if you take a good picture this year. If you fail, you could fall very quickly. That’s the problem with photography, you have to maintain your name and your prestige by being very, very good at the moment.’

Even though there is an explosion of young photographers, there is still only a handful of people who own the big editorial commissions and advertising campaigns. It is a very small group of 10 people and you are one of them. People like Mario, Steven, David Sims… the landscape has not changed for a very long time.

‘David Sims is new. Craig McDean is new.’

Relatively new…

‘What are they, 40, 45? For me, they are new. Steven Klein is new too, he is young. I mean, he is 50, for me he is young – I am 66, they are all young to me…’

It is only really Mert and Marcus who have come into this elite group. Even though it is a fast-changing business, where as you say you have to redo it every day, not that much actually changes – the group, that exclusive group of people…

‘Mert and Marcus, how long have they worked? Fifteen years, no more. They are pretty new photographers, actually.’

I think there was an interview with Fabien Baron once and he was asked whether he would start working with new people and he said, “No, why would I?” I think there is a point where it is not an open shop, because it is simply not needed, and experience has a role. Even if you redo it everyday, it is actually built on the experience that you have accumulated…

‘Nobody likes to take a risk. You want to take the best photographer of the moment.’

Did you ever make a conscious decision to stay in New York, or did it just happen?

‘I love France. But I do not feel like living there right now. I like living in New York.
I love to go to Paris, to work in Paris. My wife and I married in New York. We had three kids, who were born in New York City. They are American – they live here, they work here.’

So, life in America just happened to you? Do you still feel like a visitor?

‘America is a very funny thing. In America, you learn every day. It is such a big country, such a crazy people. You come from Europe and you learn every day, you are surprised every day by the culture and what they do. It is different here, it is very strange. You feel like a New Yorker in New York. New York is small village. It is a city where you have to do well, you cannot be here and do nothing. It’s an energy-led city, a city of work and very cosmopolitan. When I came here 40 years ago, it was a different story. There were no good restaurants, it was really a nightmare.’

Do you feel like you are coming home when you arrive in Paris, or do you feel like you are visiting?

‘No, I feel like I’m coming home and visiting (laughs).’

Do you still have a home in Paris?

‘No. I love France. I love Europe. Europe is amazing for young people. You have 12 amazing countries, 12 places you can go with the same passport. If you don’t like London, you can go to Spain tomorrow.’

Speaking of young, your son Victor. Do you spend all your time at home talking about photography with him?

‘No, he works with me in my studio so I see him all the time. He is a very talented young man. I am happy that he is into photography because he is so talented.’

Do you think he is intimidated by your success?

‘No, I do not think so. I try to make sure he is not. I don’t want him to be blocked because of me. He is a pretty strong-minded guy. He has a completely different style of photography from mine. He likes to prepare a lot. I’m more of an instinctive photographer.’

But you obviously took a very different line of work from your father. How did your family react when you wanted to become a fashion photographer?

‘They did not really care. They saw me doing well and they were happy.’

Yes, but when you were in your twenties and your success was yet to come, were they as supportive?

‘Well, my real father had divorced my mother and he was very strict. If he had stayed, I might not have become a photographer, he probably would have wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor. So it is good thing that they divorced.’