CURIOUSLY SUCCESSFUL. The French fashion photographer François Halard is well known for his interior and architectural images. He spent most of his professional life in New York, but his base is a house in the very old and beautiful Roman city of Arles, which is located between Provence and the Camargue.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
François Halard, why did you choose to make your home in Arles?
I didn’t choose Arles, Arles chose me. One day I came to pick up a friend of mine here and the neighbouring houses were for sale. I had a look at this house. It was decayed and run-down. On a rainy day water would run down the stairs. It was damaged, but I fell in love with its Italian spirit – one of the things I loved about Arles was that in the 18th century it was referred to as the ‘Little Rome’. Here, I found Italy. I found my place and I found memories I didn’t know I had. This house allowed me to create a kind of imaginary book in which each room could be what I wanted and had dreamt of.
Were you very young when you became a photographer?
Yes, very young. I had great difficulty speaking when I was a child and was cured by a doctor called Alfred Tomatis, who made me to listen to Mozart every day after school. My visual education was looking at my parents’ library. I remember Helmut Newton visiting our beautiful house, which was often used for shoots.
What did your parents do?
They were interior designers, fabric and furniture makers. My education in this family interest was going to a museum and a flea market once a week. I felt very attached to that, as well as to the idea of representation, particularly of my own environment. The first picture I did was of my own room.
Who gave you your first camera?
Me. My parents didn’t want me to become a photographer, so they were very strict about it. From the age of 14 I had to work during my Easter and Summer holidays to make enough money to buy a small Nikon to get started with. Strength of will made me a photographer.
Why did you photograph people?
I found that this little box between me and the rest of the world allowed me to get closer to people. I went to art school – where I was the youngest student – and at the same time worked as a photographer’s assistant. Then I had a job offer at Decoration International, a new magazine in Paris, and I learned a lot working on the layout. It was very useful to see how different people can treat the same subject. After a few years I did a sort of fashion shoot mixed with a kind of imaginary party at my parents’ castle in France, involving 10 or 12 people, models and everything.
“I’ve always wanted to wake up every day and do something that moves me.”
MALAPARTE by ©François Halard
I received a phone call saying, “François, do you want to come to New York and work for me? I would like to meet you.” I said, “I would love to, but I am very sorry, I am already booked.” He called me back and said, “François, usually when we call a photographer to do the couture for American Vogue, no one is unavailable. So check and call me back.” So I checked, and it was strange because one day I had a sixth floor, typically Parisian, student apartment – and the next I was flying to New York on Concorde, with a limo 24/7! When I arrived in New York they were working on the new Vanity Fair, the revamp of House & Garden, and the new direction of Vogue as well. Alex said to me, “I can offer you work for a number of years,” and from that point onwards I spent much of my time in New York. But I never wanted to end relationships with existing friends, so I kept my private life in France and made my professional life in the US.
You started to photograph fashion?
Yes, I did a lot of fashion. It was the time of the supermodels. I did Cindy Crawford‘s first shoot. For a shy boy it was fun to be paid to photograph the most beautiful women in the world. At the same time that I was working for Vanity Fair and House & Garden I was also doing more intellectual things, like travelling with Bruce Chatwin in Greece or meeting Andy Warhol and Basquiat. It was the fun life of New York.
This was the ‘70s?
No, the beginning of the ‘80s. I worked every day for the different Condé Nast publications. I was so naïve that I thought that sort of life was totally normal.
You became famous, and later started to photograph interior designs and make books?
It was a small transformation. It was great to work for other people, but after 15 years it was time to recenter, to do something more personal. It was a kind of secret project. The first big change of my life was when I did my own assignment for the first time. The major thing I wanted to do was a book on Casa Malaparte in Capri. It had been a large part of my life. Curzio Malaparte was my mother’s favourite writer and I was working a lot with Beatrice Monti della Corte, the founder and, for many years, the director of the renowned Galleria dell’Ariete in Milan. She spent every weekend of her childhood and adolescence with Malaparte, because her father was a friend of his. The first time she brought me to Capri, she told me she had spent her childhood there and Malaparte’s personality became very familiar to me. I produced a book and made an exhibition.
Was the exhibition in Paris?
No, in Arles. It was my first exhibition, in 2003. I opened the door of trying to mix literature, photography, architecture and artists. Malaparte is a very good example of an artist, an intellectual and a true believer in aesthetics. He was so analytical, so precise in the way he wanted to build his own living environment. It was very eye-opening to learn that aesthetics control many things, and even if he radically changed his political point of view he never changed his aesthetic point of view.
What was next?
After that I was very influenced by the designer and architect Carlo Mollino, who also had the same sense of making your own aesthetic extravaganza. I started to photograph the Carlo Mollino house in Turin. I was totally obsessed with Mollino. I remember being in his bedroom, putting on these goggles for my photo portrait in the mirror, as I had done with his with the same goggles. It was ‘forbidden’ to take pictures like that, and shortly after when I went down the staircase I lost my footing. I fell and couldn’t move. I spent three days in a Turin hospital. When the doctor asked, “Why are you here?” I said, “I was cursed by Carlo Mollino.” I don’t think the guy really understood what I meant!
“I was strongly impressed by the fact that you could mix things from different époques.”
François Halard, at a certain point you became obsessed by the artist Cy Twombly. When did his influence start?
Very early. Actually I was crazy, the first piece of art I bought, with my first pay cheque, was one of Twombly’s.
I hope it was less expensive than it would be today?
Yes, it was. I bought my ‘Roman Notes’ for one thousand dollars each when I was maybe 24. I was obsessed with Twombly’s work before I met him. I photographed with a Polaroid like the one he used. I only ever saw him for work because he was not happy to be photographed and was very secretive. We had to wait 12 or 15 years to photograph him. I like to wait because I don’t think one should grow too attached to modern photography, where everything is instant. I had waited years before visiting the Malaparte house.
Were you using a Nikon camera?
No, I was using a medium format 6×6 Mamiya camera.
Were you working by yourself?
Sometimes I would have an assistant but I don’t have millions of people working for me.
Do you prefer to work inside or outside?
I don’t mind. But with Cy or Malaparte, I felt the urge to make the most of it, knowing that I had waited years just to spend a couple of hours there. I remember Cy saying to me, “I’m very sorry François, but I don’t want you to photograph the house”. I said, “Ok, fine, if you don’t want, you don’t want.” We went to have lunch at a little beach restaurant down from the house, and there I told him that I had bought my house because it resembled his and was reminiscent for me of what he did in his house. Then I showed him pictures of my house, and after that he told me I could do what I wanted and I stayed two days. Then Beatrice came, she was one of Cy’s first dealers in the 50s. That was the connection that allowed me to do a Vanity Fair story for the big retrospective at the MoMA.
You also photographed the writer Bruce Chatwin. How was it to travel with him?
It was fantastic. Bruce was interested in everything, every period. He was very knowledgeable and a great traveller. I travelled with him and his friend John Kasmin, the English art dealer who was a dealer for David Hockney at the time.
Did you photograph Hockney?
Yes, my first official job at Decoration International was to go to L.A. I was maybe 19 or 20 when I met David Hockney and took his portrait.
Did you shoot the famous swimming pool?
Yes, of course. I remember after being told that we were going gay camping. For a kid who had never been out of France, it was fun to discover how the world was for artists.
You said that you mixed with Andy Warhol and Basquiat in New York. Did you take pictures of them?
No, that was among my fun experiences in New York. There was a famous dinner held at the time with Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol. I just enjoyed being with that group of artists.
Did you meet Picasso through his biographer Sir John Richardson?
I didn’t meet Picasso, I met John because I did a book on John for the New York Times. John had wanted me to photograph his house, so they insisted that I went to Connecticut to meet him. It was funny because, just a week before, there was a flea market in front of my mother’s house in Paris. I bought a picture of John and his friend the art historian Douglas Cooper, not knowing yet that I was going to photograph John. When I went to see John I took the picture with me and gave it to him. I had read all of his books, including the Picasso biography. I was also very influenced by that great house he did here in Provence, Château de Castille.
Do you still go to New York?
No, I sold my apartment the week before the lockdown.
Who else’s houses have influenced you?
Yves Saint Laurent’s. All of them. I could do a book on Pierre Bergé and Yves’ houses. That also started when I was very young, and it was one of my first jobs when in 1982 at the age of 21 I was asked to photograph their house in Rue de Babylone, Paris. If you like objects and paintings it would be very difficult to be more astonished by the way things were mixed in a very personal way: to see a Goya next to a masterpiece of African art, next to ink drawings, next to a Mondrian. I was strongly impressed by the fact that you could mix things from different époques.
Who had the good taste, Yves or Pierre?
I think both. Their love of the collection that they built together was a very strong bond, something they were doing together.
56 DAYS IN ARLES by ©François Halard
56 DAYS IN ARLES by ©François Halard
CY TWOMBLY by ©François Halard
CY TWOMBLY by ©François Halard
MOLLINO by ©François Halard
MORANDI by ©François Halard
“I found my place and I found memories I didn’t know I had.”
François Halard, which interiors have you photographed recently?
I no longer like interiors magazines. I don’t want to represent art collections which have no depth. Now all the nouveau riche collections look exactly the same. They have exactly the same paintings on their walls. I still want to photograph the true collector, but I don’t want to be the guy who photographs your social status symbol. I want to be more personal than that.
Do you also photograph actors, scientists, and writers?
Mostly writers, painters and artists. I have a strong attachment to the artist Giorgio Morandi, and did a big project on Morandi’s studio in a small country house outside Bologna. When I did that, I was thinking of the extraordinary photographer Luigi Ghirri. Whilst taking the pictures, I had in my mind the Luigi Ghirri pictures from his visit to Morandi. I like to do that type of hybrid visit, where, at the same time, I visit the artist at the studio and also visit the representational pictures that I saw from the same place. With Ghirri it’s also a little love affair with the Italian photography. Italian photographers from that period deserve more recognition that they receive, although they are beginning to receive it now.
How many books of your own work have you published?
A dozen or more, all about very different things.
You’re French, you’ve worked in America and you love Italy. You said earlier that you spent lockdown here in Arles, that it was a very interesting period and that you produced a book about your house?
Yes, exactly. I was here with my wife and the lockdown caught us by surprise. This has been the first time since the age of 18 that I have spent most of my time in one country, one city, one house, so it was bizarre. Most people spend time in their own house, but I have always spent my time photographing the houses or ateliers of other people. I received a call from The New York Times saying, “François, we are doing a piece on lockdown and confinement. Why don’t you do a picture of your kitchen?” So I started moving around the house and did a Polaroid every day. I published a book with Libraryman, because I didn’t wanted to wait for the big publications to make their decisions, called “56 days in Arles”. I really didn’t imagine the level of influence it has had. Everybody talked about it. It was very interesting to see the response.
Yes, it’s a great opportunity for the city, for the Arlesians, to return to a kind of glory time. Maja Hoffmann is focusing on now.
You’ve met artists like Hockney, Twombly and Chatwin. Whose work do you like to photograph now?
It’s very difficult to photograph modern art now because the studio doesn’t exist anymore. The studio is a computer. I want to go to Japan to photograph Noguchi’s house which has just been restored. I’m continuing with my own idea of recording, photographing and also translating, so that other people can see what I have the chance to see.
With the advent of the iPhone everyone became a photographer. Is it still a good profession, one that you recommend people to go into?
Honestly, no. You have to be so passionate about it to make it happen. I do photography because I like to do books. Even if magazines are totally disappearing, to do books is still to reveal some truth.
You are an artist, writing with your camera?
Yes, exactly. I’ve always wanted to wake up every day and do something that moves me.
Ultimately, are you a free man?
Yes. Not always though.
How long did it take you to become a free man?
Were your parents eventually happy that you became a photographer?
Yes, of course they were proud, but in a way they were right about pushing me to the limit.
You’ve taken so many photographs of houses. What is the meaning of the house today?
The meaning of the house totally changed with lockdown. Finally, the house was a real luxury. Luxury was not having a private plane, because you couldn’t travel anymore. Luxury was not having a super yacht. Luxury was what you made of your own environment. It is also what you can produce in it, which is even more luxurious than the place itself.
Do you take pictures for commissions anymore?
I do if it really interests me. I have just finished a book on the interior designer Jacques Grange, a project that I have been working for three years and am totally comfortable with. It allowed me to see and photograph places that I would never have been able to, such as the Pinault Collection. I still like commissions to go to places that I would never be able to visit by myself.
Would you say the aim of your life is curiosity?
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.